Richard Wagner, who was born 200 years ago, is one of the most decisive figures in classical music.
His main creative effort was a series of ten operas, all of which remain in the standard repertory. Despite the great demands these pieces place on opera houses, they continue to be regularly performed and recorded, winning new listeners with their blend of innovative music, literary ambition and theatrical effectiveness.
Wagner’s musical innovations, especially in harmony, influenced virtually every composer who followed him. Hugely ambitious, he created a theater dedicated to the performance of his works at Bayreuth, in Germany. To this day, the Festspielhaus performs only his music.
As a thinker, he left a mingled legacy: his ideas about music, theater and performance are of lasting influence, while the glorification of his work by the Nazis, and his own anti-Semitism, guarantee that he remains a controversial figure today.
His most massive work is the cycle of four operas, “The Ring of the Nibelung.” Wagner, who wrote his own librettos, drew his story from Norse mythology and Germanic epic. But just as Wagner was influenced by the philosophy of his own day, productions of the Ring have often brought modern-day concerns — political, psychological, environmental — to this story of gods, dragons and heroes.
In Das Rheingold, the dwarf Alberich steals the magical Rhinegold from the river Rhine, and forges it into a ring giving its owner limitless power. But it comes at a price: the renunciation of love. When the king of the gods, Wotan, hears of the ring, he resolves to have it for himself. He steals the ring from Alberich, who places a curse on it — which quickly begins to be fulfilled.
Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) centers around the children whom Wotan has fathered to further his plans to rule the world and regain the ring. In Act 1, two of those children, the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, become lovers—to the outrage of the goddess Fricka.
The repercussions will not be happy ones for Wotan, who is forced by Fricka to withdraw his protection from Siegmund. When Wotan orders his beloved daughter Brünnhilde to carry out his wishes, she disobeys, and he is forced to part from her as well.
Though Wotan appears in Siegfried, he is now a weary observer of the world, not its master. The opera centers around Siegfried, the son of the two lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde. We see him forging a magic sword, slaying a dragon, regaining the ring, and finally winning Brünnhilde as his mate.
At the end of Siegfried, the happiness of Siegfried and Brünnhilde seemed assured. But in Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), we see them pulled into the same web of deceit and betrayal as the gods before them.
By the last scene, Siegfried has been killed by the evil Hagen. Brünnhilde joins him on his funeral pyre. The purifying flames consume the couple, and Valhalla itself.
An acclaimed recording from the 1953 Bayreuth Festival, called by the New York Times “the best on records”Conductor