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Music / Richard Wagner

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Richard Wagner, standing victorious over the dragon of criticism, winning a hoard of royalties. Caricature of 1879.
"I am the most German of men; I am the most German of spirits. Question the incomparable enchantment of my works, compare them with all the rest: you can say nothing but — this is German."
Richard Wagner, in his Brown Book, being characteristically modest.

Wilhelm Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 — 13 February 1883) was a German composer, writer, stage director, and polemicist of the Romantic era. Best known for his operas, though he also produced many other pieces of music such as a distinguished, melancholy song-cycle, the "Wesendonck-Lieder," as well as the "Siegfried Idyll," a symphonic poem for chamber orchestra.

He was highly influential in the 19th and 20th centuries, promoting a great increase in full orchestration and chromaticism in musical language (leading to the typically "lush" Late Romantic sound), and the development of nationalistic styles. Wagner also developed and popularized the use of themes and motifs (Leitmotif) to represent ideas and characters musically. His copious writings also promoted developments in the stagecraft of his period, developing the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk or "total art work" as a fusion of all elements of a performance, words, dance, music, staging, and so on, to form a single unified experience. Being a man of consequence, eventually he wrote, composed, stage-designed, directed, AND conducted his operas himself, most famously in the theater he had built in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth.

His principal "music-dramas" (he scorned the term "opera") include:

  • Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes) - Written and composed between 1837 and 1840, premiered in 1842. Written in the Grand Opera style that was popular at the time, the work is usually regarded as outside Wagner's mature canon, though it is more often performed than his two earlier operas, Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot.
  • Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) - Written and composed between 1840 and 1841, premiered in 1843. Typically regarded as the first opera with elements of Wagner's mature compositional style.
  • Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (Tannhäuser and the Minnesingers' Contest at the Wartburg) - Written and composed in 1845, premiered in 1845.
  • Lohengrin - Written and composed between 1845 and 1848, premiered in 1850.
  • Tristan und Isolde - Written and composed between 1857 and 1859, premiered in 1865.
  • Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) - Composed between 1861 and 1867, premiered in 1868.
  • Der Ring Des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), composed between 1848 and 1874, premierednote  in 1876, consisting of four parts:
    • Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold)
    • Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) — includes "Ride of the Valkyries"
    • Siegfried
    • Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)
  • Parsifal - Written and composed between 1857 and 1882, premiered in 1882.

Besides serving as models for composers of dramatic music (such as Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Max Steiner) up to the present, these works have themselves been frequently adapted for use in dramatic productions — as, for example, the Bridal Chorus „Treulich geführt‟ from Lohengrin, which has become a Standard Snippet synonymous with weddings, and his "Ride of the Valkyries" from Walküre, ubiquitous in contexts of war and flying. Though Wagner was by no means incapable of delicacy, his compositions have typically been used in contexts of Sturm und Drang.

His extreme nationalism caused him to be adopted very soon as a symbol of Germany, particularly in its most militaristic and imperialist modes, and his virulent anti-Semitism (extreme even by the standards of his time) and the fact that Adolf Hitler loved his music has made Wagner the ideal musical symbol of the Third Reich: depictions of the downfall of Nazi Germany are almost automatically accompanied by "Siegfried's Funeral March" from (naturally) Götterdämmerung.note  (Wagner's anti-Semitism may have been a case of Boomerang Bigotry, as Ludwig Geyer, the man whom he suspected of being his biological father, was also (apparently incorrectly) reputed to be of Jewish ancestry.)

Due to the aforementioned points Wagner was semi-officially banned in Israel for a long time and even today playing Wagner in Israel is a major breach of taboo and guaranteed to cause controversy. On the flip side, Bayreuth has had a festival dedicated exclusively to his music that has basically made this town of some 80,000 souls a major scene in the world of classical music. Tickets sell out ten years in advance and frequent attendees include Angela Merkel and a Who's Who of German celebrities. (Thus, while one will get into trouble for saying something positive about Wagner in Israel, one will equally get into trouble for saying something negative about him in Bayreuth.)

Wagner was once close friends with Friedrich Nietzsche before they had a huge falling out.

The composer was the subject of a 1954 Biopic, Magic Fire (in which he was portrayed by Alan Badel), and of Wagner, a 1983 TV mini-series starring Richard Burton. Trevor Howard played him in Luchino Visconti's Ludwig (1972).

Tropes present in Wagner's life and work include:

  • Added Alliterative Appeal: Common in Wagner, as in these lines from Tannhäuser:„Wenn wir den grimmen Welfen widerstanden,/Und den verderbenvollen Zwiespalt wehrten...note  This is likely based on the fact that alliteration was the standard verse-form in Germanic poetry.
  • Accent Upon The Wrong Syllable: Beckmesser's serenade in Meistersinger is faulted for this by „Merker Hans Sachs‟, as with „die MIR wohl GEfall'n THUT."
  • Artsy Beret: The composer's characteristic large, slouched beret (see pic, above) is actually called a Wagnerkappe in German.
  • At the Opera Tonight: Wagner's operas are among the favorites for characters to attend, as in the 1931 Dracula film (Meistersinger) or in Nicholas Meyers' Sherlock Holmes novel, The Seven Per Cent Solution (Siegfried).
  • Auteur License: All of Wagner's later pieces of "Gesamtkunstwerk", most famously The Ring of the Nibelung, featured words, music, orchestration, set design, choreography, direction, and conducting, created by Wagner himself— in a concert hall that he designed and built for the purpose.
  • Bad to the Bone: Wagner is very popular as an ominous cue in film; the Looney Tunes series is very fond particularly of the Nibelung and Giant motifs in heralding any sinister doings.
  • BSoD Song: Usually, for some reason, sung by a bass-baritone.
  • Brawn Hilda: The character, in his adaptation of Nibelungenlied, is the Trope Maker.
  • Celibate Hero: Parsifal, in his eponymous opera (though he does, of course, eventually father Lohengrin).
  • The Chosen One: Parsifal, „der reine Tor, den [Gott] erkor'
  • Combat by Champion: When Elsa is accused by murder, Lohengrin shows up to serve as her champion and defeat her accuser Telramund in single combat and thereby establish her innocence.
  • Common Time: For example, the Festival March from Tannhäuser.
  • Cool Sword:
    • As Lohengrin tells Elsa of the blade he gives her for Gottfried, „In wildem Kampf, dies' Schwert ihm Sieg verleit.
    • Siegmund's sword Notung, shattered by Wotan and reforged by Siegfried.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The combat between Lohengrin and Telramund lasts perhaps two minutes, and is set to rather perfunctory music.
  • Dark Age Europe / The Low Middle Ages: Parsifal, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde
  • Engagement Challenge: In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Walther must win the song contest at the feast of St. John before he gets the hand of Eva.
  • The Epic:
  • "Everybody Dies" Ending: Played out to a very literal and final conclusion in Götterdämmerung. The world is destroyed and literally everyone except the Rhine Maidens (yes, even the Gods) are killed. Alberich also survives.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Ortrud in Lohengrin; Klingsor in Parsifal.
  • Fanfare: Several of Wagner's Leitmotifs (e.g., Lohengrin's motif) have the character of fanfares; more conventional examples introduce the Overture to Rienzi and the Festival March from Tannhäuser. At Bayreuth, certain motifs are played as fanfares from the balcony of the Festspielhaus to announce the beginning of an act.
  • Femme Fatale: Kundry from Parsifal.
  • Flying Dutchman:
  • Genre-Busting:
    • The whole point of the Gesamtkunstwerk.
    • Tristan und Isolde, and its prelude especially, is often cited as the Ur-Example of the modernist departure from tonality. While the work is still rooted in the traditions of German music, Wagner stretched the tonal system well beyond the limits of many listeners and critics in his day - often delaying the resolutions to dominants or not giving them at all.
  • Ghost Ship: Wagner's interpretation of the Flying Dutchman legend had the ship filled with a phantom crew.
  • Heart Beat Soundtrack: Wagner often used kettledrums this way in his music dramas.
  • The High Middle Ages: Rienzi and Tannhäuser
  • Historical Domain Character: Real people continually show up in the operas: Cola Rienzi; Herman, Landgrave of Thuringia; Walter von der Vogelweide, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and the title-character himself in Tannhäuser; King Henry the Fowler in Lohengrin; Hans Sachs and the other Mastersingers in Meistersinger.
  • Hot-Blooded: Walther in Meistersingerflammt auf‟ when Sachs suggests that Beckmesser may be his rival for Eva's hand.
  • Idiot Hero: Parsifal, „der reine Tor‟ ("the pure fool"). Also Siegfried, who is too stupid to learn what fear is.
  • Insistent Terminology: The later works are "music-dramas," not operas (though Wagner himself was dissatisfied even with that term, which had been coined by his followers).
  • Leitmotif: The Leitmotif technique, if not invented by Wagner, was certainly perfected by him. In his operas, not only would every character have his/her own motif, but also objects, places, and even abstract ideas, all of which would be woven into a complex symphonic whole, in which the variations of the motifs have a psychological effect far more significant than a mere announcement of a character's presence.
  • Light Is Good: For a Romantic like Wagner, light was associated with the order, reason, and civilization of the previous century's Classicism, while Romanticism invoked chaos, emotions, nature or savagery, and darkness. This is seen in Tristan und Isolde, where the eponymous lovers meet in dark forests to proclaim their irrational love for each other, while Isolde's husband King Marke is associated with the light, civilization, and reason.
  • Lohengrin and Mendelssohn: The Master provided half the trope name; he wouldn't have been pleased with the other half.
  • Love at First Sight: Plenty of examples in Wagner's operas.
    • In Lohengrin, our hero asks Elsa to marry him immediately after arriving in Brabant on a swan-led boat.
    • Isolde plans to kill Tristan with a sword, but instead she falls in love with him after viewing his piteous glance.
  • Love Potion: Shows up in Tristan und Isolde — with portentous consequences.
  • Malicious Slander: In Lohengrin, Elsa is falsely accused of killing her little brother Gottfried, the child-Duke of Brabant (who had actually been turned into a swan by the Evil Sorceress Ortrud. Then the eponymous Knight in Shining Armor comes to her rescue.
  • Meaningful Name: Wagner makes a big deal out of Parsifal's name being Persian for "pure fool." It isn't, really.
  • The Middle Ages: The setting for most of his music-dramas.
  • Mood Motif: One of the basic functions of the Leitmotiv.
  • Mr. Exposition:
    • Gurnemanz in Parsifal. Almost all of Act I consists of Gurnemanz explaining the back story.
    • The Herald in Act I of Lohengrin. Which, when you think about it, is one of the things a King's Herald is supposed to do, make announcements and tell everybody what is going on.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Besides Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, who is modeled on (but not identified with) the historical St. Elisabeth of Thuringia, it is said that the character of Beckmesser in Meistersinger was meant as a caricature of the Viennese music critic, Eduard Hanslick.
  • No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: It has been asserted that when composing the Ring, Wagner at one point intended for the operas to be performed three times in a purpose-built opera house. Afterward, all copies of the score and all the props were to be burned, along with the entire opera house. Obviously this did not happen.
  • Only the Chosen May Wield: The sword in the ash tree, which can be only pulled out by Siegmund, as he does in Die Walküre Act I.
  • Opera: Uh... yeah. Wagner did compose a few other works, such as the Wesendonck-Lieder and the Siegfried-Idyll — but the music-dramas constitute the composer's most extensive and important achievement.
  • Orchestral Bombing: The Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin has become something of a Standard Snippet for air raids (as well, of course, as the Walkürenritt).
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Quite a few performances of his operas will dress the female leads in one when appropriate.
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis: An astonishing number of Wagnerians have been attracted to his music via Apocalypse Now and Looney Tunes cartoons.
  • The Power of Love: Invoked in Wagner's earlier works, this trope is more often subverted in his later ones.
    • In Holländer Vanderdecken is saved from eternal maritime damnation by Senta's faithful love.
    • In Tannhäuser, Heinrich is saved from eternal intramontane damnation by Elisabeth's faithful love.
    • On the other hand, in Lohengrin Elsa's love for the eponymous swan-knight brings causes her to ask the fateful question which drives him away.
    • Though Walther and Eva love each other, of course, it is rather The Power of Art than The Power of Love that brings about the happy ending in Meistersinger.
    • Tristan and Isolde's love brings destruction upon them.
    • Parsifal actually rejects the love (if one can call it that) of the Flower Maidens and Kundry to become the hero.
  • Prequel:
    • Parsifal can be thought of as a prequel to Lohengrin.
    • Wagner's greatest spate of Prequelitis came during the crafting of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Originally, he'd envisioned only a single opera, Siegfrieds Tod (the Death of Siegfried), but realized while writing the text that there was too much back-story he needed to get out of the way, so he wrote the libretto for a prequel named Siegfried. Then he realized that this opera also had a large amount of back-story, so he began writing a prequel to it named Die Walküre. Finally, he realized that this, too, had too much back-story the audience needed to know, so he started in on a prequel to it named Das Rheingold. Decades later, Siegfrieds Tod had become Goetterdämmerung, and he had a four-opera mega-epic on his hands.
  • Public Domain Artifact: The Grail in Lohengrin and Parsifal; the Holy Spear in Parsifal. (The Ring (or rather, any of its prototypes) was not a well-known artifact before Wagner.)
  • Recycled Trailer Music: Long even before Apocalypse Now, Wagner's works were popular musical "fillers" for as yet uncomposed scores.
  • Sadly Mythtaken: Or sometimes Willfully Mythtaken. Wagner has enraged folklorists from his own time to the present for adapting ancient myths and legends with abandon, and in the process, ousting the originals from the minds of most of the public.
  • Serial Escalation: Where Wagner took opera — we mean, Bühnenfestspiel.
  • Show Stopper: Averted. Wagner did away almost completely with the separate, self-contained numbers that had been a part of opera for centuries, and had the music running continuously throughout each act, with no breaks for applause.
  • Space Jews: Klingsor from Parsifal is generally considered to be one of these. Some would also include the Nibelungs from the Ring, especially Mime, and the villainous Beckmesser from Meistersinger, though those cases are more debated. Considering Wagner's own distasteful antisemitic views, this interpretation can have serious problematic associations, especially since Wagner never actually said that any of his characters were meant to reflect Jewish people.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Some stagings of Parsifal have Kundry alive at the end.
  • Standard Snippet: Besides the obvious Lohengrin wedding and Walküre bombing examples, storms at sea have very commonly invoked the Overture to Der fliegende Holländer.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Senta and The Dutchman die (but go to Heaven); Elisabeth and Heinrich die (and probably go to Heaven); Elsa and Lohengrin are parted forever (until they meet in heaven?); Tristan is mortally wounded, Isolde falls dead onto his body (Liebestod). Falling in love is generally not a good idea in a Wagner opera.
  • Stylistic Suck: As with Beckmesser's ludicrous serenade in Meistersinger.
  • Take That!:
  • Tenor Boy: Erik, Lohengrin, Walther, Siegfried and Parsifal — the more "boyish" Wagnerian rôles. Perhaps subverted in Tannhäuser, in which the more sensual Heinrich is a tenor, the more innocent Wolfram a baritone.
  • Theme Song Reveal: One of the basic uses of the Leitmotif.
  • Throwing Out the Script: In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, when Walther starts singing his prize song at the contest (after Beckmesser made a travesty out of it), Kothner unconsciously drops the music sheet. Walther sees this and turns his song into a more elaborate one than what he had set down earlier.
  • Trial by Combat: Lohengrin fights a judicial combat for Elsa of Brabant in his eponymous opera.
  • Übermensch: Nietzsche saw Siegfried as the type of the new man who would transcend outworn moralities.
  • Valkyries: It is Wagner's version that most people think of when imagining these mythological "Gatherers of the Slain" — however, it is worth noting that unlike the popular conception, Wagner's original Valkyries did not wear horned helmets, but winged ones; did not ride winged horses, though they were aerial ones; and, though intended to be rather manly, ungentle women, were intended to be statuesque in the 19th century manner, rather than grossly obese.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Parsifal actually introduces its eponymous hero this way, with him being reprimanded for senselessly killing a swan. Of course, he's The Fool and has a lot to learn — he doesn't even know his name at this point.
  • Woman Scorned: Kundry's reaction, when Parsifal rejects her allurements, is not understanding.
  • World of Ham: "Wagnerian" has become practically a synonym for this.

Notable Works which cite Wagner or his works:

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  • The Legend of Koizumi features a reincarnated cyborg Wagner as one of Those Wacky Nazis whom our heroes battle, complete with attacks based on his operas. Later in the arc, Hitler's seconds are named Tristan and Isolde.
  • The evil character Dietrich von Lohengrin in the anime and manga of Trinity Blood presumably derives his surname from Wagner's operatic hero.
  • In Shin Mazinger, Tristan and Isolde turn out to be the two halves of Baron Ashura.
  • Episode 61 of Legend of the Galactic Heroes features a character sitting at a performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The series has a completely classical music soundtrack, and Wagner is among the many composers whose music are used in the Background Music. Other Wagner works frequently used in the series include Siegfried Idyll and the Symphony in C major.
  • In Season 2 of Classicaloid, Wagner appears as the main antagonist who is intent on creating a revolution in the modern world which he sees as stagnant.

  • Apocalypse Now: In which, of course, the Walkürenritt provides a Crowning Music of Awesome for the "Ride of the Valkyries".
  • Blade Runner: Roy Batty mentions the Tannhauser Gate in his dying speech, though it is not clear whether this is a Shout-Out to Wagner or to the actual thirteenth century Minnesinger. He pronounced it "Tann-howz-er".
  • The film Excalibur makes use of the Preludes to Tristan and Parsifal, as well as the Siegfried's Funeral March from Götterdämmerung.
  • The Great Dictator is a spoof of Hitler, so naturally it includes Hitler's favorite composer. The dreamy overture to Lohengrin plays as Charlie Chaplin dances with a balloon painted like the Earth.
  • In Woody Allen's film Manhattan Murder Mystery, his character Larry Lipton takes several digs at Wagner, such as: "I can't listen to that much Wagner, ya know? I start to get the urge to conquer Poland."
    • Wagner is also mentioned briefly in Annie Hall, when Alvy is worried that the record store owner was making an anti-Semitic joke by mentioning that he was having a sale on Wagner.
  • Valkyrie: Tom Cruise makes the obvious invocation.
  • In One, Two, Three, the German doctor is a big fan of him and sadly missed the 3rd act of Die Walküre / The Valkyrie.
  • The overture from Das Rheingold is used in the opening scene of 'The New World
  • Tristan und Isolde is played in the opening sequence of Lars Von Trier's Melancholia.
  • Wagner has a prominent role in the German film Ludwig II, as the titular king was a huge fan of his and sponsored him during a rough period in his career.

  • In James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small books, Siegfried and Tristan Farnon got these names because their father was a fan of Wagner.
  • In George C. Chesbro's The Beasts of Valhalla, Evilutionary Biologist Siegmund Loge (ha ha) is a fanatical Wagner fan.
  • The main character of Robert A. Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls also admits to cribbing the plot for one of his books from Der Ring des Nibelungen.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche: Originally a fan and friend of Wagner, who later broke bitterly with him and wrote a Take That! essay against him called Der Fall Wagner ("The Case of Wagner"); he later had a collection of essays entitled Nietzsche contra Wagner to prove that this wasn't a one-time thing.
  • Flying Dutch by Tom Holt has the original Flying Dutchman as the protagonist. It turns out he told his story to Wagner, who never fully recovered and was prone to peals of demented laughter when a specific historical king was mentioned. (The same author's first work, Expecting Someone Taller, is a Lighter and Softer sequel to the Ring, in which the titular McGuffin falls into the hands of a naive and well-meaning Englishman. Notable among other things for the fact that, unlike Siegfried, he has to be bullied into drinking dragon's blood so as to learn the language of the birds, and when he does, it absolutely ruins the countryside for him, since the birds just won't shut up and have nothing very interesting to say.)
  • Stephen R. Donaldson's The Gap series is literally a Space Opera, being an adaptation of the Ring IN SPACE!.
  • In Haruki Murakami's short story "The Second Bakery Attack," the narrator recalls a bakery robbery he and a friend had committed in college, in which the baker had allowed them to take as much as they wanted as long as they agreed to listen to listen to a full Wagner record.
  • In Nicholas Meyer's Sherlock Holmes Pastiche The Seven Per Cent Solution, Holmes (who adores Wagner), Dr. Watson, and Sigmund Freud all attend a performance of Siegfried; Watson and Freud fall asleep.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode "Trick or Threat", when Larry whistles a tune from Wagner, a man accuses him of being a "self-loathing Jew", as Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite. At the end of the episode, Larry takes revenge on him by hiring an orchestra and conducting them to play Wagner in front of the guy's house.
  • On Kir Royal, the protagonists use the aliases "Siegfried" and "Wieland", the names of Richard's son and grandson (while posing as the nephews of a Jewish composer, of all things).
  • Rumpole of the Bailey makes Claude Erskine-Brown's love of Wagner something of a Running Gag (and Flanderization, as he started out being just a general opera buff). He even names his kids Tristan and Isolde.
  • In an episode of the short lived series Veritas: The Quest, the protagonists find Albert Speer's secret bunker. One of them starts going through a record collection in the corner: "Wagner...Wagner...Wagner...Best Of Wagner..."



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