Either you like Wagner, or you don’t. That about sums it up. Wagnerian Opera represents the highest form of art as a synthesis of music and drama. For others, it’s just fat people shouting at each other in German for what seems like an eternity. Rossini is quoted as saying, “Wagner has good moments, but bad quarter hours.”
As a boy, Wagner could be troublesome at times. Every couple of nights, he would wake up screaming at the top of his lungs just to let everyone know that he was still around ( at bit like my 16 year old, mostly blind cattle dog). Wagner enrolled at the University of Leipzig, where he majored in drinking and gambling. He didn’t last long at University once he discovered they expected him to attend classes.
The first performance of a Wagner opera took place in Magdeburg in 1836. Das Liebesverbot, based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, was not a rousing success. There were barely two performances. There were barely two performances. On the first night, the leading tenor forgot most of his lines and hid behind a big feather boa, hoping that might help. The second night never really got off the ground at all. The leading soprano’s jealous husband went backstage an punched the second tenor in the nose. When she tried to stop her husband, her hit her too and she fainted.
Wagner’s attitude to marriage was, shall we say, less than exemplary. There always seemed to be some woman whom he found more interesting, for a while at least, than his wife, Minna. Wagner definitely let success to go his head. Most of his final opera, Parsifal, was composed after hours of soaking in a hot tub full of perfume. He was particularly fond of a “pale and delicate shade of pink”. Let’s give the last word to Friedrich Nietzsche: “Is Wagner a human being at all? Is he not rather a disease?”.
Wagner is often credited with inventing leitmotifs – melodies associated with specific characters, events, or themes that can be used to program the audience with subconscious triggers. It’s hard to imagine what film soundtracks would sound like without them. Imagine Star Wars without the Imperial March. The Imperial March, that (transparently Wagnerian) melody triggers fans’ memories of the character’s entire story arc. After you’ve seen the trilogy a few dozen (or hundred) times, the melody recalls, all at once, a powerful monstrous shape and a satanic tempter and a wounded, dying father—invincibility and insidiousness and tragic vulnerability—which gives a depth and complexity to Darth Vader’s scenes that would not otherwise be present.
The thing is, he didn’t invent them —they were already in use by the time he came on the scene—but he was the first composer to use them extensively, and he was the first composer of prominence to make leitmotifs central to his work.