Richard Wagner



Richard Wagner was a giant of German opera. He loved the power of brass instruments, and like a trombone he blasted his way into the world of music!

His greatest achievement was The Ring of the Nibelung, a series of four, very long operas: they tell an epic story about a ring, which gives the person wearing it the power to rule the world. Does that sound familiar? It is a kind of Lord of the Rings of the 19th century! These operas (which he called ‘music dramas’) were so elaborate that Wagner built his own theatre, called the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, so that there would be space for the enormous orchestra and stage that he needed. He got the ‘Mad King’ Ludwig of Bavaria to help pay for it.

Wagner wrote what he called Gesamtkunstwerk. It means ‘total work of art’, with music, poetry, dance, staging, lighting and costumes all equally important. In Wagner’s view, they should combine to give an overwhelming experience. Another German word you should know if you listen to Wagner is ‘leitmotif’. A leitmotif is a short bit of music that represents a character, a place, or an idea. By using the right leitmotifs, the music helps to tell the story. Wagner used them all through his operas, combining them in clever ways. You can even hear leitmotifs in film scores today.

Wagner was not shy in expressing his opinions. He had some unpleasant views on Jewish people, even though he had many Jewish friends, colleagues and supporters. He also supported the idea of a social revolution, which got him into so much trouble that he had to flee to Switzerland for 12 years.

But it is his music that speaks to people, not his opinions. His most important opera outside the Ring cycle was Tristan and Isolde. Some people call it the beginning of modern music because he did things with harmony and orchestration that no one had ever done before – and this influenced other composers. In Wagner’s hands, Romantic opera and the whole language of music took a giant leap forward.

Richard Wagner, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Listen to some Wagner below…

Die Walküre (‘The Valkyrie’): Ride of the Valkyries

The ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ comes from Act III of Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. It is often performed with just instruments and no singers, as it is here. Its great galloping tune and sense of excitement have made it one of the most popular pieces by Wagner.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Uwe Mund

Taken from Naxos 8.556657

Siegfried Idyll

This is not the loud brassy kind of Wagner, but the soft and beautiful kind. It was a birthday present! Wagner composed it for his second wife, Cosima, shortly after she had given birth to their son, Siegfried. It is one of the few non-operatic works by Wagner, and seems full of love.

Performers: MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra; Jun Märkl

Taken from Naxos 8.573414

Lohengrin: Bridal Chorus

This is a chorus from Wagner’s opera Lohengrin: it has been played on the organ at many weddings all over the world. You might even recognize it? It is sometimes known as ‘Here comes the bride’. In the opera, it is sung by the women of the wedding party after the ceremony.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Chorus; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Johannes Wildner

Taken from Naxos 8.550507

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 In which Wagner opera does someone fall in love after drinking a love potion?

a. Tannhäuser
b. Tristan and Isolde
c. Parsifal

 In which Wagner opera does a sailor have to travel the world for ever?

a. The Flying Dutchman
b. Rienzi
c. The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

 Wagner wrote a massive set of four operas about an object which gives its owner great powers. What was the object?

a. A magic wand
b. A ring
c. An invisibility cloak

 Wagner’s family continue to run which famous opera house where his operas are performed each year?

a. La Scala, Milan
b. The Royal Opera House
c. Bayreuth Festspielhaus

 Wagner married Liszt’s daughter. She became one of his greatest champions. What was her name?

a. Mary
b. Cosima
c. Kylie

Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Wagner was a conductor as well as a composer, and he wrote his own libretti for his operas (the words that are sung).
  2. King Ludwig II of Bavaria idolised Wagner and gave him lots of money. He helped to pay for his opera house at Bayreuth.
  3. Wagner was friends with the composer Franz Liszt, and he married Liszt’s daughter Cosima.
  4. Wagner didn’t follow the crowd: he called many of his operas ‘music dramas’, his libretti ‘poems’, and he invented his own brass instrument called the ‘Wagner tuba’.
  5. Wagner’s ‘Tristan’ chord – a chord that he uses in Tristan and Isolde – challenged traditional harmony, and made other composers open their eyes to all kinds of new possibilities.


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Opera Overtures and Preludes

Der fliegende Holländer (‘The Flying Dutchman’): Overture

The overture to Der fliegende Hollander (‘The Flying Dutchman’) is often played as a separate concert piece. Wagner started writing the opera after a stormy sea-crossing to England in 1839. The overture conjures up the plot, about a ghost-captain being condemned to sail the seas forever unless he can find a woman’s love. Luckily for him, a woman called Senta falls for him, and ends up drowning herself in the sea: the opera ends with Senta and the Dutchman rising up to heaven. So there is plenty of action! Listen to the horns come in at 0.03 with the grand tune – then it’s trombones at 0.12. Wagner loved brass instruments and used the full force of them to fill his operas with drama.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550136

Tannhäuser: Overture

The overture to the opera Tannhäuser is often played on its own in concerts. It is an invigorating piece, full of dramatic chords, shimmering sections and broad themes. Tannhäuser is a wandering singer who must be redeemed by the love of a woman. Just listen to the theme blasted out by the trombones, horns and tuba at 2.14, with the timpani roll at 2.49: classic, thrilling Wagner!

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550136

Lohengrin: Prelude

The prelude to Lohengrin pours out music ‘like streams of gold, ravishing the senses of the beholder’ – as Wagner said. The music shimmers right from the beginning, with violins playing tightly knit chords up high. The opera involves Lohengrin, a mysterious knight, offering to be Elsa’s champion in a fight. It’s a complicated story, with swans and the Holy Grail involved. The opera was first performed in 1850.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550136

Tristan und Isolde (‘Tristan and Isolde’): Act I. Prelude

At the start of this Prelude is one very famous chord (notes played together), now known as the ‘Tristan’ chord. It happens at 0.15. How on earth could a chord become famous and get a name? Well, at the time, this one chord – the collection of notes that Wagner uses together – was groundbreaking. Before this, there were rules for harmony, and music was expected to follow them: it would use certain chords, and the chords could be labelled. This made sure that the music was ‘in a key’, which anchored it for our ears: it could travel away from the anchor but not too far, and it would always come back. But this new chord couldn’t be labelled. There is no key-centre, no anchor. What was Wagner doing? He had created an alien in music! Suddenly it was all about the raw sound: the effect of harmony was more important than how it ordered the music. This ‘Tristan’ chord was a big moment: composers’ seatbelts came off, and they began to put all sorts of ‘chromatic’ notes into their chords – notes that spice up the harmony. Listen to the effect it has here: it introduces a kind of yearning, sighing quality. It is unsettling, and although it drops onto something a bit more comfortable at 0.21, we are still in a weird place – a bit lost and disorientated. That is perfect for the story, which is about the strong, unending but impossible love between Tristan and Isolde. Listen to the whole Prelude and you will hear this passionate love expressed in music of great beauty.

Performers: Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra; Leif Segerstam

Taken from Naxos 8.660152-54

Tristan und Isolde (‘Tristan and Isolde’): Act III. Prelude

Wagner’s operas are so big that they have orchestral preludes not only at the very start but in the middle, too. This is the Prelude to Act III, about two hours into the opera. At this point, things are not going well for anyone, especially Tristan – the hero of the opera – who has been seriously wounded. Can you hear the tragedy in the music? The beginning is one of the most extraordinary, powerful few seconds in music: the many string instruments of the orchestra begin with a low sound, on a chord that seems to be holding its breath: then it breathes out (0.08), sinking – plunging – right into the ground, as if the life has gone out of it. But then it takes another breath (0.12). Its deep, aching sound seems to conjure up something both powerful and lifeless at the same time. After the second ‘breath’ it floats up and up in the violins, disappearing before the horns rescue it. Back it comes at 1.23 – where it seems even stronger. Unfortunately the end cuts off here because it then goes non-stop into the action of Act III. Wagner didn’t have breaks between sections!

Performers: Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra; Leif Segerstam

Taken from Naxos 8.660152-54

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (‘The Mastersingers of Nuremberg’): Overture

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (‘The Mastersingers of Nuremberg’) is the only comedy among Wagner’s later operas (he wrote an early one but it flopped – he decided it was an embarrassment and he’d rather forget it!). It is set in Nuremberg in the mid-16th century, and centres on the city’s ‘Master Singers’ – craftsmen in various trades who are also amateur singers and poets. This overture sets off the whole thing in a grand and satisfying way, with the brass section sounding important – just as Wagner liked it! The whole opera lasts about four and a half hours.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.556657

Rienzi: Overture

Rienzi was first performed in 1842: it is an early work, before Wagner got radical. It is much more straight-forward than his more famous operas, without their challenging harmony and complicated ideas. It is possible to hear hints of his later music (listen at 2.55 to the brass tune, and then at 3.04 to the chirping violins). But then listen at 6.11: it is sunny and bright, and with its straight-forward rhythms, energy and cheerfulness it sounds more like something by Rossini, or Meyerbeer – an earlier German opera composer whose music had an influence on the young Wagner.

Performers: Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.557055


Tristan und Isolde (‘Tristan and Isolde’) (extracts)

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is one of the best-ever Romantic operas. Wagner actually called it a ‘music drama’ rather than an ‘opera’, because he wanted to make it clear that all parts of it – music, movement, costume, set design, words – were equally important. He wrote the libretto (the words) himself: it is based on a medieval legend. Isolde is in love with Tristan, and – partly thanks to a love potion – he is in love with her too. But Tristan is promised to King Marke. So it’s all a bit complicated, and doomed to failure. In Act II Scene 1, after the orchestral prelude has set the scene (track 1), Isolde and her maid Brangäne are standing in the garden of Isolde’s home. Brangäne is trying to warn Isolde of the danger of loving Tristan, but Isolde doesn’t pay any attention to what she says; she signals for Tristan to come and find her by turning her torch off – a signal they agreed on earlier (track 2). In Scene 2, Tristan comes rushing to her. They sing together of their love, and of how wonderful night-time is because it is dark and they can be together without anyone seeing them (tracks 3 and 4). Brangäne sings out to warn them that daytime will come and they need to be careful (track 5). But they carry on (tracks 6–8). Listen to their duet at 1.50 in track 3, with the soprano’s outburst at 1.58 on ‘O heart’s rapture’! They’re clearly excited to be in each other’s company. What follows is a mixture of tender and dramatic, quiet and loud, thoughtful and wild. Track 8 is a great example of truly Romantic opera: this is not a delicate little duet but a wildly passionate one, with the two characters wrapped around in each other’s arms and each other’s music! Track 9 is included only to give the ending of the duet: Wagner’s music carries on non-stop, so the end of track 8 cuts off the very final chord. Track 9 begins Scene 3, in which Tristan is wounded.

Performers: Hedwig Fassbender, soprano (Isolde); Wolfgang Millgramm, tenor (Tristan); Lennart Forsén, bass (King Marke); Gunnar Lundberg, baritone (Kurwenal); Magnus Kyhle, tenor (Melot); Martina Dike, mezzo-soprano (Brangäne); Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra; Leif Segerstam

Taken from Naxos 8.660152-54

Tristan und Isolde (excerpt)

Tristan has died, and Isolde loves him so much that all she wants is to join him in death: this is what she sings about in this so-called ‘Love-death’ at the end of the opera. She can’t wait to get to him, and finally she will. Listen to how it explodes at 3.35 into extraordinary passion. It is here that the famous ‘Tristan’ chord from the very beginning (see above, in the ‘Overtures and Preludes’ playlist) is finally sorted out – after three hours of opera! It created unease and suspense at the start – there was no key-centre, no anchor. All the way through the opera, the chord pops up but is still trying to find a home. Finally, at the very end, it has a place to rest. Tristan and Isolde will finally be together! See if you can hear this by listening to the first 50 seconds of the Prelude to Act I (especially to the chord at 0.15 and again at 0.40), then to this track from 5.53 to the end. Can you hear it find its home?

Performers: Hedwig Fassbender, soprano (Isolde); Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra; Leif Segerstam

Taken from Naxos 8.660152-54

Götterdämmerung (‘Twilight of the Gods’): Act III, Scene 3

Wagner’s Ring cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung, is the incredible, giant beast of opera. It is a set of four individual operas, and the whole thing lasts around 16 hours in total. Wagner thought big! It took him 26 years to complete the libretti (the sung texts) and the music. A bit like a 19th-century Lord of the Rings, it involves gods, giants, heroes, mythical creatures and a magic ring: whoever wears it has power over the whole world. So it’s not a simple love story! It is all based on old German (Norse) myths. The orchestra is massive: it needs loads of brass instruments, and Wagner included new ones like the bass trumpet and contrabass tuba. But he still wasn’t satisfied with what was available already, so he invented one himself: it is called the ‘Wagner tuba’. It’s more like a French horn than a tuba, and adds to the power and character of the bass section. As if this wasn’t enough, Wagner then had an enormous theatre built in Bayreuth – specially for performing the Ring cycle. The four operas are: Das Rheingold (‘The Rhinegold’), Die Walküre (‘The Valkyrie’), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (‘Twilight of the Gods’). The entire cycle is connected by Wagner’s use of ‘leitmotifs’ – little bits of music that signal a character, a place or an idea. The clever way that Wagner used these motifs – blending them together and having them pop up on different instruments – helps to create a fascinating musical web. The drama is complicated, and these leitmotifs help to tell the story: your ears suddenly recognise one, and, without you realising, your mind recalls the character it is attached to. Nobody needs to sing a name: it’s all there in the music! Götterdämmerung is the final opera of the four, and here is the final scene. Not all opera is about death, but it is true that – like Tristan und Isolde – this ends with the death of two lovers! Here, the death is a dramatic scene that signals a renewal of the whole world. It is called the ‘Immolation Scene’ because the heroine Brünnhilde throws herself on a fire (‘immolation’ means killing by burning): she joins the dead body of the hero, Siegfried. Having instructed the men to build the fire, in track 6 she mounts her horse and rides into the flames – listen to how the music builds in this track. Can you hear bits that sound like the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’? Brünnhilde is a Valkyrie, and this is her final ride. In the last track, the flames burn, the home of the gods is destroyed, and life is changed forever. Imagine – this is the closing section of the longest, grandest, most impressive drama ever written. Listen to the brass thundering in at 2.40, and at 3.39 – Wagner loved brass instruments! At the end, though, from 3.58, there is peace.

Performers: Margaret Jane Wray, soprano (Brünnhilde); Russian State Symphony Orchestra; John McGlinn

Taken from Naxos 8.555789

Parsifal (excerpts)

Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, is about the quest for the Holy Grail by Parsifal, the ‘holy fool’. It is another huge work, and when it was first performed in Wagner’s theatre at Bayreuth in 1882 many well-known people came – including composers. Sibelius said, ‘Nothing in the world has made so overwhelming an impression on me…’ Debussy thought that the plot and the characters were a bit silly, but found the music ‘incomparable and bewildering, splendid and strong’: ‘Parsifal is one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music,’ he said. For Alban Berg the whole thing was ‘magnificent, overwhelming’. These were composers who knew what they were talking about! Unfortunately the philosopher Nietzsche, who had championed Wagner, was really cross that the composer had chosen a Christian subject – but he still admitted that the music was amazing. So here are just a few excerpts for orchestra that can be enjoyed on their own. Wagner uses his massive orchestra like a palette of many colours, and creates a musical painting of such splendour that it seems to blot out the whole world.

Performers: Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.572768


Wesendonck-Lieder (‘Wesendonck Songs’)

Wagner fell in love with a woman named Mathilde Wesendonck. She was the wife of a rich businessman who helped him when he was in Switzerland and struggling with money (he had to escape Germany for a few years because his opinions on politics had got him into trouble). In 1857, he wrote these songs: the music sets poems written by Mathilde. Wagner was working at this time on his great opera Tristan und Isolde, with its story of a passionate, doomed love, and he used some of these songs like exercises to help him: a bit like practising scales on an instrument before you play a piece! At the beginning of the third song, it is very clearly like the Prelude to Act III of Tristan und Isolde. The singer here uses a lot of vibrato – where the voice wobbles on a note. It happens often in opera, and when it is done well it sounds amazing: the voice blooms into something so expressive it can make you shiver. But it does have to be controlled by the singer, and when it is done so much that the notes sound like see-saws, it can mask the beauty of the music. Wagner’s music does need it though – it needs a rich, mature sound rather than a thin, clean one. See what you think here!

Performers: Tamara Takács, mezzo-soprano; Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550400