Richard Wagner and His Music Dramas

Richard Wagner was one of the most controversial composers of the 19th Century. His focus was on opera and he later formed what he called “Music Dramas”.

There is no doubt that Richard Wagner was one of the towering genius’ of Western music. His music has had such a profound affect on all the composer that followed after him that it would be far beyond the scope of this article to do justice. The focus of this article is on his dramatic elements and stage action not his music.

The repertoire of Wagner’s operas begin with the Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegender Hollander) and finished with Parsifal. The stage action on the Dutchman is the most traditional of all Wagner operas and thus carries with it the standard formula of stage action which is pleasing to modern audiences. However, in the next few operas (Tannh�user and Lohengrin) Wagner departs more gradually in his musical form to incorporate leading motives in his music and assigns them to main characters and feelings. The change of this musical structure had an immediate impact on the stage action for Wagner now took much longer to develop his musical idioms and consequently affected the span of time during the scenes to hold the emotions of the scene together.

With the beginning of his famous Ring cycle (Der Ring Des Nibelungen) we arrive at mature Wagner and a completely radical approach to both stage action and musical idiom. In the Ring Wagner employs what are known as leitmotivs throughout his music dramas (he dropped the term opera with the onset of the Ring). The best way to describe these leitmotivs are like a tapestry or Persian rug where all the different motives (melodies of the various characters or moods) are woven together to form a complete fabric and in this case the fabric is the music drama.

The impact that this has had on the stage action of Wagner music dramas is staggering. The music dramas took on new lengths of time that are demanding on the audience and the musicians. Further and more importantly it has had a very bad affect on the stage action. Due to the long periods of time to develop the music the singers are forced to spend long periods of time in static positions on the stage. Wagner then exacerbates this by having a lead singer actually sing the turn of events to another singer so as to “catch him or her up” on what is happening on the stage all at the sacrifice of dramatic element.

What Wagner has done at the very great expense of sound stage action is developed his music dramas to become vocal symphonies rather than theater enhanced by voice and orchestra.



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