The Operas and Music Dramas of Wagner

Die Feen
Munich, 1888
Das Liebesverbot
Magdeburg, 1836
Dresden, 1842
Der fliegende Holländer
Dresden, 1843
Dresden, 1845
Weimar, 1850
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Bayreuth, 1876 (Complete)
I. Das Rheingold
Munich, 1869
II. Die Walküre
Munich, 1870
III. Siegfried
Bayreuth, 1876
IV. Götterdämmerung
Bayreuth, 1876
Tristan und Isolde
Munich, 1865
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Munich, 1868
Bayreith, 1882

Die Feen

"The Fairies,"  never performed in Wagner's lifetime, is a long work with the usual subdivision into recitatives, arias, and ensembles.  It is apparently modeled after Beethoven and Weber.

Das Liebesverbot

"The Ban on Love" showed Wagner eagerly assimilating the Italian style.  His libretto is full of comic scenes and has some spoken dialogue.  The music is a blend of Rossini and Donizetti, with distinct traces of Meyerbeer in the finales, which often seem to strain terribly for effect.  The melodies are florid, often with typical Italian cadenzas, and everything is repeated at great length.


This was a grand opera in the fashion of the time, with just enough novelty to make it extremely popular.  The success of the work was immediate and overwhelming and led to a demand for his next opera.

Der fliegende Holländer

"The Flying Dutchman"  is essentially a German romantic opera and is divided into the customary numbers.  Some of these are quite successful, while others seem mechanical and forced, monotonous in rhythm, and without marked originality of melody or harmony.  The themes chosen are good examples of Wagner's characteristic procedure or representing basic dramatic ideas by specific musical formulae.


In this work, Wagner aimed to unite the two elements which he had developed separately in "Der fliegende Holländer" and "Rienzi" -- to clothe the dramatic idea of redemption in the garments of grand opera.  The division into numbers is still clear, though with more sweep and less rigidity than in the earlier works.  "Tannhäuser" does not sacrifice the drama for outward show.  There are few operas in which form and content are so well balanced.  The technique of Sprechgesang ("speech song") was used in this opera.  It is a melody strictly molded to the text, a semirealistic declamation of the words combined with expression of their content by means of a flexible line supported by an equally important harmonic structure.  It was not entirely new -- it had been used earlier by Weber.  The overture to "Tannhäuser" is a complete composition in itself, and, like those of "Die fliegende Holländer" and "Die Meistersinger," a synopsis of the larger dramatic and musical form to follow.

Lohengrin (hear Prelude to Act 3)

The musical setting of "Lohengrin" is altogether less spectacular than that of "Tannhäuser".  There are no sensational contrasts, and an extraordinary unity of mood prevails throughout.  The system of reminiscence motifs is still further developed, not only in extent but also in the changed function of the motifs themselves:  they are no longer used simply to recall earlier scenes and actions but to symbolize situations or abstract ideas.  From the formal point of view "Lohengrin" has shed many traces of the traditional division into numbers, as well as much of the distinction between aria and recitative.  It carries this practice further than any previous work and clearly points the way to Wagner's later style.  The harmony is remarkably diatonic; there is very little chromaticism of the sort found in the middle section of "Pilgrims' Chorus" or the "Evening Star" aria in "Tannhäuser."  The orchestration likewise contrasts;  Wagner, instead of treating them as a homogeneous group, divides them into antiphonal choirs, often with the violins subdivided and the woodwind section expanded so as to make possible a whole chord of three or four tones in a single color. "Lohengrin" is generally regarded as the last of the German Romantic operas.

Der Ring des Nibelungen

(see the Article Wagner's Ring)

Tristan und Isolde

"Tristan und Isolde" is all Wagner's.  It is owing to him, and him alone, that this is now one of the great love stories, living in the imagination of millions along with the tales of Romeo and Juliet, Launcelot and Guinevere.  The peculiar strength of the drama arises from the fact that external events are simplified to the utmost, so that the action is almost all inner, and consequently expressed almost wholly in music.  The words themselves often melt into music, losing their very character as intelligible language, nearly superfluous in many places where the plane of expression is purely that of the emotions.  The three leading ideas of the drama -- love, night, and death -- are inseparable, but each one in turn is especially emphasized in each of the three acts.  The power of the "Tristan" chromaticism comes from its being founded in tonality.  The ambiguity of the chords could not exist without the underlying tonal foundation.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg

The story has for historical background the Mastersinger Guilds of 16th-century Nuremberg and their song contests, bound about with traditional rules and customs.  Wagner not only incorporated many of these points but also borrowed several names and characters of real Mastersingers, notably Hans Sachs.  Wagner even incorporated a historical Mastersinger melody.  The focus of the work is the conflict between tradition, represented by the Guild, and artistic creativity.  "Die Meistersinger" has every requirement of good comedy and is readily accessible to the public.  With such a play as this, Wagner was led to compose a score that more nearly approaches the traditional outlines of opera.  The principle of symphonic development of a set of leitmotifs is maintained, and there is no return to the old-fashioned recitative.  There is an amount of formalization, but it fits naturally into the dramatic requirements.  The harmonic vocabulary has a much stronger diatonic foundation than that of "Tristan" and the rhythmic structure is more square.


No doubt the complexity of the poem is responsible for the music of "Parsifal" being less clear in formal outlines than that of either "Tristan" or "Meistersinger."  There is sufficient resemblance between the first and third acts to delineate a general  A B A structure, but neither the key scheme nor other details of the various scenes are as amenable to analysis as in the case of the other two works.  The music depicts different worlds of thought and feeling in sharpest possible contrast; but whereas in "Tannhäuser" there were two such worlds, in "Parsifal" there are three.  The music of Amfortas, the agonizing penitent, is intense with rich orchestral color, and dissonant with harmonic complexity almost to the point of atonality.  The Grail music, on the other hand, is diatonic and almost churchlike in style.  The third realm is the least significant, acting merely as a foil for the other two.  It is the realm of sensual pleasure exemplified in the second act.  Wagner's distinguished choral writing in "Lohengrin," "Die Meistersinger," and above all in "Parsifal" is of interest; in particular, the closing scenes of Acts I and III of "Parsifal," with their fine choral effects and the device of separated choirs, with the high and low voices giving an impression in music of actual space and depth, recall the Venetian composers of the later 16th century.

Wagner's Mature Harmonic Style

Within the larger frameworks of order, take place the various harmonic procedures which have given rise to Wagner's reputation: