Characteristics of Wagner's Operas

by Joshua Liu

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was a German Romantic composer whose operas, in particular the vast four-opera cycle "The Ring of the Nibelungs," pioneered a new approach to the art form that broke new ground in melody, harmony and orchestration, influencing nearly every major composer who came afterward. He was no less a pioneer of stagecraft, building his own theater at Bayreuth, Germany, so that his works could be presented in an all-absorbing way that rejected the conventions of the day and looked ahead to multimedia presentation.

The Stories

Wagner was unique among his 19th-century peers in that he wrote the librettos as well as the music for all of his operas. He drew his texts primarily from Norse legend or medieval history, and often in a way that touted the primacy of Germanic culture. His operas are filled with chivalric heroes such as Lohengrin, Tannhauser, Siegfried, and Parsifal, and his topics include song contests, forbidden love, the Holy Grail, and the fall of the gods.

The Music

Wagner's radically new style revolutionized classical music. Instead of clear key centers, the harmony changes restlessly; instead of songs or arias that can be separated out, the mature operas are written with continuous music. Perhaps Wagner's most distinctive innovation was that of the "leitmotif," or "guiding motif," in which a piece of melody or harmonic progression recurs in different forms as the story of the opera develops. Each of his characters has their own theme, and there also are themes associated with emotions such as love and objects such as a sword.

Size and Scope

Most of Wagner's operas were unprecedentedly long and deal with epic subjects. The "Ring" cycle, for instance, which was composed over a 26-year period, contains four operas, each one a monumental work in its own right. Wagner intended them to be performed in a series, and a full performance takes about 15 hours. His other works, such as "Die Meistersinger" and "Tristan und Isolde," were just as huge, and they make intense demands on singers, musicians, stage directors and audiences.

Singers and Players

Few singers in his time, or today, have been able to handle the challenges of Wagner's biggest heroes and heroines, and a successful performance of his operas requires vocalists of great stamina and power. He used a large, powerful orchestra that commented on the action, giving it a role equal to that of the singers, rather than just accompanying them. He expanded its range as well, adding a new family of horns called Wagner tubas, and requiring unusual instruments such as the bass trumpet and contrabass trombone.


Wagner developed a new concept of the operas as "music drama," in which musical, poetic and dramatic elements would each feature important roles. His use of extreme chromaticism and shifting tonal centers led directly into the innovations of atonalism in the early 20th century. And his theatrical ideas led to the rise of the all-powerful stage director, a central figure who would rethink the artwork at hand according to his own personal vision.


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