German composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner was one of the most revolutionary figures in the history of music. Celebrated for his operas, he was also known as a theatre director, writer, polemicist and conductor.
Wagner’s unorthodox life was characterised by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors. His writings on music, drama and politics have attracted extensive comment and notoriety, in particular because of anti-semitic sentiments in some of his writings, and the Nazi regime’s support for his work.
As a composer, he established his reputation in the 1830’s as a composer of romantic works. He revolutionised opera through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), in which he sought to bring together the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts – an aim most fully realised in the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).
His opera Tristan and Isolde (1857-59), sometimes described as marking the start of modern music, is arguably the most representative example of Wagner’s musical style. Amongst many films employing Wagner’s music is, most famously, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which features a version of the Ride of the Valkyries.
Wagner had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, where The Ring cycle of operas, and his final opera Parsifal were first performed. His most important stage works continue to be performed at the annual Bayreuth Festival, which has been overseen since 1973 by the Richard-Wagner-Stiftung (Richard Wagner Foundation), the members of which include a number of Wagner’s descendants. It has become something of a shrine for fanatical Wagnerites (followers of Wagner) and remains the goal of many a pilgrimage today.
Wagner’s compositions are notable for their complex textures, rich harmonies, orchestration, and elaborate use of leitmotifs – musical phrases associated with individual characters, places, ideas, or plot elements. This approach has been hugely influential on 20th and 21st century film scores where it is used to highlight important characters or situations, enhancing the effect upon the audience.
He made a major contribution to the principles and practice of conducting seeing it as a means of reinterpretation, rather than a method for achieving orchestral unison. His conducting style was very flexible and included the rewriting of scores – an interpretative approach that inspired a new generation of conductors.
Many people know Wagner’s music without realising it, since he was the composer of the very famous ‘Here Comes The Bride’ tune played at weddings, which comes from his opera Lohengrin.
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