Richard Wagner: The Master Of Gesamkunstwerk

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) was not just a composer he was an artist, a writer, poet, musician and a master of fusing together all the elements to create what is now called the ‘musical drama’; a total work of art or Gesamtkunstwerks.

He is also noted for his use of the Leitmotif; a musical theme often repeated or used for joining sections, such as when walking off and on a stage; it just fills those few seconds or minutes instead of having complete silence.

The Early Period

Richard WagnerBetween 1830 and 1837/8 Richard Wagner composed three operas Die Laune des Verliebten (The Infatuated Lover’s Caprice); Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), and Männerlist größer als Frauenlist oder Die glückliche Bärenfamilie (Men Are More Cunning than Women, or The Happy Bear Family).  The last was a Singspiel, a light opera with spoken dialogue.  All three efforts were abandoned and now are considered as part his learning period.

The Staged Operas

Opera 1 Die Feen (The Fairies). Completed in 1834, this was Wagner’s first opera.  He never saw it performed, but it was eventually premiered in Munich in June 1883.  The story is pure fantasy with elements of fairies, mortality, spirits and love, and has a happy ending; as fairy tales should.

Opera 2 – Das Lieberverbot has two acts; premiered in 1835 in Magdeburg, Saxony. However, the attendance was woefully poor; the leading singer forgot her words; and at the second attempt there was fighting back stage. Wagner abandoned it completely.

Opera 3 – Rienzi der Letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes) usually shortened to Rienzi.  Without doubt Rienzi was Wagner’s breakthrough; it was his first success and brought him into the limelight as a competent composer.  He had started Rienzi in Riga; finished it in Paris, and had it premiered in Germany, at the Dresden Court Theatre (1842).  By 1873 Rienzi had been performed on a hundred occasions in the Dresden Court Theatre alone.  It had five acts and was based on Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel, The Last of the Tribunes. Wagner made a distinct effort to create a ballet sequence enhancing the story as opposed to producing, what he considered, a meaningless entertainment.

The Middle (romantic) Period

Opera 4 – Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) is set on the coast of Norway. During a voyage from Riga to London, Wagner experienced a tempestuous sea that tossed the ship and its passengers from side to side; although a terrifying experience, it was for Wagner one that inspired an intriguing story. Completed in 1841. Wagner conducted the premiere in Semper Oper in Dresden.

Opera 5 – Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg consisted of three acts involving legends, a knight and thirteenth century poetry.  It combined French and German historical legends and mythologies; so, Wagner adapted the story and created two versions; one for the French and one for the Germans.

Opera 6 – Lohengrin has a legendary theme; and is called the Swan Knight or the Knight of the Swan.  Wagner’s version was constructed from German mythology; the most popular element being the ‘Bridal Chorus’; Here Comes the Bride has become a routine part of the wedding service.  However, Lohengrin’s wedding does not have a happy ending.

The Late Period – recognised as Musical Dramas

Opera 7 – Das Rheingold is the first of the Ring of the Nibelung (Der Ring Das Nibelungen), or for short, The Ring Cycle.  Four separate operas are blended together as one magnificent masterpiece.  In the singular, Das Rheingold is sectionalized into four scenes as opposed to acts, and its shortness excludes the need for breaks.  It was premiered in the Munich Nation Theatre and later at Bayreuth as the first cycle opera.

Opera 8 – Die Walküre is the second Ring Cycle opera.  The most known section being the Ride of the Valkyrie’s; and was premiered in the Munich National Theatre and Bayreuth.

Opera 9 – Siegfried has three acts and is the third section of the Der Ring Des Nibelungen.  The inspiration for Siegfried came from the legendary story of the hero Sigurd in Norse mythology.  It was premiered at the Bayreuth Festival Theatre in 1876.

Opera 10 – Tristan und Isolde has three acts, and Wagner always called it a drama or plot. He drew his inspiration from his own romance with Mathilde Wesendonck, a poet and writer. Wagner’s entire raison d’être was always to change and create a new style of classical music and he certainly laid down the foundations. Indeed, Tristan is perceived as a new creation; a progression from the old conventions of harmony and tonality. It was premiered in June 1865.

Opera 11 – Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is a comedy and one of Wagner’s longest single operas, lasting around four and a half hours.  Unique in Wagner’s oeuvre, it is the only comedy in his later operas.  It was the only original story devised by Wagner and has no supernatural or magical elements.  It has three acts and was premiered at the Königlicher Hof-und, the Munich National Theatre.

Opera 12 – Götterdämmerung was the long awaited fourth section of Wagner’s masterpiece.  Wagner finished his mammoth undertaking by taking his inspiration from Norse mythology.  It has three acts and was six years in the making, but it slotted neatly into the other three component operas and was premiered at Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

Opera 13 – Parsifal was Wagner’s last opera.  Conceived in 1857, Wagner finally began it in 1877 and finished it in 1882; by which time he had become seriously ill.  He chose to call his final opera Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel, A Festival for the Consecration of the Stage.  It has three acts; was premiered in the second Bayreuth Festival in 1882; and was monopolised at Bayreuth until it was premiered in New York’s Metropolitan opera house in 1903

It is easy to see why the operas of Richard Wagner blended in with each other, with one providing ideas for another.  He battled throughout his career for funds to create and produce his musical dramas; and against his manic depression. It forced him to pursue a compulsive perfectionism at all costs.  But out of his meticulous captivity came something to admire and enjoy … his ingenious Gesamtkunstwerks.

Stella Milner

See also Stella’s summary of Richard Wagner, and Wagner and the Bayreuth Festival.