Guest Post: Six Ways Wagner Changed Opera

By Erik Linnell – I’m not a professional musician, but I enjoy refreshing myself at the wellspring of great works across the centuries. In Western classical music, the composer whose music gives me the most complete emotional experience and deepest sense of catharsis is Richard Wagner. When I say that to people who don’t know classical music very well, they usually say, “oh yeah, Ride of the Valkyries is cool,” naturally because this is the only piece of his that’s present in modern culture (he also wrote Here Comes the Bride but not many people know that). But perhaps more interestingly, when I say I love Wagner to people involved in the classical music scene, the thing people say most often is not, “which opera is your favorite?” or even “do you think he still unconsciously holds to his tenets of the ‘complete work of art’ in his later career even though he supposedly abandons them to explore more traditional operatic forms?”, but instead, “…why?” 

I too get frustrated when I don’t understand the music of supposedly great composers; perhaps you feel the same way. But Wagner is a special case because the reasons most people don’t like his operas have nothing to do with his music, for example, his vicious anti-Semitism or his generally unpleasant mannerisms. There’s not enough room to address his bad personality here, but, as a card-carrying Wagnerian, I think I’m well-suited enough to take a crack at addressing why his operas are great.  

I could say that from the first notes of the overture, all of my senses are stimulated by the music to evoke the various worlds of his operas, each of which are distinct and beautiful. I could also say that his music feels effortless and as if it always existed. But are these any way to describe a composer’s music to someone who doesn’t like it? No, not at all. These abstract points can be applied to any music people like. Therefore, here are some more concrete things specific to Wagner that I don’t find in other composers’ music.


This point may be surprising since thus far I’ve only been talking about his music; historically, Wagner is only remembered as a composer. But Wagner was also a formidable dramatist, being  one of the few opera composers to write both the music and the text, as well as oversee every other aspect of staging his works. Wagner had a name for this massive undertaking, namely, the gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art, and he didn’t take this task lightly; he took great care to write morally complex characters and philosophically concerned plots that lead to satisfying
resolutions. He wanted you to feel like you’re watching a play set to music instead of a story that exists for the sake of the tunes. So how did music fit into this dramatic vision?  


Since the music needed to be flexible in order to fit the story, it was also necessary to change the way music was traditionally organized. Wagner accomplished this through the device of the leitmotif, a musical motif that represents a person, place, thing, or idea (basically nouns). Wagner didn’t invent this technique, but it’s associated with him because leitmotifs are the fundamental building blocks of his musical/dramatic style, something no other composer before him can say. His decision to use this technique was, again, for dramatic purposes; he didn’t want the audience to get lost in the complexity of the plot or symbolism, so he thought it necessary to have musical reference points to ground the audience in something reliable. It’s perhaps for this reason that he preferred to use the term “guides to feeling” instead of leitmotifs.  

Like the characters of these dramas, the leitmotifs undergo changes as the action continues. A famous example of this is the evolution of Siegfried’s leitmotif: when we first meet Siegfried, he is a brash and rude adolescent, embodied in his hunting horn motif at this point in the storyWe see him go on adventures and become mature over the course of two operas; when he reaches adulthood, his motif becomes broadened and more heavily orchestrated to symbolize him becoming the self-actualized hero he was always meant to be. This is just one example. Now imagine that Wagner does similar transformations for at least forty different leitmotifs in each opera and you begin to see the intricacy of his works. The fact that these transformations sound effortless and organic adds to the miracles that are Wagner’s operas (for more on his leitmotifs, go here).


The freedom of structure in his works is reflected in the parallel freedom of modulation. With most of Wagner’s predecessors, key changes depended on the predetermined form of the piece (e.g. sonata, rondo, etc.) Wagner thought this was too formal for his purposes since his stories contained characters with constantly changing moods. Therefore, he changed keys without reference to earlier forms, depending instead on when the tone of the text changed.  Again, this technique isn’t new; similar text-painting exists in the vocal works of Gesualdo and Monteverdi. But Wagner expanded the practice by making the keys constantly modulate, almost to the point of painting every word.

This excerpt from The Valkyrie (text) is a key example of this. When Siegmund (the protagonist of the first act) laments his powerlessness, the piece is in a minor key, but modulates to a major key when he has a fleeting memory of the woman he loves. Only moments later the key gradually morphs into an intense climax in the minor when Siegmund implores his father, Wälse, for the sword, and changes yet again to a hopeful major when the sword reflects light from the ash-tree trunk, etc. Modulations such as this are found all across Wagner’s operas and allow the listener to experience every microscopic change of a character’s emotions through the course of the drama.


In order to enhance the effects of such free modulations even further, Wagner also changed the instrumentation based on the tone of the text. For example, if a character talks about trauma in their past, the instrumentation changes to be more pathétique, and vice versa. This sounds like it could get tacky after a while, but the results are remarkably subtle and fitting for each situation. The above excerpt from The Valkyrie is filled with such changes in orchestration, specifically at the aforementioned moments of modulation. The dark minor mood at the beginning is reinforced by the low brass and strings, switching to the warm timbre of the cellos when Siegmund recalls the wondrous woman he just met. When the piece climaxes at the plea for the sword, the strings play tremolo at their loudest dynamic to enhance the sense of urgent danger, then switches to bright brass colors when the sword reflects a flicker of light, etc.  This combination of free modulation and colorful orchestration creates vivid emotional drama to which the audience can’t help but succumb.

As can be heard on the recording, the range of expressive colors in a short time is immense. But just like with modulation and leitmotif, Wagner took influence from his contemporaries, Berlioz and Liszt, for his orchestrations; they too put woodwinds and brass on the same level as the historically dominant string section to create a variety of new orchestral colors. Nevertheless, Wagner once again took this aspect beyond his influences, pushing the limits of existing instruments and even commissioning new ones that could produce the sounds he had in his head. Examples of this include the Wagner tuba, bass trumpet, contrabass trombone, and Parsifal bell (none of which caught on much beyond his operas). For these reasons, brass players are especially grateful to Wagner and you’ll be hard pressed to find a brass player that doesn’t love Wagner’s music.


When choosing subjects to dramatize, Wagner found his home in mythological subjects, specifically those written by medieval German poets. The reason he gave for this is that mythology is timeless and therefore relevant for any period in history; it communicates universal truths. Although other earlier operatic composers used myth for their dramatic subjects, none gave it the same gravity of meaning Wagner did. Specifically, Wagner loved the allegorical nature of mythology, using it to incorporate his personal philosophical tendencies into the symbolism of these works. These tendencies were inspired by a multitude of thinkers, ranging from Georg Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach to Mikhail Bakunin and, most importantly, Arthur Schopenhauer (Wagner called reading Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation “the most important event in my life”).  Of Wagner’s ten still-performed operas, nine of them are based on mythological subjects; but even his one non-mythological opera (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) shows a heavy influence of Schopenhauer’s ideas, including the futility of desire and renunciation of the will. This keen ability to combine storytelling, philosophy, and music is the one of the reasons admirers like me attest to his greatness.


Regarding the vocal parts, instead of the traditional division between aria (the tunes or sung monologues) and recitative (the sung dialogue), Wagner proposed an “endless melody” that would flow in counterpoint to the leitmotifs in the orchestra; he liked describing the relationship between the voices and the orchestra as like “a ship sailing on the seas.” This explains the non-melodic properties of the vocal part in the aforementioned excerpt from The Valkyrie, epitomized by the huge leaps between notes. He also railed against the traditions of the duet and chorus, stating that the singers should sing the same way that regular people have conversations: one at a time. (He later changed his mind about these traditions and began using them in his final works).  This resulted in limiting the amount of characters so they all have the time to speak their minds; the hour-long first act of The Valkyrie is driven by only three people!

From my many years of asking, these are some of the reasons why singers don’t like performing Wagner’s operas; one singer explicitly told me “opera is about the tunes.” Also, the small number of roles and the volume of the large orchestra makes singing these long operas an exhausting affair; it doesn’t feel good to sing the parts. Perhaps these are valid points, but in my view, Wagner once again exchanges tradition in order to gain something better: dramatic intimacy and spontaneity. The limited casting allows the grandiosity of the story to be juxtaposed with the intimacy between a small amount of characters. His endless melodies give the impression of being created as the character sings, drawing us closer into the story because nothing feels inevitable. Simply put, the story feels as if it’s unfolding for the first time in front of our very eyes.

In summation, Wagner was a complete artist, a feat unrivaled in all of history. Although these operas are lengthy (the average length being four hours) it’s worth every minute to live in these worlds for an extended period of time. Even for those who dislike Wagner’s operas, one can only stand in awe at the pure willpower it took to single-handedly revolutionize all these different aspects of music, theatre, and otherwise. For these reasons, Wagner has earned a top-tier position on the list of composers that can only be called “great.” Perhaps now’s the time to go to YouTube or Spotify and start enjoying the miracle that is the Wagnerian universe.

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