Richard and Cosima Wagner, 1872; photograph by Fritz Luckhardt, Vienna (Staatsbibliothek Bamberg)
No composer changed the aesthetic landscape as thoroughly as did Richard Wagner (1813–1883), one of the most influential and controversial figures in Western art who dominated the music world of the 19th century. Popular Smithsonian music lecturer Saul Lilienstein illuminates aspects of the composers life, works, influence, and achievements through a series of six programs highlighted by musical recordings and film clips. From Die Feen, his earliest opera, thorough The Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser, Lohengrin, the Ring cycle, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, to Parsifal, his final one, Lilienstein explores all of the important achievements in Wagner’s provocative career.
Apr. 16 Out of Beethoven
Examine Wagner’s growth and imaginative development in shaping orchestral sound. Though his style was influenced by Beethoven, Berlioz, and Weber, the sonorities he created had no precedent.
Apr. 23 The Art of Transition
Wagner’s continuous musical textures, only hinted at in The Flying Dutchman, but fully achieved in the Ring cycle, resulted in an upheaval of the traditional structures that had bound opera for centuries.
Apr. 30 The Leitmotif
In Das Rheingold and later works, Wagner perfected a system of recurring musical themes that were malleable, yet always recognizable. They allowed him to mix past and present, action and psychological motivation, adding new dimensions to both music and drama.
May 7 Wagner and Brahms
These two great masters of German Romanticism both revered the accomplishments of Bach and Beethoven, but drew different conclusions from their examples.
May 14 The Never-ending Controversy
Wagner’s repugnant anti-Semitism is indisputable. Whether his personal prejudices are a significant or extraneous factor in the art he created—and audiences’ receptions to it— remains an ongoing topic of heated controversy. Lilienstein addresses the issue within the context of Wagner’s operas and the German cultural environment in which they were created.
May 21 The Enduring Influence
In an examination of the widening circles of his influence, from composers in France, Italy, and England to poets and novelists of French, German, and English masterpieces, the reverberations of Wagner over half a century beyond his lifetime are seen.