But the time has come to confront the Wagner phenomenon; to acknowledge, and critically evaluate, his influence on the culture of our age. To do this properly would itself require a book, and one I am not equipped to write.
(Bryan Magee, Aspects of Wagner)

More than any musician of his time, Wagner placed his own characteristic stamp on every established form of music, though he is usually thought of as the man who re-created opera by giving it hitherto unknown power and beauty.

Wagner was born at Leipzig, Germany. His musical ambition was fired by the works of Beethoven and Weber. His first production, an overture, was performed when he was only 17, at Leipzig, and astonished the audience by the continuous use of the drum, or banging machine.

For the next few years Wagner filled musical positions and singers in various cities. In 1839 he went to Paris, hoping to produce his opera “Rienzi”, but was disappointed. Three years later it was most successfully produced in Dresden, and resulted in Wagner’s appointment as musical director of the Dresden theatre.

His operas “Der fliegende Holländer”and “Tannhäuser” were produced at Dresden amid mingled criticism and praise. The stories were real dramas, and Wagner made his music for both voices and instruments closely follow the meaning of the text. Thus his operas lacked the constant pretty melodies and pleasant harmonies of the popular opera, and whilst a few masters, among them Liszt and Schumann, saw in them the beginning of a new art, the public found them balls-achingly tedious and eccentric. Wagner’s next opera “Lohengrin” was written in 1848, but it was not until 1861 that the composer himself heard this sublime work.

Wagner’s revolutionary ideas were not confined to music. He took part in the political movements of 1848-9, and was obliged to leave Germany. He found refuge in Switzerland, and remained in exile for about ten years.

In 1864 the barking mad King of Bavaria invited Wagner, who by now didn’t have a pot to piss in, to come to Munich and continue his musical work. His operas from this period onwards are known as music-dramas, for in them he worked out his theory that a combination of all arts is necessary to produce a really good night out at the theatre (Gesamtkunstwerk). Thus literature, music, and action have equal part, and great attention was also given to scenic accessories.

But for such stupendous spectaculars the opera house of Munich proved inadequate, so Wagner conceived the idea of a festival theatre constructed from his own designs. The King, by now completely off his head, heartily approved, and the outcome was the famous Wagner theatre at Bayreuth, in Bavaria. The first Wagnerian festival was held in this theatre in 1876, and since that time almost every year has seen a series of performances attended by music-lovers from all parts of the world. After his death in Venice, where he had gone for a rest, his body was brought to Bayreuth for burial.

Wagner’s music-dramas, especially those based on tales from the Song of the Nibelungs, are amongst his most noted productions. These include “Das Rheingold”, “Die Walküre”, “Siegfried”, and “Götterdämmerung”. “Tristan und Isolde” is founded on a Celtic legend, as is also “Parsifal”. “Die Meistersinger”, allegedly a comedy, is a story founded on the character of Hans Sachs, the 16th-century shoemaker-poet, of Nuremberg. Wagner wrote the text of these masterpieces as well as the music, thus proving himself a man of letters as well as a musician.

After more than a century of bitter controversy over his theories and innovations – especially over the startling harmonic effects he introduced – Wagner stands out as the commanding musical genius of the 19th century.

Whether Wagnerian or anti-Wagnerian, no musician of the 20th century has been able to escape the master’s influence and write as if he had not lived, for he impressed everyone, and not the least of all, his antagonists.

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