“When I came out of the ‘Festspielhaus’, unable to speak a word, I knew that I had experienced supreme greatness and supreme suffering, and that this experience, hallowed and unsullied, would stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Gustav Mahler on the first performance of Wagner’s opera Parsifal
If I invited you to have lunch with me, after we got the obligatory banter out of the way, our conversation would hopefully turn to more interesting topics of discussion. Let’s suppose that at some point during our talk, I informed you that I was an admirer of a truly pugnacious individual. Then I went on to say that this individual was not only pugnacious, but someone who had most assuredly been an egomaniacal, womanizing, gambler; a man, who during his lifetime, would trample upon anyone he had to if it meant achieving success. Upon hearing my statement, would curiosity not take hold of you? I imagine you would wonder why I would choose to follow the career of such an individual, and perhaps tell me that I should direct my adoration onto someone else. I must express to you in all sincerity that if I stopped to think about it, ninety-nine times out of a hundred I would come to the same conclusion that you did, but in this one particular instance I simply can’t. Despite all of the hideous character traits and allegedly repugnant views the man may have held, the music of Richard Wagner not only stirs emotions throughout every fiber of my being, but some of it also simultaneously brings to life pictures that are so vivid that they swirl around my mind with the intensity of a speeding train that has gone off of its tracks.
Wilhelm Richard Wagner, born May 22, 1813, in Leipzig, Germany, was the ninth child of Carl Friedrich Wagner, who was a clerk in the Leipzig police department, and his wife Johanna Rosine. When Wagner was just six months old, his father died of typhus. Richard was a little more than one year old when his mother married a friend of the family, an actor and playwright named Ludwig Geyer, and they all moved to Dresden, where young Wagner was known as Wilhelm Richard Geyer until he was fourteen years old. It was more than likely that Wagner’s interest in the arts was attributable to Geyer, with whom he spent a great deal of time, and who he probably believed to be his birth father.
For those of you who are not fans of classical music, especially operas, you might, perhaps, have heard him referred to as Wilhelm Vagner, the German pronunciation of his surname; and I am willing to bet, that whether you realize it or not, there is not one of you who has not heard at least one of his musical compositions. It is not only extraordinarily recognizable, but has been performed hundreds of thousands of times over the years. For those of you who don’t already know which of his works it is, and if after reading this blog, you haven’t figured out which musical composition of his I am making reference to, please let me know.
Wagner’s talents enabled him to take on a variety of roles in the music world. He was a conductor, theater director, romantic composer, music theorist, and essayist. He is best known for his operas, of which he wrote not only the music, but the libretto for every one of his works that were performed on stage. He was able to transform musical thought through his idea of “Gesamtkunstwerk,” which is a German word meaning total artwork. Wagner’s compositions are most notable for their harmonies, texture, orchestration, and especially his use of leitmotifs, which are musical themes that deal with particular plot elements, characters, and locations. Wagner was a pioneer when it came to advances in musical language, and his views on conducting and directing are held in high regard. In addition, he influenced authors such as Charles Baudelaire (The Flowers of Evil), T.S. Elliot (The Waste Land), Thomas Mann (Death in Venice), Marcel Proust (Swan’s Way), as well as renowned philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, who was at one time part of Wagner’s inner circle, and proposed in his book The Birth of Tragedy, that Wagner’s music was the catalyst for the rebirth of European culture, and a metaphoric slap in the face to what he felt was the rampant decadence that had taken over during the 1800s. While I feel that Wagner’s influence on the aforementioned individuals, his life, his political views, the books and essays he wrote, and the controversies and contradictions surrounding him, would be interesting to explore, I would rather concentrate on the specific influence he has had over the medium of film.
If Wagner had lived and worked during the past thirty years, in this blogger’s opinion, he would most likely have been on par with, and a rival to John Williams (E.T., Jaws, Star Wars), as the other top person in the world of scoring music for the movies. I would’ve loved to have seen a collaboration between Quentin Tarantino and Richard Wagner. Tarantino’s movies are already explosive to begin with, and in my opinion new music created by Wagner would only serve to elevate the already heart pounding experience one comes to expect when sitting down to watch a film directed by the Pulp Fiction auteur. But, leaving my cinema geek fantasy aside, Wagner’s influence on films is much more all-encompassing than you might at first think.
IMDB (Internet Movie Database) credits Wagner’s music in over five hundred works of film and television, the most frequently used pieces are the Ride of the Valkyries from Act 3 of Die Walkure, and from Act 3 of Lohengrin, The Bridal Chorus (more popularly known as Here Comes the Bride, or The Wedding March, not to be confused with Mendelssohn’s Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is used as the recessional at weddings.) This info from IMDB was no surprise to this fan and blogger. As early as 1904, Thomas Edison began working on a film version of Wagner’s opera Parsifal; it was the very first of its kind. Wagner’s music was used for comedy in Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator; the prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin serves to highlight the irony for the classic scene where Chaplin’s character, Adenoid Hynkel, a spoof on Hitler, bounces a balloon globe around his office. Michael Powell, British director of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus among others, successfully achieved a Wagnerian look to his 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes where he was able to integrate all aspects of filmmaking, design, costumes, script writing, and use of colors. Iconic actor James Dean shared the proverbial silver screen with Wagner’s music, which has a permanent place on the soundtrack of the classic 1955 film Rebel without a Cause. Francis Ford Coppola injected a love of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries,” into the psychopathic character, Kilgore (Robert Duvall) in his 1979 film Apocalypse Now, during the unforgettable helicopter attack scene. Two years later John Boorman would utilize Wagner’s music in one of this blogger’s favorite movies Excalibur. The funeral march made by Wagner’s character Siegfried in Gotterdammerung is a central theme used by Boorman as he deftly applies the Twilight of the Gods concept from Wagner’s opera to the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table’s Camelot. In addition, preludes from both Parsifal and Tristan and Isolde add to the overall spectacular production.
I would speculate that if Wagner were alive and working during the past decade, in my opinion, academy award winning director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), would’ve been lax in his judgment not to hire Wagner. Who better than the German composer to create a score that would permeate the mythical landscapes of middle earth rife with its dwarfs, elves, giants, trolls, as well as figures that represent the extreme spectrum of heroism, and those beings that are the antithesis trying to champion victory for the ultimate evil. It would’ve been a match made in a mythical heaven. Lol.
Why such a far reaching influence on the film makers of both the past and present? In one regard, leaving aside Wagner the man and dealing strictly with the composer, he more than lives up to the idealistic view critics have of him…that of a romantic revolutionary. He was the type of individual who challenged not only authority figures, but what passed for conventional wisdom at the time, as well as his dealing with topics that were viewed as too taboo to explore. In my opinion, it could also be successfully argued that if any other creative medium emulates films, opera bares the closet resemblance. Even though he never got to partake in the movie industry, Wagner’s mindset was that of a film producer, especially when it came time for him to set up the theater he had built in Bayreuth, the ‘Festspielhaus,’ which he had created in order to show Der Ring des Nibelungen. Not only did Wagner order that the house lights be shut off, something which was unheard of during the 1870s, but he also kept the orchestra in hiding so that the audience would be able to concentrate solely on what they were watching, and not glancing towards the orchestral pit to watch the musicians playing a variety of instruments. These adjustments to business as usual gave theater-goers of the time period the same experience modern movie patrons of today get to enjoy.
Whether you love him or hate him, you have to admit, albeit for some of you begrudgingly, that Wagner’s influence continues to this day, some one-hundred and twenty seven years since his death on February 13, 1883, in Venice, Italy. I am the first to state that while I am the equivalent of a die hard fan when it comes to the man’s music he is in no way, shape, or form a cup of tea that can be easily sipped. One must be willing not only to exercise patience in certain instances, especially when it comes to sitting through the entire production of The Ring, which should be performed over a four day period as it was intended; but also, one has to look beyond some of his less than charming character traits, and his alleged despicable views that are still being debated to this day. If you’re not familiar with his music and are willing to pay heed to the two criteria I just listed, then you’re in for a rewarding experience, and I wish you happy listening as you enter the rich, multifaceted, musical world of Richard Wagner.