Richard Wagner and His Role in Classical Music

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

Liszt liked to call his daring style of music, filled with unusual harmonies and structures, “Music of the Future.” (Perhaps it’s a good thing for classical music that he never heard gangsta rap.) But the prime proponent of “Music of the Future” was Richard Wagner (1813–1883).

Wagner (pronounced “VAHG-ner”) became Liszt’s friend and brother in arms — or, more precisely, son-in-law in arms: Wagner married Liszt’s daughter Cosima (after courting her away from her first husband). If you want to know a bit more about Wagner, read on.

Richard Wagner, the height of German Romantic music.

An opera guy

Wagner was an opera guy. He tried to create a new art form, a music drama that married famous German folk tales with great spectacle and great tunes. You’ll soon see why more biographies were written about this man than anyone in history except Jesus. You’ll also see what an arrogant, dishonest, jealous, hypocritical, racist, sexist scumbag Wagner was.

Wagner is included in this particular opus, however, for three reasons:

  • Wagner spawned a Music of the Future movement whose members included all kinds of different composers, operatic and otherwise. For a time, composers aligned themselves with one of two philosophical camps: those who looked to the future (such as Wagner, Liszt, and Berlioz) and those who looked to the past for inspiration (for example, Brahms, who was, as you may recall, conservative in his composing).

    Brahms and Wagner, in fact, were the centerpieces of a raging, divisive controversy, perpetuated largely by their fans. In private, Brahms was actually a fan of Wagner; in public, he played along with the media hype. When someone brought Brahms the news that a member of Wagner’s orchestra had died, he quipped: “The first corpse.”

  • Wagner developed in his operas the practice of assigning a musical theme to each main character. Each little melody, called a Leitmotif (pronounced “LIGHT-mo-teef”), comes and goes with its character. This technique, influenced by Berlioz’s “fixed idea” invention, was the direct ancestor of some of the melodies by future composers such as Richard Strauss — not to mention the ancestor of the Darth Vader theme, the Luke Skywalker theme, the Princess Leia theme, and the Obi-Wan Kenobi theme.

  • Wagner’s operas have great overtures — sometimes known as preludes — that can stand very well on their own as orchestral pieces, and often do in concerts.

Listening to Wagner

Here are the best of Wagner’s overtures, in our humble opinion:

  • Tannhäuser Overture

  • Rienzi Overture

  • Die Meistersinger Overture

  • Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Love-Death (also known as Liebestod)

And then you should hear Die Walküre: Ride of the Valkyries, just to be able to say that you’ve heard it (if you haven’t already, blasting out of the helicopters in the classic war movie Apocalypse Now).