Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
First-Year Seminar

Academics

FYS Section A19. Visionary Opera, Nazi Propaganda, and Cinematic Soundscapes: Untangling the Legacy of Richard Wagner

In the long history of European music, there is no composer more controversial than Richard Wagner (1813-83). His immense achievements include monumental operas, especially the epic Ring of the Nibelung, that embody his theories of drama and music. His innovations in orchestration, harmony, and melodic symbolism and transformation changed the course of music history and had lasting effects not only in opera, but also notably in film scoring. But there was a darker side of Wagner’s genius. In pursuit of his vision, he was ruthless, arrogant, and ungrateful. More significant in the future reception of his music was his anti-Semitism. In the Germanic themes of the operas and in their composer’s prejudices the Nazis later found an ideal artistic backdrop. Hitler himself was welcomed by Wagner’s descendants to the Festival Theatre that the composer himself had built in Bayreuth, Germany. To what extent can we untangle an artist’s work from his or her personal life and beliefs? Wagner’s operas themselves, especially The Ring, and the composer’s own prose writings will be central to our studies. Don’t worry about lack of musical experience: Anything you need to know about music and opera will also be part of this seminar.

William MacPhersonWilliam MacPherson
Assistant Professor of Music, College Organist