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Das Rheingold, Gotterdammerung, Tristan and Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal

Richard Wagner's prolific musical output was restricted to the composition of operas only. He brought the opera to new and unexplored heights of dramatic grandeur, theater, and spellbinding music.

The Flying Dutchman was Wagner's first great success. It tells the story of a ghost ship eternally sailing the high seas, whose captain can only be saved from this fate by the love of a woman. The music is stirring and thrilling, with a theme of mysticism. The taxing and very difficult role of Senta is sung by a dramatic soprano.


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1.     The Flying Dutchman Overture    

2.     Das Rheingold, Entry of the Gods into Valhalla

3.     Gotterdammerung, Siegfried's Rhine Journey    

4.     Gotterdammerung, Siegfried's Death     

5.     Gotterdammerung, Funeral Music     

6.     Gotterdammerung, Final Scene     

7.     Tristan und Isolde, Prelude    

8.     Tristan und Isolde, Liebestod    

9.     Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg    

10.                        Parsifal, Good Friday Spell    

11.                        Wagner's Early Life     

12.                        Listener’s Guide: The Flying Dutchman   

13.                        Wagner the Revolutionary     

14.                        Listener’s Guide: Das Rheingold    

15.                        Listener’s Guide: Gotterdammerung     

16.                        Listener’s Guide: Tristan und Isolde Prelude  

17.                        Listener’s Guide: Tristan und Isolde Liebestod  

18.                        Listener’s Guide: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg  

19.                        Wagner's Later Years     

20.                        Listener’s Guide: Parsifal     

21.                        Wagner's Lasting Influence     




Romanticism, a constellation of ideas and attitudes originating in philosophy and literature, dominated Western culture during the nineteenth century.  In the most general terms, Romanticism prized heroic striving, larger-than-life figures, and fantasy over mundane reality.  It was fascinated with the supernatural and questions pertaining to religion and the human spirit.  And it looked to both art and love not merely for fulfilling experiences but for transcendent ones.      No artist expressed the ideals of nineteenth-century Romanticism more vividly than Richard Wagner.  With his operas -- or "music dramas," as he preferred to call them -- Wagner created epic works relating epic stories derived from old European myths and medieval romances.  They tell of great heroes, brave women, and dark villains, of miraculous deeds performed in a world where magic and supernatural occurrences are common.        Yet Wagner did not merely bring Romanticism to the opera stage.  In many respects he lived out its ideals.  No quiet artist confined to his study,  Wagner participated energetically in the ideas and events of his time.  He became embroiled in revolution and consorted with royalty.  He saw himself as a heroic figure, a visionary laboring mightily to create transcendent works of art.  He conceived his operas on a large scale, writing lengthy works that demanded an expanded orchestra, singers of unusual strength and stamina, and often spectacular stage effects.  Just as his works placed exceptional demands on performers, Wagner himself demanded extraordinary faith and support from his friends and associates.  Convinced of his own genius, he readily availed himself of whatever material an moral support he could attain, living extravagantly and usually far beyond his means.   He accepted the adulation of worshipful disciples.  And he wrote polemics that defended of his own artistic precepts while attacking those he perceived as his enemies.        All this might well have been merely the self-indulgence of a tremendous egotist but for Wagner's very real and great achievements.  He was one of the most innovative theater artists of his era, and his ideas about stagecraft influenced many theater designers and directors.  In realizing his vision of a new kind of opera, Wagner profoundly effected the character of that art form.  As a composer, he proved one of the most brilliant and original musicians of his era.                    


Wagner's life spanned the heart of the nineteenth century.  Born in 1813 in
Leipzig, he would lead a peripatetic existence, living and working in Riga, Paris, Dresden, Switzerland, Vienna, Munich, Venice, and the Bavarian town of Bayreuth.  His first love was the theater, and classical Greek literature during his student years, and Greek tragedy would deeply affect his ideas about opera.  But he showed a remarkable aptitude for music also.  Although his formal musical training was relatively slender, Wagner quickly mastered not only the fundamentals of harmony, counterpoint, and compositional form but also well as the innovations achieved by Beethoven during the preceding generation.     Wagner's early compositions included a symphony, a piano sonata, and chamber music, but his interest in the theater created a natural affinity for opera.  Early in his career, Wagner determined that he had to write not only the music but also the words for all his operas.   At age twenty, he wrote a fairy-tale opera called Die Feen, or The Fairies.  He followed it with a huge (six hours in length!) historical drama, Rienzi, set in ancient Rome.      To support himself, Wagner embarked on a career as an opera conductor.  After working in this capacity with a traveling opera troupe, he graduated to the post of music director at the opera house in Riga.   There he began to indulge a habit that would plague him for much of his life: living beyond his means.  Despite the steady income his position brought him, he fell into debt, and when his job at the opera house ended, Wagner and his wife were forced secretly to leave the city, just ahead of their creditors.  The couple made their way to Paris, where for several years the composer had to eke out a meager living doing menial musical chores, mostly making piano and band arrangements of popular operatic melodies by other composers.  Once again he ran up bills he could not pay, and this time spent a short term in debtors prison.      In the midst of this travail, however, Wagner managed to write and compose an opera he had conceived during his voyage from RigaThe Flying Dutchman, which proved his first masterpiece.  In 1843 the opera house in Dresden produced the work, and Wagner moved to that German city, once again supporting himself as a conductor at the theater.  During this period he composed two more operas, Tannhauser and Lohengrin, both based on medieval romances.      Wagner's departure from Dresden proved even more urgent and dramatic than his earlier flight from Riga.  In 1849 a political revolution  broke out in Dresden, and Wagner voiced support for the uprising.  His position stemmed not from political beliefs so much as frustration over the scanty appreciation he felt his works and ideas had received from local authorities.  But those authorities now were not interested in Wagner's reason for siding with the rebels.  Even though he had not participated in the fighting, the composer learned that a warrant had been issued for his arrest.  Narrowly escaping the police, he made his way to Switzerland.        Living in exile, Wagner began to formulate concretely the innovative ideas about music and theater he had been developing over the past decade, writing lengthy articles on the future of these arts and their role in society.  He also began work on a new opera relating a portion of the legend about the mythic German hero Siegfried.  But as he wrote the libretto for this opera, Wagner began to expand the story. Eventually he sketched out a cycle of four operas retelling the ancient Nordic legend The Ring of the Nibeling.      Wagner worked on The Ring through 1856, completing the texts for all four operas and the music for the first two of them.  Despite his productivity, this was a dark period in his career.  He had separated from his wife and was cut off from the major musical institutions of Europe.  His previous operas had been poorly received, and he felt his ideas about music and theater were not understood by the public.  Moreover, his finances were as precarious as ever.      There was one bright light in Wagner's life at this time: Mathilde Wesendonck.  The wife of a well-to-do fur importer, she became a fervent admirer of Wagner's ideas, and of him as a person.  Wagner returned her affection, and this inspired a new operatic project, a telling of the legend of Tristan and Isolde.  Like Wagner and Mathilde, that unhappy couple suffered a forbidden love, and their story brought forth music of unprecedented romantic passion.  Tristan und Isolde, which Wagner wrote between 1856 and 1859, achieved well-deserved fame for its intense, yearning harmonies.        Instead of resuming work on The Ring cycle, Wagner turned to an entirely new subject.  Die Meistersing von Nurnberg provided something of a light interlude in Wagner's creative life, an essentially comic opera rather than an epic one.  Wagner began writing it late in 1861.  His work on it was hampered, however, by the necessity of concert tours in order to earn money.  Although these brought some much-needed cash, it was not enough to support Wagner as he liked to live.  Having moved to Vienna in 1860, he acquired a grand house near the city.  But when plans for another concert tour in 1864 failed to materialize, the composer once more had to flee to avoid imprisonment for his debts.      And then, just when Wagner despaired of success and ever realizing his operatic dreams, something like a miracle occurred.  The young King of Bavaria, Ludwig II, invited him to Munich.  Ludwig had been deeply impressed by Lohengrin and had conceived a fanatical reverence for Wagner and his work.  He now made a gesture of extraordinary generosity, paying the composer's considerable debts, granting him an ample living allowance, and subsidizing the first productions of Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and portions of The Ring cycle.  Eventually Ludwig's ministers, fearing that Wagner's extravagance would bankrupt the government, reined in the King's spending, but Ludwig continued to support the composer to a less lavish degree for many years.      While in Munich, Wagner became romantically involved with Cosima von Bulow, daughter of the composer Frnz Liszt and now the wife of the opera theater's conductor.  After several years of an open liaison, she left her husband to live with Wagner.  The composer's estranged wife had died by this time, and after Cosima obtained a divorce, she and Wagner married.      Wagner now turned his attention to realizing a longstanding dream: the construction of a special "festival theater" designed especially for presenting his operas.  Through various fund-raising activities, including his own fees from conducting, he managed to obtain enough support to build such a theater in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth.  There, in 1876, an initial "festival" presented the Ring cycle, which Wagner had meanwhile completed.        Wagner spent his last years living with Cosima and their three children in a house on the outskirts of Bayreuth.  During this time he wrote his final opera, Parsifal, in which he returned to the world of the medieval romances.  The first production took place in Bayreuth in 1882, and for several decades after it was presented nowhere else.  Wagner was now almost seventy and suffering from a heart condition.  Shortly after the premiere of Parsifal, he died visiting Venice with his family.  Cosima had his body brought back to Bayreuth and buried in the garden of their home.                   


Wagner's importance stems not only from the greatness and originality of his music but also from his influential concepts about the role of art in society and the nature of opera as he envisioned it.  In the first instance, Wagner contended that art generally, and opera in particular, must be more than just a diversion, and he deplored the popular operas and operettas turned out by some of his contemporaries.  Instead, Wagner said, opera should emulate the ancient Greek dramas in treating themes of universal psychological and spiritual importance.  And this would best be done if the opera was created in accordance with a single coherent vision.      That conclusion led Wagner to his most famous and far-reaching notion, one that he called the Gesamkunstwerk, or "complete work of art."  Rather than being patched together by different individuals contributing the libretto, music, set design, and stage direction, this new sort of opera ideally would flow from a single creator.  Wagner went far in realizing this bold concept.  He wrote the librettos as well as the music for all his operas, and he supervised the set design and staging of his works at his
Bayreuth theater.                  


Far from being a Jack-of-all-trades, Wagner was a master musician and one of the most original composers in history.  His harmonic language greatly expanded the tonal palette available during the nineteenth century and profoundly influenced subsequent generations of musical thinkers.  He raised the orchestra to a level of unprecedented importance in opera, and expanded it to a size that no opera composer had previously imagined.  And whereas earlier composers had written operas as a series of arias and vocal ensembles, Wagner constructed scores with a symphonic sound in mind.  His instrumental writing was colorful and, at times, remarkably majestic, with the large brass section he favored producing grand and thrilling sonorities.                     


Wagner based his first important opera on the legend of the Flying Dutchman, which tells of a sea captain who finds unfavorable winds preventing him from rounding the
Cape.  In his frustration the captain swears that he will make his way even if hell itself tries to prevent him.  His oath offends Satan, who punishes the disrespectful Dutchman with a curse condemning him to sail forever.  Only once every seven years can the captain put into port, and at that time the curse will be lifted if he finds a woman who loves him faithfully.      In his opera, Wagner imagined the doomed seaman coming ashore at a fjord in Norway on his once-every-seven-years respite.  There he meets Senta, the daughter of a Norwegian sea captain.  Moved by his nobility of character, Senta falls in love with the stranger.  But the Dutchman cannot believe that she will remain true to him and sets sail through a howling storm.  Senta climbs atop a cliff and in despair hurls herself into the sea.  Thus proving herself faithful, she breaks the Dutchman's curse.      Wagner's highly dramatic overture to The Flying Dutchman anticipates in musical terms the major elements of the story.  The opening measures give out a memorable theme signifying the Dutchman himself.  Raging figures in the strings then impart a graphic impression of the cursed sailor driven on by ceaseless winds and waves.  Other themes signify Senta's love for the Dutchman and the innocent pleasures of the Norwegian sailors.  The overture culminates in an apotheosis of the Dutchman theme and a radiant version of the love melody.      


The myth of The Ring of the Nibeling tells of the fall of the race of gods who ruled the earth before the rise of mankind and centers on  Wotan, their fallible and tragic leader.  Fearful of his rival Alberich, ruler of a subterranean race called the Nibelings, Wotan steals a magic ring that Alberich has forged from gold previously stolen from the
Rhine river. The ring gives its owner power to rule the world, but Alberich has placed a curse on it that ultimately brings about the destruction of the gods and all the other characters in the story. Das Rheingold, the first of Wagner's four Ring operas, concludes with the unveiling of a great palace, Valhalla, which Wotan has caused to be built to house the band of gods. In the opening measures, the music suggests the clouds that hide the palace from view. But a thunderclap from the god Donner dispels the mist, and Valhalla appears in all its glory.      


In the Ring cycle, Wagner created an unprecedented musical-dramatic unity through the use of leitmotifs, short melodic figures associated with various persons, objects, events, or ideas in the story.  "Siegfried's Rhine Journey," from the opera Die Gotterdammerung, touches on a number of these leitmotifs.  The theme of Siegfried's and Brunnhilde's love sounds in the clarinets and strings, followed by Siegfried's signature horn call and the flickering motive of fire, through which the hero again must pass to reach the Rhine.  The river itself now dominates the score, its flowing melody swelling throughout the orchestra.  Finally, there are recollections of themes associated with the Rhine Gold and its magical powers, the hinge upon which the entire drama turns. 


In the final act of Die Gotterdammerung, Siegfried is slain by the treacherous
Hagen.  Wagner marks this event with an orchestral meditation on the hero's character.  A two-note heartbeat motif heard at the end of this episode then launches a funeral march as his body is borne away.  Even though Siegfried he has unwittingly betrayed Brunnhilde, she now comes to eulogize him and perish with him on his funeral pyre.  The music for this, the final scene of Gotterdammerung, touches upon nearly every important leitmotif of the Ring cycle.             


In 1856, Wagner set aside work on the Ring cycle and turned his attention to the medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde.  The tale of those unhappy lovers, whose magic-induced desire for each other is forbidden by circumstance and obligation (Isolde is betrothed to King Mark, whom Tristan has sworn to serve), sparked a outpouring of music whose intensity of passion has never been surpassed.  Wagner establishes the tone of erotic yearning that permeates the opera in its Prelude by consistently avoiding conventional harmonic resolutions.      In Tristan und Isolde, the notion of insatiable love is intimately linked with that of death, for the couple's desire is so charged, so all-consuming, that it can be fulfilled only by casting off the bonds of the material world.  In the opera's final scene, Isolde cradles the body of the slain Tristan.  Gazing at him, she launches into an aria which has long been known as the Liebestod, or "Love-death."  This grows ever more ecstatic until at last, as Wagner explained, Isolde is "transformed" from mere flesh and blood to a more ethereal creature that can join her lover.  As the opera ends, the lifeless bodies of Tristan and Isolde lie together on stage, while the music suggests their spirits soaring serenely as one.  


Completed in 1867, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg is the only one of Wagner's operas that might be called a comedy.  Its story is set in sixteenth-century Nuremberg and concerns the rivalry of Walther, a wandering knight, and Beckmesser, a town clerk, for the hand of the opera's heroine, Eva.  (Wagner wrote the stuffy character of Beckmesser as a mocking portrayal of a hostile Viennese music critic.)  The girl's father, wishing to be known for his artistic interests, decides that Eva's husband shall be chosen in a singing contest before the guild of Mastersingers.   Despite Beckmesser's intrigues against him, Walther prevails in this and all ends happily.  In the opera's final scene, the townsfolk gather for the singing contest between Walther and Beckmesser.  The sense of mounting anticipation culminates with the arrival of the Mastersingers, who come on stage to the strains of a stirring march.                


, Wagner's last opera, is based on a medieval romance with strong religious overtones.  Like the earlier Lohengrin,  it concerns a brotherhood of knights devoted to preserving the Holy Grail, the chalice which, according to legend,  Christ used to serve wine to His disciples at the Last Supper.  The once strong band of Grail knights has fallen victim to the dark magic of the sorcerer Klingsor.  Parsifal arrives in their realm an innocent, ignorant of the world and even his true name.  This very quality permits him to defeat Klingsor and restore the strength and spirit of the Grail knights.      The opera's final act begins with Parsifal returning on Good Friday morning to the realm of the Grail after years of wandering.  There he experiences an epiphany in which the purity of nature is revealed to him.  Glistening in the morning sunlight, the landscape seems reborn, purged of sin and sorrow.  Wagner conveys the transcendent beauty of the scene in an orchestral passage known as the "Good Friday Spell."