Back To CourseMusic 101: Help and Review
11 chapters | 355 lessons
Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.
George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, wasn't the first person to begin writing a story only to realize he was starting in the middle. After completing the original Star Wars trilogy he wrote the prequel trilogy and eventually a sequel trilogy.
Over a century earlier, German composer Richard Wagner had composed a huge four-part drama cycle about widespread corruption and a young hero who would bring redemption. After outlining the initial installment, Wagner realized the need for a preliminary story to help explain events in the first segment. Unlike Lucas, Wagner continued working 'backwards' over several years writing two more prequels to eventually tie his story together. It then took another 20 years to set it all to music. During that period he designed and had built a special theater in which to present his monumental tetralogy, along with writing two other separate operas.
Six months after his birth in 1813, Wagner's father died and his mother soon remarried. Wagner's step-father died eight years later. During this time Wagner received piano instruction, and he began writing poetry and plays. A few years later, Wagner's mother moved to Leipzig and the young Richard began formal study in music composition at age 15. His early works were mostly for piano but also included an overture and a symphony. Wagner was 19 when he made his debut as an orchestral conductor.
Wagner completed his first opera (The Fairies) in 1834 at age 21. That same year he made his debut as an opera conductor. By 1836 he had written a second opera and married. The following year he took an opera conducting position in Riga. Two years later he and his wife settled in Paris. In late 1840 Wagner completed his third opera Rienzi which was his first huge success. Several more operas followed: The Flying Dutchman (1841), Tannhauser (1845) and Lohengrin (1848). After completing Lohengrin, Wagner took the next four years to outline the four dramas that would eventually become the tetralogy known as The Ring Cycle.
Earlier, in 1842, Wagner went to Dresden for the premiere of Rienzi and accepted an offer to be co-music director at the Dresden court. This was a stable period for him and he began thinking about opera in a new way, something he eventually called Gesamtkunstwerk--an all-inclusive art form meant to be a synthesis of music, poetry, drama, philosophy, religion and visual spectacle.
Wagner was already writing the libretto (opera script). In composing, he wanted the music to flow continuously and be symphonic. He also wanted the voices to be more declamatory and be part of the orchestral texture. In addition, Wagner developed the idea of a Leitmotif or brief musical 'name tags' that could be associated with various characters, settings or landscapes, particular objects such as a sword or fire, and even represent ideas and emotions. In what would be very long productions, these Leitmotifs would help listeners make the necessary connections of past events with those currently being portrayed. Wagner eventually came to identify this new art form as music drama.
The Ring Cycle is a complex plot which includes gods, giants, dwarves and nymphs drawn from Norse mythology, along with humans. They all struggle for world power through possession of a ring made from Rhine gold. A curse has been placed on the ring. Returning the ring to the Rhine River brings redemption. Like the Luke Skywalker character in Star Wars, Wagner's young hero was Siegfried. After spending four years writing the stories for his four-drama cycle, Wagner began composing the music in 1853.
Even though the stories were written in reverse, Wagner composed for them in narrative order over the next twenty years. The first installment was The Rhinegold completed in 1854 and the next segment (The Valkyrie) was finished in 1856. He began the third part (Siegfried) but stopped for several years to write Tristan and Isolde (1859) and The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (1867). These two productions were not part of The Ring Cycle.
In early 1869 Wagner went back to work on Siegfried and also began raising funds to build a festival theater in Bayreuth to produce The Ring Cycle. Wagner was able to find patronage in King Ludwig II for the theater and the festival. Wagner completed Siegfried in 1871 and in 1874 the final drama (The Twilight of the Gods) was finished. Rehearsals for the entire cycle began in 1876 at the newly completed festival theater. When finally presented they took about 15 hours and were performed over four evenings. Wagner had complete artistic control. He had written the libretto and the music. He also directed the actors and designed the sets.
The score calls for a huge orchestra and Wagner even invented a new instrument to be used called the Wagner tuba that is a hybrid of a French horn and a tuba. He called for specific variations in existing instruments and expanded every section of the orchestra. Most orchestras of the day used one or two harps; Wagner included six of them. (Fun facts: The Rhinegold requires 18 anvils to be played on stage. 'The Ride of the Valkyries' music from the second drama was used to accompany the famous helicopter attack scene in the 1979 film, Apocalypse Now.)
Earlier, in 1866, Wagner's wife had died. He remarried in 1870. The second wife was Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt. Cosima was recently divorced from famous conductor Hans von Bulow. Wagner was 24 years older than Cosima.
Wagner's final project was Parsifal which premiered in 1882. He died the following year and was buried in Bayreuth. Cosima went on to direct the Bayreuth Festival for more than 20 years. She lived until 1930. The Bayreuth Festival is still active today and attendees must sometimes order tickets several years in advance.
Richard Wagner is best remembered for bringing opera to a new level he called music drama. His approach called Gesamtkunstwerk was a synthesis of music, poetry, drama and visual spectacle. By writing the libretto and music, directing, designing sets, conducting and even building a special theater, Wagner had complete artistic control. He also developed musical nametags called Leitmotifs to help audiences identify and associate important aspects in the very long stories. His monumental tetralogy The Ring Cycle totals 15 hours of music presented over four evenings.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Already a member? Log InBack
Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.
To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page
Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.
Back To CourseMusic 101: Help and Review
11 chapters | 355 lessons
Next LessonRigoletto: Synopsis, Composer & Music