Where to begin with Richard Wagner

BY Rosie Pentreath

16th Jul 2017 Music

Where to begin with Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner is arguably the most successful composer who ever lived—his mastery over harmony and melody is second to none and his operas remain among the most important ever written. Invaluable as his works are, approaching Wagner’s output can be intimidating for those new to his music. Here are our suggestions for five essential works to get you going.

Tristan und Isolde 

Tristan und Isolde has endured as Wagner’s best-known and best-loved opera. It’s the work that gave us the spine-tingling Tristan chord (a chord consisting of the augmented fourth, sixth, and ninth respectively), heard first in the second bar of the opera’s prelude.

While the chord astonished the first audiences that heard it, it’s the aching melodies and unresolved harmonies built up around it that make the opera what it is.

Widely considered the gateway to modern music, Tristan und Isolde tells the story of Irish princess Isolde making the journey from Ireland to Cornwall by sea with knight Tristan. During their voyage, it transpires that Tristan is responsible for the death of Isolde’s fiancé, Morold.

Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Tristan and Isolde in 1865. Image via primephonic

The resulting tension between the two forces them to form a death pact—a vow that is undermined when Isolde’s maid, Brangäne, swaps the poison they intend to take for a strong love potion. Upon their landing in Cornwall at the end of Act 1, the scene is set for a tragic pagan tale of forbidden, unfulfilled love and, ultimately, a fated death for the two protagonists.



The Ring of the Nibelung aka The Ring cycle

Even those who aren’t opera fans are bound to know one movement from one of the four operas in Wagner’s epic 15-hour-long cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. "Ride of the Valkyries" from the second opera in the Ring—Die Walküre—was made famous by the helicopter attack scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film, Apocalypse Now, and has endured as an oft-used, but nevertheless effective, musical cliché ever since.

For Wagner, the Ring was a move towards "pure art" (theorised in his 1851 essay Oper und Drama which condemned the commercialisation of opera in favour of drama based on ancient Greek theatre) and he intended it to only ever be performed in its 15-hour entirety. Wagner’s wish wasn’t honoured until 1976 when the cycle was performed over four consecutive nights at the first instalment of Bayreuth Festival.

Bayreuth Festspielhaus. It was Wagner's idea to create a special festival to showcase his own works. Image via theculturetraveler

Summarised into a sentence, the Ring is a wonderful tale of a ring forged by an evil dwarf lord (Alberich) that gives it bearer ultimate power, complete with river maidens and Gods (the woes of whom are outlined in the first opera, Das Rheingold), knights (the Gods’ relationship with mortals is explored in Das Walküre), swords and dragons (Siegfried), and classic Wagnerian tragedy (in the final opera of the Ring, Götterdämmerung, the tension between Gods and mortals reach a climax when the hero Siegfried is murdered by the son of Alberich who we first met back in Das Rheingold).

Brünnhilde is the epitome of a stereotypical operatic character

If a 15-hour stint sounds like a bit of a stretch, the four operas can also be enjoyed as separate entities and are sometimes staged that way.




Lohengrin marks the beginning of Wagner’s enduring obsession with the legend of the Holy Grail. Composed in 1850, the opera is written in the Romantic style and tells of the love between Elsa of Brabant and her knight in shining armour who, arriving in a boat pulled by swans, betroths himself to her on the condition she doesn’t ask him what he is called or where he came from.

Ben Heppner as Lohengrin in 1998. Image via The Metropolitan Opera

Elsa has been accused of murdering her own brother, heir to the thrown of Brabant, and the count of Telramund and evil witch Ortrund seek vengeance. The knight protects Elsa, but she ultimately breaks the enchantment around their love by demanding to know who the knight is: he reveals that he is Lohengrin and that he must leave Brabant to seek the Holy Grail in his distant home, Monsalvat, which renders Elsa lifeless with grief.



The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

Not all of Wagner’s operas are serious tales of heroic knights, quests, corrupting rings and evil Gods. If you want something lighter, you can’t go wrong with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Iain Paterson as Hans Sachs, Wendy Bryn Harmer as Eva. Image via English National Opera  

A comic opera in three acts, the setting of Meistersinger is a singing contest taking place in 16th-century Nuremberg and the plot revolves around the woes of female protagonist, Eva, who is destined to marry a mastersinger against the wishes of her own heart, which belongs to knight Walther von Stolzing.

The opera contains many jubilant choruses and stands out as the lightest of Wagner’s works.




Parisfal, which celebrates turning 135 this month, was Wagner’s final great masterpiece. Another Wagnerian Holy Grail opera, it tells of the young knight Parsifal who is destined to reunite a holy spear with the Holy Grail and ultimately free the Knights of the Holy Grail.

Amalie Materna, Emil Scaria and Hermann Winkelmann in the first production of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival

Wagner’s autobiography indicates that he worked on the piece for over 40 years, initially taking inspiration from Parzival, a 13th-century poem written by Wolfram von Eschenbach to begin with. The score is rich and transcendent and the piece is regarded by many as the finest example of Wagner’s work. The opera was both influential and controversial, garnering wildly varied opinions from numerous notable figures such as Jean Sibelius, Mark Twain, Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Mahler and many others. 

Igor Stravinsky was repulsed by the "quasi-religious atmosphere" of the Bayreuth Festival 

Due to some confusion during the premiere at Bayreuth, it's now a tradition not to applause after the first act of the opera. When the first and the second acts were met with great enthusiasm at the premiere, Wagner informed the audience that there would be no curtain calls until the end of the performance, as he wanted to maintain the opera's serious mood. The baffled audience remained silent even at the end which forced Wagner to go back out and say that he did not mean they couldn't applause. 


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