In a letter to his wife Alma, Gustav Mahler wrote, "There are only [Beethoven] and Richard [Wagner]- and after that nobody. Mark that!" (Comini,390) Just as Beethoven revolutionized symphonic repertoire, playing a pivotal figure in the transition from classicism to romanticism, Wagner played a pivotal role in revolutionizing opera, taking it from a frivolous and ridiculous source of entertainment to a constantly evolving art-form which adopted an almost religious following. Beethoven paved the way for Wagner's art-work of the future by rejecting the intellectualized Classical Period with its pretty music and delving into more intuitive music which had the power to articulate the inner turmoil of the psyche more-so than any other composer ever had. For Wagner Beethoven's emotionally driven music culminated into the fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony, where a choir is used to create an even more precise articulation of Beethoven's psyche. It is this synthesis of music and poetry that Wagner uses as his starting point believing that the only next logical step is his art-work of the future.
Before Wagner, opera was a completely superficial. It was used as an opportunity to provide discontinuous, self-contained catchy tunes and provide entertainment, with the plot of the drama serving the music. The orchestra, which functioned as the accompaniment, often was under-rehearsed and only knew the parts enough to get through the music without any major mishaps. Traditional opera was about action and how the characters dealt with conflicts, traditional opera was about what went on outside of people. Wagner came along and posed an entirely new theory of what opera should be, calling for a complete reappraisal of German Romantic opera. Wagner believed that up until that point Greek tragedy was the apotheosis of art and human achievement. Wagner cited five reasons for this: 1) Greek tragedy represented a 'successful combination of the arts-poetry, drama, costumes, mime, instrumental music, dance, and song and as such had greater scope and expressive powers than any of the arts alone.' (Magee, 5) Wagner believed that opera was the greatest and most fulfilling of all arts as it had the potential to bring together all of the arts, exactly in the way Greek tragedy had done. 2) Greek tragedy took its subject matter from myth. Wagner had the idea that myth was the most universal situation, that everyone could identify to, due to their archetypal situations. By using mythological situations, Wagner was spared from having to use social and political contexts which would take away from the purity of the drama. Wagner's operas were about 'emotionalizing the intellect' (Magee, 9), not satirizing situations. “The unique thing about myth is that it is true for all time; and its content, no matter how terse or compact, is inexhaustible for every age." (Magee, 5) 3) In Greek tragedy both the content and occasion of the performances had religious significance. Wagner came to believe that his work was not just an art-form but a new religion. In Act 1 of Wagner's last opera Parsifal, Gurnemanz quietly prays onstage, during this time nothing at all on stage is happening and all of the sudden it is as if the audience is in the Church of Richard Wagner praying alongside Gurnemanz. 4) Greek tragedy was a celebration of life, a religion of the 'purely human'. Wagner wanted his subject matter to be as human as possible so it could be about the deepest, most emotional, experiences in life. After all, Wagner's music-drama would be about the insides of his characters, it would be about their inner conflicts much like how Beethoven's symphonies were about his own inner turmoil. As Brian Magee says in Aspects of Wagner, "Wagner's characters are subjects only of feeling; of action they are objects." (Magee, 15) 5) The entire community was involved in Greek tragedy. If Wagner's new art-form was a summation of the living and celebration of...
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