In a letter to his father-in-law Franz Liszt, Wagner once remarked: ‘Whatever my passions demand of me, I become for the time being – musician, poet, director, author, lecturer or anything else.’ And that ‘anything else’ ranged from journalist, theatrical reformer and cultural ideologue to vegetarian, revolutionary activist and anti-Semite – a range of concerns which, under the guise of Wagnerism, exerted a vast influence over the cultural life of Europe for decades after his death.
Wagner’s standing among composers depends upon no more than 12 scores. Granted, ten of them, including the four comprising Der Ring des Nibelungen, are evening-length music-dramas: while the Wesendonck Lieder (1857) are studies for Tristan und Isolde and the Siegfried Idyll is a spin-off from Act III of Siegfried. Yet this simply underlines the fact that all that really matters to us in Wagner comes out of his involvement with a specific form of theatre.
He may have aspired to unite Gluck’s reformist drive for opera as drama with the symphonic impetus of Beethoven; aspired even to establish at Bayreuth a musical theatre which would become the conscience of the German nation. Yet the dramatic themes, and musical imagery of his stage works derive mainly from the world of early 19th-century Romantic opera, with its chivalry and evocations of Nature, its omens, talismans and potions, its dramas of black magic and love unto death.
What’s remarkable is the way in which Wagner transformed his Romantic themes and materials. Take the device of the fatal ring. In Weber’s Euryanthe, this is a mere cog in the plot. By the end of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, it has become a psycho-economic power-symbol of the most complex significance for the later 19th-century world of Marx and Freud. And when WH Auden joked that the beginning of the second act of Die Walküre resembles ‘a Victorian breakfast scene, Wotan meekly cracking his morning egg behind The Times while Fricka furiously rattles the teacups’, he was hinting at how closely, beneath the mythological surface, Wagner approaches the bourgeois realism of Flaubert and Ibsen.
Wagner was, after all, an artist who developed tremendously over his creative life. Only the first three mature music-dramas stand directly in the early Romantic tradition. Of these, Die fliegende Holländer (1840-41, rev. 1846-60) concerns the redemption of an unquiet spirit by love; Tannhäuser (Dresden version 1843-45; Paris version 1860-75) tackles the conflict between love sacred and profane, while Lohengrin (1846-48) with its pageantry and swan-knight is about… well, exactly what? Already, one has a sense of plot and symbolism coming slightly apart, acquiring a looseness and latency that opens them to a variety of interpretations, a sense of ambiguity that would culminate in his last music drama Parsifal (1877-82).
Meanwhile, armed with the epic theatre doctrines of his manifesto Opera and Drama (1851), he had embarked upon the Ring in 1853, only to break off after Act II of Siegfried in 1857 to compose Tristan und Isolde (1857-59) and Die Meistersinger (1862-67). If the treatment of the theme of the fulfilment of love in death in Tristan attains an obsessive intensity far beyond anything in early Romantic opera, the leisurely comedy of Die Meistersinger might seem exceptional in Wagner’s work – until one notices that, like Parsifal, it concerns the renewal of a community by an unlikely outsider. And when he resumed work on the Ring in 1869, the enriched tonality of Die Meistersinger flowed into the jubilant final scene of Siegfried, just as a post-Tristan chromaticism compounded the glooms of Götterdämmerung, written in 1874.
How, then, to summarise? As a youth, Wagner aspired to be a playwright even before a composer, and he evidently had a feeling for large-scale dramatic timing long before he developed musical skills to match. He certainly always started from the dramatic idea, first making a prose sketch, then writing his libretto, or ‘dramatic poem’. The music was supposed, as far as possible, to flow directly from the words, symbolism and structure of the libretto.
In this he evolved a new and opposite principle of music drama to his greatest contemporary, Verdi, who inherited a range of traditional operatic forms and formulae which he gradually adapted and combined to his own purposes. But this meant where Verdi always had a background form to guide his musical invention, Wagner – at least after Lohengrin – had to depend from moment to moment on spinning out whatever musical idea the text suggested.
His system of so-called leitmotifs – brief musical ideas associated with particular characters, events or symbols in the drama – is often described as a subtle means of commenting on the dramatic predicaments or motivation of his characters. However, his reuse of motifs and harmonies may have originated as a means of filling his vast timespans. If a character mentioned the curse on the ring, and Wagner had already invented a curse-motif some way back, then he had a bunch of notes or harmonies to help him fill the next few bars. The most radical outcome of his approach, first attained in Tristan, was what Wagner called ‘musical composition as the art of transition’ – the idea of a ceaselessly changeable flow reaching stability, if at all, only at the end.
Of course, other composers have sought a union of words and music by writing their own librettos. Yet Wagner’s achievement remains unique in its daring, mastery and completeness. For true Wagnerians, his worlds of concept and drama, expression and sound, add up to something so vast, it dwarfs the achievements of other composers. Anti-Wagnerians tend to resist this very power and bigness as coersive; as seeking to influence its audience not as individuals but in the mass – hence his appeal to certain totalitarian tendencies. But wherever you stand Wagner, he stands among the greats.