The world-famous German composer Richard Wagner was born on May 22nd 1813 and City Connect remembers his music today, which has inspired millions of people around the world. He was born in the Saxon city of Leipzig and died in 1883 in Venice.
He is primarily known for his magnificent operas, some of them spanning over five hours. His music is particularly difficult to perform with some of his opera arias only being able to be performed by a small selection of singers. His compositions are very rich in texture and have rich harmonies and orchestrations. He strongly elaborated the use of the leitmotif (German: leiten = to lead), which describes a small musical fragment that re-occurs continuously throughout a composition. It is different to a theme, which is much longer and traditionally only repeated a few times within one movement or act of a musical composition.
His music was strongly influenced by his teacher Franz Liszt, who was a world-renowned piano virtuoso and composer at the time.
Wagner transformed operatic thinking by achieving a synthesis of music with poetic, dramatic and visual arts. He wrote down his new concept of operas in various essays in the middle of the 19th century. His musical style changed from the romantic era (early compositions) to more dramatic and nationalistic compositions towards the end of the 19th century. For his late operas he chose many traditionally Germanic themes, accumulating in his world-famous Ring der Nibelungen (The Ring Cycle) which is composed of four different operas (The Rhine Gold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods), which are usually performed over consecutive days. Wagner’s influence spread beyond music into philosophy, theatre and literature.
An opera house was built for him in Bayreuth (The Bayreuther Festspielhaus) by the Bavarian king Ludwig II in 1872, where until today, only operas by Wagner are performed. Even today, every year a great portion of the German government goes on a pilgrimage to watch the Ring Cycle there and celebrate one of the greatest composers of the nation and the world.
Wagner moved to the Saxon capital of Dresden in 1840, where some of his early operas were performed. He soon became politically involved and joined a socialist movement supporting the unification of the German states. When the revolution broke out in 1849, he had to flee the city and went to Paris and then settled in Zürich. In exile, he met the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whose philosophy he later claimed to be central to his life. One passage of Schopenhauer’s philosophy that stuck with Wagner was:
“… we assume as necessary that this decision was preceded by something from which it ensued, and which we call the ground or reason, or more accurately the motive, of the resultant action. Choices are not made freely. Our actions are necessary and determined because every human being, even every animal, after the motive has appeared, must carry out the action which alone is in accordance with his inborn and immutable character…”
Wagner’s music was heavily abused by the Nazi Regime in Germany in the 20th century and used to promote German nationalism. Now, Wagner’s music symbolises one of the most complex and greatest musical styles ever written for opera. His music is certainly not easy-listening, but definitely a must to listen to, even if only for a phenomenal cultural experience.
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