Richard Wagner

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Wilhelm Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 to 13 February 1883) was a German composer, theatre director, polemicist, and conductor who is chiefly known for his operas (or, as some of his later works were later known, "music dramas"). Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works in the romantic vein of Carl Maria von Weber and Giacomo Meyerbeer, Wagner revolutionised opera through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk ("total work of art"), by which he sought to synthesise the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, with music subsidiary to drama. He described this vision in a series of essays published between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realised these ideas most fully in the first half of the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).[1]

Compositions and influence

Wagner's compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex textures, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs — musical phrases associated with individual characters, places, ideas, or plot elements. His advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonality, greatly influenced the development of classical music. His Tristan und Isolde is sometimes described as marking the start of modern music.

Wagner had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which embodied many novel design features. The Ring and Parsifal were premiered here and his most important stage works continue to be performed at the annual Bayreuth Festival, run by his descendants. His thoughts on the relative contributions of music and drama in opera were to change again, and he reintroduced some traditional forms into his last few stage works, including Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg).

Until his final years, Wagner's life was characterised by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors. His controversial writings on music, drama and politics have attracted extensive comment, notably, since the late 20th century, where they express antisemitic sentiments. The effect of his ideas can be traced in many of the arts throughout the 20th century; his influence spread beyond composition into conducting, philosophy, literature, the visual arts and theatre.

Nazi appropriation

Adolf Hitler was an admirer of Wagner's music and saw in his operas an embodiment of his own vision of the German nation; in a 1922 speech he claimed that Wagner's works glorified "the heroic Teutonic nature ... Greatness lies in the heroic."[2] Hitler visited Bayreuth frequently from 1923 onwards and attended the productions at the theatre.[3] There continues to be debate about the extent to which Wagner's views might have influenced Nazi thinking. The claim that Hitler, in his maturity, commented that "it [i.e. his political career] all began" after seeing a performance of Rienzi in his youth, has been disproved.[4] Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855–1927), who married Wagner's daughter Eva in 1908 but never met Wagner, was the author of the racist book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, approved by the Nazi movement.[5] Chamberlain met Hitler on a number of occasions between 1923 and 1927 in Bayreuth, but cannot credibly be regarded as a conduit of Wagner's own views.[6] The Nazis used those parts of Wagner's thought that were useful for propaganda and ignored or suppressed the rest.[7]

While Bayreuth presented a useful front for Nazi culture, and Wagner's music was used at many Nazi events,[8] the Nazi hierarchy as a whole did not share Hitler's enthusiasm for Wagner's operas and resented attending these lengthy epics at Hitler's insistence.[9]

Guido Fackler has researched evidence that indicates that it is possible that Wagner's music was used at the Dachau concentration camp in 1933–34 to "reeducate" political prisoners by exposure to "national music".[10] There has been no evidence to support claims, sometimes made,[11] that his music was played at Nazi death camps during the Second World War, and Pamela Potter has noted that Wagner's music was explicitly off-limits in the camps. (See e.g. John (2004) for a detailed essay on music in the Nazi death camps, which nowhere mentions Wagner. See also Potter (2008) 244: "We know from testimonies that concentration camp orchestras played [all sorts of] music ... but that Wagner was explicitly off-limits. However, after the war, unsubstantiated claims that Wagner's music accompanied Jews to their death took on momentum.")

Because of the associations of Wagner with antisemitism and Nazism, the performance of his music in the State of Israel has been a source of controversy.[12]

Richard and Adolf

Retired South African High court Judge Christopher Nicholson wrote a book entitled "Richard and Adolf: Did Richard Wagner Incite Adolf Hitler to Commit the Holocaust?" in 2007 in which Nicholson investigated the degree to which Richard Wagner's anti-semitic views might have influenced Adolf Hitler.[13]


References

  1. "Richard". Duden. Retrieved 24 May 2018.Page Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css must have content model "Sanitized CSS" for TemplateStyles (current model is "plain text").
  2. Cited in Spotts (1994) 141
  3. Spotts (1994) 140–98
  4. See Karlsson (2012) 35–52.
  5. Carr (2007) 108–9
  6. Carr (2007) 109–10. See also Field (1981).
  7. See Potter (2008) "passim".
  8. Calico (2002) 200–1; Grey (2002) 93–4
  9. Carr (2007) 184
  10. Fackler (2007). See also the Music and the Holocaust website.
  11. E.g. in Walsh (1992).
  12. See Bruen (1993).
  13. "Richard and Adolf: Did Richard Wagner Incite Adolf Hitler to Commit the Holocaust? – Editorial Reviews". Amazon books. Retrieved 8 December 2010.Page Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css must have content model "Sanitized CSS" for TemplateStyles (current model is "plain text").
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