Happy 200th Birthday to Richard Wagner

Wilhelm Richard Wagner, 1813-1883 - possibly the world's greatest composer.
Wilhelm Richard Wagner, 1813-1883 – possibly the world’s greatest composer.

Here’s a personal piece on a musical subject which is unabashedly nothing to do with travel, other than being music you would travel thousands of miles to hear, so please feel free to skip if not of interest.

Today (Wednesday 22 May) is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner, possibly the world’s greatest ever composer.  (In my opinion, because different composers selectively excelled in different genres and only a very few (ie Beethoven) were brilliant in everything, it might be better to not anoint one single individual as the best composer, any more than you should name a single person as ‘best sportsman’.)

If you’re unfamiliar with Wagner’s music, there’s a tremendous treasure trove awaiting your careful exploration.  I am writing this today because enjoying his music has been one of the greatest experiences I’ve had the privilege to encounter, and was the ‘gateway drug’ that introduced me to classical music as a whole, some forty years ago, when still a pimply teenager at high school (profound thanks to my history teacher for opening my eyes to this wondrous world of music).

Some people criticize Wagner as being too bombastic, and others as being too loud and/or too long.  It is certainly true that Wagner’s music wears its heart on its sleeve, and it is also true that some (but not all) of it benefits from being played at a higher than normal volume level; but just because it is loud and long and indeed in places bombastic too does not mean that it can not also be simultaneously transcendental and some of the most moving music ever written.

Wagner concentrated almost exclusively on opera; indeed, he took it to a higher level and renamed it as ‘music drama’ (originally named by him as ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ – total works of art).  To do this, he pioneered a new musical concept of ‘leading motives’ – snippets of music attached to various characters or events or concepts in his operas, so that the music told a story in parallel with the action on stage and the words being spoken or sung – indeed, sometimes the musical themes hint at undercurrents, and portend future events.  An understanding of these leading motives can enormously increase your appreciation and enjoyment of his works (particularly the Ring cycle – see below).

He also greatly extended the orchestral forces needed for his lush musical tapestry, helping develop new instruments and expanding the size of the orchestra.  He didn’t just write for a larger orchestra, he also ‘thought outside the box’, and broke many of the hallowed traditional rules of harmony as part of his quest for lush sumptuous sound.  This attracted considerable criticism during his time, and there was definitely a ‘push back’ against that criticism in his opera ‘The Mastersingers’ which as one of its central themes shows how new musical forms can validly co-exist with musical tradition.

Indeed, Wagner’s originality set the scene for all sorts of unlikely derivative composers subsequently (even composers such as Debussy acknowledge the debt they owe to Wagner).

Some composers wrote operas to entertain or amuse, or simply as a way to make money, penning formulistic operas of little underlying note and which have been happily long since forgotten.  Not so Wagner.  His quest was no less than to create the ultimate art-form, embodying the best of music and drama, blended together with poetry and visual staging.

Creating the ultimate art-form is probably like catching the end of a rainbow, but we as humankind are immeasurably the richer for his attempts at doing this.

Whether or not he is the greatest composer ever, he is probably the most controversial, and also the most written about composer; indeed, a couple of decades ago I read in an authoritative discussion the claim that more books had been published about Wagner than even about Jesus Christ (and with this piece now, my own writing is lopsidedly favoring Wagner, too 🙂 ).

Much of the controversy isn’t entirely of Wagner’s own making, although he surely didn’t hesitate to speak his mind while alive, causing him to occasionally need to flee countries for fear of being arrested as a revolutionary.  Unfortunately for music lovers the world over, one of his many ardent fans, albeit fifty years after his death, was a certain Mr Hitler, and the fact that Hitler liked Wagner’s music was enough to make it verboten for many other countries to play it.  Only in the last decade or two are some countries now willing to consider playing his music again.

An Introduction to His Music

Wagner is known for a mere ten major operas.  He also wrote three early works that are quite sensibly seldom played, and some other bits and pieces which can be safely overlooked as well, with the exception of a piece of music he wrote as a birthday present for his wife, a quite out of character piece of delicate chamber music (Siegfried Idyll), with only a few oblique hints at the mighty musical forces he would normally conjure up.

So, only ten operas, but some of these are of a scale that transcends mere mortal comprehension; indeed, if he’d died after his first major opera (The Flying Dutchman) he’d still be considered one of the very best composers.

I’ve seen ‘Dutchman’ in several productions, ranging from abysmal (Seattle) to transcendental – a performance at the sainted Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg (here’s a nice interview with their extraordinary Music Director, Valery Gergiev, which after a couple of minutes discussing 3D filming of ballet then talks about Wagner).

Gergiev presented the opera with no intermissions – just one nonstop transport to another level of existence, leaving you so emotionally drained at the end that you just sat there, stunned, in your seat, rather than leaping to your feet to applaud.  And that, dear reader, was just the first of his ten major operas.

If you listen to the overture to The Flying Dutchman you’ll immediately recognize it as a tune used to denote stormy weather in countless cartoons.

The Flying Dutchman is probably also Wagner’s most approachable work.  It isn’t too long, and it still has some of the trimmings of traditional operas – a chorus, set piece arias, duets, etc, great tunes, and an easy to understand story-line.  Definitely a great starter if you want to get immersed in a complete Wagner opera.  The Sailor’s Chorus and the Spinning Chorus are two more ‘easy’ pieces from this opera.

After Dutchman, he wrote a couple of middling good operas (Tannhauser and Lohengrin).  The overture to Tannhauser is often twinned with the ‘Venusberg music’ to make a slightly longer concert piece; the overture alone clearly evokes very martial thoughts and images, as does the prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin.  Curiously, the prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin is completely different, a very sinuous piece of music that implies the underlying swan story that the opera revolves around.  And the Act 3 Bridal Chorus (‘Here Comes the Bride’ etc as it is often referred to as) competes with Mendelssohn’s Wedding March from his Midsummer Night’s Dream Incidental Music for most popular processional piece at weddings.

We now move to his mature operas, including the three works he is best known for.

One of them reminds me a bit of Beethoven’s final piano sonata – it is a work of such other-worldly mystery as to make us mere mortals feel inadequate and realize we’re only glimpsing at brief snatches of the genius within it – I’m referring to his final opera, Parsifal.  The prelude and ‘Good Friday Music’ are approachable snippets, the opera as a whole is a ‘post graduate’ exercise in musical appreciation, something Wagner himself understood and actively wished for – indeed, he wanted to limit the opera to only being performed in his own opera house.

On the basis of special music requiring a special theater, Wagner designed and had built his own opera house in the small German town of Bayreuth, and each summer sees a Festival showcasing some of his operas.

Wagner's 'Festival House' in Bayreuth, picture taken in 1895.
Wagner’s ‘Festival House’ in Bayreuth, picture taken in 1895.

The festival is always sold out with a waiting list; it can take several years to actually be accepted as an audience member.  To the true Wagner fan, it is almost a holy pilgrimage to attend a Bayreuth performance, and members of the Wagner family continue to manage the theater and festival themselves.

The second of Wagner’s greatest works is an opera so full of tragedy and unfulfilled desire that Romeo and Juliet reads like a light-hearted romp/comedy.  The opera, Tristan and Isolde, tells a tale of star-crossed lovers with music so incredibly sad as to be almost unbearable.  The final scene – Isolde’s Liebestod (the 1952 Kirsten Flagstad version with the Philharmonia under Furtwangler is the best, even though the sound is mono and inferior to modern recordings) is one of those pieces that simultaneously inspires you to commit acts of greatness, and also requires you to get a second box of tissues.

If you don’t (yet) like sopranos singing German opera, Liszt did a good job of transcribing the Liebestod to a piano version (Wagner married Liszt’s daughter, Cosima).

You know right from the prelude to Act 1 that this is not going to be a happy-making story, and once you have mastered the Liebestod, you might then go to the long second Act 2 duet, and then expand further from there.

Not everything Wagner wrote was quite so emotionally overwhelming.  The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (which I’m not including in his three greatest works, but which was a contemporaneously written opera) is a wonderfully positive and friendly opera, with very little sadness in it and lots of happy and even bombastic good spirits.

The prelude to Act 1, prelude to Act 3, and indeed most of the third act are all reasonably approachable, and the opera as a whole is a great ‘feel good’ story where, uniquely for Wagner, it ends with a ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ conclusion.

If you’ve been keeping count, you’ll see I’ve mentioned six operas and two of his greatest three.  Which brings us to – his greatest creation of all – not a single opera, but a tetralogy – a series of four operas, known collectively as ‘The Ring of the Nibelungen‘ or simply as ‘The Ring Cycle‘.

Wagner’s Ring Cycle

It is hard to describe the effect one experiences when attending the four Ring operas in four successive days, ranging from regular length (the first part – ‘The Rhinegold‘) to gargantuan in every respect (the final almost five-hour part with the brilliantly evocative and entirely appropriate name ‘The Twilight of the Gods‘); suffice it to say that it is definitely cumulative.  I’ve attended individual stand-alone performances of individual operas, and they are great, but to do the full four operas in sequence is impossible to describe.

It is fitting that this, perhaps the most extraordinary work ever composed (The Ring), was captured on an extraordinary series of lp records in the 1950s and 1960s, universally hailed at the time as the greatest triumph of recording technology ever; a claim which some feel remains as true today, 50 years later, as it was when the discs first came out (eg made again by BBC Music Magazine in 2012).

One of Arthur Rackham's distinctive illustrations of The Ring score, this one showing Brunnhilde.
One of Arthur Rackham’s distinctive illustrations of The Ring score, this one showing Brunnhilde.

This is the legendary Decca/John Culshaw production (Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti, and a stunningly stellar cast), augmented by a wonderful three record long musical analysis and explanation by the brilliant musicologist and Wagnerian, Deryck Cooke, and extended still further by a BBC video documentary of the recording (The Golden Ring ) and a book written by John Culshaw, ‘Ring Resounding‘.

Oh yes, all the preceding items, plus some others, are available in a combined ‘Super Deluxe Special Edition‘ that also has a lossless Blu-ray 24 bit encoded recording of the music, acclaimed as being probably the best quality possible short of playing the original master tapes directly.

This was released to commemorate the 100th birthday of the conductor (Solti) and of course, the 200th birthday of Wagner.  At $250, it is more expensive than buying the parts piece by piece, but if you’re a Wagnerian, it is a must have item.  Only 7000 copies were made of this limited special edition; some still remain, and they will surely go up in value once they have been all sold.

Deryck Cooke’s analysis is a great way to learn about how Wagner developed his leading motives and wove them into the music and story of the Ring.  You don’t need to be a musician to understand his analysis, and you’ll listen to the Ring with a new appreciation after his analysis.

These recordings set new standards for the recording art, and were the first ever complete recordings of The Ring.  Public interest in them was so great that several of them made it to the top of the Billboard list of best-selling records, beating all the pop records to reach the top spot.  The thought that a Wagner opera could become a popular best seller is probably something even supremely self-confident Wagner himself would find astonishing.

How to approach The Ring?  Where to start?   If you like rousing ‘exciting’ music, then start off with the opening to Act III of the second opera (The Valkyrie) – this is the best known snippet from the entire four opera work, ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’, usually played without the singing of the Valkyries, and perhaps most famously featured as the music the helicopters played in when flying in from the sea to attack the Vietnamese village in Apocalypse Now.  Then perhaps move on to ‘The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla’ – the last 20 minutes or so of ‘The Rhinegold’, ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ (sometimes with ‘Dawn’ appended to it) and ‘Siegfried’s Funeral March, both from ‘The Twilight of the Gods’, and that’s most of the easy orchestral pieces.

From there, you might want to try Wotan’s Farewell (the last 20 minutes or so of The Valkyrie), then perhaps the last 20 minutes or so of Act 1 and the first 15 minutes or so of Act 2 of The Valkyrie, then maybe Forest Murmurs from ‘Siegfried‘, then the final scene of ‘Siegfried’ and, wait for it, the ultimate ending of this musical colossus –  Brunnhilde’s Immolation – the last 20 minutes or so of ‘The Twilight of the Gods’ when it all comes to its final climax and ending.

If you can get through that, then watch the operas in sequence.  Rhinegold is the easiest of the four to appreciate.  Wagner took time out from writing The Ring (from memory at the end of Act 2 of Siegfried) and wrote The Mastersingers and Tristan before returning to finish Siegfried and then do Götterdämmerung (aka The Twilight of the Gods); it is astonishing the change in orchestration as between the first two and a bit operas and the final opera and a bit.


To summarize, if you already know and like some classical music, you’ll definitely find the time spent getting to know Wagner a most worthwhile investment.

If you are not yet familiar with classical music in general, start off with some of Wagner’s simple short orchestral pieces (look for a ‘Greatest Hits’ type compilation or two), and if they arouse your interest, move slowly forward from there.

Trust me, the journey is immensely rewarding, but the thing about all classical music is that you’ll only get out of it what you’re willing to put into it.  Unlike ‘popular’ music, classical music requires concentration, attention and even some learning.

8 thoughts on “Happy 200th Birthday to Richard Wagner”

  1. Margaret Mackenzie-Hooson

    Thank you so much for doing this David–imagine if you were to do a tour scheduled several years ahead to Bayreuth!!! I’d sign up for that one…And I’m thinking it may have been a New Zealand history teacher whom you’re thanking–I too owe my love of classical music to being introduced to it at school in New Zealand.

    1. Hi Margaret

      Yes, it was indeed my fifth form history teacher, Bertie O’Connell, who introduced me to Wagner as an adjunct to a part of our studies, unsurprisingly enough on ‘Germany between the wars’.

      However, I’ll wager that we didn’t go to the same high school in New Zealand. I was at Hastings Boys High School – no girls allowed, alas! 🙂

  2. I’d also be interested in considering a tour for the series. I concur that Wagner is really top of the line.

    1. I know that a couple of my readers have managed to get tickets to Bayreuth (and have raved about the experience).

      I’ll ask them for how they managed to get the tickets. Maybe there’s a Travel Insider Tour lurking in this!

  3. David,

    What a remarkable article! And what an eyeopener (for me) regarding Wagner, and regarding you.

    How little we really know about other people. I have always appreciated your insights into travel, and therefore wrongly assumed that travel was your overwhelmingly predominant area of interest (which I appreciated, of course). How little we really know about others (smile).

    Thanks to your article, I will try to introduce a bit more Wagner into my musical education.

    Best wishes,


  4. Hi, David

    I thought you might enjoy this, written by the noted American musicologist (and star of Fantasia), Deems Taylor, in 1936.


    He was an undersized little man, with a head too big for his body — a sickly little man. His nerves were bad. He had skin trouble. It was agony for him to wear anything next to his skin coarser than silk. And he had delusions of grandeur.

    He was a monster of conceit. Never for one minute did he look at the world or at people, except in relation to himself. He was not only the most important person in the world, to himself; in his own eyes he was the only person who existed. He believed himself to be one of the greatest dramatists in the world, one of the greatest thinkers, and one of the greatest composers. To hear him talk, he was Shakespeare, and Beethoven, and Plato, rolled into one. And you would have had no difficulty in hearing him talk. He was one of the most exhausting conversationalists that ever lived. An evening with him was an evening spent in listening to a monologue. Sometimes he was brilliant; sometimes he was maddeningly tiresome. But whether he was being brilliant or dull, he had one sole topic of conversation: himself. What he thought and what he did.

    He had a mania for being in the right. The slightest hint of disagreement, from anyone, on the most trivial point, was enough to set him off on a harangue that might last for hours, in which he proved himself right in so many ways, and with such exhausting volubility, that in the end his hearer, stunned and deafened, would agree with him, for the sake of peace.

    It never occurred to him that he and his doing were not of the most intense and fascinating interest to anyone with whom he came in contact. He had theories about almost any subject under the sun, including vegetarianism, the drama, politics, and music; and in support of these theories he wrote pamphlets, letters, books … thousands upon thousands of words, hundreds and hundreds of pages. He not only wrote these things, and published them — usually at somebody else’s expense — but he would sit and read them aloud, for hours, to his friends and his family.

    He wrote operas, and no sooner did he have the synopsis of a story, but he would invite — or rather summon — a crowed of his friends to his house, and read it aloud to them. Not for criticism. For applause. When the complete poem was written, the friends had to come again, and hear that read aloud. Then he would publish the poem, sometimes years before the music that went with it was written. He played the piano like a composer, in the worst sense of what that implies, and he would sit down at the piano before parties that included some of the finest pianists of his time, and play for them, by the hour, his own music, needless to say. He had a composer’s voice. And he would invite eminent vocalists to his house and sing them his operas, taking all the parts.

    He had the emotional stability of a six-year-old child. When he felt out of sorts, he would rave and stamp, or sink into suicidal gloom and talk darkly of going to the East to end his days as a Buddhist wonk. Ten minutes later, when something pleased him, he would rush out of doors and run around the garden, or jump up and down on the sofa, or stand on his head. He could be grief-stricken over the death of a pet dog, and he could be callous and heartless to a degree that would have made a Roman emperor shudder.

    He was almost innocent of any sense of responsibility. Not only did he seem incapable of supporting himself, but it never occurred to him that he was under ay obligation to do so. He was convinced that the world owed him a living. In support of this belief, he borrowed money from everybody who was good for a loan — men, women, friends, or strangers. He wrote begging letters by the score, sometimes groveling without shame, at other loftily offering his intended benefactor the privilege of contributing to his support, and being mortally offended if the recipient declined the honor. I have found no record of his ever paying or repaying money to anyone who did not have a legal claim upon it.

    What money he could lay his hands on he spent like an Indian rajah. The mere prospect of a performance of one of his operas was enough to set him to running up bills amounting to ten times the amount of his prospective royalties. No one will ever know — certainly he never knew — how much money he owed. We do know that his greatest benefactor gave him $6,000 to pay the most pressing of his debts in one city, and a year later had to give him $16,000 to enable him to live in another city without being thrown into jail for debt.

    He was equally unscrupulous in other ways. An endless procession of women marched through his life. His first wife spent twenty years enduring and forgiving his infidelities. His second wife had been the wife of his most devoted friend and admirer, from whom he stole her. And even while he was trying to persuade her to leave her first husband he was writing to a friend to inquire whether he could suggest some wealthy woman — any wealthy woman — whom he could marry for her money.

    He was completely selfish in his other personal relationships. His liking for his friends was measured solely by the completeness of their devotion to him, or by their usefulness to him, whether financial or artistic. The minute they failed him — even by so much as refusing a dinner invitation — or began to lessen in usefulness, he cast them off without a second thought. At the end of his life he had exactly one friend left whom he had known even in middle age.

    The name of this monster was Richard Wagner. Everything that I have said about him you can find on record — in newspapers, in police reports, in the testimony of people who knew him, in his own letters, between the lines of his autobiography. And the curious thing about this record is that it doesn’t matter in the least.

    Because this undersized, sickly, disagreeable, fascinating little man was right all the time. The joke was on us. He was one of the world’s greatest dramatists; he was a great thinker; he was one of the most stupendous musical geniuses that, up to now, the world has ever seen. The world did owe him a living.

    When you consider what he wrote — thirteen operas and music dramas, eleven of them still holding the stage, eight of them unquestionably worth ranking among the world’s great musico-dramatic masterpieces — when you listen to what he wrote, the debts and heartaches that people had to endure from him don’t seem much of a price. Think of the luxury with which for a time, at least, fate rewarded Napoleon, the man who ruined France and looted Europe; and then perhaps you will agree that a few thousand dollars’ worth of debts were not too heavy a price to pay for the Ring series.

    What if he was faithless to his friends and to his wives? He had one mistress to whom he was faithful to the day of his death: Music. Not for a single moment did he ever compromise with what he believed, with what be dreamed. There is not a line of his music that could have been conceived by a little mind. Even when he is dull, or downright bad, he is dull in the grand manner. There is greatness about his worst mistakes. Listening to his music, one does not forgive him for what he may or may not have been. It is not a matter of forgiveness. It is a matter of being dumb with wonder that his poor brain and body didn’t burst under the torment of the demon of creative energy that lived inside him, struggling, clawing, scratching to be released; tearing, shrieking at him to write the music that was in him. The miracle is that what he did in the little space of seventy years could have been done at all, even by a great genius. Is it any wonder that he had no time to be a man?

    1. Hi, Bill

      Yes, Wagner as a person was not a very sympathetic fellow at all.

      But I think most of all agree with the latter part of Deems Taylor’s essay, where he concludes that it was all worth it, and we should all be thankful to Wagner for his single-minded pursuit of the greatness that he was so extraordinarily imbued with, and for the legacy he has left to us. A huge return indeed.

  5. Dear David and Bill,

    When I was in college, one of my professors told the class to never study the life of the
    person until we had studied their works. She advised that you would always be
    disappointed in their person, and she was right. Almost everyone of these supremely
    creative people were first class jerks to the mere mortals who had to deal with them on
    a daily basis. FYI, I very much enjoyed David’s write up and Bill’s story about Wagner as well. Jerry

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