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I decided to start this thread upon seeing the recent Beethoven 9th thread being derailed into another "Wagner would have fared better if he wrote symphonies instead of operas" debate.

Tchaikovsky (in The Third and Fourth Symphony Concerts of the Russian Musical Society. The Italian Opera - Tchaikovsky Research) "speaks admiringly of Wagner's technical mastery, but asks whether his "tremendous symphonic talent" was not perhaps out of place in the operatic genre; concludes that Wagner had been led astray from his true vocation as a symphonist by "preconceived theories" and "misguided ambition"; praises enthusiastically the Faust overture".

Letter 1171 to Nadezhda von Meck, 5/17 May 1879, from Brailov:
This is how I spent the day yesterday. After writing letters to you and my brother Anatoly I sat down to study the score of Lohengrin, which I had brought with me. I know that you are not overly fond of Wagner, and I myself am far from being a fanatic Wagnerian. Wagnerism as a principle appeals to me very little, and Wagner's personality awakens feelings of aversion within me, but I cannot fail to do justice to his tremendous musical gift. This gift nowhere manifested itself so brightly as in Lohengrin. This opera will always be the crown in Wagner's oeuvre. For it was after Lohengrin that the decline of his talent started — a talent that was ruined by this man's satanic pride. He lost his sense of measure and started to overreach himself, so that everything which is written after Lohengrin can serve as a model of music that is unintelligible, impossible, and has no future. I am actually interested in Lohengrin now from the point of view of orchestration. In view of the task which lies ahead of me [completing the orchestration of The Maid of Orleans], I wanted to study thoroughly the score of Lohengrin in order to find out if I needed to adopt one or two of his orchestral techniques. His mastery is exceptional, but, for reasons that would require technical explanations, I nevertheless do not intend to borrow anything from him. All I should like to point out to you is that Wagner's orchestra is far too symphonic, far too plump and heavy-going for vocal music, and the older I get, the more I become convinced that these two genres, i.e. symphony and opera, are in all respects diametrically opposed. And so, my acquaintance with Lohengrin will not force me to change my manner, but it was at any rate an interesting and, in the negative sense, useful acquaintance. (Richard Wagner - Tchaikovsky Research)
 
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From this text it seem quite clear that Tchaikovsky has a very different position from Wagner.
Because Wagner would obviously never have agreed that his works went downhill after Lohengrin (and most Wagnerians would say, the best ones start past Lohengrin...). Neither would Wagner have agreed that symphony and opera were opposed. A central point of "Gesamtkunstwerk", Wagnerian musical drama, is that this is the continuation and culmination of BOTH pre-Wagnerian symphony and opera.

Most would agree that Wagner's operas are uncommonly "symphonic". And I would also expect him to be able to write more convincing symphonies than e.g. Verdi or even Tchaikovsky (he wrote good symphonies but they seem rather clumsy as "absolute dramatic music" with their oscillation between programmes, isolated operatic gestures and classicist preciosity).

But from this is hardly follows that Wagner's symphonies would have been better than Beethoven's (or Brahms' or Bruckners) and especially not that they would have been higher achievements than his operas. Maybe they would have been great, but it's pure speculation with little basis. I don't know which other composer wrote the "most Wagnerian" symphonies... any candidates?
 

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Wagner should have written more than one symphony, but his operas are unique, and without them something BIG would be missing in classical music. 1 opera less and therefore 3 more symphonies in a more mature style would be a good deal, but I would not want to exchange the majority of his opera output.
 

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Most would agree that Wagner's operas are uncommonly "symphonic". And I would also expect him to be able to write more convincing symphonies than e.g. Verdi or even Tchaikovsky...

Maybe they would have been great, but it's pure speculation with little basis. I don't know which other composer wrote the "most Wagnerian" symphonies... any candidates?
While his operas may be symphonic, I sure wouldn't expect him to write better, more convincing works than Tchaikovsky. The one he did write is pretty godawful and demonstrates clearly that he was a dramatic composer not suited for the rigors of the symphony; and there's nothing wrong with that. The Russian did manage to write masterpieces in opera and symphony, while the German only mastered the former. Wagner was not at home writing purely instrumental music as the symphony and works like Polonia and Rule Britannia make all to obvious. His one success was Siegfried Idyll, but then it was derived from operatic material.

What is a Wagnerian symphony? There have been many composers whose music can be described as Wagnerian if we're looking at time scale, chromaticism, free-wheeling structure and intensity. Bruckner is always a candidate, but guys like Klughart, Rott, Wetz, Hausegger, and even Raff to some extent, fit the description. The work Nirwana by Hans von Bulow is really Wagnerian.
 

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I disagree strongly with the idea that Wagner was more of a symphonist than an opera composer. He was by nature a dramatic composer - "dramatic" in the specific sense - and not a symphonist. His harmonic language, orchestral virtuosity, and way of structuring music developed as they did specifically for the purpose of illuminating dramatic action and meaning. No one has ever been more gifted at finding vivid and precise musical equivalents for specific feelings, ideas, atmospheres, even objects, or at tracing musically the emotional trajectory of extended sequences of dramatic events. It was his innovative techniques of composition, born of drama, that led some musicians such as Tchaikovsky to misunderstand him - there are still people who don't "get" what he was doing - and attempts by subsequent composers to incorporate his musical ideas into the forms of absolute music were fraught with difficulties and pitfalls. Wagner himself was well aware of the problems; as he contemplated those symphonies he never got to write, he remarked that "in the symphony one thinks very differently," and he warned young composers against trying to plunder his work for "effects" which he had created for dramatic, not symphonic, purposes.
 

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So, after Woodduck's excellent post, there's little left for me to say other than Wagner was a force of Music and Philosophy during his lifetime and was a true original. It would take two lifetimes to understand both his music and uncountable books, articles, letters, and philosophical treatises. How a man created such a prodigious amount of work in his lifetime is staggering to consider . . . even among the most talented artists before or after his lifetime. To know Wagner is to experience both the primal and exquisite language of Man.
Viajero
 

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But from this is hardly follows that Wagner's symphonies would have been better than Beethoven's (or Brahms' or Bruckners) and especially not that they would have been higher achievements than his operas. Maybe they would have been great, but it's pure speculation with little basis. I don't know which other composer wrote the "most Wagnerian" symphonies... any candidates?
Berlioz and Liszt. Even if he wrote purely instrumental music, I suspect Wagner would have still based his symphonies on a dramatic narrative the way that Berlioz and Liszt did. This would enable Wagner to use his system of leitmotifs to pattern the work. It's hard to imagine Wagner writing in a more conventional symphonic idiom after famously declaring the form to be dead after Beethoven's 9th.
 

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Berlioz and Liszt. Even if he wrote purely instrumental music, I suspect Wagner would have still based his symphonies on a dramatic narrative the way that Berlioz and Liszt did. This would enable Wagner to use his system of leitmotifs to pattern the work. It's hard to imagine Wagner writing in a more conventional symphonic idiom after famously declaring the form to be dead after Beethoven's 9th.
He left one clue, or at least one hint, as to his intentions. He said something to Liszt about a "new" symphonic form based on the metamorphosis of themes. That suggests a further development of the Lisztian symphonic poem, and also suggests Sibelius to me. Evidently he didn't have traditional sonata form in mind.
 

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These two were (mostly) pre-Wagner, certainly before full late Wagner leitmotiv technique. I was thinking more of post-Wagnerian pieces with clear influence from 1860s-70s Wagner.
IMO Berlioz and Liszt both wrote some good music but they were far more inconsistent than Wagner (or Beethoven, or "conservative" symphonists like Brahms) and their symphonies/tone poems give me no good clue how good symphonies by Wagner or someone following Wagner would have sounded like. (It has been claimed that what might be Berlioz' best instrumental piece, the Love scene from R&J is the most Wagnerian, prefiguring Tristan. Maybe, but most Berlioz to me does not seem like that.)

Of course, I don't assume that Wagner would have written conventional symphonies (tbh I think Berlioz' are mostly quite conventional). But I am not sure whose tone poems I'd perceive as properly "Wagnerian". Admittedly, I don't know too many tone poems all that well, generally not that fond of the genre (Wagner's orchestral preludes/interludes are usually better than most tone poems...)

The Siegfried Idyll has been mentioned; I have to admit that I find this a bit boring, in any case it is a mostly undramatic lyrical, seamless unfolding. Imagining a "Siegfried symphony" twice as long puts me too sleep only thinking about it. :sleep:
 
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