200 years ago on May 22 1813, Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig Germany. During his lifetime, his representative of a highly modern operatic style, was considered revolutionary of classical music, his works is so difficult, even unplayable. “No musician’s music was seen as such a potentially dangerous stimulant as Wagner’s,” says James Kennaway, a historian specialising in music and medicine. “While the Nazis famously saw him as a model of musical health, at no time before or since the 1800s has one figure so dominated the debate on music as a pathogen as Wagner.”
Here several people from the classical world, tell us about the works by the great opera composer that have most inspired them:
Deborah Voigt, soprano
I’d have to say the Ring is the work by Wagner that most inspires me. My first encounter with the cycle was when I came to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. My contract for my first season was to cover one of the Valkyries, Ortlinde; it was also to sing the role of Amelia in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. I have to be honest and say that I was really hoping that I wouldn’t go on as Ortlinde because I wanted my Met debut to be as Amelia. So now I always have a special affection for whoever’s singing Ortlinde in the cast I’m in. The challenge of playing the lead Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, is to connect all three of the operas she’s in so that we can see her development. the most difficult part of the role is definitely the ‘Hojotohos’ [Act II, scene I from Die Walküre]. They’re the first thing we hear of Brünnhilde and are iconic – so that’s very nerve-wracking. But the reward of the role is that when you get through the whole cycle, if it’s gone well, you really feel you’ve accomplished something. This is a role I will sing hopefully for many many years and still discover new nuances.
Susan Bullock, soprano
I think for me, the work that most inspires me would have to be Götterdämmerung because it’s such a complete piece, and you can actually understand the whole story of the Ring if you just seeGötterdämmerung. The relationships between all the characters are so finely drawn and you’ve got everything in this opera – evil, good, greed, power, love, deception – and then there’s the bigger philosophical idea of the redemption of the world. And it’s fantastic to sing. For me, personally, it’s the highlight of the Ringbecause you by this point Brünnhilde is just a woman without any powers, any godliness – she’s just a woman in love. To go through all the plot twists and turns of the cycle and then to be able to look beyond her own situation and make the ultimate sacrifice in the hope that there will be a renewal and a better place for others, is magnificent. Brünnhilde has got everything you could wish to play.
Richard Farnes, conductor
The first time I heard Tristian und Isolde was when I was at school. It was the Wilhelm Furtwängler recording and I found that the opera had this power to it. It’s the sort of music that you can’t imagine not being there – you can’t imagine a time before it existed. The thing I find most extraordinary about Tristan is the choice of thematic material that Wagner can just transform into anything he wants. TheTristan chord is the obvious example – it can go to any key within a few bars, and the same is true of the leitmotif system in theRing cycle. That raw material that Wagner uses is so pliable that he can shift it in terms of harmony, key, direction, to give himself an enormous palette of possibilities.
Sir Mark Elder, conductor
In 1968 I had the opportunity of going to Bayreuth, along with many other young British musicians, and one of the productions we saw was Wieland Wagner’s incredible production of Parsifal. I remember it vividly – all of it – to this day. It made an enormous impact on me. I’d never seen Parsifal before, but I found it mesmerisingly beautiful, although difficult to understand – and that still stands all these years later. I think it’s a fascinating, electrically beautiful work which has so many different images, resonances and metaphors in it from so many different parts of world culture. The Ring is a clear, exciting adventure story: Parsifal is a mystical, dramatic legend and I love it more and more. The music has a special glow about it, a special quality in the orchestration that Wagner perfected in his theatre of Bayreuth. The section I most look forward to conducting is the Good Friday music, because there’s nothing like it in the rest of the opera. It expresses the glory of Nature’s rebirth, mirroring Parsifal’s own development and flowering. I think that is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.
Martin Roscoe, pianist
Tristan und Isolde is what kicked me off with Wagner. When I was 14, I got it out on LP from the Liverpool record library and also had the full score. I made the mistake of putting it straight on from Act I – I found it totally boring and mystifying, and didn’t get anything out of it at all. However, I thought I ought to stick with it, and listened to bits here and there from the other two acts… and began to find bits that I liked, such as the Liebestod, for instance. At that point, I decided to have another go from the beginning. By the time I had to return the discs after two weeks, I was hooked! It still has a magical mysterious feeling about it for me. I wouldn’t say I adore every single note, but there’s both a sensuality and tremendous agony about it that, in the best performances, can leave you absolutely breathless.
Jonathan Dove, composer
It was an act of youthful hubris to agree to adapt the Ring for chamber forces and make it shorter, but it was how I got to know the work. The big lesson was in re-scoring it, thinking about every sound and trying to achieve the same in chamber terms. I realised how important colour was in Wagner’s music: you think of his work as being about scale. But in fact the thing that really makes an impact is the extraordinary detail with which he colours every element in the Ring. His use of orchestral colour as a way of telling a story had a huge impact on me as a composer, the way he puts the building blocks of music right on the storyline – the Rhine represented as an arpeggio and so on. That means there’s going to be a musical satisfaction in his work that absolutely synchronises with dramatic satisfaction.
David Pountney, opera director
Such is the richness of Wagner’s work and its susceptibility to continual re-interpretation, it is tempting to reply that the most inspiring is the next one you are about to engage with. In this case, that is Lohengrin which opens on Thursday at Welsh National Opera. Actually, up to now this has never been one of my favourite Wagner operas, but after a spell-binding dress rehearsal on Monday I changed my mind. There is a particular transcendent clarity about the soundworld of this opera, a visionary purity associated with the character of Elsa, but I have always been a trifle impatient with the narrative device that no-one may know the secret of Lohengrin’s antecedents. Now it makes sense to me! From the political point of view, this is the revolutionary character who demands to be accepted for what he does, not who his parents were or where he went to school. And from the personal point of view, he is an idealist demanding blind devotion. As always with Wagner, this represents a disturbing but stimulating mix of the divine and the dangerous.