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Composers from Amazon.com's Get Started in Classical:

Bach Glass Schubert
Beethoven Mahler Stravinsky
Copland Mozart Tilson Thomas
Corigliano Mutter Wagner
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Richard Wagner

This is from Amazon.com's Get Started in Classical.

Richard Wagner's music seeks to offer a transcendent experience

According to legend, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) personally torched Dresden's old opera house--where he himself was employed as conductor--as part of his role in the city's political uprisings of 1849. In reality that wasn't the case (although he likely did obtain a supply of grenades for the insurrectionists), but there is a kind of poetic truth to the image. For while the composer's youthful dreams of a socialist utopia soon withered away with the failure of the revolution, he still managed to shake the artistic conventions of his time to their foundation.

Having narrowly escaped a lengthy prison sentence (and possible capital punishment) by fleeing into exile from German territory, Wagner threw himself with renewed force into the life work that would successfully instigate an aesthetic revolution of profound influence, one that reached well beyond the realm of music to such figures as Baudelaire, Nietzsche, George Bernard Shaw, and Thomas Mann. No matter how little previous exposure you've had to classical music, you'll almost certainly have encountered Wagner's monumental presence in the areas of literature, philosophy, theater history, even psychology.

The core element of Wagner's creative struggle centered around his elevation of the work of art to a quasi-religious purpose intended to unfold humanity's deepest truths and thus transport its audience into a higher state of consciousness. Inspired by an idiosyncratic, idealistic view of the significance of art--above all the communal theater festivals--in ancient Greek culture, Wagner denounced the devolution of contemporary opera into a formulaic commodity meant to provide frivolous entertainment. His theories continually changed course and led to unresolved contradictions regarding how to reform opera into an all-encompassing artwork--presenting a synthesis of music, drama, myth, poetry, and visuals. But in practice Wagner developed a musical expression of extraordinary dimensions and gripping power. Ever since his own time, it's been a fundamental tenet of Wagner's detractors that this very aspect of his music has a dangerously narcotic potency.

Multilayered and complex as Wagner's operas are, their music has a unique emotional immediacy, and the present collection of overtures and preludes is a great place to begin exploring what this composer is all about. Already in the overture to his first real masterpiece, The Flying Dutchman, you can hear Wagner's uncanny capacity for musical description--in this case of a sea storm brewing, a metaphor for the title character's state of damnation--in the turbulent, restless rush of strings and calls from horns and trumpets. The calmer passage that follows and then alternates with the aggressive music is like a port in the storm and portrays through its gentle wind scoring the ideal of Goethe's "eternal feminine," that is, the possibility of redemption through love. This concept, which the overture illustrates in the sudden illumination of its final passage, was a central obsession for Wagner and would recur in some form in all his works.

The typical opera overture of the time--like that of many Broadway musicals--was often nothing more than a potpourri of the hit tunes of the piece packaged together. In contrast, Wagner uses this time before the curtain rises to steep his audience in the opera's emotional world. Sometimes his approach is to evoke a poetic atmosphere, as in the slow, steady descent and ascent of the shimmering Lohengrin prelude (described by Thomas Mann as a "silvery blue") that signals the arrival and sad departure of an otherworldly power. Sometimes he imprints what is at stake in the drama to follow with an overview, as in the overture to Tannhäuser, a kind of mini-epic in itself that sets up the story's conflict between spiritual and erotic love with two utterly contrasting kinds of music. It's the best performance on this disc, and Daniel Barenboim--one of today's most persuasive Wagnerians--leads a brilliantly colorful account.

In his work as a conductor, Wagner had mastered the potential of the orchestra, and a key characteristic of his music is the painterly detail and magic of its instrumentation. (Played on the piano, Wagner's scores lose much of their evocative power.) Notice how bewitchingly Wagner illustrates the sensual world in the overture's middle part with a caressing solo violin or a Siren-like melody in the clarinet.

Wagner perceived himself, in typical megalomaniac fashion, as the one true heir to Beethoven, fusing the organic integrity of symphonic music with drama's power to represent elemental conflict--he once referred to his works as "deeds of music made visible." The overture to Die Meistersinger presents a marvelous example of his mature and tightly knit symphonic style; its many themes come together in a climax of intricately woven, joyously affirmative textures--with particularly noble contributions from the Chicago brass--that introduce the composer's only comic work.

The central work that preoccupied Wagner, for a quarter-century of his career in fact, was the epic Ring cycle, which will be the topic of a future installment of Get Started In. But for many, the composer's unsurpassed masterpiece is Tristan und Isolde. Its depiction of an unquenchable desire and the longing for transcendence both epitomizes romanticism and points the way to the crisis of 20th-century music. As usual, Wagner stripped away his medieval source to get at the mythic core, and the music conjures the "soul states" of its tragic lovers with unrelenting intensity. The prelude encapsulates their longing through boldly unresolved harmonies and melodies that can't seem to end; even the conspicuous silences offer no rest but instead heighten the tension. In the orgasmic "Liebestod," the composer offers one of his most unforgettable visions of bliss. And the ripples of the music Wagner found to express both this agony and this ecstasy would spread well into the next century.

Thomas May, Classical Editor

More Richard Wagner can be found in Musical Information and Recommendations for Adults
List of Composers

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