Commonly hailed as the “King of Opera”, Wagner is best known for his contributions to the operatic tradition. He really sought to push opera to the next level. He coined the term “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total art work” to describe his vision for what opera is meant to be. To Wagner, the opera is supposed to be a comprehensive form of art that seamlessly blends together visual art, drama, and music. He tried to tie the music in his operas directly to the story and the events on stage. His goal was to elicit extra-musical objects, ideas, and emotions through the use of this music and thus create a more coherent experience for the audience. Wagner wanted his audience not just to hear music, but to also think of objects, colors, moods, emotions, and much more. Wagner wasn’t the first composer to write music with this goal in mind, however he was one of the most skilled at it.
Leitmotifs are short musical themes associated with a particular object, person, or setting. Wagner was particularly effective at using them to elicit extra-musical experiences from his audience. Some notable examples of leitmotifs include themes for Siegfried, Valhalla, and a simple sword in his Ring Cycle of operas. However, Wagner wouldn’t just assign a theme to each setting or character and then reuse the exact same theme over and over again. Instead he carefully manipulated these themes for specific situations. For example, shifting a single note downwards by a half-step can shift the key from major to minor and give a darker, more serious mood to what used to be a happy and lighthearted leitmotif. In a tender moment the leitmotif might be shifted into a higher range, which can give the music a softer, lighter feeling. As a result of these manipulations, the music develops along with the characters and plot of an opera. Regular attendees of Wagner’s operas can often predict exactly what will happen on stage based on the music that precedes it. Wagner created a synesthetic experience for his audience so that they could see objects and feel emotions based on the music that they heard.