Richard Wagner and innovations in opera

The Romantic Period: Richard Wagner and
innovations in opera
Fall 2020
Review: The development of opera
-Opera developed as a new genre in the late Renaissance in Italy
-Influenced by the composition of Madrigals
-A renewed interest in Greek Tragedy, which included music, among
Humanist scholars and artists drove the development of opera
-Opera included two different styles of singing: Speech-like and songs
-In the Baroque period, opera flourished, becoming a very popular and
prestigious genre for composers
-In the Classical period, two genres of opera developed: “serious” opera and
“comic” opera
-Opera performances were social events: audience members talked through
the performances, moved about the hall, ate, etc.
Late Romanticism in music
-Focus on intense emotional expression, beyond what we saw in the
Early Romantic style
-Vast artistic scope, in terms of length, instrumentation, and plot
-Use of chromatic harmony for its expressive potential
-Nationalism, expressed through the arts
Nationalism in Germany
-The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars across Europe and the Treaty of
Vienna, which redrew the boundaries of Europe, led to an increase in Nationalism
-Germany, as a nation, had been divided since the Middle Ages and the rise of
Nationalist sentiments led to efforts to unify the nation
*Remember that the German states had been part of the Roman Empire
-1848: Revolutionaries tried to bring about unification through negotiation, but
-1864-71: With Germany under the control of Prussia, the prime minister of Prussia
(Otto Bismark) created the German Empire
-Resulted in the implementation of a program of cultural nationalism: German
language, rather than dialects, was taught in schools, national newspapers and
journals were created, and National identity was cultivated through the arts
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
-Born in Leipzig, Germany
-Worked in the court of the King of Saxony from 1843-1848
-Fled Germany after participating in the uprisings of 1848-49 which led to an issue
for his arrest
-Settled in Switzerland, where he was supported by two aristocratic patrons
-In 1864 secured a position in the court of King Ludwig II of Bavaria (in Germany),
who granted Wagner an annual pension and sponsored productions of his operas
-Created a permanent theater for his operas at Bayreuth (town in Bavaria, Germany)
-Influenced development of a new model of musical performance: chairs nailed to
the floor, light off during performance, no talking
-An extremely influential composer of opera
The Bayreuth Festival Theater, designed by Otto Brückwald
The influence of Beethoven
-Wagner attended a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the
age of fifteen, which was deeply influential for him and his
understanding of music and drama
-Wagner believed that Beethoven had already accomplished all that was
possible in purely instrumental music
Wagner acknowledged the influence of Beethoven explicitly:
“The last symphony of Beethoven’s [the Ninth] is the redemption of music out of its own element as a
universal art. It is the human gospel of the art of the future. Beyond it there can be no progress, for
there can follow on it immediately only the completed artwork of the future, the universal drama, to
which Beethoven has forged for us the artistic key.”
-Wagner, “The Artwork of the Future” (1850), translated by Oliver Strunk
The music-drama
-But it was the intensely dramatic nature of the Ninth Symphony that
inspired Wagner’s new genre: the “music-drama,” which he conceived
of as the total integration of music and drama (Wagner considered this
to be a genre separate from opera.)
-Believed that the function of music was to serve dramatic expression
-Saw himself as Beethoven’s successor
Music-drama and Gesamkunstwerk
Gesamkunstwerk: (German “total artwork”) Term coined by Richard Wagner for a
dramatic work in which poetry, scenic design, staging, action and music all work
together toward one artistic expression. In Wagner’s view, this was a genre distinct
from opera (although today it is considered as a type of opera).
Note: Wagner wrote his own libretti
-Concept can be tied to synesthesia: A neurological condition in which stimulation
of one sensory or cognitive pathway (for example, hearing) leads to
automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive
pathway (such as vision). Simply put, when one sense is activated, another
unrelated sense is activated at the same time.
-The concept of “synesthetic art” later became highly influential in the 20th and 21st
“Man as artist can be fully satisfied only in the union of all the art varieties in the collective artwork
[Gesamtkunstwerk]… The highest collective artwork is the drama; it is present in its ultimate
completeness only when each art variety, in its ultimate completeness, is present in it.”
“True drama can be conceived only as resulting from the collective impulse of all the arts to
communicate in the most immediate way… each individual art variety can reveal itself as fully
understandable… only through collective communication, together with the other art varieties, in the
drama, for the aim of each individual art variety is fully attained only in the mutually understanding
and understandable cooperation of all the art varieties.”
-Wagner, “The Artwork of the Future” (1850), translated by Oliver Strunk
Wagner, Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Plot Summary:
“When Tristan brings princess Isolde on his ship to Cornwall, where she is to marry his
uncle, King Marke, she becomes irritated by his [Tristan’s] apparent indifference to her. In
fact they are passionately in love, but their relationship is doomed. By substituting a love
potion for the poison Isolde and Tristan intend to drink, Brangäne [Isolde’s governess] only
revives their love and it is in this ecstatic state that they arrive in Cornwall. Despite Isolde’s
marriage to Marke, the lovers’ passion secretly unfolds, until one day they are discovered.
Marke feels betrayed and becomes distraught at Tristan’s behaviour. Mortally wounded by
Melot, King Marke’s [knight], who Kurwenal, Tristan’s servant, kills in turn, Tristan dies in
Isolde’s arms. The princess collapses beside her deceased lover and they are reunited in
their “love death,” the only possible outcome for their mystic union.”
-Opera Online
Nationalism in Wagner’s operas
-The plots of many of Wagner’s operas draw on Germanic myths for their
Nationalist narratives
The Ring of the Niebelung (the Ring Cycle): An epic four-night long drama of ancient
Germanic myth, in which the gods build the world, introduce evil, try to preserve their
authority against humanity’s challenge, and are eventually overthrown and destroyed
The Meistersinger of Nuremberg: Tells the story of a singing contest in Germany’s most
prototypical medieval city which glorifies the Volk (German) culture.
Tristan und Isolde: Based on the 12th-century romance Tristan by Gottfried von
Strassburg, considered one of the most important German authors of the Middle Ages
Leitmotifs: In an opera or musical drama, a motive, theme or musical
idea associated with a person, object, mood or idea, which returns in original or
altered form throughout the work.
-Music of the entire opera is organized around these leitmotifs
-These melodies appear the first time a character appears or the first time an idea is
mentioned and the association is then cemented through the reintroduction of that
melody each time the character appears or the idea is discussed
-Often characterized by a specific instrument, register (high or low), or harmony
-Leitmotifs transform over the course of the work, as the dramatic narrative unfolds,
even combining with a different leitmotif
Listening Example: Tristan und Isolde, Prelude to Act I
Leitmotif examples:
Leitmotifs to focus on:
1: “Longing” associated with Tristan
2: “Desire” associated with Isolde
Chromatic harmony
Chromatic harmony: Harmony which includes notes which do not fit
within the tonal system of harmony being used in a piece. Creates
dissonance and tension.
-Wagner uses chromatic harmony for its expressive potential, rather than
its harmonic function
-Wagner’s chromatic harmony was highly influential
-Informed later composers’ expansion of, and eventual break from,
tonality as a harmonic system
Chromatic harmony: The Tristan chord
Tristan chord: “The most famous chord in Western music!” A leitmotif
representing Tristan. A dissonant harmony that Wagner continually
avoids resolving, and when it does resolve, moves to a variety of
different chords. Undermines the importance of dissonance and
resolution that characterizes traditional tonal harmony.
-Chord appears in the first measure of the work, in the longing-desire
-Chord was revolutionary in the emphasis that it placed on dissonance
rather than on resolution
-Wagner used the Tristan chord for its expressive potential, rather than
for its harmonic function
-A clear break with the rules of tonality
Guided listening: Tristan und Isolde, “Prelude”
How does Wagner’s use of chromatic harmony influence the nature of
the music?
-Harmony is intended to evoke the feeling of longing and desire,
which shapes the entire narrative.
Guided listening: Tristan und Isolde, “Liebestod”
Act 3: Melot, King Marke’s [knight], mortally wounds Tristan. Kurwenal [Tristan’s servant] watches
over him as he slowly perishes, suffering as well from Isolde’s absence. When the princess finally
arrives, it is too late and Tristan dies in her arms. Only in the long night of death can Isolde join
Tristan in his Liebestod or “love death.” –Opera Online
Transformation of “longing” and “desire” leitmotifs:
“Longing-Desire (1 and 2) becomes “Love-Death” (30)
The Tristan Chord:
Over the course of the opera, the chord doesn’t fully resolve until the Liebestod, at
the moment when Isolde dies, through the Love-Death leitmotif!
Most important takeaways:
-Wagner’s notion of the “Gesamkunstwerk”
-Wagner’s use of leitmotifs as a component of the musical narrative
-Wagner’s use of extensive chromatic harmony (ex: the Tristan chord)
for its expressive potential

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