It is said of Wagner that he was a man hard to forgive, but an artist impossible to ignore. Here was a German composer who wrote both the libretto as well as the music for each of his stage works—and was also theatre director and conductor.
Wagner aspired to synergise the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts – but he stood out for revolutionising opera through his idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, i.e. total work of art.
The Ring with its huge canvas was probably, Wagner’s most audacious project thought by one creative mind. Termed as an ‘endless melody’, in The Ring, he did away with the traditional short phrased melodic writing and ushered in continuous music with the orchestra playing nonstop.
The Ride of the Valkyries
Additionally, to unify music and drama, he introduced ‘leitmotifs’ or ‘leading motives’—wherein each motive is linked to a situation or a person or a thought.
In fact, the development of classical music was greatly influenced by his musical language such as extreme chromaticism characterised by rapidly shifting tonal centres. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is normally associated with the start of modern music.
A multi-dimensional personality he built his own opera house incorporating novel design features, which premiered the Ring and Parsifal. During his later years, he reintroduced in his stage-works, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, some of the traditional forms.
Das Rheingold – Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla
In a letter to Liszt, another great, Wagner wrote about himself: ”…my talents, taken separately and individually, are not great at all; I am something and achieve something only when I bring all of them together in an effect and when they and I are recklessly consumed therein. Whatsoever my passions demand of me, I become for the time being—musician, poet, director, author, lecturer, or anything else”.