Genius or monster? His admirers (among them George Bernard Shaw) see him as the greatest creative intellect of the 19th century; his critics (including Tchaikovsky, Ruskin, and D.H. Lawrence) find him boring, pretentious, and unmusical.
I’ve wrestled with Wagner for the last decade. There is much I admire in his works, and much I detest. His operas contain many passages that are beautiful, even sublime – but the operas themselves are prolix, and badly in need of an editor. “Monsieur Wagner a de beaux moments,” Rossini said, “mais de mauvais quart d’heures.” The Ring des Nibelungen lasts for four days – Rheingold lasts two and a half hours without an interval, the first act of Götterdämmerung lasts for THREE HOURS, and Meistersinger, intended as a satyr play to follow Tannhäuser, clocks in at four and a half hours.
Wagner’s operas are “philosophical”; that is, they’re full of Schopenhauerian pessimism, and blood, sin, suffering, guilt, death, and redemption. He wrote long treatises on Music and Drama, and Art and Revolution to convince people that his operas (or “music dramas”, or “festival play for the consecration of the stage”) were better than anyone else’s (particularly those the public enjoyed). He also believed that arias, duets, and ensembles should be abolished – even though his early works show he can write examples that rank with the best.
The man himself was a megalomaniac narcissist – but inspired great devotion, even in the man whose wife he stole. He wrote anti-Jewish pamphlets – and many of his friends and admirers were Jewish.
He attacked the reputations of Meyerbeer, the most revered opera composer in Europe, and of Mendelssohn, Germany’s leading musician, to advance his own reputation.
Wagner’s own reputation suffered when the Nazis co-opted him. In fact, anti-Semitism aside, Wagner had little in common with the Nazis, and would probably have detested Hitler.
Operas & music dramas
- Die Feen (composed 1833-34, first performed 1888)
- Das Liebesverbot (1836)
- Rienzi (1842)
- Der fliegende Holländer (1843)
- Tannhäuser (1845; revised 1861)
- Lohengrin (1850)
- Tristan und Isolde (composed 1857-59; first performed 1865)
- Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868)
- Der Ring des Nibelungen
- Das Rheingold (composed 1853-54; first performed 1869)
- Die Walküre (composed 1854-56; first performed 1870)
- Siegfried (composed 1856-71; first performed 1876)
- Gotterdämmerung (composed 1871-74; first performed 1876)
- Parsifal (1882)