Titanic Wagner’s Total Work of Art

Wilhelm Richard Wagner, who was born on May  22, 1813 and died on this day, February 13 in 1883, was an opera composer, theater director, polemicist, and conductor, who came from an ethnic German family in Leipzig.

His family lived there at No. 3, the Brühl (The House of the Red and White Lions) in the Jewish quarter of the city (pictured below.)

Wagner revolutionized opera through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), by which he sought to synthesize the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, with music subsidiary to drama. He described this vision in a series of essays published between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realized these ideas most fully in the first half of the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).

Wagner’s compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex textures, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs—musical phrases associated with individual characters, places, ideas, or plot elements. His advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centers, greatly influenced the development of classical music. Indeed, what is sometimes described by musicologists as marking the start of modern music is his Tristan und Isolde (sung here on YouTube by Maria Callas.)

Wagner had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which embodied many novel design features. The Ring and Parsifal were premiered here and his most important stage works continue to be performed at the annual Bayreuth Festival, run by his descendants. His thoughts on the relative contributions of music and drama in opera were to change again, and he reintroduced some traditional forms into his last few stage works, including Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg).

Until his final years, Wagner’s life was characterized by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors. His controversial writings on music, drama and politics have attracted extensive comment, notably, since the late 20th century, where they express antisemitic sentiments. The effect of his ideas can be traced in many of the arts throughout the 20th century; his influence spread beyond composition into conducting, philosophy, literature, the visual arts and theater.

Afterword: More than 50 years ago I had the opportunity of visiting Leipzig, then in East Germany, and apart from visiting a number of must-see places connected with famous musicians, I dropped in at The House of the Red and White Lions to savor the history of the young Wagner and learn about his eventual marriage to Cosima, the daughter of the famous Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt.References: Wikipedia; On This Day Website

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