NPR Online

Richard Wagner
with William Berger

On this edition of Milestones of the Millennium, Lisa Simeone is joined by William Berger, author of “Wagner Without Fear,” an extensive look at the life and music of German composer Richard Wagner. Why fear Wagner? As Berger explains, Wagner is among the most revolutionary and controversial composers. The products of his creative genius have been tainted by his frequent, overzealous personal references to militarism and nationalism and his overt anti-Semitism. It’s not surprising that his works would later be adopted by Adolf Hitler to symbolize his notion of the Third Reich.

Many listeners may be just as afraid they don’t have the time, patience or understanding to sit through Wagner’s works. But loyal “Wagnerheads” seem unfazed by the length of his six-hour operas; some even find time for the full 18-hour “Ring” cycle, a series of operas designed to be heard over four consecutive days. Berger says listeners who fear Wagner are not without their reasons. But he seeks to demystify Wagner for the non-fanatical majority whose fear causes them to overlook the composer’s great influence and contribution. Wagner’s musical ideas have become so pervasive in modern culture that we barely recognize them today. His music was “cinematic” before cinema existed; his influence on dramatic film scoring and other theatrical expression becomes evident when we examine his inventive tonal imagery. Wagner was truly original, in part because he was self-taught and never imbued with musical convention.

Not all of Wagner’s music is bombastic and frightening. We listen to a gorgeous, lyrical vocal quintet from “The Meistersingers of Nuremberg.” Regarding length, Berger insists that “Wagner has a lot to say” and that enthusiasts are well-rewarded for listening. Whereas many composers depict a journey with musical “signs” or passing references, Wagner insists on taking you through the entire journey. We listen closely to the opening of “Das Rheingold,” from the “Ring” cycle. Wagner depicts the creation of the universe in a slowly-unfolding movement--some 180 measures building up through every possible chordal derivation of E-flat. Starting metaphorically from within the river Rhine itself, Wagner conveys an array of sensations, from incessant waves and reflecting light, to echoes of horns over the hills. The music says so much in three minutes that we no longer consider Wagner to be long-winded.

Berger highlights Wagner’s influence on 20th-century minimalists like Philip Glass and Brian Eno. We also hear Wagner’s presence in Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Dictator” and Placido Domingo’s performance of the opera “The Valkyrie.” Berger says, today we encounter Wagner in the subconscious of our aesthetic culture--his revolutionary artistic influence was so great. We close the segment with movements from Wagner’s last opera, “Lohengrin.” Ironically, this work inspired both Adolf Hitler’s perverse theories and the formation of the modern state of Israel. Through this example, we see more than the ability of art to inspire human action. Differing interpretations of Wagner epitomize the limit of artistic expression to make us do good or bad--that choice is always up to us, not the artist.

Join Lisa and William Berger on an exploration of the works of Richard Wagner, on this edition of Milestones of the Millenium. Note: Some music parts have been edited from the commentary due to internet rights issues. (This audio segment requires the free RealPlayer 5.0 or higher. You can also listen with a 14.4 connection)

Milestones of the Millennium
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