Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk

Today let’s talk about a highly influential German opera composer: Richard Wagner. Wagner believed in the synthesis of music and drama into one “total artwork.” Detailing the staging, lighting, costuming, music, acting, etc. in his scores/librettos (yes he wrote the text and music to his operas!), Wagner coined the term “Gesamtkunstwerk” (total artwork) to describe his creations.

Another important musical term used in reference to Wagner’s operas is “leitmotif” (leading motive). This word is used to describe main themes throughout the opera that typically represent a specific person, object, etc. This theme occurs in various contexts throughout the opera, and though recognizable, it is varied or transformed in different ways to best depict the current point in the drama. Certain instruments, keys, or harmonies may also be used in connection with various leitmotifs in order to help the listener make the connection.

Wagner’s Ring cycle is an excellent example of a work using leitmotifs to connect music and drama in this Gesamtkunstwerk idea. During these four operas, Wagner introduces various leitmotifs that reappear throughout the cycle. Constantly using this thematic material, Wagner makes these musical ideas integral to the drama on stage. Take a look at this informative video by members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra brass section in which they describe several uses of the leitmotif in the Ring cycle.  

Wagner had an incredible influence on composers to come after him. His leitmotif ideas have even found their way into film and television scores, composers using certain musical ideas to depict specific elements on screen. One great example of this is the “shark theme” found in Jaws


Do you have a favorite Wagner opera? Have you noticed the use of leitmotifs in any of your favorite movies or television shows? 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Grand Opera

During the 19th century, a new type of opera came into existence: grand opera. This type of opera focused just as much on the staging and scenery as it did the music and was meant to appeal to the middle-class audience. Grand operas included ballets, choruses, the use of stage machinery, etc. Rossini’s William Tell is a great example of this, using an on-stage lake in one of the scenes.

Giacomo Meyerbeer was one prominent composer of grand operas during the 19th century. Meyerbeer made it his goal to use whatever medium he could to help dramatize his operas. One of his well-known operas, Les Huguenots, uses a large cast, ballet elements, and special scenery and lighting effects to add to the audience’s experience. Meyerbeer’s style greatly influenced composers who came after him, among them Richard Wagner who we will talk about next time. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Verdi's Rigoletto

Last time we talked about Italian opera in the first half of the 19th century. Today, let’s look at opera in Italy in the later half. Giuseppe Verdi wrote outstanding melodies that became so popular he began to hide them as he composed in fear they would be leaked prior to the premiere.

Verdi preferred to choose the opera’s subject and to pull it from a successful spoken drama from writers such as Shakespeare and Hugo. Verdi also composed with certain singers in mind, creating vocal parts that would best fit the individual’s voice. He typically would wait to complete the orchestration until after rehearsals began.


In his famous Rigoletto, Verdi uses various styles of singing to depict the main characters. The hunchback Rigoletto does not have a clear aria while the Duke of Mantua sings in a tuneful manner. Gilda alternates between both styles.  Enjoy Rigoletto here