Friday, December 6, 2013

Wagner's Influence on Music: Opera, Conducting and Metal Music

As I wrote here, Wagner had a broad influence on culture and society in general, but, of course, his greatest influence—both immediate and far-reaching—was on music and opera itself. In this post, I am going to highlight his influence on conducting, on opera—with Strauss, Debussy and Puccini as examples—plus his current influence on metal music. Next week, I will focus on his influence on movie music. 

I will just be able to scratch the surface, of course, but my links and footnotes should provide enough information to go deeper should you desire.1 If anyone who reads this can point people to other resources that I have missed, please let me know via the comment section.


A man and a little boy were walking through a cemetery when the boy said, “Look, Daddy, here’s a grave where two people are buried!” Puzzled, the father looked down at the gravestone marker, and sure enough, the marker read, “Here lies a symphony conductor and a humble man.” 

Wagner’s first jobs in music were as a chorus master and then Kappellmeister.  As in all things he did, he took his responsibilities extremely seriously, and found conditions very much wanting. Thus began his life-long mission to achieve opera, orchestral and theatrical reform. He believed that orchestral conductors of the day were not bringing out the expressive depths of the music—particularly the works of his idol Beethoven—but were instead just beating time. Wagner theorized that the principal way to achieve the correct sound was to control the tempo, though that was just one of many reforms that he proposed. He advocated for these changes through various essays, mainly the highly influential “On Conducting.” (If you want to read more on Wagner’s theories, this interview with the conductor Daniel Barenboim is helpful.)

He then both conducted his own works and collaborated closely with his chosen conductors to make sure they followed his precepts. Up to Wagner’s time, most well-known conductors were primarily composers such as Felix Mendelssohn, Carl von Weber and, notably, Hector Berlioz, who also wrote an essay on conducting. But Wagner’s demanding works dictated the need for a strong conductor and a well-practiced orchestra, and Wagner had neither the time nor energy to both compose and conduct his mature works. Therefore, he worked with conductors of energy and talent—Hans van Bülow and Hans Richter— to make his vision a reality. They are considered the first two conductors in the modern sense of the word: van Bülow was a perfectionist workhorse, raising the orchestral level to new heights; Richter became the first conductor to be considered a celebrity in his own right.

Hans van Bülow 
Hans Richter
These men in turn mentored the next generation of conductors:  Richard Strauss, Felix Weingartner, Anton Siedl, and Felix Mottl. While Strauss, of course, went on to a career primarily as a composer, every other one of those men were part of the new breed of career conductors (though some had an instrumental or composing career on the side).

Because of this history, there is a consensus that Wagner was the progenitor of the modern “star” conductor. The music critic Harold Schonberg wrote in his book, Great Conductors, that Wagner was “the giant of his time, the strongest conducting force of the century.”2 Wagner’s detailed view of adjusting tempo did not survive to the modern day, but his belief that the conductor should be, as Schonberg puts it, “that divine figure who was all-wise, all-seeing, omnipotent, supreme in law, work and deed” lives on.3 Let’s call it the “conductor as God” school of thought, hence the joke starting this section. The stereotype of the conductor as a megalomaniac is now part of the cultural zeitgeist, as much as the stereotype of the demanding diva. Herbert von Karajan was particularly viewed in this manner, so here is another joke:

Herbert von Karajan and his wife enter a hotel room.
My god, it is cold in here. 
Herbert von Karajan: But, liebchen, when we are in private, you can call me Herbert.

There is no good web-based article that I could find that deals with this area in any more depth than I am doing here, beyond the link to Barenboim above. The Wikipedia entry on the history of conducting is here.  Beyond that, for more information you will have to hit the books, such as the one I referenced above. But I will leave this section with the great star conductor Leonard Bernstein’s very brief history of conducting, and a final joke, which embeds a critique of the modern conductor from the point of view of the players and singers.

A guy walks into a pet store wanting a parrot. The store clerk shows him two beautiful ones out on the floor. 
“This one's $5,000 and the other is $10,000,” the clerk said. 
“Wow! What does the $5,000 one do?” 
This parrot can sing every aria Mozart ever wrote.
“And the other?” asked the customer.
“This one can sing Wagners entire Ring cycle.  There's another one in the back room for $30,000.
“Holy moly!  What does that one do?
“Nothing that I can tell, but the other two parrots call him‘Maestro’.”


In his book Opera and Drama,Wagner argued for a number of reforms of the opera, and then proceeded to write operas according to his percepts and, through Bayreuth, presented them in a setting of his design. His works, and Bayreuth, proved the case to virtually all opera composers who followed him, and there is now almost universal acceptance of the major outlines of his theory, if not all the specifics.

In a nutshell, he argued that operas should be dramas, instead of the then-current mode which existed mostly to create musical set pieces as entertainment —arias, duets, and the like—with the orchestra serving an accompanying role. The voice was at the center of the production; acting ability was not a major requirement. Wagner wanted to turn this state of affairs completely upside down. He believed that drama should be at the center of the work, with the orchestra and singing and acting in service to it. The orchestral music should be used not as accompaniment, but to provide the emotional underpinning of the opera.

Post-Wagner, almost all operas follow his major precepts, and drama has reigned supreme ever since. However, his particular style was uniquely his own and, while some did try to directly imitate it, only a few such post-Wagner operas have remained enduring works.4 Instead, most composers struggled in his shadow, broadly accepting his critique of drama, and many of his reforms, but also trying to find their original voice, and distance themselves from him.

German opera followed quite directly in his footsteps. The most successful German opera composer post-Wagner was Richard Strauss, called Richard II by those in Wagnerian circles. Strauss was the son of Franz Strauss, the first hornist for the Munich Court Orchestra, who hated Wagner’s new music. His son, though, had secretly become an admirer and sneaked off to see his works. Eventually, he outed himself as a Wagnerian, much to his family’s horror. Bucking his family, Strauss got a job as Music Assistant at Bayreuth in 1889, and in his early work he tried to imitate Wagner’s style, without much success. With time and effort, he found his footing and was able to use Wagner’s dramatic and musical precepts, but created his own sound world—clearly Wagnerian in origin, though original in result. Read more about Wagner and Strauss in this article. 

Richard Strauss
In other countries, the composers had a bigger, and different, problem. They wanted to write music true to the traditions of their culture and effective within their language, but also adopt what they could of Wagner without being overwhelmed by him. As well, in that Wagner had insulted their musical traditions, they wanted to do it in a way that Wagner’s fingerprints were not all over their score.

In France, Wagner was the final nail in the coffin for French grand opera, which was already in the pine box for other reasons. Searching for a replacement, the composers tried to “integrate the self-consciously ‘French’ compositional style of earlier grand operas with Wagnerian elements of orchestration, motivic organization and chromatic harmony.”5  But they all felt his enormous and stifling shadow over them.

As an example of this anxiety, the composer Ernest Chausson wrote in a letter to a friend as he was working on an opera:

Wagner, whom I no longer feel weighing on me when I write symphonic music, now haunts me terribly. I flee him as much as I can, but flee all I want, he is always near me, waiting for me very spitefully and making me write piles of things that I erase. I am very annoyed about his. I have to escape this devil of a man, however. It’s a question of life or death.6

The case of Debussy

The [gentlemen] doth protest too much, methinks. - Shakespeare (with a slight change)

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy, a Wagnerian when young, pulled a Nietzsche, and tried his level best to convince everyone that he simply loathed Wagner, that his music was in fact the antithesis of Wagnerian. However, long-term friends knew the truth was more complicated.

For instance, the minor composer Raymond Bonheur, said of him:

Like many others, it has to be said, he was unable to escape the Wagnerian fever, and Tristan, the score of which he always kept with him, filled him with an agitation for which time alone provided the cure.7

And another reminiscence from Rene Peter:

...[He] could never stand any authority, except Mozart and, for a long time it has to be said, Wagner. After that his views changed, but that evening he played Tristan...the Magic Fire scene and the end of Die Walküre, then the Prelude to Parsifal.8

In the book Wagner’s Tristan, the author Elliot Zucherman relates that “Debussy retained his responsiveness to the music of Tristan long after he had become officially anti-Wagnerian. He is said to have literally shaken with emotion upon rehearing the work, five years after he had written the amusing and caustic reference to the opening of the Prelude.9

Debussy wrote only one opera, but it’s a great one: Pelléas and Melisande. This was his response to Wagner, and was the work that he saw as the antithesis of the Wagnerian mode, even though it had the same general themes as Tristan and Isolde. Some people took the bait that Debussy dangled, and do see his work—even though he adopted the “Wagnerian use of leitmotif, orchestration and form”—as the antithesis of Wagner’s. But most musicologist don’t buy it, because the opera is not only Wagnerian in form, but “[it] abounds with quotations from Wagner” to boot.10  The Stanford musicologist Carolyn Abbate showed through her paper, “Tristan in the Composition of Pelléas,11 that “the sequence of Debussy’s manuscripts, allusions in his letters, and direct musical quotations” demonstrates that Debussy deliberately used Wagner’s opera as a model for Pelléas et Melisande.11 

Look, Pelléas, to me, doesn’t sound at all like Tristan, but it sure does remind me of Parsifal. In any case, I don’t care. Debussy is absolutely wonderful, original and, while I certainly can hear the influence of Wagner, like Strauss in Germany, he clearly went his own way. Both those composers expanded the language of music significantly. But, clearly, neither would have been the composer they were if they had not absorbed Wagner’s musical language and adapted it to their own creative imagination.

If you want to read more about Wagner and Debussy, there is a book on that subject by Robin Holloway, here.

The case of Puccini

Handsome with a vast intellect, he brought to the field of Italian art a breath almost as powerful as an echo of the transalpine Wagner 
– Puccini writing in his notebook at age 24 an obituary-like view into the future.12

Giacomo Puccini
Like most composers of his era, Giacomo Puccini was swept up in the Wagnerian revolution. That said, he proudly claimed his own heritage. When at Bayreuth to attend Parsifal, a journalist asked him if he was a Wagnerian. His response was:

I am not a Wagnerian, my musical education was in the Italian school.  Even though, like every modern musician, I have been influenced by Wagner in the way I use the orchestra for illustration and in the thematic characterization of persons and situation, as a composer I have already remained, and still remain, Italian. My music is rooted in the peculiarity of my native country.13

Wagner would heartily approve! A central point Wagner made repeatedly about music is that it must come from your own native language and land.

Puccini spent his career integrating his Italian musical heritage into a largely Wagnerian framework, and was wildly successful at it.  In an analysis of Puccini’s fusion of Wagnerian elements into an Italian mode, the author Deborah Burton writes in her book, Recondite Harmony: the Operas of Puccini, about his debt to Wagner. In his first opera, Le Villi, his Wagnerian influence is quite evident. She quotes the Italian music critic Eugenio Sacerdoti:

The duet between Anna and Roberto has an introduction that reminds one too closely of the entrance of Pogner and Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger...and the fact that Puccini has studied this work by the Great Man of Leipzig is clear from the Andante mossa with which the first act closes. Here the effect on the public is great and faultless, but the author has done nothing except destroy the prelude from Die Meistersinger, imitating it to the point of plagiarism.... And to think that when Le Villi was performed, everyone sang hymns to the triumph of Italian music, which glowed in Puccini’s work with new and inspired melodies! But, you see, Wagner is so rich he can even lend melodies to Italian masters!14

Burton adds, “It is somewhat surprising that Sacerdoti did not also notice the theme from Parsifal written prominently into the opening bars of Le Villi.... There are Wagner quotations to be found in most, if not all of, Puccini’s operas, borrowings that are used at moments redolent of dramatic events in the source operas.”15  She gives a number of musical examples, which can be found here, along with her analysis.  Puccini also took from Wagner the use of through-composed orchestral music and leitmotifs. Though he retained arias and the like, they grow out of the “continuous melody” and dramatic needs of the work. They feel organic, and not slapped on, as in an earlier time. The fact that he worked in Wagner’s idiom was not unnoticed, then or now. The Harpers Weekly music critic, Lawrence Gilman, wrote in 1909: “How closely, with what unswerving fidelity, the music clings to the contours of the play; and with what an economy of effort its effects are made! Puccini is thus, at his best, a Wagnerian in the truest sense—a far more consistent Wagnerian than was Wagner himself.”16

What is interesting is that Italian composers post-Puccini haven’t made it into the repertoire at all. What happened? I really have no idea, but perhaps my next section gives part of the clue.

Wagner’s Total Failure

As much as I love Wagner’s music—and I love it the most of all music—he won a battle, but totally lost the war, and completely failed in his goal. Yes, he almost single-handedly killed the old style opera, but what remained after the dust settled was a less popular art. The people he wanted to reach—the Volk (the common person)—now couldn’t care less, and couldn’t afford it even if they did. The people he despised—the rich—were now his audience.

Angela Merkel at Bayreuth
Wagner would have hated this
The fact is, many people—probably most—have a need for light-hearted entertainment. Therefore, when the composers cranked up the drama as Wagner’s theories demanded, they ultimately lost their audience. In the place of opera, operetta and musical theater grew. Those new forms pushed opera into a niche experience, generally perceived to be “high culture” of the wealthy, where earlier, opera had been popular entertainment.17 And, of course, pop music, radio, TV and the movies have since supplanted even those new forms to become what is now called mass entertainment. In a 2002 National Endowment for the Arts survey, it was found that 3.2% had seen an opera in the previous 12 months; this compares to 17.1% who had gone to musical theater.18 Thus, the lighter form is more than five times as popular in the United States in the modern day as its predecessor.

Therefore, while his influence on opera was extraordinary, Wagner only succeeded in creating a movement that proved his vision of art as quasi-religious and über-dramatic was not what most people wanted.    

The Father of Metal?

There are a whole lot of metal musicians who claim that Wagner was the father of metal music, a.k.a. heavy metal. I am not a metal fan. I admit that I had barely listened to the genre before researching this blog post. A friend had a metal band which I watched once, and we had a running gag in which I badly screamed/sang the title of “Angel of Death.”  Until I started writing this post, that was about it for me and metal. However, after listening to some of the music I link to below, I think I might just change.

Anyway, given my lack of knowledge about metal, my insights here will be limited, but I think the Wagner-metal connection is a fascinating thing, nonetheless. So does Wagner’s great-granddaughter/Bayreuth director, Katherina Wagner, who endorsed a transition-metal project at the festival house, which was a collaboration of the orchestra with the metal band Noneuclid.  This clip is worth watching, though it is hard to tell what it sounded like as a full show. Hopefully it will be released on YouTube at some point.

There is, however, a complete video of Wagner Reloaded by the Finnish cello-metal band, Apocalyptica, which is an impressive multi-media and musical fusion piece. The band is composed of three classically trained cellists and a drummer, and they have a history of bending and combining genres. In this event, symphonic and metal are fused in a very natural way. You can view it below and, while I am not always crazy about the visual images, I think the music—both Wagner’s and theirs—is awesome, as is much of the dance. I might just buy the album! The event, held in Wagner’s hometown of Leipzig, was a huge success, so they are repeating it in 2014. Information is here. If I was in Germany, I would certainly go.

Another multi-genre event was the last Julys “Wagner Experience.” It was a multi-media symphonic show, which included metal and hip-hop and video artists, who do something I would love to see, but I am not exactly sure what it was. Here is the link to their website and below is the promotion video for the event. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was repeated, too. If you are interested in the hip-hop part of the show, what the artist called “Gangsta Wagner,” go here

All I can say is that Wagner would have loved this stuff! I will actually be writing more about why I say that in an upcoming post (in two weeks): “Wagner: the Patron Saint of Burning Man, and Other Observations.”

Another band who loves Wagner is Manowar. The bassist of Manowar, Joey DeMaio , declares that Wagner is “The father of heavy metal. Wagners music changed my life many years ago. I dont know if I could live another day without the feeling his music gives me. He was the greatest composer ever. He invented metal.”  This year at a symposium in Melbourne in conjunction with their Ring cycle, Charris Efthimiou gave a talk on the subject of the Wagner cult within the metal community. I can’t find a copy of the full talk, but here is the abstract about it:

The American Heavy Metal band MANOWAR described Richard Wagner as the first Heavy Metal composer in musical history. During the mid 80s a new sub-genre of heavy metal (called True Metal) came to being, the representatives of which considered R. Wagner as their patron and spiritual father. Apart from MANOWAR, there are a number of True Metal bands (such as HAMMERFALL, MAJESTY and SACRED STEEL) which glorified R. Wagner in an occult manner. Although a number of scientific papers deal with the sociological, schematic and non-musical aspects of this style (true metal), the musicological and analytical aspects of the music of true metal remained largely unexplored. The aim of this paper is to give an overview of the diversity of heavy metal bands which cite R. Wagners spirit and music as an influence and to document the reaction of the audience and the reviewers in relation to Wagner. Another goal of this paper is to investigate how much concrete influence the compositional language of R. Wagner had on the music of MANOWAR throughout their career.19

By the way, Katherina Wagner’s embrace of metal is certainly different from that of her father, Wolfgang Wagner, who rejected the gift of a gold record from the band Manowar. Wolfgang wrote back to the band: “It is not in the interest of the Wagner be related with Manowar and the related music scene in any way.” That said, at least the band Katherina chose to come to BayreuthNoneuclidis not, well, scary. This video of DeMaio talking about Wagner, Germany and Wolfgang is sort of fascinating but I would certainly want to keep an arm’s length from them, too. I dont think they are my metal cup of tea.

Want to see something truly frightening? 

This is a take-off on a Manowar album that they put together. That’s not my Wagner. He wears pink lingerie, dammit!

Moving on. Here is metal version of Ride of the Valkyries (overlaid on a Toscanini performance). I don’t think it adds a thing, but maybe someone will.

And here is a Wagner excerpt entitled “Proof that Wagner Invented Metal,” which is the beginning of Walküre.  Other Wagner/metal folks say they were inspired by Siegfried’s Funeral March, the descent into Nibelheim from Reingold, the Forging Song, and similar excerpts that are very intense or rhythmic. I get the connection.

But it is about more than just Wagner excerpts like those. This blog, called “Our Father of Metal,” is dedicated to explaining the connection the author feels between Wagner and metal music.  He came from metal to Wagner.

On the other hand, the 92 year-old metal-head Sir Christopher Lee went from Wagner to metal.  He has released two metal operas on the life of Charlemagne. Lee says about Wagner and metal:

My work, my acting has always been influenced by the German composer Wagner. Now that I have been able to listen to many metal albums, I realize that the genre is a direct evolution of the world and the sounds that Wagner imagined. I am of course very pleased and honored to have been able to carry these themes through.20

Below is a little promo of his opera. You can listen to just the first bars—taken directly from Tristan and Isolde—to hear his Wagnerian intent without going any farther.

Beyond those who hear the metal connection, there are others who argue that Wagner has influenced rock. For instance a blogger who explores music “genre boundaries, and beyond” argues (with musical examples) that there is a Wagnerian aspect to the Doors (see here), Jimi Hendrix (see here), Spector’s “wall of sound” music (see here), and more.

Whatever the truth of his influence on rock and metal, it pales in comparison to his influence on movie music.  I will take that subject up next week.

End Notes

1 For more on this topic see the chapter on "Wagnerism" in The Cambridge Companion to Wagner, the section on "Reception" in The Wagner Compendium, and the book Wagnerism in European Culture and Politics.  There is a very thoughtful piece by an opera singer on Wagner's influence, in Quora (it's free, but you need to sign up) here.  Another blogger has written a general piece about his influence, here.
2 Schonberg, Great Conductors, 128; much  of the information in this section comes from this source.
3 Ibid.
4 The only work that effectively imitates Wagner’s style to my ear is the orchestral passages of Englebert Humperdink’s Hansel and Gretel. Humperdink was a close associate of Wagner’s during the last few years of his life, and his son’s musical tutor. 
5 Grey, ed., The Cambridge Guide to Wagner, Annegret Fauser, “Wagernism”, 224
6 Ibid., 224-225
7 Nichols, Debussy Remembered, 12  
8 Ibid., 125
9 Zuckerman, Wagner’s Tristan, 121
10 Arthur Wenk, “Debussy’s Prism: An Approach to Pelléas et Mélisande.” See here.
11 Abbate, “Tristan in the Composition of Pelléas,” see here
12 See here.   
13 Nicholas Baragwanath, The Italian Traditions of Puccini. See here
14 as quoted in Deborah Burton, Recondite Harmony: the Operas of Puccini, 21
15 Ibid., 21-22
16 As quoted in Ibid., 18
17 See here for opera audience history and an analysis of its decline.
18 See here
19 See here
20 See here

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