Wagner’s Music Drama as Revision of Opera

copyright © 2005 by Larry J Solomon

Wagner believed that traditional opera was prosaic and was in need of revision. He considered his operas to be the manifestation of a revolution in opera and called them “music dramas”, believing them to be a completely new genre. He proposed to fuse music and drama so that they were a new type of emotional expression.

1. Dissolution of “set pieces”, periodic structures, recitative and aria.

2. Libretto replaces end-rhyme, poetic meter and stress patterns, and symmetrical phrases, in favor of alliteration and free prose.

3. Symphonic development is favored using the leitmotif, which replaces a simple orchestral accompaniment of singers.

4. A leitmotif is a “melodic moment of feeling” subject to constant modification as the drama unfolds. Thus, to attach a single name or meaning to it is somewhat simplistic and limits the meaning of the music.

5. Integration and balance of music with drama such that the music reflects the meaning of the drama on both immediate and large scales.

6. Balance of symphonic (contrapuntal) and dramatic (homophonic) means in order to express the dramatic meaning.

7. The music must have its own integrity when removed from the drama, yet reflect, support, and serve the “program”.

8. In a dramatic work the music is only a means, not an end in itself.

9. The form is fixed by means of a program, but the music is the real program (or real language) and hence the text is a translation of it. Thus, the music must not rely on the text for its coherence (Schoenberg and Schopenhauer). Textual analysis, therefore, can only have a limited value in understanding the music drama, but the purely musical features of rhythm, pitch, dynamics, etc., are the real “text”.