Full Name: Wilhelm Richard Wagner
Era: Late Romantic
Years active: 1813-1883
Number of compositions: 113
Number of symphonies: 0
Number of concertos: 0
Number of string quartets: 1
Style: Heavy, slowly unfolding Germanic music; almost all of which is operatic. He pioneered the use of shifting tonality and increased chromaticism in otherwise tonal music. He is also renowned for his frequent and elaborate use of leitmotifs, which has heavily influenced movie soundtracks to the present day.
Errr, what? Ok, so up until around Wagner’s time people tended to write music which sounded “in key”. However, just as Cindy Crawford’s mole makes her look hotter, composers started to realize that their music would be more exciting if they added more “off key” bits. This is called “chromatacism”, and Wagner was one of the guys who made it cool.
And leitmotifs? As for “leitmotifs”, well you know how in Star Wars that one bit of music plays whenever Darth Vader appears? That’s his leitmotif. They are snippets of music which represent a certain character or thing. Wagner didn’t invent them, but he made them really popular. So there you go, you can thank Wagner for the Imperial March theme.
What are some examples of his music? Well lets start with…
Flight of the Valkyries (from Die Walküre)
You’ve probably heard this loads of times, but may not have realized it was by Wagner. It’s from his epic, 4-part opera series The Ring Cycle. Oh yeah, that melody is a leitmotif, for VALKYRIES!
Overture to Tannhäuser
Tannhauser is an opera about sacred, angelic love vs filthy, profane love. Overtures are meant to set the mood before the opera, which is why this piece combines heavy, religious sounding bits with more devious, naughty sections.
Overture to Tristan and Isolde
Wagner was a tonality pioneer. He was one of the first really major composers to start sticking dissonance into his music. You can hear some of that in this piece, which features the famous (among a certain group of people anyway) “Tristan chord” right at the beginning.