.. gner, with blinding clarity, saw as the woman. Lohengrin remains the German fairytale opera, in which Wagner used orchestral colors that had never been heard before. Tannhuser did quite well in Dresden in 1845 but Wagner’s real troubles with the work began in 1861, at the Paris Opra. During the second performance members of the local Jockey Club, who used to arrive late at the opera house, started a riot because they had missed the splendors of the ballet at the beginning of the first act; they were joined by a large group who were opposed to Wagner. After the third performance, he withdrew the work.
Lohengrin too had mixed reception. Wagner wrote it backwards starting with the third act, and ending with the prelude. Liszt (Wagner’s future father-in-law) presented the opera at his small Hoftheater in Weimar. The orchestra had only thirty-eight members and the singers were second-rate. Gradually, however, Lohengrin was accepted and remains one of the composer’s most popular works. Weber’s influence is obvious but Wagner surpasses his predecessor; no one before him ad created orchestral effects that might almost be called impressionistic. In 1849, Wagner joined the revolutionary movement in Dresden, went on the barricades, had to flee from Germany into Switzerland (he didn’t hear Lohengrin performed in Germany until 861).
As a refugee in Zurich, he wrote his theoretical essays, Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, and Oper und Drama. He had become acquainted with the pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and saw the answer to many questions in Schopenhauer’s romantic interpretation of the cosmic nature of music (music is the melody whose text is the world). This sounded great to the impressionable mind of Wagner. But Schopenhauer also said, Music is more powerful than words, music and words is the marriage of a prince and a beggar. German romanticists always considered music supreme among the arts, but Wagner wrote that the poetry must derive from the myth, that the musician must be the servant of the poet. Gradually, Wagner evolved his grandiose concept of the Gesamkunstwerk (total theater) where drama, music, scenery and lights are welded into a powerful unity.
Wagner worked long and hard on his librettos. In a letter to Richard Strauss, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the librettist, praises Wagner’s dramatic structures and the inimitable excellence with which the way is prepared for the music. A good libretto must be a good play which also prepares the way or the music. Great librettists are rarer even than great playwrights. Wagner’s poetry is dominated by alliteration.
The third accented syllable alliterates with the first or second, or both. Sometimes Wagner overdoes this, sacrificing sense and lucidity, as in Isolde’s Liebestod: In des Wonnenmeeres woggenden Schwall, In des Welt-Atems wehendem All. At the first Bayreuth Festival, in 1876, Lilli Lehmannm the Woglinde in Rheingold, had the doubtful pleasure of singing the first words in the Ring: Weia! Wag! Woge, du Welle, walle zur Wiege! Wagala weia! Wallala weiala weia. Pretty meaningless in German or any other language; but all criticism is suspended when one listen to the music. Wagner’s wonderful orchestra always reflects on, or interprets, never just accompanies, the events on the stage. It delivers a running commentary on the psychology of the characters. This is not Wagner’s invention. Monteverdi did it in his stile recitative much earlier, but Wagner brought it to unprecedented perfection.
Yet even in his orchestral passages in the Ring, there are sometimes grand opera moments that impress adolescents of all ages – thunder and lightning in Rheingold, the gods’ entry into Valhalla – in between moments of great beauty. Much academic nonsense had been written about Wagner’s use of the leitmotif. Wagner didn’t invent it – Monteverdi had already used recurrent themes, and so did Grtry and Gluck – but he developed the principle and used it with astonishing freedom. His leitmotifs are not musical clichs; he never used them rigidly or mechanically, as one would assume after studying some German guidebooks and commentaries. Wagner uses leitmotifs to express psychological happenings, using them to build up his amazing symphonic technique. Debussy called the leitmotifs visiting cards, and it is true that sometimes Wagner used the them absurdly.
When Brnhilde is torn by wild passion in the third act of Siegfried, one suddenly hears the dragon, motif. Some people think it might have been a private joke, but Wagner’s humor wasn’t very subtle, except in Meistersinger, when he suddenly impresses us with wonderful nuances of humor (but everything about Wagner is unpredictable – for every one of his rules, there are many exceptions). In the prelude to Gtterdmmerung, Siegmund’s and Sieglinde’s love theme is used skillfully and concurrently with Brnhilde’s devotion to Grane, the horse. Such inconsistencies prove that it would be absurd to interpret Wagner’s creative genius literally, through mathematically used leitmotifs. Wagner was no bookkeeper but a genius. When he is carried away by inspiration on a magnificent scale, which happens often in his late works, he writes wonderful symphonic music of such sensuous beauty and passionate power that one should close one’s eyes and surrender.
The problem of listening to Wagner is that total theater demands total immersion. If we are to get the full benefit from Wagner’s operas, we have to simultaneously identify ourselves with what we hear and see on stage..and to distance ourselves. In 1854, having evolved his aesthetic principles, Wagner began to write Gtterdmmerung, the last day of his tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which he tackle first. When he found that too many things remained unexplained, he went backward Siegfried (which happens earlier than Gtterdmmerung). After that second act of Siegfried, he became involved in the conflict between the principles he had written and the music he was inspired to write.
He gave up Siegfried, and resumed work on it only twelve years later, after he’s written Tristan und Isolde and Meistersinger, two totally different masterpieces, each unsurpassed in its own way. Tristan remains the greatest orgy of love ever written for the stage, and Meistersinger is a wonderful romantic comedy – and the only work of Wagner’s whose characters are not artificial heroes, gods and dwarves, but real human beings (Wagner called it, rightly, his perfectest masterpiece). And suddenly he went back to the interrupted Siegfried, and when he’d finished and there were more things to say he went farther backwards and wrote Die Walkre, and finally Rheingold, which opens the tetralogy. Such achievements imply hard work. In his working habits, Wagner was a bourgeois – pedantic, writing clean pages, keeping regular hours; but in his conception he was entirely the opposite. Tristan und Isolate completely reverses Wagner’s lofty theories on the poet ruling the musician.
Triton is a musical masterpiece. The music – the orchestra – always comes first. The words often retard the plot or, at worst, create boredom. No one goes to Triton to listen to the poetry. It’s the music that matters.
Mesitersinger is Wagner’s finest work. The libretto had genuine humor and great poetic beauty and the music both drama and charm. It is everything a comic opera should be, though not according to Wagner’s theories – but fortunately he didn’t bother about those when writing the work. Compared the hallucinations of the suffering, feverish Tristan, who is an artificial creation and a bore, Hans Sachs is real and human, and proof that Wagner was a poet. Ironically, Sachs reaches greatness not when he is on stage, during the Fliedermonolog or Wahnmonolog, but when he is talking to Eva, or to Stolsing, or in the quintet of the third act All composer are glad to be performed; Wagner, however, the incurable egomaniac – Thomas Mann called him a theatromaniac – demanded to be performed in his own shrine, a monument to his Musikdrama, and – as he later saw it – a Valhalla to the German Empire that had emerged in 1870. Wagner, the former revolutionary, had come full circle. He had been in Bayreuth as in impecunious twenty-two-year-old conductor one summer evening in 1835, and exclaimed, Ten horses couldn’t pull me away from here; he was given to extravagant statements even at that early age.
Within a day or so he set our for Nuremberg, to conduct a concert, and he didn’t return for thirty-five years. In 1870, when he was trying to finish the Ring,, he revisited Bayreuth. He’d for some time wanted a theater of his own. I’m going to build my own house and educate my own artists, he wrote. I don’t care how long it takes.
He went to Bayreuth to see whether its baroque Margravian opera house, which then had the largest opera stage in Germany would answer his requirements. He immediately decided it wouldn’t. The auditorium was too small and the acoustics were nothing special. Then he walked up the nearby Green Hill, a wooded slope a mile north of town, and concluded that its summit would make a splendid setting for his theater. Nowhere else! Only here! he said. The city fathers of Bayreuth, overwhelmed by his enthusiasm, made him a present of the site.
On March 22, 1872, the cornerstone was laid. Wagner composed his won Imperial march for the occasion, and afterwards he conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, his favorite. He was convinced he had a mandate from Beethoven. The Festspielhaus was opened on August 13, 1876. On opening day there was formal procession of notables and musicians from the center of Bayreuth to the top of the Green Hill. The first festival was an artistic success but a financial failure (the deficit was 150,000 marks), and Wagner couldn’t afford to put on another until 1882, the year before his death.
On July 26, Parsifal was first performed. Wagner had assembled a topnotch cast; Hermann Winkelmann Parsifal), Amalie Materna (Kundry), Emil Scaria (Gurnemanz), and Theodor Reichmann (Amfortas). The honor of conducting this Christian Bhnenweihfestspiel was given to Hermann Levi, a Jew. Parsifal is really two things, depending on whether one is exposed to it in the mysterious dimness of the Festspielhaus or analyses it in the cool light of next morning. As a spectacle, it is an emotional experience with moments of indescribable beauty. It is impossible not to be moved by he Transformation Scene, the scene of the flower maidens, the divine beauty of the good Friday music.
But afterwards one has second thoughts. There are times when it becomes a children’s play for retarded adults. The mumbo-jumbo around the Holy Grail is strictly late Cecil B. De Mille. Parsifal is only sincere in the passages where the composer’s imagination triumphed over the self-imposed religious-metaphysical bonds, where the irrepressible creative force of the musician overcame the calculating preoccupations of the thinker: everywhere else Parsifal is false and mere theatralism.
Wagner is a better magician that Klingsor, the magician in Parsifal. Klingsor remains a parody. Wagner hypnotizes us with beautiful music. Perhaps he isn’t the composer or logical-thinking people – and thus will always be assured of a worldwide audience and perennial popularity, though he will have his ups and downs. Richard Wagner raises the philosophical, ethical question whether genius makes badness permissible in man. And perhaps this question cannot be answered simply, but one thing is sure.
Richard Wagner was a complex man whose music and whose ethics will amaze, baffle and intrigue audiences for years to come. Bibliography Detwiler, Harriet The History of Opera. New York; Barrett Press, 1978. European History Essays.