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Wagner's Die Walkure: The Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis

There are many theories about the evolution of ideas - political, cultural, or even artistic ideas. One of our favorites revolves around three principles, called The Thesis, The Antithesis and The Synthesis.

The Thesis is also known as the "status quo." It's the standard by which everything else is measured - the unshakeable rule. Try breaking it, even bending it, and you're likely to find yourself in some very hot water. Accept it unreservedly, and you just might find peace and contentment - a way of life without worry, without fear, and without opposition, though perhaps also without much excitement. That is, until The Antithesis arrives on the scene.

To those invested in the "status quo," the Antithesis is more than just a different way of seeing things; it's a dire threat to their hard-won peace of mind. Now, these two factions - Thesis and Antithesis - battle each other until a third faction emerges from the struggle - a faction containing both viewpoints. It's The Synthesis. With this, the opponents are reconciled, and everything's hunky-dory, right?

Well, not really. The Synthesis now becomes The New Thesis, the new status quo. And, all too soon, here comes another Antithesis, ready to knock the new standard off its pedestal, and the whole process begins all over again. With luck, this intellecutal continuum represents progress rather than decay.

We can find a "for instance" in the music of Richard Wagner, including this week's opera, Die Walkure. By about 1840, any number of brilliant composers had spent entire careers dragging opera into the 18th, and then the 19th centuries. But, the standard way to write an opera - The Thesis - still was distantly, but plainly related to the first operas, going all the way back Monteverdi's day in the 1600's. That is, there were lyrical passages -- arias or ensembles -- which conveyed emotions, and these alternated with recitative, which told the story. These basic elements had become blurred, to be sure, but even by the 19th century, they were still there. Then, Wagner came along, and decided that they weren't blurred enough. With all the zeal of youth, he introduced a radical new Atithesis that changed opera for all time.

Wagner really didn't write the first "through-composed" opera -- not by most definitions. But he did come up with a notion called the "Gesamtkunstwerk," the "Total Work of Art," that would bring music, poetry, drama, and the visual arts all together under the command of a single creator -- Wagner himself, of course. The perfection of this notion occupied Wagner for the rest of his life, and became a guidepost for virtually every composer who followed.

This week from the Met, we'll hear the second opera in Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelungs," the epic cycle which may be the ultimate expression of the "Gesamtkunstwerk." But first, on NPR's At the Opera, we'll spend some time with the Ring's main character, Brunnhilde, who makes her Ring debut in Die Walkure. Host Lou Santacroce asks her most renowned interpreter, soprano Jane Eaglen, what makes Wagner's greatest heroine tick; author Phyllis Chesler discusses Brunnhilde's long-lost sister, Kremhilde; and we'll look into the opera's musical secrets with our regular musical tour-guide, conductor Scott Speck.

You can hear At the Opera every week, 30 minutes before curtain at the Met, from National Public Radio.

Links:

  • Metropolitan Opera

  • Synopsis of the Opera

  • Libretto in German

    Coming Up:

  • Pelleas et Melisande, Claude Debussy