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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 10 Deeds of Music Made Visible (Class of 1813, I)
Richard Taruskin
Form and Content

fig. 10-5 Die Walküre, costume and stage designs by M. Ferdinandus. At left, Siegmund and Siglinde fall in love (Act I); at right, Wotan bids farewell to Brünnhilde (Act III).

The first step was to depict the events recounted by the last segment of the Norns’ narrative: Siegfried's coming of age as a hero, his killing the dragon, and winning Brünnhilde. This was accomplished in a “poem” called Der junge Siegfried (“Young Siegfried”), composed in the spring of 1851 right after Oper und Drama was completed. Next, to explain how the sleeping Brünnhilde had got where she was (on a rocky peak surrounded by fire) when Siegfried penetrated her bastion and awakened her, and to clarify Siegfried's qualifications, so to speak, for his heroic calling (being the incestuous—thus purebred—offspring of two fine Volsung specimens), Wagner preceded Der junge Siegfried with another “poem,” Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie,” that is, Brünnhilde), composed between November 1851 and July 1852.

In the process of composing Die Walküre, Wagner completely reconceived the drama under the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher whose pessimistic worldview had converted Wagner from the optimistic ideas of the young Hegelians. He reconfigured the Ring around Wotan—the chief of the Gods and Brünnhilde's father—as central character, rather than Siegfried. Wotan's original sin, that of destroying the World Ash Tree by hacking his invincible spear from it, now became the deed for which the whole history of the Ring was the expiation, an expiation that now ended tragically, not with the redemption of the gods (as in Siegfrieds Tod, which now had to be drastically revised), but with their violent destruction. Finally, to show the beginning of that history, namely the theft of the gold hoard and the forging of the ring by Alberich the Nibelung (as related in the first stanza of the original Norns’ narrative), Wagner wrote one last poem to serve as prologue in the form of a single mighty (two-hour) act: Das Rheingold (“The Rhine gold”), completed in November 1852.

Form and Content

fig. 10-6 Das Rheingold, David Bispham (1857–1921) as Alberich.

Only now could Wagner turn to the creation of his musical reality, beginning of course with Das Rheingold and ending with Götterdämmerung. Thus the composition of the poems and that of the music proceeded in opposite chronologies (see Table 10-1).

By the time Wagner returned to the Norns’ scene at the beginning of what was now Götterdämmerung and composed its definitive version, nineteen years had passed during which he had written five “dramas”—for so he insisted on calling the works he wrote after Opera and Drama, in which he had pronounced conventional “opera” forever invalid. In the process he had completely transformed his methods and his style to conform with the precepts he had speculatively evolved. The big gap in the midst of Siegfried was due in the first instance to Wagner's despair at his prospects for

TABLE 10-1 Chronology of the Ring



Siegfrieds Tod (1848–1849; revised 1852)

Götterdämmerung (3 acts) (1869–1874)

Der junge Siegfried (1851; rev. 1852)

Siegfried (3 acts) (acts I & II 1857; act II scored 1864–1865; act III 1869)

Die Walküre (1851–1852)

Die Walküre (3 acts) (1854–1856)

Das Rheingold (1852)

Das Rheingold (1 act) (1853–1854)

ever getting the Ring performed, but mainly by the composition of two other dramas, to which our discussion will eventually return: Tristan und Isolde (completed in 1859, performed in 1865), often cited as the supreme practical embodiment of his theories, followed by Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagner's one mature comedy (completed in 1867, performed in 1868).

Form and Content

fig. 10-7 Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, 1875.

Form and Content

fig. 10-8 Festspielhaus in longitudinal cross section. Onstage are the flats for Parsifal; the orchestra, famously, is below and under the stage in the “mystic abyss”; and the auditorium is, no less famously, without aristocratic boxes.

The eventual return to the Ring, and its completion, were made possible by a godsend: the unsolicited intervention of Ludwig II, the newly crowned king of Bavaria (southern Germany). The infatuated eighteen-year-old monarch summoned Wagner to Munich, his capital, in 1864, paid off all of Wagner's mountainous debts, lifted all bans on his travel, commissioned the completion of the Ring for the unheard-of sum of thirty thousand florins, subsidized the construction of an opera house (or “festival playhouse,” to use Wagner's somewhat righteous term) to the composer's specifications in the town of Bayreuth for the sole purpose of performing his works, and even made Wagner his unofficial yet very powerful political adviser. Needless to say, the king's munificence profoundly altered Wagner's political and social views, which quickly took a reactionary and loyally monarchist turn. It also brought Wagner's operatic “reform” historically into line with previous ones: like those of the Florentine Camerata in the sixteenth century or Gluck in the eighteenth, Wagner's was now no revolutionary exploit but a neoclassical revival under the protection of a crown, about as socially conservative a concept as the history of music provides.

But even if their political underpinning had now swung 180 degrees to the right, Wagner's artistic precepts remained what they were. Here is how he summarized the elements of the “music drama” in a passage toward the end of “A Communication to My Friends” (with its sections numbered for reference in the ensuing discussion). The style of the prose itself suggests the leisurely, exhaustive, finally overpowering dramatic unfolding that Wagner now sought:

[1: The shape of the drama as a Whole] I now saw that in making the music I must necessarily proceed to a gradual but complete upheaval of the traditional operatic form. This opera-form was never by nature a form embracing the whole of the drama, but was just an arbitrary conglomerate of separate smaller forms of song, whose fortuitous concatenation of Arias, Duets, Trios, etc., together with Choruses and so-called ensemble-pieces, comprised the actual edifice of Opera.

Form and Content

fig. 10-9 Stage magic at Bayreuth: carriages that supported the swimming Rhine maidens in the first full production of the Ring in 1876.

In the poetic fashioning of my material, it was henceforth impossible for me to contemplate filling out these ready-made forms. Through my music I could only aim now at bringing the drama's inherent overall shape within the grasp of Feeling. In the whole course of the drama I saw no possibility of division or demarcation, other than the Acts themselves, in which the place or time is shifted, or the Scenes in which the dramatis personae change. Moreover, the pliant unity of the myth-material made it unnecessary to crowd the scenes with incident as modern playwrights do; the whole strength of my dramatic portrayal could now be concentrated in a few weighty and decisive moments of development. […] The more I extricated myself from the influence of conventional form, the more definitely the Form of portrayal now required by the peculiarities of my material and its dramatic situations took shape in my mind.

[2: The musical form] This procedure, dictated by the nature of the poetic subject, exercised a quite specific influence on the tissue of my music, as regards the characteristic combination and ramification of the Thematic Motives. Just as the structure of the individual scenes excluded every alien and unnecessary detail and led all interest to the main all-governing mood of the whole, so did the whole construction of the drama join itself into one organic unity, whose easily-surveyed members were delineated by those few scenes and situations that determined the succession of moods. No mood could be struck in any of these scenes that did not stand in a significant relationship to the moods of all the other scenes, so that the development of the moods of each from the others, and the constant prominence of this development, should establish the unity of the drama in its very mode of expression.

Each of these chief moods, in keeping with the nature of the material, must also gain a definite musical expression, which should display itself to the sense of hearing as a definite musical Theme. Just as, in the progress of the drama, the intended climax of a decisive main mood was only to be reached through a development, continuously present to the Feeling, of the individual moods already roused, so must the musical expression, which directly influences the physical feeling, necessarily take a decisive share in this development to a climax. And this purpose was realized, as if all by itself, in the form of a characteristic tissue of principal themes that spread itself not over one scene only (as heretofore in separate operatic “numbers”), but over the whole drama, and did so in intimate connection with the poetic aim.

[3: The musical style] From the “absolute-music” period of my youth, I recall that I had often posed myself the question: How must I set about inventing thoroughly original melodies that should bear a stamp peculiar to myself alone? The more I approached the period when I based my musical construction upon the poetic material, the more completely this anxiety for a special style vanished, until (having gained my objective) I lost it altogether. In my earlier operas I was purely governed by traditional modern melody, whose character I imitated and, out of the concern just mentioned, I merely sought to trick out with rhythmic and harmonic idiosyncrasies that I might vainly call my own. I had always, moreover, a greater leaning to broad and longspun melodies than to the short, broken and contrapuntal melismus [this evidently means something like “short turns of phrase”] proper to instrumental chamber music.

In the Flying Dutchman, though, for the first time, I touched on the rhythmic melody of the Folk—but only where the poetic material brought me into contact with the folk-element per se, here taking on a more or less national character. Wherever I had to give utterance to the emotions of my dramatis personae, on the other hand, as displayed in their passionate exchanges, I was forced to abstain altogether from this rhythmic melody of the folk; or rather, it could not so much as occur to me to employ that method of expression. It was then my purpose that the dialogue itself, conforming to the emotional content, was to be rendered in such a fashion that not the melodic expression per se but the expressed emotion should arouse the interest of the hearer.

The melody, in other words, must spring, quite of itself, from the verse. It could not be permitted to attract attention in itself, as sheer melody, but only insofar as it was the most expressive vehicle for an emotion already plainly outlined in the words. Having arrived at this strict conception of the role of melody, I now completely left the usual operatic mode of composition. I no longer tried intentionally for customary melody—or, in a sense, for melody at all, but absolutely let it take its cue from the feeling-utterance of the words.

[4: The form and style of the poem] The only thing that stood in my way was the imperfection of our modern verse, in which I could find no perceptible trace of any natural melodic source, nor any standard of musical expression. The trouble was its utter lack of genuine rhythm. I could never have set my Siegfried [that is, Siegfrieds Tod] if I had to rely on such verse. Thus I needed to invent a Speech-melody of an altogether different kind. And yet, in truth, I did not have to give it much thought, but only take courage; for at the same primal mythic spring where I had found the fair young Siegfried [that is, in the Nibelungenlied itself] I also lit, led by his hand, upon the perfect mode of utterance wherein such a man could speak his feelings. This was the alliterative verse, bending itself in natural and lively rhythm to the actual accents of our speech, yielding itself so readily to every shade of expression—that very Stabreim which the Folk itself once sang, when it was still both poet and mythmaker!30

In sum then, to paraphrase section 1, in order to invest his drama with the authentic attributes of epic, and create not in the spirit of a modern composer, but in that of a folk bard, Wagner envisioned a vast, sweeping structure in which a scene or even a whole hour-long act would be articulated not by means of the customary largish units or “numbers” of conventional opera, but by means of tiny musical particles in ever-changing combinations and amalgams. This building up of a great whole out of a uniformly deployed fund of tiny but intensely meaningful parts would both lend organic unity to an unprecedented temporal span and eliminate the need for a clutter of depicted action. The action of the music drama, like that of an epic, would unfold in a kind of rapt and ritualized stasis that evoked the timeless time of myth, taking its shape within the mind of the spectator under the influence of the particles streaming by, endlessly associated and re-associated by the events depicted or described.

For this purpose description is as good as depiction, and that is why Wagner left so much narrative in place in the fully elaborated Ring, and why the reason usually given for its elaboration—viz., to replace events narrated in Siegfrieds Tod (=Götterdämmerung) with events actually enacted and depicted in Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried—is so inadequate to the task of explaining its final shape. It was to gather up the fund (or “tissue”) of musical particles that would give the events of the final epic-drama a true “past in music” or musical reality, and the possibility of the kind of thematic linkages Wagner now envisioned, that made the vast, slowly unfolding preliminary trio of epic-dramas necessary.

In section 2, Wagner named the particles Hauptthemen, “main themes,” as had become the standard nomenclature (through the writings of the music theorist Adolph Bernhard Marx) for the constituent themes in the exposition of a symphony or sonata movement. Most of them are far shorter than what is usually meant by a full-fledged theme, though, and some are really atomic particles—a mere turn of phrase (melismus), a chord progression, even a single chord or (at their most minimal) a single interval, if played with a characteristic timbre. They are more like what music analysts call motives, the kind of elemental ideas from which themes are built up, or (more typically) into which they devolve when developed.

At its most characteristic, then, it makes more sense to regard the Wagnerian “tissue” not as a thematic exposition but rather as a vastly extended, tonally vagrant development section. In this way its kinship with (or more strongly, its actual origin in) what Wagner was the first to call “absolute music”—the transcendently and ineffably expressive instrumental music of German romanticism—is kept in view. In keeping with the deliberately unspecified (and therefore protean or multivalent) significance of “absolute music,” Wagner never gave his themes or “particles” descriptive or programmatic designations, the way Berlioz, for example (in the Symphonie fantastique), designated and delimited the meaning of his idée fixe. Wagner evidently wished to let the meanings of his motives emerge by a wordless process of association with the unfolding action, as (on a much smaller scale) the use of “reminiscence motives” had worked in earlier operas all the way back to the eighteenth century.

In 1876, however, the year in which the complete four-day Ring cycle was first performed at Bayreuth, Wagner authorized Hans von Wolzogen (1848–1938), a young aristocratic disciple, to compile and publish what he called a Thematischer Leitfaden durch die Musik zu Richard Wagners Festspiel ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ (“Thematic guidebook through the music to Richard Wagner's festival play ‘The Ring of the Nibelung’”), the first of countless such books, sold wherever Wagner is performed, in which the particles were isolated and listed, and given names for ready reference.

These particles, which Wagner (and following him, Wolzogen) simply called themes, had already been given another name by a number of other commentators. Its originator, ironically enough, was an old enemy of Wagner's named Heinrich Dorn (1804–92), an acquaintance from the early days in Riga, who had written a folksy opera of his own on the Nibelungen legend as early as 1854, and resented Wagner's arrogant pretensions to revolutionize the arts of music and drama. Seeking to make fun of Wagner's “particles,” Dorn had dubbed them Leitmotive (singular, Leitmotiv), a term obviously related to “guidebook” (Leitfaden), which caricatured Wagner's thematic particles as “motives to guide you” (i.e., through this mess). Other writers immediately found the ill-meant designation useful, however, and it is now standard terminology in all languages. In English the word is usually spelled “leitmotif” (plural, “leitmotives”).

Whether the labels that Wolzogen and many later writers have attached to Wagner's leitmotives are equally useful is another matter. Many writers have deplored them as simplistic or “inaccurate”—though by what measure their accuracy can be gauged is hard to guess, since Wagner never named them and so they are all inaccurate by definition—and have called for their rejection. Commentators have occasionally tried to make do with numbers. That Wolzogen's names have tended narrowly to limit their signification can hardly be denied, though, and that is indeed a drawback.

An even greater drawback is the implication that, once named, leitmotives operate as objective referents rather than (as Wagner wished) a stimulus to the listener's subjective involvement in the drama. Without knowing the non-Wagnerian origin of the labels, one could easily imagine that Wagner conceived his leitmotives abstractly or even prepared them in advance of composition, as raw material; whereas in fact they arose in the course of the compositional act in conventionally spontaneous response to the poem and functioned thereafter in a manner no different in kind from that of a reminiscence motif, albeit on a vastly greater scale, to the point where, in Götterdämmerung, they constituted practically the whole of the musical “tissue,” just as Wagner intended from the outset. William Mann, a translator and a respected explicator of the Ring (and an eloquent advocate of numbers), has cautioned that “every listener must decide for himself what The Ring means to him, and he will do so reasonably and justly, not necessarily by mastering the labels assigned to the ninety-odd musical themes by Hans von Wolzogen or [others], but by observing at which significant moments the themes appear and what may, as a result, be deduced from this.” To label them, Mann argues (echoing a sally by Claude Debussy), reduces leitmotives to the level of “musical visiting cards.”31

And yet even the way Mann describes them shows why mere numbers will not do: the occurrence and recurrence of leitmotives, borne along in a compellingly directed temporal medium that Wagner called the “sea of harmony,” are what define the “significant moments” in the drama. They have, in short, not only musical but dramatic significance, and do indeed evoke a conceptual as well as a sensory response; their whole intended magic, in short, lies in their capacity to link (and to control the link between) the sensory and conceptualizing faculties, thus producing a synergy that magnifies response (or what Wagner called the feeling's-understanding) far beyond what either music or poetry or spoken drama might individually elicit. They are the chief vehicle through which the artistic synthesis at the heart of the Wagnerian enterprise operates.

Therefore, in the discussion that follows, and in keeping with the idea behind Mann's suggestion, leitmotives will be treated not as abstract signifiers but, as far as possible, as reminiscence motives. That is, they will be identified not only with their convenient conventional labels, but also (and primarily) in terms of their first appearance in the drama. (In the case of Götterdämmerung, this means they will be traced to their appearances in the earlier operas in the cycle.) In this way their status as concrete references through which every moment in the unfolding drama is linked, both conceptually and sensorily, with other moments, can be savored the way Wagner meant it to be savored: that is, as the elements out of which a mythical world and its history—amounting to nothing less than a mythic or alternative reality—is assembled not only in the composer's imagination, but in the listener/spectator's as well. But it will not do to scorn the verbal labels in principle: as word-savers they are indispensable.

Before observing Wagner's tissue of leitmotives in action as the articulator of epic drama, there is one more idea to investigate, the very important but often overlooked point raised in sections 3 and 4 in the extract from Wagner's “Communication,” where the matter of personal style comes into collision with that of “folk” (that is, common or communal) style. Wagner clearly hankered after a style that would be both personal and in some sense communal, because he wanted both the prestige of a romantic genius (who had to be original) and the social potency of a bard (who partook of the language of his community).

His early, artificial attempts at originality, he confesses, were futile, lacking in social potency. Later, in The Flying Dutchman, he attempted to write in a folk style, but that style limited his originality, and in any event was only available for use when the characters singing were plausible representatives of “the folk” (that is, for the most part, faceless peasants in chorus). What was needed was a communal language that not only his characters but Wagner himself could use and adapt into a modern personal style. What Wagner wanted, in short, was a folklore (or an archaic lore, which for him meant the same thing) that could be used not merely as an object of representation, but as a source of personal style.

This sort of folklorism was given a name—“neonationalism”—in the twentieth century, not by musicologists but by art historians, originally with reference not to German but to Russian art. It fits Wagner's ideals and methods perfectly, however: from the Stabreim of old bardic poetry (short for Buchstabenreim, “rhyming with letters,” that is, with initials) he educed a highly rhythmic but unrhymed verbal idiom full of assonance and alliteration on heavily accented syllables, out of which arose a compelling rhythm that animated the music in turn. In his stylistic impersonation of an ancient bard Wagner paradoxically found the path to a modern, original, and instantly recognizable personal idiom. As Jean Cocteau, a theorist of twentieth-century modernism, once said, an original creator has only to copy something in order to demonstrate his originality.32

Wagner was in this sense perhaps the first modern artist. The community to which he gave voice was at first an imaginary community. But imaginary or no, he was its authentic voice, and around his work a real community of Wagnerian adepts did eventually form, a community unlike any other that ever arose around a composer. As the philosopher Bryan Magee has marveled, “the worship of Wagner by people of all kinds, including some who were themselves possessed of creative ability of the highest order, and in fields quite different from music, is something unique in the history of our culture.”33 To investigate the source and the mechanism of the Wagnerian magic will be to investigate simultaneous revolutions in art and in national ideology.


(30) Richard Wagner's Prose Works, Vol. I, pp. 367–76, condensed.

(31) William Mann, “Down with Visiting Cards” (1965), in Penetrating Wagner's Ring, ed. John L. DiGaetani (New York: Da Capo Press, 1978), p. 303.

(32) Jean Cocteau, “Cock and Harlequin,” in A Call to Order, trans. Rollo Myers (London: Faber and Gwyer, 1926), p. 32.

(33) Bryan Magee, Aspects of Wagner (New York: Stein and Day, 1969), p. 57.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Deeds of Music Made Visible (Class of 1813, I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-010005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Deeds of Music Made Visible (Class of 1813, I). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-010005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Deeds of Music Made Visible (Class of 1813, I)." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-010005.xml