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Music history professor researches controversial composer

Friday, January 24, 2014

Dr. James ParsonWhat does one say about a composer who, as popular history has it, is third in line after Jesus Christ and Napoleon in terms of the number of words written about him?

This was the challenge Dr. James Parsons, music history professor at Missouri State University, faced recently when he was invited to write two essays on one of the most controversial figures in all history: Richard Wagner. The publication in which his work appears is The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, published December 2013 by Cambridge University Press.

About Richard Wagner

German-born Richard Wagner (1813-83) stood at the center of a musical and cultural revolution that swept Europe during the nineteenth century’s second half. Known almost exclusively for his work in opera, or as he called them “music dramas,” Wagner is best known for the synthesis he sought in his musical stage works, effecting a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total artwork,” in which he balances the domains of music, words, sets, costumes and staging. The most famous example is his “Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung),” a cycle of four operas that last about fifteen hours.

About Parson’s research

Given his extensive research involving the German art song, or lied, Parsons was asked to write on Hugo Wolf (1860-1903), famous for having taken up many of Wagner’s operatic ideals and applying them to song, especially with Wagner’s individual approach to harmony.

Parsons’ second essay focuses on Wagner’s only song cycle, his so-called “Wesendonck Lieder,” five songs written from 1857-58 and which set to music the poetry of Mathilde Wesendonck. Wesendonck was the wife of Wagner’s generous Swiss patron Otto Wesendonck, who had made a fortune in the silk business. Wagner fell so completely under the spell of Mathilde that he interrupted composition on his famous music drama “Tristan und Isolde,” which tells the story of adulterous love.


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