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Rhythm-A-Day Blog for February 13, 2020: The Passing of Richard Wagner

Posted by Wolf Murphy on

The passing of Richard Wagner
(and Siegfried)

Richard Wagner (Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was a German composer, theatre director, and conductor. He is known primarily for his operas  and is unusual in that he wriote both the libretto and the music for these.

Wagner revolutionised opera through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk ("total work of art"), by which he sought to synthesise the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, with music subsidiary to drama.


He introduced this idea in a series of essays—he was known for contentious and argumentative rhetoric. He manifested this intention most completely in his four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, The Ring of the Nibelung, in which he (very loosely) retold powerful stories from Nordic mythology.

His musical taste ran to complex textures, rich harmonies and dense orchestration. He relied heavily on leitmotifs—musical phrases associated with some recurrent idea, character or place in the story. He introduced several new ideas to his audiences: extreme chromaticism—"a continuously chromatic harmonic vocabulary in which the music frequently progressed toward new keys yet repeatedly postponed key-strengthening cadences" (—and rapidly changing tonal centres (each scale starts with the note that names the key and this note is the tonal center of that key, the note where music in that key feels resolved.

He led a dramatic life characterized by political exile and turbulent love affairs. He fell repeatedly into poverty and had to flee from debt collectors. His writings were quite controversial in his time, addressing topics from music to drama to politics. Unfortunately, genius does not guarantee freedom from prejudice and his writings evidenced his antisemitism. 

Wagner died on February 13, 1883.

Brünnhilde on Grane leaps onto the funeral pyre of Siegfried.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham. (Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Siegfried is introduced in the third opera in the Ring cycle, surprisingly also named Siegfried; in the fourth opera, Götterdämmerung—SPOILER ALERT—he dies. (By the way, this opera calls for: tam tam, orchestral bass drum, clash cymbals, triangle, and a snare drum—definitely a bit rock-drummery!)

After Siegfried's death there is a Trauermarsch or funeral procession for him. We will play a section of the Timpani composition: 

Today's Video Lesson

If you'd like to hear the full orchestral version of Siegfried's Funeral March, this is a fantastic performance! Try and find our excerpt!

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