Today, 22 May 2013, we celebrate the 200th birthday of one of the most iconic, controversial, and astonishingly original artists of all times: Richard Wagner (1813-1883). The eminent British musicologist Deryck Cooke declared that Wagner’s epic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is the most ambitious work of art ever produced by a single artist in our civilisation, and that the poet-composer forms, with Aeschylus and Shakespeare, the great dramatic trilogy that supports its artistic tradition. Even if I do not entirely agree with this vindication of Wagner’s status as a purely literary dramatist, I think that the comparison with Shakespeare’s accomplishment is fundamentally valid in aesthetic terms. Both artists excelled in their own art forms—spoken theatre and opera—and are towering pillars of Western art.
Wagner’s librettos are in themselves splendid literary works whose aesthetic quality surpasses that of the vast majority of operas in the repertory. Where Shakespeare pushed the boundaries of English blank verse, largely unrhymed, beyond the rigidness of previous writers, Wagner adapted the ancient Germanic Stabreim (alliterative verse) using varied rhythmic patterns and adding rhyme in a variety of metrical schemes. In this spirit of formal experimentation, it is not surprising that Shakespeare was an inescapable influence on Wagner’s work as a dramatist. Countless references to him in his autobiographical and theoretical works attest that he had a deep understanding of the plays, their structure, technical resources, and cultural significance. In Opera and Drama he constantly refers to Shakespeare as a pivotal basis of his new dramatic manifesto. In the book he stated that, if the chorus constituted the key element of Greek tragedy, commenting and interpreting the action, ‘with Shakespeare, [it] is resolved into divers individuals directly interested in the Action, and whose doings are governed by precisely the same promptings of individual Necessity as are those of the chief Hero himself.’ In this way Shakespeare, according to Wagner, managed to morph the collective chorus into individual characters of startling originality, motivated by deep, primal ‘necessities’.
But Wagner’s aesthetic proposal went a step further. The libretto—or, rather, the ‘poem’, as he termed it—is only the textual element of the new form that would emerge with his manifesto, and that would change opera as a genre in a revolutionary way: the ‘music drama’. The poem’s ideal realisation must come with the sublimation and unification of all the arts into a coherent and meaningful whole—the Gesamtkunstwerk, or ‘total work of art’. The literary text is, thus, incomplete without the cooperation of the other arts: architecture, sculpture, painting—and music. The orchestra, then, assumes the choric function of ancient Greek drama in presenting a fluid, multifaceted interpretation of the story through the use of ever-changing leading musical motives, or Leitmotiven.
We would be much mistaken if we denied that Wagner is, first and foremost, a great composer. Much greater than Wagner the poet, or Wagner the philosopher, or Wagner the political activist, Wagner the composer is a fundamental pillar of modern Western music. Daniel Barenboim, the Israeli-Argentinian-Spanish pianist and conductor, who has actively championed to lift the ban on the performance of Wagner’s music in the state of Israel for many years, once stated that without Brahms the history of Western music would be more or less where it is; but without Wagner there is no knowing where it would be.
But Shakespeare’s influence on Wagner goes beyond the mere aesthetic innovation, the status of their respective accomplishments, and the power of their creative imagination. Wagner only adapted one play by Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, into his early opera Das Liebesverbot (The Ban of Love), about which Dave Paxton has written about at length (see his essays here); but his technique of characterisation, his creation of powerful individuals in the fiction of his works, and even his use of leading motives (musical rather than the use of recurrent textual imagery) are also, arguably, part of his Shakespearian legacy.
Wagner’s personal library, still preserved in Wahnfried, the house that he built for himself in Bayreuth, contains a full set of Shakespeare’s complete works in English and in German translation. I have always wondered whether those books contain any annotations or marginalia that would help us understand to what extent Shakespeare’s works influenced his own dramatic—and musical—writing. Maybe a new generation of researchers, in the confluence of Wagner’s and Shakespeare’s centenary celebrations—2013, 2014, and 2016—will help to disentangle this intriguing connection.
José A. Pérez Díez
 I Saw the World End (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979)