Composer, dramatist and theoretician, during his lifetime Richard Wagner (1813-1883) cultivated his own legend, the myth of an exceptional figure at the origin of one of the richest and most complex oeuvres. He revolutionised opera, as much in its form as in its writing and thus marked a genuine turning point in the history of music. An overview of the career of a man who still arouses passions.
A figure both reviled and adulated, Richard Wagner remains a mysterious and controversial character. Born in Leipzig in 1813, he attended the Kreuzschule in Dresden and the Thomaschule in Leipzig, took piano and harmony lessons and began composing in 1829. Passionate about dramatic art, in 1833 he obtained his first post as a chorus master in Wurzbourg and composed his first opera, Das Feen, the same year.
Even today, his place in the history of music is far from being universally acknowledged: “Wagner: a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn”, wrote Debussy. But what is the truth of the matter? Did Wagner open up new perspectives or did he in fact offer a synthesis of existing models?
Unlike Ravel, for example, for many years Wagner pursued an ideal that he forged through his contact with various personalities. His first work, Das Feen (1833), testifies to his admiration for Weber and Beethoven, whose Ninth Symphony, given that Wagner aimed to reconcile opera with symphonic principles, would remain a model for him. His second opera, however, Das Liebesverbot, (1836) based on Shakespeare, was influenced by both French and Italian opera. Indeed, Wagner, who wrote his own libretti, felt the need to dip into different artistic fields to give his personality full expression. A few years later, he made the following remark: “The reconciliation of these two opposing tendencies had to be the work of the ensuing evolution of my art.” The same eclecticism is also to be observed in Rienzi (1842), a grand opera composed in Paris, where Wagner discovered and admired the music of Berlioz, having appreciated that of Meyerbeer and Auber, some of whose works, like La Muette de Portici (1828), tended towards the total art form to which he aspired.
With The Flying Dutchman (1843), Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin 1850), Wagner broadened and diversified his orchestral writing, which remains the area in which his contribution is the most notable. As for the other parameters of his operas, he wisely appropriated the innovations of his predecessors. In order to fluidify the dramatic narrative, he followed and sublimated Gluck’s reforms, firstly by unifying the general structure, made up of juxtaposed scenes in which arias and vocal ensembles emerge; then in enlarging the recitative. He also took up a procedure used by the French composer Étienne Nicolas Méhul, whom he considered to be one of his “preceptors” and developed it systematically. In order to ensure the unity of a score more solidly, recurrent motifs – the famous leitmotifs – associated for example with a character or an emotion, little by little lend expression to the orchestral fabric which, like the chorus in antique tragedy, comment on or prefigure the action. His encounter with Franz Liszt, with whom he became very close, was then a determining factor to the point of reducing him to silence for nearly ten years. Impressed by the music of the Hungarian composer, Wagner complexified his harmonic language and gradually applied the theories laid down in the many essays he wrote around 1850. The fruit of this evolution, Tristan and Isolde, reflects as much his discovery of the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer as his impossible love for Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of a Swiss patron who received him in Zurich and gave him asylum after the 1849 insurrection in Dresden. Completed in 1859, but not performed until 1865, thanks to Louis II of Bavaria, “Tristan” aroused both admiration and incomprehension because of its immense musical complexity. Wagner’s music belonged to “the school of pandemonium” according to Berlioz who, with regard to the prelude to “Tristan”, confessed his incomprehension: “I read and reread these strange pages; I listened with the most profound attention and a vivid desire to discover the meaning; well, I have to admit it, I still have not the slightest idea as to what the author intended.”
After such a work of personal commitment, Wagner composed a comedy, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, first performed in Munich in 1868. The opera portrays prosperous love and pays tribute to medieval Germany. In the meantime, Wagner began living with one of Liszt’s daughters, Cosima, twenty-four years his junior, and whose husband, the conductor Hans von Bülow had conducted the first performances of “Tristan” and “Mastersingers”. Cosima, who bore him three children, would jealously guard the composer’s heritage.
Wagner’s interest in Germanic sources, although mythological this time, was consolidated in the composition of the imposing cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, comprising a prologue and three operas to be performed over four days: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. The prologue relates the original sin: the gold, which ensures the power and immortality of the gods, has been stolen by the Nibelung, Alberich who, in exchange, renounces love. In the three other operas, Wotan, the supreme god, tries to safeguard his power but, realising that his struggle is vain, resigns himself to the demise of the gods. Although the first two works were premiered in 1869 and 1870 respectively, the two others were first performed in 1876 in the premier production of the entire cycle, in honour of the opening of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, which was built with the help of Louis II of Bavaria. Wagner’s prestige was then at its height and composers like Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky were present at the event. Others, like Massenet, Debussy, Richard Strauss and Puccini were soon to make the journey which rapidly acquired the status of a pilgrimage, such was the lasting impression made by the German composer, despite the fierce hatred he elicited, notably in France after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
His work only became all the more imposing and admirable. The apparent stylistic disparity existing between Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung which, with Act III of Siegfried, inherited the fruits of the research carried out in “Tristan”, is erased by a vast thematic web of a hundred or so leitmotifs that irrigate the entire cycle. The exceptional acoustics of the Festspielhaus also enhance an orchestration both subtle and majestic and which requires no less than eight horns and a large ensemble of brass instruments some of which, the Wagner-tuben, were conceived by Wagner himself. This admirable work of orchestral and thematic construction can be seen once more in Parsifal, composed specifically for Bayreuth. First performed on August 26th 1882, this “Bühenweihfestpiel” (literally “Sacred and festive play”) portrays the initiatory quest of a Christian hero, but seems also to glorify the personage of Wagner himself, whose narcissism and megalomania irritated a fair number of his contemporaries, Nietzsche for one. The beauty of the score, however, subjugated many a musician: “One hears in it orchestral sonorities that are unique, unexpected, noble and strong,” admitted Debussy, “It is one of the most beautiful monuments of sound that has ever been erected to the imperturbable glory of music.”
At Wagner’s death, on February 18th 1883, the composer’s influence already exceeded the domain of opera, since Bruckner and then Mahler have succumbed to it in their symphonies. Above all, his operas constituted models that were overpowering for young dramatic composers who liberated themselves from them with difficulty. By building up his oeuvre progressively from examples furnished by his predecessors, however, Wagner provided the key to his success, as Massenet did not fail to point out to his pupils, including Charles Koechlin who quoted his words: “In his first works, Wagner learns the craft of others. In Lohengrin he possesses it. In Tristan and Isolde he learns his own: moments of clumsiness and discoveries of genius. This craft that is all his own, he possesses it from “Mastersingers” onwards. Which proves that, in order to go far, one must “begin by taking the pathway that others have laid down.”