Perhaps no other composer in history sought to combine such obviously incompatible elements in his works. The qualities that make Richard Wagner’s supporters so enthusiastic are often the same ones that repel his opponents, such as his tendency toward extremes in every aspect of composition. Although he stretched the limits of harmony and operatic form to the breaking point, the realization of his musical concepts always remained exceedingly economical. Paradoxically, this very economy defines the incomparable dimension of his structures. Perhaps he found it necessary to make especially frugal use of certain individual elements in order to make the effect of the Gesamtkunstwerk—the total work of art—even greater and more unexpected.
A good example of Wagner’s economy can be found at the beginning of the first act of Die Walküre, in which a wild storm rages. Even Beethoven made use of all the orchestral instruments in the storm in his Sixth Symphony, and given the instrumentation available to Wagner, one could assume that his storm would take on even grander proportions.
Instead, however, he allows only the strings to unfurl the full force of the storm; the result is a far more direct, naked, and compact sound than a full Wagnerian orchestra with brass and timpani would have produced. It is the precision of Wagner’s directions in the dynamic structuring of his scores that brings out the emotionality of the music. Wagner was the first composer to very consciously calculate and demand the speed of dynamic developments. When he wants to achieve a climax, he generally applies one of two techniques: either he lets a crescendo grow gradually and organically, or he lets the same musical material swell two or three times in order to let it explode the third or fourth time.
In Wagner’s operas, there are frequent cases in which the musical material swells up and down in two bars the first time it appears. The second time Wagner allows the same material to grow for two bars with a subito piano—sudden quiet—immediately afterward. Only the third time is there a climax after four bars of crescendo. A mathematical equation therefore gives rise to sensuality and fervor. It is his skillful intellectual calculation that creates the impression of spontaneity and purely emotional sensation.
Another characteristic of Wagner’s musical uniqueness can be observed in the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, in the continuation of the famous “Tristan chord” at the beginning of the opera. A composer with less genius and with a poorer understanding of the mystery of music would assume that he must resolve the tension he has created. It is precisely the sensation caused by an only partial resolution, though, that allows Wagner to create more and more ambiguity and more and more tension as this process continues; each unresolved chord is a new beginning.
Wagner’s music is often complex, sometimes simple, but never complicated. It is a subtle difference, but complication, in this sense, implies among other meanings the use of unnecessary mechanisms or…
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