Richard Wagner, Conductor and Critic: Opinions on Conducting and Conductors of the Romantic Era
As a composer, Richard Wagner has very little musical competition when it comes to grandeur, complexity, harmonic brilliance, and drama. Wagner’s music dramas reflect the composer’s creative and mythological tendencies like a mirror into his soul. Due to the demanding and challenging aspects of Wagner’s operas, the man himself built a reputation as a precise and authoritative conductor of music dramas and classics by masters such as Beethoven and Mozart. Richard Wagner made his conducting debut with the Magdeburg Opera in a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni circa 1834.
As a conductor, Wagner built a mystique around himself as an aggressive, detailed, and hot-headed music director who did not accept anything but perfection. Two sources display the attitudes and ideals of Wagner’s conducting style in great detail, Wagner on Conducting and On the Performance of Tannenhauser. These two works of prose give insight into Wagner’s conducting tendencies, philosophies, ideas, opinions, and methods/techniques.
Rumors have been passed around in scholarly circles about the sizable wooden staff that Wagner would use when conducting. If this is true, it is indicative of the type of authoritative conductor Wagner was and thought others should be. This paper will deal with Wagner’s conducting style and how it relates to other conductor/composers of the Romantic Era. Wagner’s opinions and critiques on conducting are discussed as they relate to composers such as Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Liszt. Wagner was very opinionated when it came to other conductor/composers of the time, this and more will be explored in detail to understand Wagner’s conducting style as it relates to his contemporaries/predecessors and their methods of conducting.
In terms of the performing of Wagner’s music dramas, the composer only trusted a handful of conductors to lead the orchestra and singers to a successful performance. Some of these conductors include the Franz Liszt as mentioned earlier, Wagner’s close friend Hans Von Bulow, and a few other qualified technicians. Wagner was highly selective with whom he chose to conduct and direct his music dramas. Because of this, Wagner wrote guides and articles that described how his work should be performed. These pamphlets and short essays were published and given to the musical directors of Wagner’s music dramas to ensure the accurate performance of the composer’s music.
To get an idea of the type of conductor and music director Wagner was, it is essential to look at his writings which describe how to perform his music dramas. In “On the Performance of Tannhauser” Wagner lays out a blueprint and map for whoever may be conducting the opera at any given time. Wagner wanted to make sure that his music was performed “correctly” and conducted in a certain style. Wagner was able to control the performance of his works no matter where he was by writing treatises such as this one to guide productions. Correct tempi and sustained tone from orchestral instruments are two concepts that Wagner stresses when he talks about “good” conducting. In regards to tempi, Wagner directs the conductor to consider all details by writing “At the sixth bar of page 22 the conductor should somewhat restrain the pace, which had shortly before grown almost too rapid…..”.
The strict and direct instructions to the conductors of his music, in particular, for the music drama Tannenhauser, is indicative of how Wagner would conduct the work himself and the techniques he would use if he were in that position. Wagner provides insight into how to restrain tempi and give a proper pace for a piece when he writes “…only, the conductor must guard against the theme which enters with page 26 being played too fast…”. The composer/conductor assigns a great deal of responsibility to the conductors and music directors of his works as is inferred by his stern words and extremely detailed examples such as the one provided to make sure the conductor directs the orchestra to take a collective breath at a certain point in the prelude. The quote reads as follows, “if the conductor insists on their all taking breath together at the right caesura in the melody; this invariably precedes the upstroke leading the ‘good’ bar of the rhythm…….”.
Ludwig Van Beethoven was the composer/conductor that had the most significant impact on the work of Richard Wagner. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was the piece of music that changed Wagner’s view of what music can and should be. With Beethoven’s knack for heavy drama and conflict within his symphonies, he became the most significant influence on the music dramas and philosophies of Wagner, the composer. As a conductor, Wagner had a tremendous amount of respect for Beethoven and the way he controlled an orchestra. Wagner on Conducting Wagner discusses obtaining the correct tempi in Beethoven’s music when he says “…to permit the touching cadence of the oboe in the first movement of the c minor symphony to be played in the customary timid and embarrassing way.” This quote is part of what Wagner calls the “proper execution of Beethoven’s music.”
Wagner used to conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony every year, but became discouraged when he says “I was so much astonished at the utterly confused and bewildering effect of the Gewandhaus performance that I lost courage, and gave up the study of Beethoven for some time.” It was after this incident that Wagner began to enjoy conducting the works of Mozart. he says, “Later, I found it instructive to note how I came to take true delight in performances of Mozart’s instrumental works: it was when I had the chance to conduct them myself, and when I could indulge my feelings as to the expressive rendering of Mozart’s cantinella.”
Beethoven was a master conductor of his works, even conducting the 9th Symphony when he was almost entirely deaf. Wagner is influenced by the fact that the composer performed his works and the authoritative manner in which he did it. Wagner admits that “…Beethoven is so difficult to render, but he can get the orchestra to look for Beethoven’s melody in every bar”. Wagner speaks about what he thinks makes an orchestra sound professional and polished, which is “..movement of sustained tone, with a definite degree of power.” This idea of sustained tone is one that is very central to Wagner’s beliefs as to how Beethoven should be conducted and dealt with in an orchestral setting.
Wagner had a very controversial relationship with Felix Mendelssohn personally and musically. Because Mendelssohn was Jewish, and Wagner was an avid anti-Semite, the composer already had a preconceived judgment of the man which made its way into Wagner’s opinion of Mendelssohn, the composer/conductor. Wagner was Mendelssohn’s successor at the court of Dresden and had some strong views on how Mendelssohn had his musicians execute the classics of the orchestral and choral canon. Wagner displays a mostly favorable view of Mendelssohn as a conductor by writing about the composer’s legacy.
Wagner states “They (court musicians) feel more at home in the modern orchestra; which is indebted to their master Mendelssohn.” This quote shows that Wagner had respect for Mendelssohn musically which may be in contrast to his feelings about him as a person. Wagner goes on to say, “…Mendelssohn was the possessor of the most extraordinary gifts of attainments.” Wagner’s perceived antisemitism stains the relationship between himself and Felix Mendelssohn in many people’s eyes, but these words of praise from Wagner may lead people to believe otherwise.
Wagner speaks more about the traditions and techniques that Mendelssohn uses when conducting through first-hand accounts of his encounters with the conductor. Wagner refers to the “quick tempi” that Mendelssohn chose to take in Beethoven’s Symphony no.8 in his writing. Although Wagner remarks that the symphony was “…rendered in a remarkably smooth and genial manner”, he also talks about how the general idea of making music at a quick tempo could be dangerous. Wagner eventually came to lead the Philharmonic Society Orchestra just as Mendelssohn had. Wagner observes that the idea of taking a quicker tempo over a more moderate one had become second nature to the orchestra because of Mendelssohn.
Wagner states “…the music gushed forth like water from a fountain; there was no arresting it, and every allegro ended as an undeniable presto.”. This remark is indicative of Wagner’s distaste for the orchestras “tradition” of taking tempi quick as a way of “getting over the hump.” Extra quick tempi is an idea that was planted by Mendelssohn in the orchestra and one in which Wagner was intent on changing.
Franz Liszt was one of the only composers of the romantic era that Wagner maintained a friendship with and who was a dear companion in Wagner’s life. Wagner had immense respect for Liszt as a pianist and composer. As a man, Wagner saw Liszt as a perfect artist with an intellect that stimulated the composer’s thoughts and musings. Liszt was a patron to Wagner during difficult financial and political times. While Wagner was in hiding during his Zurich years, Liszt made it a mission to keep his music alive by conducting Wagner’s works in Weimar where he had taken over for the banished composer. Letters between the two composers display the mutual admiration and affection that both men had for each other. Liszt served as a worthy listener and critic of Wagner’s ideas, rants, and musical thoughts.
Wagner began a relationship with Liszt’s daughter Cosima which brought the two composers closer together but also caused a rift in the relationship at the same time. This rift would be overcome by the kindred essence of Wagner and Liszt's friendship.
As a conductor, Liszt was a considerable help to Wagner by promoting and performing his works to new audiences while Wagner was unable to. in 1850, Liszt conducted the world premiere of Lohengrin in Weimar. Wagner composed a letter of thanks to Liszt regarding the performance of Lohengrin, using words of praise and phrases such as Liszt’s “glorious intensity” and “energetic love.” Wagner was more than grateful to Liszt for supporting his works while he was in political exile in Zurich and unable to do so himself. In May of 1852, Liszt conducted Wagner’s Faust Overture which most likely inspired the composer to compose his own Faust Symphony.
Liszt made it possible for Wagner’s works to be heard in times of hardship and turmoil. Wagner felt indebted to Liszt due to this fact and wrote a plethora of letters praising the conductor/composer for taking an interest in his music and being there to conduct when Wagner could not. Liszt was one of the only composers at the time who could handle the challenging music of Wagner due to his musical complexity and harmonic exploration. Liszt did a lot for Wagner’s career during his time in exile which is a fact that was never lost on Wagner, even when marrying Liszt daughter Cosima.
It only makes sense that a man who wanted complete control over the visual, musical, and dramatic aspects of his works would be a conductor of great poise and command. Although Beethoven was the impetus musically for Wagner to compose his music dramas, the composer was also a great source of inspiration to Wagner as a conductor. Conducting Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was always a highlight in the conducting career of Wagner. Wagner was never one to hold back words about his contemporaries and made his opinions known on conductors such as Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, and Schumann. Not all of these critiques were negative.
Although Wagner had some negative preconceived notions about Mendelssohn, he was most generous in his praise of the conductor/composer's musical gifts. There is no more magnificent display of admiration by Wagner than the respect he shows for Franz Liszt. Whether it be Liszt, the person, the conductor, or the musician Wagner was always in awe of whatever Liszt produced. Wagner tends to favor people in his life who can do things for him or that he can benefit from. This display of generosity might be a reason Wagner had a more favorable attitude towards people such as Liszt rather than Mendelssohn.
The most challenging and logistically difficult music drama that Richard Wagner composed is The Ring cycle which consists of three operas and an opening night prelude Das Rhinegold. This massive piece of music ran over 10 hours and was premiered in four days, one for each music drama. The first performance of this work took place at Bayreuth in August of 1876 under the baton of Hans Richter. The conductor Hans Richter was the son of a conductor father and a singer mother. Richter became the assistant to Von Bulow who was a trusted and capable conductor with ties to Wagner.
Richter was the conductor for the Wiener Philharmonic and the Halle Orchestra in Manchester. Conducting the Ring, especially at Bayreuth, is and was a task fit only for the most precise, experienced and focused conductors. Wagner must have had a considerable amount of respect for Hans Richter to trust him with the task of conducting the first performance of The Ring. The premiere of the work was witnessed by the likes of Claude Debussy, George Bernard Shaw, Franz Liszt, Anton Bruckner, Edvard Grieg, and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Wagner, Richard. Wagner on Conducting, trans. Edward Dannreuther. New York, New York: Dover Publications, 1989.
Cross, Milton and Ewen David. Encyclopedia of The Great Composers and Their Music, vol.2. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, inc., 1953, 1962.
Millington, Barry. The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, His Works and His World 198 Madison Avenue New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Newman, Ernest. The Wagner Operas. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1949
Wagner, Richard. On the Performance of “Tannhauser”, trans. William Ashton Ellis (1852), in The Wagner Online Library, accessed February 27th, 2018