Music History 102

The Romantic Era

Richard Wagner

portrait of Richard Wagner

Born: Leipzig, May 22, 1813

Died: Venice, February 13, 1883

From an early age, Wagner had been interested in theater, drama, verse, and acting. While in his teens he became interested in music, and began studying and composing. His greatest inspiration came from the operatic reforms and ideas of Gluck, and from the German operas of Carl Maria von Weber. By the age of twenty-two, he had finished his first opera and had begun to make notes for his autobiography. Convinced of his greatness, he continued composing and conducting, but meeting with little success. Eventually he became involved with the Dresden revolutionary uprising of 1849, the outcome of which made him a wanted political criminal, and he fled to Switzerland.

During this time Wagner was continually composing operas and finding his mature style. He envisioned the creation of the “total art work”: a conception of a music drama based on classic Greek prinicples, in which there would be a unity of music, drama, text, design, and movement. The subject matter of these works were to be the indigenous myths and legends of the German people, such as the famous Ride of the Valkyries, which depicts the daughters of the god Wotan riding their steeds through a storm, bearing the bodies of slain warriors to Valhalla. Wagner wrote both the texts and the music of his music dramas.

image of the Ride of the Valkyries

Wagner’s reforms did away with the “number” opera — no longer was there any clear separation between recitative and aria, and ensembles in the Italian sense of the word are almost completely avoided. The orchestra is treated symphonically, with short themes or leitmotifs combined and developed endlessly during the course of the action. Many of the well-known symphonic excerpts from Wagner’s operas are made up of a combination of these motifs, as in Siegfried’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung, the final opera from Wagner’s immense, seventeen-hour cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. Wagner’s operas are uncommonly long, intended as they were by the composer to be played during the course of an afternoon and evening, with breaks for a meal and refreshment.

Wagner’s musical style took chromaticism to its limits in the nineteenth-century. He expressed the unquenchable love of his protaganists in Tristan und Isolde through chromatic melodies and unresolving harmonies that prevent the music from ever feeling centered, fully expressing and realizing the late Romantic obsession with the yearning for an unattainable ideal. This expansion of tonality through the use of chromatic harmonies came to influence later schools of German music, prominent composers of which included Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg.

Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane