Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner © Getty  /  Mondadori Portfolio

Learn to love Wagner in 5 steps

Richard Wagner is without a doubt the most divisive composer ever to have existed. This love/hate relationship is also felt through his music, often feared by a great number of connoisseurs and neophytes.

Why so much hate? Richard Wagner is a controversial name in classical music history, due to his views, his character, but also his music. Loved by many, hated by many, the music of the German composer is not the easiest to approach. Let us try, in five steps, to examine the Wagnerian myth and convert his most reluctant critics.

Step 1: Avoid starting with the longest works

It is pointless to try and appreciate Wagner by listening to hours of his music. Quite the contrary, by starting with one of the great masterpieces such as his famous Ring Cycle, one runs the risk of being put off the German composer for life.

Though his operas are the most emblematic works of Wagner's repertoire, one must not ignore the more intimate and subtle works. Amongst these, the Lieder are an ideal way to familiarise oneself with Wagner. Find your favourite singer and listen to them singing a Lied by the German composer. A familiar voice will certainly make diving into Wagner's unfamiliar repertoire an easier task. And if that doesn't work, don't forget to read the Lieder texts before listening. Sometimes the words are stronger than the music and carry us far away, such as these lines written by Mathilde Wesendonck and put to music by Wagner:

Tell me, what wonderful dreams
keep encircling my mind, which,
like nothing but idle froth,
have dissolved in an empty void? 

Dreams, which flourish more beautifully
every hour, every day
and with their message from heaven
pass through the soul? 

Dreams, which like rays sublime
sink into the soul,
to paint eternally a picture there:
all forgotten, remembering! 

Dreams, as spring sun kissed
the blossoms from the snow,
that to a never foreseen bliss
they greet the new day, 

That they grow, that they blossom,
dreamingly giving their fragrance,
gently fading away on your breast
and then sinking into the grave.

Step 2: Listen to excerpts of his operas

Crossing the threshold of an opera house is already one thing, but crossing the threshold of an opera house to listen to three hours of Wagner is another. Though it may be love at sound, it is best not to take the risk and listen before buying the tickets. 

Let us start at the beginning: Wagner's preludes and overtures. Up to Tannhaüser, Wagner composed opera overtures, much like his predecessors. The first Wagnerian prelude can be found in Tristan and Isolde. The German composer sought a greater link between the opening of his work and the first act. He therefore exposed the main themes, the Leitmotiv (melodies attached to specific characters and themes), and composed a prelude before each act.

These short introductions allow us to understand the colour and mood of the work, the opera's atmosphere, and are completely accessible, much like the magnificent prelude to Lohengrin:

Step 3: Trust the fans

They are called Wagnerians. They are numerous and willing to pay an arm and a leg to see their favourite composer's works on stage. Passionate, they are even ready to give their all to convince those who are still on the fence. Though they cannot be found on street corners, they are present and vocal across the web (social media, blogs...) and more academic resources.  

Books, shows, videos, articles... Countless formats are available to help better understand Wagner's work, such as France Musique's own articles!

Step 4: Start by listening to other composers

It is on occasion easier to start by listening to the work of other composers before approaching the legendary Wagner. His contemporary, Anton Bruckner was deeply inspired by Wagner when composing his symphonies. Bruckner's third is dedicated to him, and his first was composed shortly after having discovered Tannhäuser

Another contemporary, but also almost 50 years younger, Gustav Mahler was also profoundly influenced by Richard Wagner, whose work he greatly admired. Much like Bruckner, it is best to start with the symphonies, abound with Wagnerian silences, profundity, and strength.

Step 5: Separate the man from his music

Easier said than done... Anti-semite, anarchit, revolutionary, Adolf Hitler's favourite composer: it is not the easiest of tasks to appreciate Richard Wagner. Must we separate the man from the artist? The debate, almost philosophical, has been raging for years without end in sight. His music, for example, has been boycotted in Israel. But overcoming the composer's image allows one to concentrate entirely on what's important: the music.

Furthermore, it is important to note that Wagner's case is not unique. If one were to only listen to the music of a flawless composer, the list would be very short. Of course, diassociating the music from the man does in no way mean forgotting, forgiving, or concealing the truth: Wagner's writings remain unforgivable. 

Beyond the contempt and disgust one may have for the composer, lies an endless world of stories, sounds, legends, voices, and music that one will never want to leave.