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Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born May 22, 1813, in Leipzig. He was the ninth child born into a family in which all were involved, in one way or another, in the theater. As a young child he frequently played supernumerary roles and loved the feeling of being center of attention. As his character developed, he was an eager and quick learner. The plays of Shakespeare and Greek drama were his favorites.
In 1826, when Wagner was 13, the family moved to Prague, where his sister Rosalie had secured a solid post at the theater. For the next three years, he worked on writing a play called Leubald, which was an attempt to combine Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear into one five-act drama. There were so many murders, Wagner had to resurrect several of the characters as ghosts in order to complete the play. It was a failure. Wagner decided that what it lacked was incidental music. If he ever attempted to write any music, no evidence has been found.
By this time, he had discovered and become bewitched by music. He studied music privately, on his own, and in higher education classes. As a part of his music education, he copied Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and arranged it for keyboard performance.
So when his early career began in 1833, with the composing of Die Feen (The Fairies), he was equipped with a thorough understanding of theater and a solid grasp of music, and he was well-read, especially in the fields of mythology, philosophy, society, and politics. He had studied and admired music of Beethoven, Meyerbeer, Halévy, Liszt, Berlioz, and others.
The dark side of his character included almost constant indebtedness. He borrowed from friends and admirers and seldom bothered to repay them. Stereotypical accounts have painted Wagner as an unscrupulous wife-stealer and womanizer. Wagner scholar Barry Millington reports, in The Sorcerer of Bayreuth, that "The tally of his serious and casual affairs taken together barely exceeds a dozen," hardly a shocking number for a 19th century Romantic artist. In 1825, he had married Minna Planner, an attractive and popular actress. The marriage was a disaster from the beginning. Though they had tender and affectionate feelings for each other, their underlying characters could have not been more conflictual. He was faithful to Minna until their marriage had irretrievably broken down.
Wagner's antisemitism is neither unforgiveable nor easy to understand. It is the era of the Third Reich that makes it so painful for 20th-21st century music lovers to deal with. Wagner's 1850 (rev. 1869) pamphlet Das Judenthum ln der Music parades before all the world a mixture of ignorant exaggerated impressions and faux sociological and cultural interpretations. On the other hand, he had close and, in some cases, affectionate relationships with individual Jews throughout his life. The only thing that can prompt tolerance of his obscene antisemitic views is the beauty, power, and truth of his music.
Wagner's lifelong goal was to reach people through his art; to make us into something more than we were before – more aware, more sensitive, and more compassionate human beings. That he was unable to do this for himself is perhaps the great burden that he bore – the tragedy of his life. That he has been able to do this for generation upon generation of audiences is all the evidence we need to recognize the greatness and truth of his art.
M. Owen Lee, in his1998 Larkin-Stuart lectures at Trinity College, University of Toronto (published as Wagner, The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art), quotes Deems Taylor: "He (Wagner) 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 he dreamed. There is not a line of his music that could have been conceived by a little mind."
His legacy also includes a unique and powerful Leitmotif system, music of psychological depth, harmonic revolution, innovations in conducting, theater design, and staging, poetic genius in libretto writing and more. Alex Ross has thoroughly documented in his recently published Wagnerism the depth and breadth of the influence of Wagner's legacy not only in the arts but in the culture and thought of ongoing society.
His legacy includes 13 completed operas (he preferred to call them music dramas). The first three (Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi) would fall under the category of youthful experimentation. Rienzi, in the style of French Grand Opera, was a considerable success. He could have composed another one in the same mode and would have been well on his way to what was popularly considered a successful composer.
But no. His next music drama, Die fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), delved into the complexities of human relationships, longing for salvation from the consequences of past bad judgments, and the realization of fulfilment in faithful love. Next came Tannhäuser and its magnificent melodies, seeking resolution of conflict between secularism and religion with its heroic "Pilgrim's Chorus," which is still one of the most common open doors attracting young Wagnerians to come on in and experience the warmth of the music.
The third of the second trio is Lohengrin, marking the conclusion of traditional opera. After the awesome ethereal, other-worldliness of the Prelude, where does one go for music of such transcendent soul satisfying magnificence? On with Wagner.
The seven last music dramas are each in their own way unmitigated masterpieces, incomparable in music to this point in time.
The four dramas that comprise The Ring of the Nibelungen Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Die Götterdämmerung – make up a monumental miracle with layer upon layer of meaning and a lifelong treasure-house of revelations about human nature.
Tristan und Isolde reveals to us the inner struggles of love in some of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching music in the world.
Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg is an awesomely joyous celebration of art. The third act alone contains more great music than almost any other complete three-act opera.
Parsifal, Wagner's last completed music drama, has been saddled as the most controversial, though this need not be so. It is the only one written after the completion of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, and it displays Wagner's uncanny grasp of acoustics. Its musical score is longer than any of his other music dramas, and the libretto is shorter. The soaring ethereal music yields awesome rewards with each hearing, especially if one has the good fortune of hearing it in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.
Wilhelm Richard Wagner dominated the music world in the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. He was a flawed human being but in most regards no worse than many others. It is miraculous that he left us such a rich legacy that allows us to see more clearly into ourselves and provides light on the path we struggle down together.
There follows a tabulation of his works, complete and proposed. The format is similar to previous articles on the operas of major composers – catalog number, discussion, composition and premiere dates, theater where first performed, libretto/book credit, and YouTube link. Enjoy!
WWV31 (Wagner-Werk-Verzeichnis) Die Hochzeit (unfinished) (The Wedding) Oper 1832 13 Feb 1938 (fragments) Leipzig, Neues Theater Based on a story by J.G.G. Büsching 10:42 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoMdpzLTpQk&t=22s (conducted by Christof Perick, former MD of the Charlotte Symphony)
WWV32 Die Feen (The Fairies) Großeromantische Oper 3 Acts 1833-34 29 Jun 1888 Munich, Hoftheater A reworking of La donna serpente by Carlo Gozzi 3:06:08 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1F-Ut7lFmuo (conducted by Kenneth Hedgecock)
WWV38 Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love) 38 Große komische Oper 2 Acts 1835-36 29 Mar 1836 Magdeburg, Stadttheater Loosely based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure; and described (by Osborne) as "a not very successful German imitation of Italian opera buffa." 2:40:01 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glPWOvhyyEc (conducted by Ivor Bolton)
WWV48 Männerlist größer als Frauenlist, oder Die glückliche Bärenfamilie (unfinished) (Men are more cunning than women or The Happy Bear family) komische Oper 1839 13 Oct 2007 (fragments) London, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House Based on a tale from One Thousand and One Nights. The libretto was completed, but only the first three numbers set to music. These were lost until 1994. Here those number are in a completion by others: 2:12:20 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEqIe62Bi3s (conducted by Franz Killer)
WWV49 Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes) Große tragische Oper 5 Acts 1839-40 20 Oct 1842 Dresden, Königliches Opernhaus Based on a drama by Edward Bulwer Lytton in 4 parts: Part 1 1:18:33 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfuksVNEqAA & Part 2 1:19:06 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qfqVmLTWDI & Part 3 1:00:48 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpshX2qUEwU & Part 4 1:02:00 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXtUovS41V0 (conducted by Edward Downes)
WWV63 Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) romantische Oper 3 Acts 1841 2 Jan 1843 Dresden, Königliches Opernhaus The orchestration was revised by Wagner several times. The opera is sometimes performed in a single act, without intermissions. 2:21:07 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFqX_oZPL6g (conducted by Christian Thielemann)
WWV70 Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf dem Wartburg (aka Tannhäuser) (Tannhäuser and the Song Contest on the Wartburg) (Dresden and Paris versions) Große romantische Oper 3 Acts 1843-45 19 Oct 1845; Revised version: 18 Mar 1861 Dresden, Königliches Opernhaus (1845); Paris, Opéra (1861) Wagner did not produce a definitive edition of the score. The Paris premiere was disrupted by political and other demonstrations. Dresden version, audio, in 3 parts Part 1 58:33 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqdKDesaJ20 & Part 2 1:10:28 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9x1gR0RBsno & Part 3 54:04 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rzu-d427yHc (conducted by Franz Konwitschny); Paris version 3:02:07 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kl7oUK3sMQo&t=26s (conducted by Sir Colin Davis)
WWV75 Lohengrin romantische Oper 3 Acts 1846-48 28 Aug 1850 Weimar, Hoftheater Loosely based on the German legend of Lohengrin, as presented in medieval verse including Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival. In 2 parts Part 1 2:30:52 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=libGLa-U-H8 & Part 2 1:03:27 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vu0zUnWb4_g (conducted by Peter Schneider)
WWV86a Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) Bühnenfestspiel Vorabend 1 Act 1853-54 22 Sep 1869 Munich, Hofoper First part of Der Ring des Nibelungen. First performance as part of complete Ring cycle: 13 Aug 1876, at Bayreuth Festspielhaus. 2:23:18 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jO6d4z8r7w (conducted by Pierre Boulez)
WWV86b Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) Bühnenfestspiel erster Tag 3 Acts 1854-56 26 Jun 1870 Munich, Hofoper Second part of Der Ring des Nibelungen. First performed as part of complete Ring cycle: 14 Aug 1876, at Bayreuth Festspielhaus. 4:03:40 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_C-0hH5G8MU (conducted by Zubin Mehta)
WWV90 Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde) Handlung 3 Acts 1857-59 10 Jun 1865 Munich, Hofoper Based in part on Gottfried von Strassburg's medieval epic, also believed to be an idealisation of Wagner's love for Mathilde Wesendonck. 3:26:40 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McoRns-aWQQ (conducted by Pierre Boulez)
WWV96 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) Oper 3 Acts 1861-67 21 Jun 1868 Munich, Hofoper Wagner's only mature attempt at a comic opera, based on a draft originally written in 1845. 3:59:00 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlf-TXyrycM (conducted by Leopold Ludwig)
WWV86c Siegfried Bühnenfestspiel zweiter Tag 3 Acts 1856-71 16 Aug 1876 Bayreuth Festspielhaus Third part of Der Ring des Nibelungen. The composition was interrupted for 12 years between 1857 and 1869. 4:01:34 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxVPG5MkS4M (conducted by Marek Janowski)
WWV86d Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) Bühnenfestspiel dritter Tag 3 Acts 1871-74 17 Aug 1876 Bayreuth Festspielhaus Fourth part of Der Ring des Nibelungen.4:43:20 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3x3b-TGrGg (conducted by Adam Fischer)
WWV111 Parsifal Bühnenweihfestspiel 3 Acts 1877-82 26 Jul 1882 Bayreuth Festspielhaus Under an agreement between Wagner and King Ludwig, Parsifal was to be performed only at Bayreuth, "never desecrated by contact with any profane stage". 4:28:48 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJkkXxdryD8 (conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli, who led the last full Friends of the College concert at NCSU in Raleigh)
Projects considered but unfinished:
WWV1 Leubald Trauerspiel [Tragic play] 5 Acts 1827-28 9 Aug 1989 Bayreuth, Studiobühne Schützenhaus Childhood attempt to write a grand tragedy based on Shakespearean themes. A version of the text exists, but no music survives.
WWV6 Die Laune des Verliebten (unfinished) (The infatuated lover's caprice) 6 Oper? 1829-30 Unperformed – Based on a play by Goethe. Neither text nor music survives. >>> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLI91cfzCgU
WWV40 Die hohe Braut (The High-born Bride) Große Oper 4 Acts 1836-42 1848 (date not recorded) Prague Libretto sketched by Wagner in 1836-37, completed in 1842, and eventually set to music by Jan Bedrich Kittl under the title Bianca und Giuseppe.
WWV66 Die Sarazenin (The Saracen Woman) Oper 5 Acts 1841-42 Unperformed – Libretto based on the character "Manfred" from Lord Byron's drama, not set to music.
WWV68 Die Bergwerke zu Falun (The Mines of Falun) Oper 3 Acts 1842 Unperformed – Sketch of opera, based on a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann. Audio of the play: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-22TwwHobO8
WWV76 Friedrich I Oper? 5 Acts 1848-49 Unperformed – Project on Frederick I of Prussia, possibly intended as a music drama. No libretto or music written.
WWV80 Jesus von Nazareth (Jesus of Nazareth) Oper? 5 Acts 1848-49 Unperformed – Prose draft only for libretto, no music written. Aspects of the sketch may have been used in the writing of Parsifal. A conjectural version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WXAr95Z0vk
WWV81 Achilleus (Achilles) Oper? 1848-49 Unperformed – Prose sketch, no music written.
WWV82 Wieland der Schmied (Wieland the Smith) Heldenoper 3 Acts 1849-50 Unperformed – Prose sketch for a heroic opera, offered to and rejected by Liszt and Berlioz. A 1904 symphonic poem on this subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0xFYf59vyM. Eventually adapted by O. Sclemm and set by Ján Levoslav Bella (premiere Slovak National Theatre, Bratislava, 28 Apr 1926).
WWV89 Die Sieger (The Victors) Oper? 1856 Unperformed – Prose outline and music sketches for an opera on a Buddhist subject; some music may have been used in later works. >>> Film based on the play https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1bb8NIEzCE
WWV99 Luthers Hochzeit (Luther's Wedding) Oper? 1868 Unperformed – A sketch play/libretto about Martin Luther and his decision to marry Katherina von Bora. >>> Film of a celebration in Wuttenberg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ozx9Z1vb_DE
WW102 Eine Kapitulation (A Capitulation) Lustspiel in antiker Manier 1871 Unperformed – A farce based on the siege of Paris, 1870. Wagner unsuccessfully asked Hans Richter to set it to music.
Editor's note: This is the last of the compilation projects we have contemplated for reference during the pandemic. With luck, the vaccines will ease our confinements and enable some semblance of return to musical normalcy in the not too distant future. That said, we hope our studies of Shostakovich and Korngold film scores and of operas by Handel, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Strauss, and Wagner (plus Handel's oratorios) have been of some interest, and we welcome suggestions for other similar projects.