Wagnerian Bicentennial

We’ve come to the first of the three important opera composer birthdays in 2013.

  • May 22:  Richard Wagner’s bicentennial
  • October 10:  Giuseppe Verdi’s bicentennial
  • November 22: Benjamin Britten’s centennial

You may prefer Britten’s operas. You may point to the box office advantage Verdi holds with operas such as La traviata, Rigoletto and Il trovatore.  However much some may portray him as a hateful anti-semite –and it’s hard to avoid coming to that conclusion when you look at his behaviour & his writings—RW is the most influential of the three.

You only need look at the adjectives from their names. I’m not even sure what they are for either Britten or Verdi, and for that matter what they signify: love of the composer’s works or something pertaining to their operas?

And then there’s “Wagnerian”.

It’s not just an epithet to suggest grandeur or sheer size. But consider. The adjective is so strong it dwarfs its subject.  If i speak of my Wagnerian appetite, or a Wagnerian carbunkle on my nose, i am already surrounded by a swirling crescendo of associations as surely as if i had an orchestral entourage.

Yet this is the most superficial use of the adjective.

The fact I am bothering with this subject suggests a nerdy interest that brands me as a “Wagnerian”. Is there an equivalent word for an admirer of Verdi or Britten? No.  Verdian is only barely recognizable to identify a vocal Fach; and there’s nothing comparable for Britten as far as I know.

But there are other aspects to Wagner’s influence that aren’t properly acknowledged.

  • When your play or concert begins, the lights dim. That began with Wagner
  • The idea that actors and designers and directors and text should all work together may seem obvious, but it began with Wagner, who even coined a word for it, namely Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total art”.
  • It’s such a simple but all-pervasive idea that you may not notice that it’s how most films work, how everything from video games, aircraft instrumentation, to software installation and museum exhibits also work.
  • In passing we might mention that RW was one of the first (if not the first) modern conductors. How we hear symphonies and operas –and how we experience those works performed–bears his influence
  • Dialogues des Carmélites Dale Travis as Marquis de la Force and Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche de la Force in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production. Photo Credit: Robert Kusel © 2007

    Dialogues des Carmélites
    Dale Travis as Marquis de la Force and Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche de la Force in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production.
    Photo Credit: Robert Kusel © 2007

    In passing we can also mention that RW claimed that opera had it backwards: it was meant to use music to serve a dramatic medium, but usually instead employed drama to create a musical medium. (I almost typed “musical tedium” which may be a Freudian slip). The later generations of Wagnerian operas—who resemble Wagner 2.0—are much subtler in their use of leit-motiv , the voice, and extended orchestral interludes. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites, to name but two, are classic examples from composers who may not be understood as Wagnerians, but who are inconceivable without Wagner’s example.

  • In passing we can also notice how many films continue to show Wagner’s influence on the musical score even if it doesn’t include a leit-motiv.

And so it’s RW’s birthday, 200 years along the way. While the importance of opera may be waning, Wagner’s influence is, come to think of it, so pervasive as to be genuinely Wagnerian.

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