Fear of the Flying Dutchman: Wagner, an Introduction

Meeting chaired by Dr Jill White

David Winter

University of Bristol

24 May 2005

The talk provided an introduction to Wagner for those who already enjoy some classical music but have found Wagner’s music too long or difficult to understand and enjoy. The talk also used a powerpoint demonstration.

The main thesis of the talk was that Wagner is exceptional among great composers. While every great composer is unique, Wagner’s exceptionality is exceptional. This is partly because of the extraordinary life. The talk then gave a chronological account of Wagner’s life. During this account various issues about both Wagner’s music and his ideas were discussed, interspersed and illustrated with musical excerpts.

After recounting Wagner’s early life, an excerpt from Der Freischutz was contrasted with an excerpt from Hollander. It was argued that Wagner used Weber for his own purposes to provide a link between Wagner’s own music and Beethoven’s. On this view Weber is merely transitional. The musical illustration indicated the similarity and the differences between Weber and Wagner not entirely in Wagner’s favour.

The next topic concerned Wagner’s musical techniques and innovations. The idea of the leitmotif and its musical development as taken from the classical symphony was discussed. The prelude to Das Rheingold illustrates the boldness of Wagner’s orchestral writing, his harmonic self-consciousness, and the first use of leitmotifs in the Ring cycle.

The next musical illustration contrasts the opening of La Traviata and the prelude to Act 1 of Tristan. Both the influence of Tristan on modern music and on Wagner’s use of myth on 20th century French structuralism was briefly discussed.

As the chronological narrative reached 1868, the talk concentrated on the re-publishing of Wagner’s anti-semitic book, Jewishness and Music, and the first performance of Die Meistersinger. The argument that Die Meistersinger is a fundamentally anti-semitic opera was summarised and assessed. The final pair of musical excerpts is the Act 1 quartet from Fidelio contrasted with the Act 3 quintet from Die Meistersinger.

After summarising the final years of Wagner’s life and giving a brief description of his achievements at Bayreuth, the finale consisted of the last twenty minutes of Act 3 of Die Walkure. The names of the various leitmotifs were given, as they are played, on the screen using powerpoint projection.

David Winter