Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

6.16: Music of Richard Wagner

  • Page ID
    54798
  • If Verdi continued the long tradition of Italian opera, Richard Wagner provided a new path for German opera. Wagner (1813-1883) may well have been the most influential European composer of the second half of the nineteenth century. Never shy about self-promotion, Wagner himself clearly thought so. Wagner’s influence was both musical and literary. His dissonant and chromatic harmonic experiments even influenced the French, whose music belies their many verbal denouncements of Wagner and his music. His essays about music and autobiographical accounts of his musical experiences were widely followed by nineteenth-century individuals, from the average bourgeois music enthusiast to philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche. Most disturbingly, Wagner was rabidly anti-Semitic, and generations later his writing and music provided propaganda for the Nazi Third Reich.

    Born in Leipzig, Germany, Wagner initially wanted to be a playwright like Goethe, until as a teenager he heard the music of Beethoven and decided to become a composer instead. He was particularly taken by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the addition of voices as performing forces into the symphony, a type of composition traditionally written for orchestra. Seeing in this work an acknowledgement of the powers of vocal music, Wagner set about writing vocal music. Coming to age during a time of rising nationalism, Wagner criticized Italian opera as consisting of cheap melodies and insipid orchestration unconnected to its dramatic purposes, and he set about providing a German alternative. He called his operas music dramas in order to emphasize a unity of text, music, and action; and declared that they would be Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total works of art.” As part of his program, he wrote his own librettos and aimed for what he called unending melody: the idea was for a constant lyricism, carried as much by the orchestra as by the singers.

    Perhaps most importantly, Wagner developed a system of what scholars have come to call Leitmotivs. Leitmotivs, or “guiding motives,” are musical motives that are associated with a specific character, theme, or locale in a drama. Wagner integrated these musical motives in the vocal lines and orchestration of his music dramas at many points. Wagner believed in the flexibility of such motives to reinforce an overall sense of unity within his compositions, even if primarily at a subconscious level. Thus, while a character might be singing a melody line using one leitmotiv, the orchestration might incorporate a different leitmotiv, suggesting a connection between the referenced entities.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 11.54.23 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Richard Wagner by Cäsar Willich. Source: Wikimedia

    Wagner also designed and built a theatre for the performance of his own music dramas. The Festival Theatre in Bayreuth, Germany was the first to use a sunken orchestra pit, and its huge backstage area allowed for some of the most elaborate sets of Wagner’s day. It was here that his famous cycle of music dramas, The Ring of the Nibelungen, was performed, starting in 1876. The Ring of the Nibelungen consists of four music dramas with over fifteen hours of music. Wagner took the story from a Nordic mythological legend that stems back to the Middle Ages. In it, a piece of gold is stolen from the Rhine River and fashioned into a ring, which gives its bearer ultimate power. The cursed ring changes hands, causing destruction around who- ever possesses it. Eventually the ring is returned to the Rhine River, thereby closing the cycle. Into that story, which some may recognize from the much later fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Wagner interwove stories of the Norse gods and men. Wagner’s four music dramas trace the saga of the king of the gods, Wotan, as he builds Valhalla, the home of the gods, and attempts to order the lives of his children, including that of his daughter, the valkyrie warrior Brünnhilde.

    Focus Composition:

    Conclusion to The Valkyrie (1876)

    In the excerpt we’ll watch from the end of The Valkyrie, the second of the four music dramas, Brünnhilde has gone against her father, and, because Wotan cannot bring himself to kill her, he puts her to sleep before encircling her with flames, a fiery ring that both imprisons and protects his daughter. This excerpt provides several examples of the Leitmotivs for which Wagner is so famous. Their presence, often subtle, is designed to guide the audience through the drama. They include melodies, harmonies, and textures that represent Wotan’s spear, the god Loge—a shape shifting life force that here takes the form of fire—sleep, the magic sword, and fate. The sounds of these motives is discussed briefly below and accompanied by excerpts from the musical score for those of you who can read musical notation.

    The first motive heard in the video you will watch is Wotan’s Spear. The spear represents Wotan’s power. In this scene, Wotan is pointing it toward his daughter Brünnhilde, ready to conjure the ring of fire that will both imprison and protect here. Representing a symbol of power, the spear motive is played at a forte dynamic by the lower brass. Here it descends in a minor scale that reinforces the seriousness of Wotan’s actions.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 11.56.46 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Wotan's Spear

    Wotan commands Loge to appear and suddenly the music breaks out in a completely different style. Loge’s music—sometimes also referred to as the magic fire music—is in a major key and appears in upper woodwinds such as the flutes. Its notes move quickly with staccato articulations suggesting Loge’s free spirit and shifting shapes.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 11.57.10 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Loge’s Music (aka The Magic Fire Music)

    Depicting Brünnhilde’s descent into sleep, Wagner wrote a chromatic musical line that starts high and slowly moves downward. We call this phrase the Sleep motive:

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 11.57.34 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Sleep

    After casting his spell, Wotan warns anyone who is listening that whoever would dare to trespass the ring of fire will have to face his spear. As the drama unfolds in the next opera of the tetralogy, one character will do just that: Siegfried, Wotan’s own grandson. He will release Brünnhilde using a magic sword. The melody to which Wotan sings his warning with its wide leaps and overall disjunct motion sounds a little bit like the motive representing Siegfried’s sword.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 11.57.53 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Siegfried's Sword

    One final motive is prominent at the end of The Vakyrie, a motive which is referred to as Fate. It appears in the horns and features three notes: a sustained pitch that slips down just one step and then rises the small interval of a minor third to another sustained pitch.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-25 at 12.03.51 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Wotan’s Warning (subtly alluding to Siegfried’s sword)
    Screen Shot 2020-06-25 at 12.09.43 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Fate (the motive starts in the second measure of the excerpt)

    Now that you’ve been introduced to all of the leitmotivs in the excerpt, follow along with the listening guide. As you listen, notice how prominent the huge orchestra is throughout the scene, how it provides the melodies, and how the strong and large voice of the bass-baritone singing Wotan soars over the top of the orchestra (Wagner’s music required larger voices than earlier opera as well as new singing techniques). See if you can hear the Leitmotivs, there to absorb you in the drama. Remember that this is just one short scene from the midpoint of the approximately fifteen-hour-long tetralogy.

    Listening Guide

    For audio, go to:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tDP-K1dQ-M

    Performed by Donald McIntyre (Wotan) and Gwyneth Jones (Brünnhilde), accompanied by the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez (19746), starting at 13:53

    Composer: Richard Wagner
    Composition: The Valkyries, Final scene: Wotan’s Farewell
    Date: 1870
    Genre: music drama (or nineteenth-century German opera)
    Form: through-composed, using Leitmotivs

    Nature of Text:

    (He looks upon her and closes her helmet: his eyes then rest on the form of the sleeper, which he now completely covers with the great steel shield of the Valkyrie. He turns slowly away, then again turns around with a sorrowful look.)

    (He strides with solemn decision to the middle of the stage and directs the point of his spear toward a large rock.)
    Loge, hear! List to my word!
    As I found thee of old, a glimmering flame,

    as from me thou didst vanish,
    in wandering fire;
    as once I stayed thee, stir I thee now! Appear! come, waving fire,
    and wind thee in flames round the fell!

    (During the following he strikes the rock thrice with his spear.)

    Loge! Loge! appear!

    (A flash of flame issues from the rock, which swells to an ever-brightening fiery glow.)
    (Flickering flames break forth.)

    (Bright shooting flames surround Wotan. With his spear he directs the sea of fire to encircle the rocks; it presently spreads toward the background, where it encloses the mountain in flames.)

    He who my spearpoint’s sharpness feareth shall cross not the flaming fire!

    (He stretches out the spear as a spell. He gazes sorrowfully back on Brünnhilde. Slowly he turns to depart. He turns his head again and looks back. He disappears through the fire.)

    (The curtain falls.)

    Wagner, Richard. Die Walküre. [English Transl. By Frederick Jameson; Version Française Par Alfred Eernst]. Leipzig: Eulenburg, 1900. Print. Eulenburgs kleine Partitur-Ausgabe.

    Performing Forces: Bass-baritone Wotan, large orchestra

    What we want you to remember about this composition:

    • It uses Leitmotivs
    • The orchestra provides an “unending melody” over which the characters sing

    Other things to listen for:

    Listen for the specific Leitmotives

    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Texture Leitmotiv and Form
    13:53 Descending melodic line played in octaves by the lower brass Wotan’s spear: Just the orchestra

    14:06

    Wotan sings a motivic phrase that ascends; the orchestra ascends, too, supporting his melodic line

    Löge, hör! Lausche hieher! Wie zuerst ich dich fand, als feurige Glut, wie dann einst du mir schwandest, als schweifende Lohe; wie ich dich band

    14:29

    Trills in the strings and a rising chromatic scale introduce Wotan’s striking of his spear and producing fire introducing the . . .

    Fire music:
    Herauf, wabernde Loge, umlo- dre mir feurig den Fels! Loge! Loge! Hieher!

    14:29

    Appears as Wotan transitions to new words still in the lower brass

    Spear again:
    Bann ich dich heut’!

    15:03

    fire music played by the upper woodwinds (flutes, oboes, and clarinets).

    Fire music:
    Just the orchestra

    15:36

    Slower, descending chromatic scale in the winds represents Brünnhilde’s descent into sleep

    Sleep:
    Just the orchestra

    16:04

    As Wotan sings again, his melodic line seems to allude to the sword motive, doubled by the horns and supported by a full orchestra.

    Sword motive:
    Wer meines Speeres Spitze fürchtet, durchschreite das Feuer nie!

    16:31

    Lower brass prominently play the sword motive while the strings and upper woodwinds play motives from the fire music; a gradual decrescendo

    Sword motive; fire music continues:
    Just the orchestra

    17:42

    The horns and trombones play the narrow-raged fate melody as the curtain closes

    Fate motive:
    Just the orchestra

    • Was this article helpful?