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Did Wagner Revolutionize Modern Music?

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I don't know...I think maybe forms of the word "revolutionary" are overused and then quality level us judged by how "revolutionary" -- i.e.how unlike what came before -- a composer's works are. Wagner was influenced by Beethoven and others and Wagner in turn was enormously influential. Btw I'm thinking of getting a whole Ring cycle on CD, I just don't know which to get yet.
Just get the Solti. It was the first complete Ring recorded, and it hasn't been surpassed as a whole. It features most of the best Wagner singers of the postwar decades, it's dramatically involving, and the sound was state-of-the-art for the 1960s and holds up very well today. (I never bought it as a complete set, but substituted the Leinsdorf Die Walkure, recorded at about the same time, for the Solti, partly because Hans Hotter, Solti's Wotan, was too far over the hill vocally by 1965.)
 

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Karajan's Die Walküre would be a great choice, too, but Karajan's Wagner isn't to everyone's taste. ;)
I suggested the Leinsdorf Walkure as a substitute for the Solti because it shares important singers with that cycle (Birgit Nilsson and George London). The Karajan is a fine performance, but very different, artistically and sonically.
 

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Bernstein could be so hyperbolic! I'm wondering how Tristan could be the central work in all of music history, when the composers that are most universally agreed upon as the greatest all came before Wagner? Even if Tristan was the sole influence and gateway to all of modernism (which it clearly is not), that statement would still be highly exaggerated.

I think Bernstein was all around a fantastic musician and educator, he just got carried away sometimes in his enthusiasm, he has made similarly exaggerated claims about Beethoven and about Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.
Granting that Bernstein had biases (like all of us) and was a bit of a drama queen, he has a point. It isn't necessary to accept that any single work is "central" to Western music, but if we do entertain that as a reasonable notion it's hard to think of another work that qualifies as well as Tristan und Isolde. And I think it qualifies on grounds both musical and cultural.

Tristan
came in the very middle of the 19th century, a moment when the basic harmonic language of Western music had congealed at the hands of the Classical masters and was in the process of being expanded in ways that existing theoretical concepts could describe only with difficulty, if at all. More fundamentally, it came at the time when the very idea of music - or, to be precise, the idea of musical meaning and expression - had been transformed by the Romantic movement from a representation of ideal values and affective categories to a seismograph of the soul, psyche, or inner life of the individual. It was an enormous expansion of the notion of what music could or should concern itself with, and the elements of music - melody, harmony, form - had to find radically new shapes in order to represent philosophical concepts, poetic ideas, phenomena of nature, and the infinite nuances of human feeling.

Wagner was ideally suited to play a major role in this evolution. Having grown up around the theater where his stepfather was a performer, and having written plays as a child before he composed music, he was essentially a musical dramatist, and his works were eventually to prove that no art form is more sympathetic to Romanticism's expressive premises and expanded musical techniques than opera. It was the dramatist in Wagner that provided the impetus for his musical innovations - his expansion of harmony and orchestration, his use of pregnant and adaptable motifs to weave rich and extended textures and create a psychological narrative, and his breakup of traditional forms. And it was the quintessentially Romantic theme of Tristan in particular - romantic love, or erotic passion - that forced these tendencies to extremes that sent shock waves through the musical - and nonmusical - culture of Europe.

A three-hour opera almost devoid of physical action and devoted almost entirely to the uninhibited probing of a central focus of the subjective life of the human individual was something that couldn't have been attempted, or probably even imagined, before its own particular moment in history. It can be seen in retrospect as the work that Wagner was destined to write, and the writing of it had for him the quality of a compulsion and a revelation, stretching his musical powers so far beyond his own previous efforts that he himself found the work's emergence from his psyche astonishing and almost frightening. But it can just as well be seen as the work which Romanticism itself was striving to compose, the climactic product of a new sensibility which had revolutionized Western society as the focus of human perception and purpose shifted from God and society to the human individual. In its intense exploration of passion, Tristan, based on the classic romance of the Middle Ages, locates passion - in its dual sense of love and suffering - at the center of the emotional life of Western man, and it's a work that continues, like passion itself, to be as unsettling as it is exalting.

Few composers could escape completely from the grip of this work on the musical thinking and feeling of the decades that followed it. I think an exhaustive tracing of its influence would show Bernstein's sense of its importance to be pretty accurate.
 

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I agree with much of what you're saying. I don't have a problem with people saying it's a key work, or a work that had a major impact on music and culture, but saying it is "the central work", "the hub", is frankly ridiculous.

That statement then implies that the classical music following Tristan --> Modernism into Post Modernism, bears the same weight as all of the classical music that preceded it, from around the 12th century up until the 19th century. It is basically relegating centuries of music into a small foot note. It is a silly statement, and highly exaggerated.
I find your reaction to Bernstein's statement more exaggerated, and frankly confusing, than his statement, and I grant that that statement is a bit hyperbolic, at least stylistically (but that's Lennie). Why and how does he relegate centuries of music into a small footnote? Not even a large footnote? And what does "bears the same weight" mean?

Musical theoreticians have long looked at Tristan as a sort of crisis point in Western music, a point beyond which music would have to reassess itself and be irresistibly changed - a view which could, again, be overstated, but which has abundant evidence to support it. I gather that the young members of the Second Viennese School used to gather around the piano with the score of the opera and contemplate seriously the question of how music could get beyond what Wagner had done. I've hinted at the work's position as a cultural culmination and watershed, pushing the impulses and aesthetic premises of Romanticism to an extreme and revealing its psychic and spiritual ambivalences. I suppose the importance of this depends upon one's view of the centrality of Romanticism in the development of Western culture, but I tend to agree with what I presume to be Bernstein's view that it is indeed central, that we can trace its roots to Christianity and the Middle Ages and that it's still with us (a subject for another time, perhaps). The centrality of Tristan in the evolution of Western sensibilities is cultural as well as musical, and the two can't be separated - which I'm sure was a consideration in Bernstein's assessment - and I can't think of any single work of music that even comes close to it in that regard. Can you?
 

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As one who used women himself, I don't think Wagner's operas are a protest about it but rather a right for men to treat women in the way he was doing.
This foolishnmess is clearly a deliberate attempt to degrade the discussion. You, DavidA (Handelian), do not actually believe that this is what Wagner's works are about. And you're far from an authority on how Wagner treated women.

Trivializing and sabotaging discussions of Wagner has been your favorite sport for years. It's disgraceful, but apparently those of us trying to have a meaningful conversation can do nothing to stop you.

I expect that this post will be removed and that your nonsense will remain. There's too little respect for truth-telling around here.
 

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Debussy intentionally avoided Wagnerisms in his music, to the extent Wagner exerted any influence on him it was in a negative reaction. While he was initially swept up in Wagner's harmonic slush, he did not remain there long. I don't hear much Wagner in Puccini or Ravel, and it is questionable in Mahler. All three of these composers were much more "classical" in their formal approach to composing, more akin to Brahms than Wagner, IMO.
Puccini was an ardent Wagnerian who kept scores of Tristan and Parsifal on his piano to play through when he needed inspiration. His musical personality was highly original and strong enough to withstand the influence, but his through-composed works are unthinkable without that influence (as are those of his Italian contemporaries Mascagni and Leoncavallo). The impact of Wagner on Debussy, who also began as a devotee (he once tried to play the entirety of Tristan at the piano by memory), was similarly powerful, and can be heard in many works. He complained about being unable to exorcise the ghost of Parsifal during the composition of Pelleas et Melisande, especially the orchestral interludes. The Wagnerian influence on early 20th-century French composer such as Massenet, Chausson, Dukas, Chabrier, Lekeu and D'Indy was enormous. In Russia, Rimsky-Korsakov shows in his operas and tone poems how well he learned his Wagnerian lessons. In Germany, Strauss composed operas and tone poems that descend directly and obviously from Wagner and Liszt. Mahler's symphonies are reasonably described as hybrids between the symphony and the music drama. The Wagnerian qualities of Schoenberg's early and even middle-period works are blatant, as they are in Berg's operas. And shall we mention British composers, starting with Elgar, and Scandinavian composers, starting with Sibelius?

I really wonder what you hear when you listen to the music of these composers. I also wonder what you hear when you describe Wagner's incredibly structured works as "slush." Maybe chromatic harmony confuses you.
 

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No, it doesn't.

Wagner's music is exceedingly self-indulgent to my ears, and his operas do not interest me in the least. The traits I enjoy the most are composers whose works exhibit a tight formal construction and restraint, traits which I do not find in Wagner.

To the extent Wagner can be credited with stretching the limits of tonality then almost every composer after him could be cited as being influenced. However, I disagree with you most strongly regarding Debussy, since when I listen to works by him I hear little of Wagner, and if I did I would not enjoy his music as much as I do. Also, I've read several books on Debussy and in every one Debussy spoke harshly about Wagner and disavowed his earlier infatuation with Wagner, which dates mainly from his days as a student.

I've give you Strauss, he is another composer I do not enjoy.

Massenet, Chausson, Dukas, Chabrier, Lekeu, D'Indy, and Rimsky-Korsakov do not figure in my regularly listening, and I don't consider them important composers in any event.

After Gurre-Lieder, Schoenberg essentially abandoned Wagner, and with his atonal works, and 12-tone method - on what his reputation is staked - Schoenberg surpassed Wagner's waining influence on 20th century composers. As has been pointed out, Stravinsky's astringent style increasingly made Wagner sound so 19th century.

I think Brahms, not Wagner, was more important to Schoenberg, since Schoenberg was very conscious of the classical forms which he continued to use throughout his career. Something for which he was criticized by Boulez, i.e. pouring new music into old jars.

Like I said in my earlier post, Wagner did exert an influence on some composers in his wake, but I think it was relatively short-lived (50 years after Tristan) and ultimately not what I would call revolutionary.
I'm taking from this that your strong dislike of Wagner (that purveyor of formally loose, unrestrained, self-indulgent slush) is getting in the way of your ability to perceive the extent of his influence. It also strikes me as rather convenient that the composers you dislike or consider unimportant are simply dismissed as irrelevant and not allowed to cast doubt on your basic argument. Given such views, any further discussion would probably be futile.
 

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I'd say that with Wagner there is the sense that his harmonic language still remains related to an underlying tonality, which his shifting harmonies strain against, delaying the arrival at their home. Whereas with Debussy, there is more of a sense that his harmonies are suspended in space, floating, with no direction home.
Yes, Wagner is a firmly grounded tonalist - in a way even a traditionalist. In his most advanced work (exemplified particularly by Tristan and Parsifal) he walks a high wire, engaging in an unprecedented degree of chromatic enrichment and freedom of modulation while firmly grounded in tonal designs with carefully plotted key centers and strong underlying direction. What arrests us in Wagner at first is the richness, subtlety and evocativeness of the chromaticism, but what impresses on deeper acquaintance is the tonal control that allows him to create long spans of music which seem free in form yet coherent and satisfying. The third act of Tristan may be the ultimate demonstration of his skill; it's both emotionally harrowing, taking chromaticism to the breaking point, and a structural tour de force.

It's probably not well-known that Wagner warned young composers wishing to be "avant-garde" that his innovations were not to be imitated and indulged in without good reason, and he asserted that genres of "absolute" music such as the symphony were essentially different from dramatic music and required a different way of thinking. He didn't elaborate (at least in the quotes we have), but it's notable that where Wagner has no need to express extreme or unusual states of mind or emotion his harmony is far more diatonic. This fact places him squarely in the centuries-long tradition of Western music, in which chromaticism was nearly always a special effect to be employed for specific purposes, usually - just as in Tristan - to express such exceptional or "abnormal" states as mystery, pain or eroticism (see the Italian madrigalists, or the songs of Purcell).

I'm saying all this not to diminish Wagner's innovativeness, but to show him as a culmination of the Western tonal tradition who pushed its potentialities so far that composers felt compelled to react to him and reassess their own procedures and goals. The reaction could take many forms, some obvious, some subtle, some positive, some negative. Rejection, too, can be a sign of influence.
 

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Btw, my personal dislike of Wagner's music does not inhibit my ability to acknowledge his importance, greatness and influence. But because I haven't spent much time listening to his work I can't add anything to your excellent post.

What I've said is that while I do think he was very influential, I think that after Schoenberg and Stravinsky Wagner's influence began to evaporate, and certainly by the time of the post-war generation it was non-existent. We then had Minimalism, Neo-Romaticism, Spectral Music, New Complexity, and other styles of composition, which solidified his position as a 19th century composer with little impact on the second half of the 20th century and beyond.

So I quibble with the term "revolutionary".
Basically, I agree with this. Too many things are called "revolutionary," but then humans are prone to oversimplification and overstatement. Debussy's assessment was that Wagner was a "glorious sunset mistaken for a dawn." That's an overstatement too, understandable coming from an ex-Wagnerite who continued to struggle with exorcising the ghost of old Klingsor. I don't think it's an overstatement to call Tristan itself revolutionary; it's Wagner's most radical gesture, unlike any previous work of musical theater no matter how you look at it. But it was to some extent a one-off; Wagner learned an enormous amount in the process of composing it, but in subsequent works he allowed back in some of the operatic conventions Tristan almost totally eschewed.

My view is that Wagner's musical influence, and his influence on musical drama in particular (musical theater and film), was widespread and strong well into the 20th century, even as the Modernist and "avant-garde" movements you mention were under way, and there's no reason to think that his ideas on the use of music for dramatic purposes will not always remain potent and creatively challenging. I think there's a tendency among a subset of classical music lovers to view these modern and postmodern developments as expressing a broader and deeper change in cultural sensibility than actually occurred.
 

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I've read that if Wagner were alive today he'd be working in Hollywood.
It's a reasonable view. His scores are dramatic narratives of cinematic scope and evocativeness, and the problem of translating his visions - especially the mythical world of the Ring - into practical theater is fully solved only by the medium of film. He would have loved it, and it would probably have inspired him to imagine even more fantastic scenes. But I can't imagine him accepting the ordinary position of the film composer as subordinate to the director. He would insist on being the artistic mastermind - the creator of a new art form called "cinemopera" or something - with the director working for him.
 

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I would agree. In fact it is surprising that someone else hasn't done something like that. I am not aware if there has been a completely cinematic production of any of his operas. The Ring could be a Star Wars like series.
Decades ago a friend and I used to dream about a film of the Ring utilizing all the techniques available, and we wondered why it had never been done. It would be expensive, of course, but I think it could be a surprise hit and would open many people's ears to opera and classical music. There are plenty of videos of staged productions, some of which are interesting, and there is the very strange and controversial Syberberg film of Parsifal, but no attempts, as far as I know, to take Wagner's own conceptions seriously and use the resources of film to realize them. I think it's a major cultural oversight.
 

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I really can't picture the Instagram generation not only sitting through, but actively enjoying 15 hours worth of film adaptations of German opera music, even if they had a Lord Of The Rings style massive budget to make them look, like, "EPIC", yo!
I'm sure you're closer to the instagram generation than I am, so I can't presume to argue about them, whoever they are. But of course not everyone belongs to the instagram generation. I'd have been captivated by a magically filmed Ring at any age, but then that's me. You may underestimate people in general, and underestimate the combined power of music and film.
 

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If it used all possible resources to make the landscape, props, etc. ultra realistic, and then main actors would open their mouths as if they tried to swallow a coconut and started to shriek, it would look unintentionally funny.
I take it you don't enjoy filmed opera. By your description it sounds as if you've never even seen one (there are a few good ones). But why would you want ultra-realistic props for a mythological epic? Filmmakers have been creating visual magic for generations. I can even visualize a Ring done entirely with computer animation, using real singers only for the soundtrack. I can also imagine a Ring done entirely in black and white, which can create a wonderful sense of a parallel reality more intense and "psychological" than everyday reality, as it does in film noir and many films of the early decades of the medium.

Normal musicals are usually light-hearted and still get away with being musicals mostly because the type of singing involved is not too far from what a normal person might sing while going about their business, taking a shower, gardening, or whatever.
What does "get away with being musicals" mean? Musicals are actually quite varied in their vocal requirements. Sweeney Todd and Phantom of the Opera are not in the repertoire of most gardeners and shower-takers. Many of the classic musicals benefit from or even require well-trained voices. There is no distinct line between opera, operetta and the musical or between the styles of singing they require.

A purely orchestral "Ring" adaptation would be a different matter, with some clever dialogues and good acting substituting for the sung parts. But then plots would have to be remade into a new medium... in other words: a mess no matter what approach would be taken.
It would certainly be a mess if you were in charge, since you seem to have decided in advance that that's what it would be! I think a filmed Ring without singing could be interesting in its own way, but the main difficulty would not be revising the plot - that could remain as is - but arranging the music. It would no longer really be Wagner, and the idea of messing with the music makes me cringe. But this is really beside the point.

Fritz Lang's silent films are beautiful works of art, though of course not Wagner. Thanks for posting them!
 

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Old post, but I feel compelled to note that atonality was basically the antithesis of Wagner's aesthetic style that involved the tension created by the ambiguous, androgynous suggestion/co-existence of multiple possible keys and tonalities. The profound, impassioned yearning in much of Parsifal and in the opening theme/motif of Tristan is built from that tension. Atonality eliminated this tension by eliminating tonality altogether. You can't have tension without tonal hierarchies and the expectations those tonal relations create. Atonality, despite what some may say (including the atonal theorists) was not a logical progression from Wagner's ambiguous tonalities, it was a complete destruction of everything Wagner himself tried to achieve with his tonal innovations.
This is an important observation, which I second not merely because I used to argue it strenuously with another member who is no longer on the forum. Wagner is as insistent a tonalist as Mozart, which accords with his tribute to the latter, calling him a "great chromaticist." Wagner didn't want or try to get out of tonality, but to see how much could be got out of it. His last work, Parsifal, is in its extremes of both diatonicism and chromaticism a tribute to the tradition of tonal harmony, as well as an extension of it, much as his Meistersinger is a tribute to the contrapuntal tradition of Bach.

In the basic elements of his musical vocabulary, Wagner was more summation than innovation, and yet the effect of much of his work was of something unprecedented and challenging. That effect came not only from his unprecedented emphasis on chromaticism, but from his breaking down of familiar formal templates in favor of an apparently free expressive narrative allied to theatrical action, which replaced the more or less closed forms of traditional arias and ensembles - "apparently free," because the narrative was given coherence by carefully plotted key relationships and the elaborate deployment of interrelated and interacting thematic germs (leitmotifs). The choice to illuminate the dramatic action of the play in this way also entailed the extension of music's time scale, not merely in the length of his operas (there had been other operas of similar length) but in the rate at which musical ideas are introduced and disposed of. The "story" of a sonata movement may be told in ten minutes, but the "real life" pace of theatrical action allows for a more leisurely exposition of musical ideas which have the new function of tracing the shifting psychological states of the characters, as well as commenting on the larger context of the drama, even on things absent, things past, and things to come. It's no accident that the title of Proust's magnum opus, "In Search of Lost Time" (commonly known in English as "Remembrance of Things Past") was invented by one of many writers inspired by Wagner's musical meta-narratives.

I do think it's fair to say that Wagner played a major role in "revolutionizing" modern music. The unmooring of music from traditional forms in favor of an apparently free expressive narrativity was an important innovation, but it was one that less masterful composers followed at their peril. Wagner himself warned against applying his ideas in the context of non-operatic works, saying once that "in the symphony one thinks very differently." His statement of intent to write symphonies after Parsifal remains one of music's tantalizing "what ifs."
 
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