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World-class Ego

Of all the great composers, none had a bigger ego than Richard Wagner (pronounced Ree-card Vawg-ner).

Wagner (1813-1883) was famously anti-Semitic and wrote grand operas that celebrated Germanic folklore and heroism. He was dishonest, a liar, a betrayer of friends, and by most accounts, a despicable human being. An avid theater-goer, Adolph Hitler worshipped at the shrine of Richard Wagner.

Wagner also was a musical genius with ambition that knew no bounds. Who else would write an opera that required four evenings to perform--four very-long evenings? Rossini, Mozart, Puccini, Verde wrote operas,, too. However, they wrote only the music, and relied on librettists to write the words. Not Wagner. He wrote the music and the words. He also designed and supervised the construction of an opera house for his operas to be performed: the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The interior was built completely of 200-year-old wood planks in order to create the acoustic resonance of a violin. The Festspielhaus was built in the rural town of Bayreuth and therefore was not destroyed by an Allied bombing raid during World War II, and still stands as one of the world’s great opera houses. Those wood planks are now 350-years old.

For those who love gorgeous melodies, Wagner is your man. Wagner’s operas deliver continuous melody. Unlike traditional Italian opera, which is dominated by voice, Wagner’s music drama is dominated by orchestra. Those who won’t sit through his operas often appreciate his overtures and orchestral suites.

Wagner was obsessed with ancient legends and gods and heroes. At 14 he wrote a tragic drama packed with violence, love, ghosts, and witchcraft. After a few organ lessons, he turned his drama into an opera. As a musician he was largely self-taught, although he took a course in music theory while attending the University of Leipzig. At 19, he wrote his only symphony, and at 20 completed his first mature opera, “Die Feen” (The Fairies). By then he had read enough and learned enough as a choir-master to start conducting. Five years later he made his reputation as a composer of note with his first masterpiece, “The Flying Dutchman.” Then came “Tannhauser,” a medieval German story of a poet-musician in love with Venus; “Lohengrin,” based on another medieval German legend about a knight who defends the Holy Grail; then, as if to top himself, Wagner composed the monumental “Ring” cycle.

Based on ancient German and Scandinavian legends, “The Ring of the Nibelungen” took 26-years to compose, and comprises four complete operas (“The Rhinegold”, “The Twilight of the Gods”, “Siegfried”, and “The Valkyrie”). During these 26 years Wagner managed to write two additional operas, “Tristan and Isolde” and his one happy opera, “Die Meistersinger” (The Master Singer). His final opera was “Parsifal.”

Wagner divided the music world in his day and continues to do so in ours. On one side are those who think he is a musical god who composed the most inspired music ever heard, while on the other, are those who find him a tedious, long-winded bore, and vastly overrated.

Nonetheless, on the list of great composers, Wagner’s name is usually among the top ten that includes: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Haydn, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky.

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