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Richard Wagner at the piano

Richard Wagner at the piano
Richard Wagner, c. 1861

Wagner was the ultimate drama king and a lightning rod for controversy, yet he remains one of the most fascinating and uncompromising figures in the arts.

Richard Wagner's 200th birthday is being celebrated this year at major opera houses including the Metropolitan Opera, Seattle Opera, and at the Bayreuth Festival. Wagner was the ultimate drama king and a lightning rod for controversy, yet he remains one of the most fascinating and uncompromising figures in the arts. The ingenious method he used in staging his operas is legendary. And so was his circle of friends, which included King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Liszt, wife Cosima Wagner, and Hans von Bülow. 

Wagner's music and writings have been analyzed, praised, and criticized by music critics and novelists including Friedrich Nietzsche (The Case of Wagner), George Bernard Shaw (The Perfect Wagnerite), and Thomas Mann (Pro and Contra Wagner). In the essay Music of the Future, Wagner points out, "Obviously the question of my talent, whether great or small, was not the issue: not even my most hostile critics attacked me on that ground. What they objected to was my outlook."1

In 1876, the famed Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick reviewed Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen and said, "The style of Wagner's Ring will not be the music of the future…. One could say of this tone poetry; there is music in it, but it isn't music."2 Not surprisingly, Wagner's revolutionary concept of music drama turned the opera world upside down. He grew up studying Beethoven's symphonies and at home he played the composer's piano sonatas Op. 101 and Op. 110, among others. He even made a piano arrangement of Beethoven's ninth symphony at the age of seventeen. But Wagner was inventive and wanted to create a different world of tonality and poetry in music. He said, "The higher the concept I built of what opera could achieve, the more clearly I came to envision how the concept might be achieved—namely, by channeling into the bed of music drama the great stream which Beethoven sent pouring into German music."3

Wagner wrote his first piano sonatas in 1829, which are now lost. Fourteen works for piano solo and piano four-hands remain and were composed between 1831 and 1882, the lengthy time span due to the completion of Elegie, which he began in 1859. The quality of his piano compositions range from student assignments to mature masterworks infused with an exotic harmonic and melodic intensity found in his memorable operas. 

To gain a better understanding of Wagner's compositional style at the piano, I spoke with renowned German concert pianists Stephan Möller and Stefan Mickisch. 

Stephan Möller teaches at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna and is director of Vienna's International Rosario Marciano Piano Competition. He worked at the Salzburg Festival with Herbert von Karajan for many years, and has recorded Wagner's complete works for piano on the Koch label. Stefan Mickisch is a respected Wagner scholar who lectures at the Bayreuth Festival. His discography features lecture-performances at the piano of operas by Wagner as well as Stefan Mickisch on Wagner's Steinway

According to Mickisch, Wagner used the piano when composing his pieces in much the same way as Stravinsky, Prokofi eff, or Richard Strauss. "Wagner had a very close relationship to the piano all of his life. He played nearly every day on his Steinway grand in his home at Haus Wahnfried in Bayreuth, Germany," says Mickisch. This piano was a gift from Steinway & Sons New York to celebrate the opening of the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876. The instrument has an inscription that says, "Best Wishes for the Festival from Steinway Hall to Richard Wagner."

Haus Wahnfried in Bayreuth, Germany.

Wagner's former home in Bayreuth became the Richard Wagner Museum (RWM) and houses his Steinway and four other pianos. According to Dr. Gudrun Föttinger, a Vice Director of the RWM, the collection includes a Breitkopf & Härtel grand with an inscription that lists which operas Wagner composed on the instrument—such as Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Die Walküre. Also on display is a Bechstein table piano, a present from King Ludwig II, that Wagner used when composing Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Parsifal, among others.4

Students who explore Wagner's piano works might find them less daunting than standard concert repertoire. With that in mind, Möller mentions that the pieces have an orchestral quality with a dimension of instrumental color and timbre. "When you look at Wagner's piano compositions, pianistically they are far off from what Liszt wrote at the time. Wagner comes from the central idea of Beethoven and of Berlioz on the other side, and hears the potential for future developments," says Möller. 

Among Wagner's earlier piano works are the Sonata in B-Flat Major (1831), the Große Sonata in A Major, (1832) and the Fantasia (1832). The sonata of 1831 is considered a study work, as Wagner's teacher requested he write a piece in the classical style of composer Ignaz Pleyel, a friend of Haydn. The Große sonata has a more personal involvement to the music, as Möller explains that the themes are developed in the manner of Beethoven. And that Wagner composed the Adagio of this work in F# minor, the same key as the Adagio e sostenuto of the "Hammerklavier" sonata. But it is with the Fantasia that Wagner begins to establish his own musical identity. Möller describes it as an opera miniature, where sections of the piece are connected by a recitative and themes that could serve as derivatives of his later operas. "The entire Wagner can be found in the Fantasia. It's interesting how Wagner evolved his operatic ideas already in his early piano compositions like the Große Sonata and even more in the Fantasia. There is such a difference in quality when Wagner composed a dramatically conceived work like the Fantasia and the 'Wesendonck' sonata," says Möller. 

Perhaps the most musically innovative of Wagner's pieces is the Eine Sonata für das Album von Frau M. W. (1853). This one movement piece was composed the same year as Liszt's Sonata in B Minor and dedicated to Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner's beloved patron. Möller explains that this piano work is probably Wagner's most important because of its emotional content and the composer's relationship to Wesendonck. "When we look at the earlier compositions, it is quite clear that Wagner felt himself in ropes when he had to stay close to the classical form, like the sonata. It's very interesting how Wagner deals with ideas of drama and classical form. In the 'Wesendonck' sonata he brings together strictness and total freedom and this is very close to Beethoven's ideas of composing music in his later years; being strict with the form and totally free at the same moment," says Möller. 

The diminutive Polonaise (1832), Polka (1853), and Polonaise for piano four-hands (1832) offer a lighter side of Wagner's creativity. Other charming period-style miniatures include the Züricher Vielliebchen-Walzer (1854), In das Album der Fürstin M. (Metternich) of 1861 and Albumblatt für E. B. Kietz (1840). Möller indicates that the fourteen measure piece, Elegie (1859/1882) probably started as an unused sketch for Tristan und Isolde. The last six measures were added in 1882 and given to wife Cosima as a birthday present. Wagner's operatic ideas are also incorporated into the Ankunft bei den schwarzen Schwänen (1861), dedicated to Princess Metternich, who arranged for Tannhäuser to be performed at the Paris Opera in 1861. Möller points out that the piece is based on the motive from Elisabeth's aria, Dich, teure Halle, in the second act of Tannhäuser (see Excerpts 1 and 2). 

Other highlights include the Albumblatt für Frau Betty Schott (1875) that, according to Möller, contains different musical thoughts found in Die Meistersinger and Götterdämmerung. And the Notenbrief für Mathilde Wesendonck (1857), has similarity to the second act love scene in Tristan und Isolde. To fully appreciate the complexity of Wagner's writing, I encourage readers to get sco

Stefan Mickisch

Wagner's relationship with Franz Liszt offered the composer needed support and musical food for thought. Wagner wrote to Liszt in 1853, "When has an artist, a friend, ever done for another what you have done for me? … I cannot conceive what I should have done without you these last four years."5 Liszt's admiration for Wagner is evidenced by many arrangements of his operas, such as Isolde's Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. And Wagner, in turn, told Liszt that his transcriptions were arranged in "the ingenious manner unique to you."6

Mickisch explains why Liszt became an important influence for Wagner. "Liszt was the greatest piano virtuoso of his time, a very good composer, conductor, organizer and an inspiration. He was modern in thinking and creating and all this was exactly what Wagner was looking for." Mickisch comments that Wagner was attracted to this new music, new combinations of harmonies and new forms. "Liszt found, coming from Berlioz, the leitmotif technique and so-called open harmonies and this was of greatest interest to Wagner. For instance, Wagner learned a lot from Liszt's Sonata in B Minor, which Karl Klindworth (a student of Liszt) played for him," says Mickisch.

Excerpt 1: Ankunft bei den schwarzen Schwänen by Richard Wagner, mm. 28-35.
Excerpt 2: Dich, teure Halle from Tannhäuser, Act II, by Richard Wagner.
Portrait of Richard Wagner by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1882.

Möller adds that some of Liszt's compositional ideas in his piano, vocal, and orchestral works, found their way into Wagner's operas. "Wagner presented himself as an independent musician, but when you look at some of Liszt's compositions, they are the sources for Wagner," Möller says. He adds that some of the more revolutionary aspects of harmony in Wagner's music are often anticipated in Liszt's piano compositions. "Chromatic modulations, a sense of freedom and spacing, the never-ending melody and the half-diminished seventh chord are important aspects of Liszt's music. Wagner was always looking for these incredible moments and took many ideas from Liszt," says Möller. Liszt's compositional style was of great interest to Wagner, and even Cosima Wagner mentioned this in her diaries of 1869-1883. Origins of the so-called "Tristan" chord remain a popular topic among musicians. According to Möller, the framework for Tristan und Isolde can be found in several of Liszt's works, including the "Dante Sonata" from Années de Pèlerinage Italie, Liebesträume, Ballade No. 2 and "Vallée d'Obermann" from Années de Pèlerinage Suisse. And the opening of Liszt's B Minor Sonata contains a possible link to a motive found in Wagner's Ring cycle. Keep searching!

Wagner may have felt a musical kinship to Beethoven and Liszt, but he single-handedly transformed the interaction of music, text, and orchestration in opera. Some of his piano works also contain a unique departure from mid-nineteenth century formalism. Wagner said, "Music includes within itself the consummate drama."7 His compositional approach has been described as music of the future (Zukunftsmusik) and Mickisch adds that Wagner's music led to impressionism and expressionism, paving the way for Mahler, early Schoenberg, Schreker, and Korngold. "Even Puccini, who deeply admired Wagner, took some things from him, but made a different style to his operas. If you look at Wagner's early operas like Die Feen (1833) or Lohengrin (1848), you find harmonic experiments which only one composer of his time used; Chopin," says Mickisch. Möller explains that all great artwork should have a connection between past and future. And that if progressive or futuristic music loses a connection to the past, nobody will want to hear it. "Wagner was a great musician and ideologue. An important aspect of his compositions is that he feels he is the renewer of something. He used tradition in a completely new way."

Stephan Möller


1Jacobs, R.L., trans. (1979). Three Wagner Essays. London: Eulenburg Books. 

2Pleasants, H., trans. (1978). Hanslick's Music Criticisms. New York: Dover, p. 139. 

3Jacobs, p. 19. 

4Richard Wagner Museum, Bayreuth, Germany: 

5Hueffer, F., trans. (1969). Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt. New York: Haskell House Publishers, Vol 1, p. 282. 

6Ibid, p. 264. 

7Glass, F.W. (1983). The Fertilizing Seed:Wagner's Concept of Poetic Intent. Univeristy of Michigan Research Press, p. 76.

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