5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Wagner

In the past we’ve chosen the five minutes or so we would play to make our friends fall in love with classical music, piano, opera, cello, Mozart, 21st-century composers, violin, Baroque music, sopranos, Beethoven, flute, string quartets, tenors, Brahms, choral music, percussion, symphonies, Stravinsky, trumpet, Maria Callas, Bach, the organ, mezzo-sopranos and music for dance.

Now we want to convince those curious friends to love the music of Richard Wagner, with very short tastes of his very long operas. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your favorites in the comments.

The problem with isolating a piece from any of Wagner’s operas is insidiously twofold: You’re going to miss (for my money) the real source of its power, and you’re not going to realize you’re missing it because the music is so damn good. Take the prelude from “Das Rheingold.” Put on good headphones, close your eyes, and it’ll transport you, I guarantee.

But it wasn’t meant to live in a vacuum. Wagner is a storyteller, and when the piece sits in its proper place in the pre-curtain dark, birthing you from a pinprick of light into the blinding sun of elemental harmony whose theft will launch an epic, tragic saga of gods and betrayal and love — well, that’s the real stuff.

I grew up with the music of my great-grandfather, but until today the “Liebestod” is my favorite passage of “Tristan und Isolde.” Isolde expresses her deepest feelings and sings the most beatific passage with great euphoria. Birgit Nilsson, in the recording under Karl Böhm from the 1966 Bayreuth Festival, testifies to the dramatic power and passion of her performance, the size and fullness of her voice, the beauty and purity of her intonation, and her brilliant stage acting. She is rightly considered one of the most important singing personalities of her era.

This is the five minutes (well, the scene) that made me fall in love with Wagner. When I first heard it in a college music survey course I was already an opera fan, but I knew little about Wagner other than his antisemitism, his reputation for tedium and bombast, and, of course, Bugs Bunny and “Apocalypse Now.”

This was not what I was expecting: The sheer beauty of the orchestra and the unexpected tenderness of a father’s loving, lullaby-like farewell to his daughter was a revelation. I became obsessed that year, investing in a whole “Ring” cycle (not cheap in the pre-streaming era); buying Ernest Newman’s book “The Wagner Operas” to guide me; and scoring a seat in the second-to-last row of the top tier at the Metropolitan Opera. This was the gateway drug to what became a not-too-unhealthy addiction.

The death of Siegfried, the hero in the “Ring” who was to have saved the world, draws out of Wagner an astounding panoply of orchestral sounds of infinite majesty and splendor. It also represents the climax of the system of leitmotifs — melodic and rhythmic fragments associated with particular aspects of characters and their emotional history. Wagner weaves them into the texture with cumulative power so that it is as if Siegfried’s entire past passes before our ears — his energy, his idealism, his passion, so that one feels that an entire life is being commemorated. At the same time, we mourn what might have been. The sense that we shall not look on his like again is deeply affecting.

You might think of Richard Wagner as the composer of gods and myths, of the end of the world and a love that destroys — and you would be right. But if his sheer ambition makes him someone to be repulsed by and swept away with, in not quite equal measure, he was capable, too, of tenderness of the most affecting kind. His “Siegfried Idyll,” initially a private birthday gift to his second wife, Cosima, was first performed by a small ensemble at their home on Christmas morning in 1870; in the later, expanded orchestration we hear more often now, its ending is a touching depiction of blissful contentment — the warmest, most humane music he ever wrote.

Wagner’s “Ring” is, simply put, a study in the futility of power, with the god Wotan as its chief exhibit. The crux of his fall comes at the beginning of his epic monologue in Act II of “Die Walküre,” after his wife, Fricka, has demolished his delusions. He cries, “O heilige Schmach!”: “O righteous shame! O shameful sorrow! … Infinite rage! Eternal grief!” Wagner’s orchestra delivers the sound of power grinding itself to pieces, with monstrous dissonances piling up over a drone of C. In Joseph Keilberth’s great 1955 “Ring” from Bayreuth, Hans Hotter is a howling pillar, magnificent in collapse.

I have chosen Waltraud Meier’s exquisite performance of the “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde.” I was privileged to attend the premiere of the opera in December 2007 at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Conducted by Daniel Barenboim and directed by Patrice Chéreau, it was the most beautiful and moving production of Wagner’s great romance I have experienced.

Waltraud Meier is a fine actress as well as being one of our great singers. In this piece, she projects the full range of Isolde’s devotion, desire, madness and loss. She brought to her performance humility and expertise, comprehending fully the meaning of transcendent love.

Backstage, I saw her in the shadows. She was yet spattered with Tristan’s blood and still contained in her countenance something of Isolde.

Do Wagner’s operas feature almost endless melodies? Certainly. But he knew how to write conflict, too — sometimes even in short bursts. Take this climactic scene from Act II of “Lohengrin.” The plot is complex, but even if you don’t know what’s being said, you can feel the heat of the moment: the sorceress Ortrud, near the entrance to a church, barring the arrival of Elsa, there as a bride-to-be. The townspeople in the chorus gasp as these Real Housewives of Antwerp go at it regarding the comparative status of their mates; you may feel yourself in rapt league with those assembled voyeurs as you listen to the mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and the soprano Elisabeth Grümmer.

Compassion is at the core of “Parsifal,” Wagner’s last and, for many, greatest opera. The music of the prelude connects all living things in its embrace. It’s not heavenly music. It’s music of this world, expressing suffering, struggle, the inevitability of death and the peace of understanding and acceptance. Its slow tempo and gorgeous sounds draw you almost into a trance. But somehow, too, you feel the presence of all things on this earth — and our responsibility to care about it and for it.

“Das Rheingold” is just going along, with ebbs and flows, when suddenly, without warning, this incredibly loud, obtrusive, majestic musical theme “debos” its way into the score. Everyone — within the story and in the audience — realizes that something massive and potentially destructive is about to make an appearance.

I’m thinking Incredible Hulk vibes, except Wagner has created a pair of Hulks, the brother giants Fasolt and Fafner. Having played Fasolt several times, I can assure you that the theme music brings the moment into focus, and also gets the singers pumped to go out and mentally invest in their characterization. I make it my goal to ensure that my vocal quality immediately following this fabulous introduction matches the intensity and volume of Wagner’s fabulous orchestration, which consists of extremely heavy brass and pulsating, pounding timpani.

One word associated with Wagner is “cinematic,” in part because of his innovations at the Bayreuth Festival Theater — where the stage, surrounded in darkness, is given the focus of a silver screen, and where the hidden orchestra’s sound fills the auditorium like a Dolby system. But I also see film in his patient moments of diegetic music, such as when Tannhäuser returns from the orgiastic Venusberg, freshly earthbound. The orchestra fades, first to a clarinet solo, then seamlessly to an English horn, standing in for the pipe of a shepherd, who sings an a cappella ode until pilgrims pass through with a hymn. Wagner weaves the pipe and chorus, beautifully but with a sense of naturalism: The orchestra doesn’t even come back until Tannhäuser, overwhelmed by what he sees, exclaims, “Praise to You, almighty God!”

“Der Fliegende Holländer” is the opera that launched Wagner’s career. He was 29 when it premiered in Dresden, and it is generally regarded as his greatest early achievement, with hints throughout of the dramatic intensity and musical flow that would come to characterize his later works. The rousing “Sailor’s Chorus” from the third act shows his early mastery of grand orchestral and choral sound.

Who’d present a single block from a pyramid to give a picture of all Egypt? The epic scale of Wagner is surely his signature quality. But here goes: The last five minutes of “Tristan und Isolde” offer one of the most astonishing moments in all art. Echoing the great pounding of the sea by which she stands, Isolde sings herself to death by way of a shattering musical climax. The orgasmic passage is known as the “Liebestod”: love-death. Its ravishing, horrifying rise and fall still astounds. Finally, it levels out across the sands in an exquisite release.

Five minutes to make you love Wagner, and hate him. At the end of his sprawling comedy “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” a speech from the kindly shoemaker protagonist, Hans Sachs, takes a dark swerve as Sachs warns of foreign invaders who seek to contaminate “holy German art,” his praise of which is taken up by a fervid crowd — a communal celebration turned nationalistic rally. This stirring choral melody was perhaps the first bit of Wagner I loved. But it is one of the moments in his work that for me now mingles thrill and nausea. Here it is conducted in Vienna in 1944 by Karl Böhm, whose complicity with the Nazis was profound.

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