Classical Music For Dummies, 3rd Edition
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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. [Credit: <i>Source: Creative Commons</i>]
Credit: Source: Creative Commons
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).

About This Article

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About the book authors:

About David Pogue David Pogue is a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and has performed magic at parties, special events, on TV, and even over the radio for 25 years. He created and taught the beginning magic programs at the New School for Social Research and the Learning Annex. He has been known to mesmerize audiences with his magic tricks while on tour promoting his many bestselling books, including Macs?? For Dummies??, 5th Edition, Opera For Dummies??, and Classical Music For Dummies??. Contributor Mark Levy, magic consultant, has levitated and read spectators' minds for nearly 30 years. His writings have appeared in some of magic's most revered literary sources, including Richard Kaufman's CardMagic, Apocalypse magazine, and Magic.

Scott Speck has conducted hundreds of ballet performances throughout the United States and Europe. He is Music Director of the Joffrey Ballet, Artistic Director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, and former Conductor of the San Francisco Ballet. Evelyn Cisneros danced for the San Francisco Ballet for 23 years and is the Artistic Director of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

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