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Wagner was the megalomaniac creator of vast operatic monoliths, whose revolutionary style took the world by storm. But what makes him great? And why do people rave about his music?
Is it true Wagner wrote the Ring Cycle backwards?
Well, yes and no. The epic poem upon which the operatic tetralogy is based was indeed written in reverse order. Having kicked off with Götterdämmerung in 1848, Wagner found that he had to keep back-tracking in order to explain the background to certain events. The poem took four years to complete, but the entire project took nearly 26. The music of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and half of Siegfried was complete by 1857; the latter was finally rounded off in 1871, and Götterdämmerung wrapped in 1874.
How does a typical Wagner opera work?
Wagner revolutionised the world of opera. In place of the usual series of set-piece arias and choruses, he created gargantuan operatic edifices out of a series of recurring symbolic musical ‘Leitmotifs’ that could be adapted according to context.
But what about all his crazy ideas?
Wagner should probably have just let his music do the talking. Among the more bizarre of his theories was his belief in the redemption of the world by vegetarianism, although he touched on most things, from hygiene to vivisection to Buddhism. And there’s worse?
Wagner would have given the PC lobby apoplexy. In addition to his rabid anti-Semitism, for example, he was in the habit of stealing married women, most notably Cosima von Bülow, the wife of conductor Hans and Liszt’s illegitimate daughter.
But did he ever actually end up in jail?
No – but it was a close thing. Wagner escaped the Dresden police by the skin of his teeth in 1848, following his involvement in revolutionary activities. His extra-marital affairs also resulted in his fleeing Zurich for Vienna, and later Munich for Switzerland.
So was he a genius or charlatan?
There are passages in Wagner’s late operas that triumphantly proclaim a creative talent of truly staggering dimensions. But Rossini was perhaps not entirely overstating the case when he opined: "Wagner has good moments, but bad quarters-of-an-hour."