Back to Germany
Looking at Richard Wagner’s more mature works, the premieres of Der Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman) and Tannhauser took place in 1843 and 1845, respectively. We include the “Pilgrims Chorus,” whose theme is repeated in the Overture from Tannhauser. By concentrating on the Chorus, we get a better sense of the rich, dark harmonies of Wagner’s music. One can hear heroic tragedy in every note, the very nature of the term “Grand” in grand opera.
While in exile in Switzerland, Wagner persuaded Franz Liszt to conduct Lohengrin in 1850 in Weimar. It took another 15 years before the premiere of his next opera, Tristan und Isolde in Munich in 1865. From this opera, we include one of the most beautiful of all of Wagner’s musical themes: “Liebestod.”
The premiere of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg in 1868 raises some interesting historical parallels with slavery in the United States. In medieval times, German laborers were not technically slaves; yet, for all intents, they had no more individual freedoms than American slaves enjoyed. German laborers and American slaves both used work songs to pace the activities of their days and to raise their spirits. In German towns, “boisterous laborers” called themselves “mastersingers” (following in the tradition of the “minnesinger” of the 13th Century) and organized choral groups. American slaves organized themselves into choral groups in their churches and developed spirituals or Gospel songs.
The most famous name among the “mastersingers” was Hans Sachs, a cobbler in Nuremberg in the 1500’s. Sachs was later immortalized in Wagner’s 1868 opera. Gospel music was immortalized on Broadway in shows such as Show Boat and Deep River.
Aside from his one comedy (Die Meistersinger), Wagner relied on myth and legend to create heroic operas–filled with high moral principles and tragic betrayals. His music quite often soared to the heights of his words; certainly his music, in toto, is a magnificent tribute to Grand Opera. The problem most people have with his operas is their vain attempt to bring the subject matter of Wagner’s operas into their own lives. This is especially true when applied to Der Ring des Nibelungen (the full Ring Cycle)(1876).
It is important to note the similarity of J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of moral purity in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Wagner’s concept of moral responsibility in his Ring Cycle. The actual ring, in both cases, when in mortal hands, brings with it temptation. While audiences are thrilled by the majesty of the mythology, it is very hard to translate the temptation of mythical gold into the actual temptations of daily strife, a strife that can take many forms. In the end, neither mythology performs the useful purpose that both creators had hoped for. Perhaps, audiences became lost in the spectacle. Perhaps, the concepts are too grandiose. For whatever reason, neither author was successful in translating the works of art into a moral renaissance.
With the sacred nature of Parsifel (1883), the curtain was drawn on Wagner’s magnificent body of work.
We feel obligated to add one final note when we discuss Wagner’s work, because many of our readers may not be aware of Wagner’s personal life. In comparison with his mythical heroes, he was less than heroic in his worldly affairs, shunning his own wife for the wives of other men and leading on the homosexual King Ludwig in order to persuade the King to pay off Wagner’s debts. More than just his immoral behavior, he has been and will be a controversial figure in the world of geopolitics. He was an ardent nationalist, almost thirty years before Otto von Bismark united all of the Kingdoms into one country. He was a socialist and an insurrectionist, who had to flee Germany to Switzerland. Finally, Wagner’s anti-Semitic views, found in his essay “Judaism in Music” (1850), make it hard to admire the man. In order to listen to Wagner’s operas, we need to separate the man from the music.
Once we do this, we can better understand his views on opera, expressed in “The Artwork of the Future” (1849) and “Opera and Drama” (1851), writings that laid the groundwork for Italian grand opera and the golden age of American Musical Theatre.
Finally, it is hard for us to believe that, even with his anti-Semitic views, Wagner would have approved of the Nazi’s use of his music; genocide in the death camps took place while the loudspeakers played strains of Wagner’s music. This wicked perversion of the music should not lead us to ignore the operas. Or put more simply, don’t throw out the magical baby with the dirty bathwater.