Styles & Forms | High Romantic | Opera

The Italian Giuseppe Verdi and the German Richard Wagner, the dominant composers of the High Romantic period, were very different personalities who shared the same operatic aim. Both saw opera as Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art in which all elements – singing, acting, orchestration, drama, poetry, stage design – merged into a single homogeneous entity.

This music-drama meant continuous on-stage action, in which none of the component parts was preponderant. In particular, there would be no arias to hold up the story or provide a platform for bravura displays by individual performers.

Emergence of Music Drama

In the event, the total revolution in music and opera, which these changes implied, never fully transpired. The aria survived but the ‘democratic’ concept of equal partners in performance foundered, as opera, including Wagner’s total works of art, continued to be identified by its music. Nevertheless, neither Verdi nor Wagner left opera as they found it: music drama, or at least its most powerful elements, had seminal effects.

Early Romantic Legacy

Of the two composers, Verdi was much more the heir of his early Romantic predecessors than Wagner. Verdi retained the bel canto style of singing and lavished it on a long series of memorable melodies. Inevitably, this meant the show-stopping aria figured in most Verdi operas. Verdi’s first two works – Oberto and the unsuccessful Un giorno di regno (‘King for a Day’, 1840) – were clearly influenced by the music of Rossini. However, with Nabucco Verdi’s sense of drama, particularly human drama, had greatly heightened, and after Rigoletto he was giving Italian opera a much darker aura, with more incisive characterization and dramatic atmosphere than before. By the time Verdi reached old age, his Otello and his last work, the comic opera Falstaff (1893), were much closer than his early work to Wagner’s idea of a unified work of art.

Epic Ideas

For Wagner, however, it was not close enough. Compared to what he had in mind, Otello and Falstaff, which both depict the vagaries of human behaviour, were too earthbound. Wagner’s vision was of epic proportions, involving myths, gods and goddesses, ancient legends, heroic sagas, death and sacrifice – all of it on an unprecedented scale. The music drama, he planned, would grow out of the libretti he himself wrote, and would undercut established ways of composing and using music. For example, Wagner eschewed the tonality and predictable harmony, which ‘told’ an audience what the music was going to do next. Instead, he intended to write music that ebbed and flowed like the current of a river: it was much more continuous, with one melody barely finishing, or not finishing at all, before it melted into the next.

The Leitmotif

The orchestra in the Wagner music drama did much more than accompany the singers on stage: it was an equal partner, so much louder than orchestras had ever been before that singers needed to undergo special training to acquire...

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