The Magazine

Listen to Wagner

A bicentennial sense of his life and work.

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By PAUL A. CANTOR
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This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), arguably the greatest of all opera composers. (Mozart and Verdi fans: Please note the “arguably.”) Accordingly, the Wagner industry, active enough in off years, has kicked into high gear. The major recording companies have issued large boxes of commemorative CD collections, with varying degrees of completeness. Deutsche Grammophon is the current champion, with a bargain set that includes the 10 canonical operas, plus the early and rarely performed Die Feen (The Fairies), Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), and Rienzi. Opera houses around the world have been offering major productions of Wagner works throughout the year.

‘Die Walküre’ in rehearsal at the Bayreuth Festival, 2009

‘Die Walküre’ in rehearsal at the Bayreuth Festival, 2009

AP Photo / Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Enrico Nawrath

To cite just one example: Zurich conducted a Wagner festival that ran from June 14 to July 14. The Swiss city provided refuge to Wagner when he was exiled from German lands, and he wrote some of his best-known operas while living there. So Zurich went all-out to honor its adopted son: The festival featured Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), with Bryn Terfel in the title role, as well as numerous films, panel discussions, and lectures on the composer’s life and works. No less than Nike Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter, opened the festivities.

I was off hiking in the Bernese Alps during some of these events, but I did manage to catch the “Valkyries Over Zurich” exhibition at the city’s art museum, an impressive display of stage designs, posters, and other memorabilia selected from 150 years of Wagner productions at the local opera house. The fact that even the sober Swiss went ga-ga over Wagner is a good measure of how his bicentenary has captured the world’s imagination.

Musical scholarship has been doing its part to commemorate this milestone anniversary. And American readers should welcome the publication of this major new work of Wagner scholarship: Stewart Spencer’s translation of Richard Wagner: Biographie (2012) by the distinguished German musicologist Martin Geck. As an editor of Wagner’s Complete Works, Geck brings a deep familiarity with the composer to his task. He seems to have read everything Wagner ever wrote and, what is more, a substantial portion of everything that has ever been written about Wagner.

Geck is thus able to document his claims about Wagner’s life and works with apt quotations, often drawn from obscure corners of the composer’s correspondence and recorded conversations. He makes effective use of commentary by other musicologists and by Wagner’s profoundest critics—fellow geniuses such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, Charles Baudelaire, and Marcel Proust. The result is a multifaceted investigation of Wagner’s achievement as the supreme master of music drama.

In a sweeping narrative, Geck shows that Richard Wagner’s works are, broadly speaking, autobiographical in nature. In opera after opera, Wagner pursues his personal obsession with the problem of redemption. His typical hero is a man outcast from society for some transgression, or simply set apart by his superiority. Condemned to a life of wandering, or otherwise unable to fit into conventional society, the Wagnerian hero can be saved only by the love of a woman willing to devote herself to him unconditionally. (In the case of Lohengrin and his beloved Elsa, who is forbidden to inquire into his identity, it is literally a “no questions asked” situation.)

As Geck shows, Wagner projected much of himself onto these heroes, drawing upon the Romantic archetype of the artist-as-solitary-genius who is rejected by an uncomprehending public and seeks sympathy from a small circle of devotees (preferably female, in Wagner’s case). In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers from Nuremberg), Wagner’s only mature comic opera, he creates a fantasy world in which the revolutionary artist (represented by the singer-poet Walther von Stolzing) is eventually accepted by the artistically conservative community and, in the end, even wins the girl (Eva) as his bride.

Most of Wagner’s operas end tragically, however, with the lovers forced to part—or united only in death, the famous Liebestod (“love-death”) that captivated Wagner’s imagination from his first mature opera, Der fliegende Holländer, to his best-known love story, Tristan und Isolde. Wagner’s grandest creation, the four-opera cycle called Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), is dominated by the love-death idea in the tragic stories of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) and of Siegfried and Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods).