The Music of Richard Wagner

Course No. 7290
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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Course No. 7290
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Course Overview

Richard Wagner was one of history's greatest composers, a theater artist of extraordinary genius and vision, and one of the most controversial characters in the entire pantheon of Western art. More than a century after his death, his legacy is still debated, his influence still felt in our very conception of Western music and in the contemporary forms of opera and the complete spectrum of theater and literary arts.

  • As a composer, he rewrote the rules for opera—reenvisioning its musical forms and creating dazzling and unforgettable dramatic tapestries that melded orchestral magnificence with the soaring beauty of the human voice.
  • As a theater artist, he pioneered the "Gesamtkunstwerk" or "total artwork" that incorporated music, drama, poetry, philosophy, myth, and ritual, building a theater of revolutionary design and creating musical dramas on a scale never before attempted in history.
  • And, as a self-styled theorist, he pursued an agenda of militant German nationalism, anti-Semitism, elitist prejudice, and unbounded self-glorification in his often troubling philosophical tracts and essays.

Grappling with all of this in the 24 lectures of The Music of Richard Wagner, Great Courses favorite Professor Robert Greenberg of San Francisco Performances returns with a rich and multifaceted exploration of the trailblazing works and outsized life of this historically pivotal figure.

A Confounding and Double-Edged Legacy

In addition to the seminal importance of his works, the phenomenon of Wagner presents a persistent and thorny conundrum. His fierce nationalism, megalomaniacal egotism, and disturbing philosophies have tempted some to say that we must consider the man and the music as two separate things. Yet, Professor Greenberg shows in compelling detail that to try to separate the two is ultimately impossible—that a very strong case can be made that the man is the music, the music the man.

But what a combination! Dr. Greenberg, with his expert grasp of both the music itself and the human dimensions of Wagner's life story, demonstrates that those willing to engage with Wagner as a total package will find themselves in the presence of one of the most visionary creators civilization has ever produced.

Tracing Wagner's melodramatic life, from his desperate escapades outrunning creditors to his obsessive personal relationships, his utopian artistic schemes to his fanatical and voluminous writings, Professor Greenberg places the greatness of Wagner's music and theatrical creations within the context of his grandiose, extreme, and uncompromising approach to living.

In The Music of Richard Wagner, Professor Greenberg offers you a highly incisive and in-depth investigation of Wagner's art and life, reckoning with the unsettling dichotomies of one of Western art's most brilliant, influential, and unusual figures.

A Composer's View of Wagner's Genius

Professor Greenberg's rare breadth and depth of experience make him uniquely qualified to present the complexities of Wagner. An award-winning composer of international recognition—in addition to his acclaimed work as a music historian—he gives you a composer's insight into Wagner's music writing, as well as a historian's discerning perspective on Wagner's life and character.

Dr. Greenberg structures these lectures as an accessible, hands-on introduction to Wagner's celebrated works that form a core part of the standard operatic repertoire throughout the world. Your study of the musical riches, text, and dramatic action of each work leaves you free to enjoy them in performance with a full-bodied awareness of what you're hearing and seeing and with the tools to appreciate these great creations with increasing depth over time.

Your immersion in Wagner's art includes the following:

  • The Flying Dutchman: The haunting score and poetry of Wagner's first masterwork, based on the legend of an accursed sea captain, feature several of Wagner's key innovations. Investigate the Dutchman's groundbreaking musical structure, Wagner's new conception of dramatic text, and his growing self-liberation from the traditional operatic divisions of aria and recitative.
  • Tannhäuser: The saga of a medieval knight torn between two worlds reveals the flowering of Wagner's sublime music. Track the musical narrative through passionate and richly melodic solo arias, the gripping "festival of song," and the extended conclusion during which Wagner's music achieves divine transfiguration.
  • Tristan and Isolde: Wagner's crowning masterpiece, this searing exploration of human desire ranks as one of the most influential musical works of the 19th century. Probe the splendor of its vocal writing and orchestral textures, culminating in the iconic "Liebestod," perhaps the composer's greatest achievement.
  • The Ring of the Nibelung: Arguably the single most ambitious theater work ever created, Wagner's magnum opus comprises four grand-scale music dramas, set in an imagined world of magical beings, fallible gods, and heroic mortals. Dig deeply into The Ring's mythic and philosophical roots, its dramatic narrative, poetry, and breathtaking score—all of which reveal Wagner's mature greatness.
  • Parsifal: Wagner's allegory of the Knights of the Holy Grail jarringly sets a text propounding Aryan ethnic purity to some of the most glorious music in Western art. Study the creation of Parsifal in relation to Wagner's late writings, the drama's complex text, and its transcendent musical highpoints.

Reconceiving the Art of Opera

Tracing the remarkable arc of Wagner's career, you investigate his early operas, the key influence of Weber, and the emergence of a distinctly German operatic tradition as fundamental to his inspiration. You follow the stunning evolution of his art, as he rejects the conventions of popular opera and becomes the only major operatic composer to also write his own texts, laden with myth and symbol, redefining his later works as "music dramas."

  • You also grasp his defining musical innovations, including
  • his obliteration of the distinction between recitative, aria, and ensemble in favor of nonstop dramatic action;
  • his integral use of leitmotivs (short musical ideas directly associated with a character, object, or idea), developing them and linking them as compelling musical subtext;
  • his use of the orchestra in a grand, symphonic partnership with the singers, evoking action and psychological conditions through the music alone.

A Toweringly Complex Character

The sheer outlandishness of Wagner's life makes for an endlessly intriguing story.

You learn about the backstage fistfight that derailed the opening of his opera The Ban on Love, and about his disastrous mismanagement of money, leading to his completion of the opera Rienzi in a Paris debtor's prison. You follow his involvement in revolutionary politics in Saxony, forcing his daring escape to Switzerland in disguise.

You witness the tragicomic fiasco of Tannhäuser's premiere in Paris, and the miraculous intervention of the "mad" king Ludwig of Bavaria, who saved Wagner from the jaws of creditors and bankrolled the writing of his late masterworks.

In his writings and letters, you probe deeply into Wagner's thought, philosophical views, and public actions. You also study his evolving views on art and his own mission—his aversion to opera as "entertainment"; the influence of Schopenhauer's philosophy on his music; his core belief in myth as essential to an art that would revitalize and redeem human civilization.

Reflecting on his essays, including "Art and Revolution," "Jewishness in Music," and "Opera and Drama," you investigate the often contradictory—and hypocritical—aspects of his personality: his self-identification as a political revolutionary and simultaneous deep links to aristocrats; his virulent anti-Semitism and simultaneous identity as a free-thinking, liberal artist. And, reflecting the nationalist spirit of his time, you track his core desire to make "German Art in the service of a German national identity," even as he created a body of works whose communicative power transcends any national boundary.

With Professor Greenberg's passionate and razor-sharp commentary, you plumb the fabulous mystery of this man who—notwithstanding his own extreme narcissism, grandiose posturing, and often inhumane views—gave the world something of deeply compelling and universal resonance: a music of great genius and a poetry that reveals the human psyche in the most unflinching terms. An art in which, if we look deeply, we inescapably find ourselves.

Join us, in The Music of Richard Wagner, for this extraordinary encounter with art, history, and the dimensions of the human spirit.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 47 minutes each
  • 1
    The Escape from Riga
    Wagner's grandiose, difficult character and massive achievements constitute a fascinating and controversial legacy. First, consider Wagner's outsized egotism, material self-indulgence, and fanatical philosophies as ultimately inseparable from the grandeur, length, and fantasy of his music dramas. Then, enter the events of his life through his early musical career, his volatile marriage, and his debt-ridden struggles as an opera conductor. Finally, conclude with his daring escape by land and sea from Riga, fleeing creditors. x
  • 2
    London, Paris, and Rienzi
    Trace the professional disappointments of Wagner's stay in London, followed by the extreme financial hardships of his years in Paris, as he composes, sustained by a dogged belief in his own predestined greatness. Then study his opera Rienzi—the key musical content of its overture and "Almighty Father" aria, and its story elements as they mirror Wagner's heroic self-conception. Follow the composer's return to Germany and Rienzi's triumphant premiere in Dresden, which established his career. x
  • 3
    What to Do about Germany?
    Wagner's music and ideals were fired by the German nationalism that emerged from the Napoleonic wars. Chart the dramatic events of Napoleon's continental conquest, his crushing defeat, and the power shifts leading to a united Germany. Continue with Wagner's early life and the issues surrounding his paternity that found expression in the plot of Siegfried. Learn also about Wagner's infatuation with the theater and the "epiphanies" that led to him becoming a composer. x
  • 4
    The Rise of German Opera
    This lecture explores Wagner's early operatic works in the context of the newly emerging German operatic tradition. Study the elements of Weber's landmark Der Freischütz, incorporating Germanic folklore and the melodic sensibility of German folk song. Then trace Wagner's metamorphosis from "wastrel" student to opera composer through his early music writing and attempts at theatrical works. Focusing on his early opera The Fairies, identify his extraordinary craftsmanship and the influences of Rossini and Weber. x
  • 5
    The Flying Dutchman, Part 1
    First, learn about Wagner's voluminous prose writing, used to develop and prioritize his creative agenda, views, and philosophies. Also track the creation and disastrous premiere of his second opera, The Ban on Love. In his first masterwork, The Flying Dutchman, consider his conception of its text as a poem rather than a libretto, his integral adoption of leitmotiv, and the Dutchman's entrance scene as it leaves behind the conventional operatic constructs of recitative and aria. x
  • 6
    The Flying Dutchman, Part 2
    Wagner's deep identification with the displaced, misunderstood figure of the Dutchman gives the opera the quality of a spiritual diary. Follow in detail the unfolding of the narrative and the opera's groundbreaking structure rooted in four main musical "events." Study the poetry and rich musical textures of the heroine's ballad, the lovers' contrapuntal duet, and the "moment of truth" culminating in the protagonists' transfiguration through love, a theme that was to become central to Wagner's work. x
  • 7
    Dresden and Tannhäuser, Part 1
    Consider Wagner's working methods and the compositional processes with which he brought a score to life. Then trace his struggles in Dresden following his first success, leading to the creation of Tannhäuser, based in the legend of a medieval minnesinger or poet/minstrel. Study the opera's first act, highlighting the soaring melodies of the anti-hero Tannhäuser's renunciation of the love of Venus, and the musical unfolding of his return to earth to seek a destiny of another kind. x
  • 8
    Tannhäuser, Part 2
    You continue with a scene-by-scene study of the dramatic and musical events of the opera, depicting the minstrel knight's inner battle between the profane lure of Venus and his earthly love, Elizabeth. Explore the musical riches of Elizabeth's passionate aria, the central "festival of song" and the "Pilgrim's Choir," one of Wagner's iconic creations, as Elizabeth offers her own life to redeem Tannhäuser as the music itself carries us to a glorious, divine realm. x
  • 9
    Lohengrin, Part 1
    Wagner began work on Lohengrin with his reputation as a trailblazer firmly established. Begin your study with the groundbreaking overture, with its "celestial" melody evoking the Holy Grail. Continue with act I as the mythic knight Lohengrin arrives to fight a "trial by combat," defending the falsely accused Elsa. Highlighting Elsa's heartfelt prayer to God, Lohengrin's entrance, and his "swan song," this lecture elucidates the dramatic continuity of Wagner's writing, as he increasingly blurs opera's traditional conventions. x
  • 10
    Lohengrin, Part 2
    For the conclusion of Lohengrin, this lecture focuses on the character development and dramatic action that propel the opera. Explore the masterful interchange between the disgraced knight Telramund and his wife, Ortrud; their deception of the heroine Elsa; and Elsa's unwitting betrayal of Lohengrin, as well as the opera's complex denouement, as Wagner brings "real-time" immediacy to the majestic musical narrative. Learn also about Lohengrin's premiere under the auspices of the great pianist/composer Franz Liszt. x
  • 11
    The Escape from Dresden, Exile, and Essays
    Focusing on Wagner's five-year hiatus from composing, trace his political activities amid the revolutionary turmoil of 1848–1849, which led to his escape to safety in Switzerland. During his years of exile in Zurich, he wrote a series of seminal essays, expressing currents of thinking that deeply influenced his later works. In particular, explore his views on art and society, his anti-Semitism, and the ideas that encapsulate his path from opera to "music drama." x
  • 12
    Tristan and Isolde, Part 1
    Track Wagner's intense "spiritual communion" with a young married woman in Zurich and how this passion is mirrored in his masterwork, Tristan and Isolde. Then define Wagner's key innovations with leitmotiv and his use of the orchestra. In Tristan's overture and act I, grasp his use of harmonic tension and dissonance to express sexual tension and unconsummated passion. Focus on the musical dialogue of the "drink-death" scene between the two lovers, culminating in their sublime duet. x
  • 13
    Tristan and Isolde, Part 2
    The musical and dramatic conclusion of Tristan and Isolde is one of Western art's greatest moments. Begin with the lovers' extended "conversation" in act II, as they create a shared vision of final ecstasy and union in death, carried by the rich, constantly shifting harmonies of Wagner's mature musical language. In act III, focus on Tristan's emotional interior monologues and finally Isolde's transcendent "Liebestod," revealing their transfiguration. Conclude with assessments of the nature and magnitude of Wagner's achievement. x
  • 14
    In tracing Wagner's tumultuous personal journey of the 1860s, learn about the disastrous premiere of Tannhäuser in Paris and the unraveling of the composer's first marriage, followed by years of hardship spent seeking performances and fleeing creditors. Then delve into two life-changing events: Wagner's professional dreams flourish under the patronage of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, allowing him to create his late masterworks; and he meets Cosima von Bülow, daughter of Liszt, beginning a pivotal relationship. x
  • 15
    The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, Part 1
    Now, follow the genesis of The Mastersingers as it took shape as an artistic and autobiographical tract amid further personal upheavals for the composer. Enter the culture and history of medieval "mastersinging" and the unfolding plot of the drama, centering on a singing competition for the hand of the heroine Eva. Study the knight Walter's pointedly avant garde aria, as he receives the exact criticism from the mastersingers that Wagner himself had endured over the years. x
  • 16
    The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, Part 2
    Wagner's self-identification with the characters of mastersinger Hans Sachs and the knight Walter drives the narrative of The Mastersingers. In act II, study the musical action of Wagner's comic set piece in which the villain-buffoon Beckmesser attempts to serenade Eva as Sachs "judges" his preposterous singing. In the conclusion of the drama, witness the events leading to the final song competition, pitting Beckmesser against Walter and ending with Walter's resplendent "Prize Song," redeeming him (and Wagner) as an artist-innovator. x
  • 17
    The Ring, Part 1
    This lecture charts the creation of the monumental Ring cycle and the extraordinary story of Wagner's struggles to build a unique theater for its presentation in Bayreuth. Also study the narrative structure of the Ring's first drama, The Rhinegold, and its stunning orchestral prelude. In the opening scene, track the musical confrontation between the three Rhine maidens and the dwarf Alberich as he learns of the power of the gold they guard and acts to steal it. x
  • 18
    The Ring, Part 2
    Now follow the unfolding action of The Rhinegold as the devious god Wotan pays the builders of his castle Valhalla by seizing the stolen gold of Alberich—and the power-granting ring Alberich made from it. Explore the key musical episodes, including the fire god Loge's "Narration," the comic sequence in which Wotan and Loge outwit Alberich, and Alberich's bitter curse on the coveted ring that Wotan takes from him. x
  • 19
    The Ring, Part 3
    The Valkyrie, second drama of The Ring, introduces Wagner's iconic warrior princess, Brünnhilde. Track the narrative scene by scene, focusing on numerous examples of Wagner's musical storytelling, as Brünnhilde determines to help illicit lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde, crossing her father, Wotan. Hear the dramatic power of Wagner's writing for the "heldentenor" Siegmund, the famous "Ride of the Valkyries," the passionate interchange between Brünnhilde and Sieglinde, and the poignant parting of Wotan and Brünnhilde. x
  • 20
    The Ring, Part 4
    As a prelude to Siegfried, the third drama, reflect on the integral role of myth and symbol in Wagner's works. In the drama's opening, encounter the uncouth, "unmoral" figure of Siegfried, orphaned son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, as he discovers his true identity. Study Siegfried's brilliant "Forging Song," where he recasts the broken sword of his father, and the "Forest Murmurs" sequence, as he waits to test himself against the dragon Fafner, present holder of the ring. x
  • 21
    The Ring, Part 5
    In the compelling conclusion of Siegfried, the hero faces trials leading him to destroy the old world order of his predecessors. Encounter musical highlights, including Siegfried's highly charged confrontation with Wotan and the exquisite duet of Siegfried and Brünnhilde. In the opening of The Twilight of the Gods, The Ring's final drama, follow Siegfried's journey to the kingdom of the Gibichungs, where he is duped by the evil Hagen—who covets the ring—into betraying Brünnhilde. x
  • 22
    The Ring, Part 6
    Concluding The Ring, this lecture investigates the complex resolution of the drama, as the deception of Siegfried sets in motion the ultimate undoing of Hagen, the house of Gibichung, Siegfried himself, and finally the kingdom of the gods. Grasp the musical heart of the denouement, from the dark "Oath Trio" to the final, majestic solo of Brünnhilde, revealing her as the true protagonist, redeemer, and bringer of a new "Age of Man." x
  • 23
    Parsifal, Part 1
    Wagner's final music drama combines some of Western art's greatest music with a text representing a seething tract on Aryan racial purity. First, learn about Wagner's deranged and irrational late writings, as related to the genesis of Parsifal. Then, study the complex narrative—as the young innocent Parsifal enters the corrupt kingdom of the wounded Amfortas, guardian of the Holy Grail—highlighting the thematically rich prelude and Amfortas's dramatically beautiful "Blood Solo." x
  • 24
    Parsifal, Part 2
    In the resolution of Parsifal, discover the dramatic action and sublime musical highpoints of the work. Delve into the critical scene between Parsifal and the seductress Kundry, focusing on her glowing, lyric aria. In the final act, witness the return of Parsifal as a Christ-like figure and hear the musical "passion" of Amfortas and the otherworldly orchestral postlude. Conclude with reflections on the interpretation of Parsifal, the death of Wagner, and the provocative questions surrounding his legacy. x

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Your professor

Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles,...
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The Music of Richard Wagner is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 62.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course without marked bias I have avoided a Wagner course just because of the composer's historical anti-semitic attitudes. However, Professor Greenberg shows a masterful rendering of Wagner's compositional genius while not condoning Wagner's personal attitudes and personality. I am truly enjoying this course especially because of the Professor's monologues. Rich without judging.
Date published: 2019-06-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great historical background information Indepth personal background history throughout his musical evolution
Date published: 2019-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding! If you love music and love Greenberg’s teaching style, you will love this course. Also, this is a great opportunity to grapple with the idea that an absolute horror of a human being (his bigotry, as evidenced by his own writing) can also be a creative, artistic genius whose work can still be admired.
Date published: 2019-04-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good course, quirky professor The course content is quite good but the instructor clouds the presentations with over dramatic gestures and occasional (corny) jokes
Date published: 2019-01-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview of his life and works I was very disappointed with the last Greenberg course I took (20th century) because it departed from his familiar format. So it was a comfort to return to this earlier course, which includes abundant musical clips peppered throughout the lectures. I thought I knew a lot about Wagner. I own recordings of the operas and DVDs of most of them, and have seen a couple of them live. But Prof. Greenberg added a lot to my store of knowledge, and more than anyone else, helped me keep track of the plots of these dense operas. He doesn’t shy away from the dark side of Wagner’s life and beliefs, but helps us to appreciate his work despite his failings. As always, the Prof presents the material in a way that can appeal to the connoisseur as well as the opera newbie. My single complaint about the series is the poor quality of the recordings used. Even Greenberg criticizes one of the tenors for failing to nail a high “C.” Many of them are apparently live recordings, sounding to me like they were recorded on Clog Dancing night in the consumption ward of the local sanitarium. A big “Ho jo to ho” to Prof. Greenberg for another fascinating musical exploration. BTW, I did the audio version and found it perfectly acceptable for understanding the content.
Date published: 2018-12-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This wonderful presentation consists of 24 lectures on 6 DVDs. It contains hundreds of insightful perspectives about the life of Wagner and his music. The author uses his own brand of very effective humor to significantly enhance the enjoyment. My favorite was: "How would you like to be the official coroner for Wagner's operas? With so many people dying of causes unknown, it's a very tough gig!" As Dr. Greenberg outlines Wagner's life, along with his troubles and troubled relationships, we see clearly that his life truly was an opera in itself, making his life and his music inseparable. The author also has his own personal and convincing way of telling the story of Wagner and his music such that he positively beckons his readers to participate in the various dramas as though we were there in Germany with Wagner. Dr. Greenberg does this by inviting us into and drawing us into his own passion for the music. If anyone could rescue an operatic non-believer from his disbelief, Robert Greenberg can, and does. He almost weaves an operatic spell of his own on his listeners as he explains opera in a way that summons us and convinces us to enjoy it. The author begins by awing us with Wagner's genius, both in his music and his librettos, but mostly in his singular craft as a composer. We are told that Wagner works his miracles by transmitting his own life into his operas, and as Wagner becomes the operas, it makes them come alive, appear almost believable, and even frightening, considering the "emergency that passes for Wagner's life", as the author says. Then the author tells us to lay aside logic and our life in the natural realm to enter into the unnatural, where, of course things are ridiculous. "This is opera"; get used to the love potions, sleeping potions, dragons, men cursed to be's a science fiction fantasy...just enjoy it. The author even includes Wagner's stage instructions (Wagner did it all), thus adding to the full understanding of what colossal undertakings these operas were--to the point that suddenly this genre, which previously may have seemed high and mighty and intellectual and ludicrous, is unexpectedly downright fun. It's better than Laurel and Hardy. Of course it's unreal--until you look at Wagner's life. If Wagner had lived in America, there would surely be a TV soap opera named "The Wagners". As Dr. Greenberg guides us along his path of opera appreciation, he also makes it very clear how absolutely essential it is to be thoroughly acquainted with the story line, and he explains these stories in great and fascinating detail for each opera. Indeed, they are so fascinating that I found myself hurrying to get the necessary things done in my life so I could get back to the next DVD to see what happens! Dr. Greenberg quotes Schopenhauer, saying that, "Instrumental music is an embodiment of the will...and an embodiment of the unconscious desires and urges that lie at the heart of human nature and that drive our actions. The orchestra becomes the voice of inner truth." Wow. Indeed, I would add that if you can listen to the instrumental Prelude to Tristan and Isolde and have it not tug at your heart strings, I would question your humanity. Wagner leaves the music unresolved for such lengths of time that one can hardly stand it any longer. With Wagner it is always his music and his superb orchestration which carry the day, not the words. The output of the orchestra is a full partner in the story-telling. Although Dr. Greenberg does not come right out and say it, I really appreciate his flow in the direction that it is not knowledge of facts and data that will increase musical enjoyment, but the act of concentrated listening and emotional involvement with the sound of the music, that constitutes enjoyment. To summarize, I am hooked. I'm checking the Bayreuth website for ticket prices. Get this lecture series (along with all his others). I give it the highest possible recommendation--99 stars. PS By the way, concerning vibrato--as one of my singer friends told me, "It's the style, it's tradition, it's part of the fun, it's music history." Indeed, in opera, at all costs, don't question anything.
Date published: 2018-11-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Music of Richard Wagner I have more than half a dozen of Professor Greenberg’s music courses. I think his lectures are most interesting and informative, and he speaks with clarity and humour. I took various music appreciation courses for nearly 20 years but classical music is still a mind boggling subject to me until a friend lend me his lectures on The Symphonies of Beethoven. Now I am not only enjoying Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but also Shostakovich and Wagner. I am extremely happy that nowadays I can stream it on tablets, so I can listen to his lectures when I am away from home.
Date published: 2018-02-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Robert Greenberg's Music Lectures I have purchased most of Dr. Greenberg's lectures because they are lively, informative and bring so many new insights into the creation and performance of great music. Listening to Dr. Greenberg is like having Mark Twain discussing a musical work in your living room, with his original analogies and entertaining anecdotes. These lectures about the life and works of Richard Wagner bring this controversial composer and his art to life.
Date published: 2016-08-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Music of Richard Wagner I am a musician and I play the alto saxophone and the piano. I love classical music and jazz. I have purchased all of Robert Greenberg's offered by the Great Courses website. I have enjoyed all of them. My foray into the world of opera began about three years ago. I started by listening to Greenberg's courses on How to Listen and Understand Opera, the Operas of Mozart and the Life and Music of Verdi. Wagner is the last of the opera related courses that I have listened to. Greenberg has an energetic and humorous style of presentation. He rates five stars on that level. He takes complex subjects, such as the musical architecture of Bach's titanic St. Matthew Passion, and makes it comprehensible. He accomplishes a similar feat in this course by un veiling the mysteries of Wagner's complex orchestrations. Greenberg is candid about Wagner's character flaws and he is correct to point them out. Wagner was a musical genius, but he was also a repellent human being. I think that Greenberg makes it clear that Wagner's character flaws, as unpleasant as they may be, do not detract from his musical accomplishment. This was an entertaining and educational course. With Greenberg as my guide, I have started to make my way though Wagner's operas. I really have enjoyed The Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser and The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, but found Lohengrin an insufferable, hellishly overlong, bore. I am just making my way through the ring and I like what I hear. Thanks to Robert Greenberg I have been able to learn and appreciate opera and as a result I am now a complete convert to the cause. This is another outstanding offering from The Great Courses.
Date published: 2016-07-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Greenberg Does it Again! This is my fourth Robert Greenberg course, and like the other three, it is filled with interpretation, tidbits, and notes--in this course, on the life and times of Richard Wagner. First, Wagner did not compose opera, rather he wrote music drama by composing the music, writing the poetry and libretto, cerating the staging and costuming, and producing the final drama. Dr. Greenberg interprets the lush, heraldic music and the German libretto in an understandable, conversational way. He includes occasional "naughty" German words, and loose translations of complex ideas. I first heard Wagner (Die Meistersinger von Nurmberg) in my teen years. I was captivated by the rich horns and the lush strings. However, I did not know of the conflicted life of Wagner--his chronic indebtedness, his anti-Semitic ideas incorporated in his music, and his personal interpretation of Christianity. I learned of these through this course. Moreover, I learned of Hitler's veneration of Wagner, and Nietzche's condemnation of Wagner. This course includes examples of the entire repertoire of Wagner. It is interesting to trace his orchestral compositions from his early years to the sublime compositions of his later years. Without this course, it would be difficult to have these comparisons. Another Great Course! Greenberg does it again!
Date published: 2015-12-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Love the music, loath the man I have mostly seen Wagner's operas on DVD so I was already exposed to his work before watching Greenberg's lectures. So, I had some familiarity with the man's work but not so much on Wagner himself. After finishing the course, I can say that while I would have loved to hear him perform in public, I think I would have found him to be a odious human being. A man who thought of himself as the new god of music and a Germanic Nietzschean Übermensch. He ruined many peoples lives, but he created some of the most sublime music ever written and changed the face of music forever. Greenberg is a fine lecturer, thought it seems to me that he very much likes the sound of his own voice. Still, he is very knowledgable in his subject and I continue to learn more about our culture's musical heritage. Wagner could easily be compared with Tolkien and George Lucas in their respective skills of myth making. All three men brought together a variety of genres to create new worlds in which to look at humanity. Unlike Greenberg's other opera courses, he features a list of DVD's of Wagner's operas to sample. it is a good list, but I would have liked to have seen more than just one production to represent the vast range of interpretations of Wagner's works. All in all, it was a good course and I think anyone with an interest in opera or Wagner or past listeners of Greenberg will find it interesting.
Date published: 2015-09-25
Rated 3 out of 5 by from This Course Falls a Little Short I like Robert Greenberg's teaching, and I love Wagner's music, but this course is a bit of a disappointment. The reason that I like Greenberg's teaching is that he usually analyzes the music so that people taking the course can understand it. For example, his courses on Bach and Beethoven are excellent. In this course, Greenberg focuses on explaining the plots in various Wagner operas and music dramas. I am able to get that information from reading liner notes and librettos. Perhaps Greenberg could have discussed both the plots and the music if he had focused on fewer operas. I learned much more when I took other courses by Greenberg than I did with this course.
Date published: 2015-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Extraordinary Owning as I do an entire CD/DVD case of Wagner Operas and musical etc. selections along with a bookcase full of 100+ books on Wagner, Cosima, the family, Beyruth, Wagner conductors (including the great Anton Seidl), and so on ... having played Wagner in an orchestra setting (trumpet) ... and thus with a fairly intimate knowledge of the subject matter ... I can say without hesitation that Professor Greenberg's course is top rate. If you're interested in Wagner, his music, his music dramas or his historical/cultural/musical context, etc. buy these, trust Professor Greenberg, learn and enjoy. This is one of the great life enriching bargains. I give it an A++.
Date published: 2015-03-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Too much like Wagner As this is music appreciation course and not musical theory, I feel the majority of the time should be spent listening to Wagner's music and not Professor Greenberg's words. The Professor is truly knowledgeable and like Wagner bent on proving it to us. I do not believe presenting multiple scene discussions or libretto readings should be inserted between the sparse musical selections. Opera is first about experiencing and secondly about understanding with that taking place on multiple levels. I can not feel or rationalize musical emotions by being told about them, I must listen first to form my own sublime impression . To paraphrase the Emperor to Mozart upon hearing "The Abduction from the Seraglio", there was too many notes except in this case too many words
Date published: 2015-01-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Overall, disappointing Unfortunately, much is said about how great the music is but there is no in-depth look at what makes the music so great. One can count on one hand the motifs explained in Parsifal, Meistersinger or the Ring cycle with no explanation of how they evolve; no discussion of compound motifs in these works. The presentation was good in the early works of Wagner but, in my opinion, fell apart in the later works with too much interpretation of Wagner's politics as opposed to his musical ideas. I didn't find this to be true in other lectures about composers that may have also been considered "jerks" by the professor, i.e., Beethoven, Brahms, etc.
Date published: 2014-11-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating life, great music I'm only part way through the course on Richard Wagner, but so far I'm very happy with my purchase. Wagner's life is indeed fascinating, not only for the biographical information, but also for the paradoxical nature of his beliefs. His music, with which I am unfortunately not particularly well acquainted with, is wonderful and professor Greenberg does a great job of relating Wagner's life and beliefs to his works. The only negative comment that I may have is Greenberg's portrayal of Wagner's personal flaws are, justifiably or not, overdone. I was pleased that when this part was finally dispensed with and the subsequent narrative of his life and music began in earnest. I have bought almost all of professor Greenberg's offerings and this one may well turn out to be one of my favorites.
Date published: 2014-10-14
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Focus on the Music, Not the Man Robert Greenberg is not in any way humorous although he obviously believes he is. His lack of professionalism is particularly evident in his attack on Wagner's physical appearance (he did a similar thing in the course on Beethoven's symphonies when he mocked the composer's digestive problems). Greenberg may know quite a bit about music, but his personal attack on Wagner is repulsive. If you wish to hear an unfunny clown discuss Wagner, then purchase this course. If you wish a thoughtful, instructive analysis of the man's music, then i suggest you go elsewhere.
Date published: 2014-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The original lord of the rings I have enjoyed many other of Prof Greenberg's courses, and this was the last one which I had been putting off for years because the subject was not one that I had much interest in. I knew about Wagner's association with German nationalism which later became twisted by Hitler, but through the course I learned more about his philosophical underpinnings with regards to Schopenhauer. The professor does make the biographical narrative interesting, starting with his dramatic escape from Riga, and how the sailors' chants inspired a scene from The Flying Dutchman. He starts with his first operatic success Rienzi, and covers the operas mostly in sequential order. He explains the use of musical leitmotifs, and does include enough illustrations to get the point across, most memorably the drink death one from Tristan and Isolde. I was not a fan of Wagner before the course, but it motivated me to want to see them in person. I even ran out and bought the DVD for Parsifal in anticipation of the last lecture, before knowing how racist it actually is. I will try to experience the ring cycle at least on Met opera video, if not in person in Bayreuth or the Houston grand opera cycle from 2013-2016. Just learning about the ring cycle makes the course worth the price, but you also get to learn about the Flying Dutchman, Tristan and Isolde, The Meistersingers of Nuremberg, Lohengrin, Parsifal, and my favorite just from hearing Greenberg discuss it, Thannhauser. You also get to learn about Wagner the man, and his large ego and larger than life personality. In the end, if he motivates you to listen to the music or want to see any of Wagner's musical dramas, then he has accomplished his goal.
Date published: 2014-08-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I know a lot more about Wagner than I did... I had always thought that I should know more about Wagner than I did despite extensive music training, and now I do. Professor Greenberg takes the listener through several of Wagner's works, pointing out highlights and helping you to understand why people love Wagner. He also discusses Wagner's life, noting the problematic aspects of the man's personality. My only criticism of the course is the inadequate volume of the music, requiring you to sit with the control in your hand so you can turn up the volume of the music and then turn it down again for the lecture. Otherwise, this is a fine set of disks for those who want to understand (maybe) what people find entrancing about Wagner.
Date published: 2014-06-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Not Perfect, but How Could it Have Been? My friends (as the good Professor himself is wont to remark), you have all been spoiled beyond recognition. While it may cleanse the souls of some of you who chose to trash this course, you clearly expect the Holy Grail every time Greenberg pursues his teaching mission. I tell you all from the start that total success with this project is akin to solving Rubik's cube in five seconds; it simply cannot be done. To suggest, however, as some of you have, that not only did Professor Greenberg fail his task but that someone else could have made a better go of it is foolishness. Yes, I had my quarrels with some elements: too much biographical narrative (although i understand why it was attempted), the poor quality of some of the music excerpts (yes, I know some of them were recorded live), the intentional de-emphasis on leitmotifs, the anglicizing of the German and a few others less worthy of mention. But please stop complaining about Greenberg's humor; it is his signature, and his audience over the years has, in my view, embraced it. In addition, please remember that, if you already purport to be something of a Wagner scholar (which some of you have suggested), you simply are not the intended audience for this course. It is meant for those who, but for Professor Greenberg's efforts, would never get to first base with the complexity of this canon. Please give him credit, rather than blame, for highlighting that Wagner, the man, was simply a waste of valuable oxygen. He also takes the time to explain how Wagner, the composer, simply invented an entire new realm of music. And he causes us really to think how some people may be unable totally to ignore the former merely to appreciate the latter. This is a brave, committed and largely successful introduction to one of the virtually insoluble labyrinths of Western music.
Date published: 2014-05-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from One Skinny Wagnerian Having completed the Great Courses 32 lesson series on ‘How to Listen to and Understand Opera’ my passion for opera grew exponentially. However, the one pebble in the oyster was Wagner. In 2011 the Metropolitan Opera mounted a new Ring Cycle so we attended the Live HD broadcasts. I was hooked, but confused. To my great delight I found this Great Courses series entitled ‘The Music of Richard Wagner.’ Professor Greenberg has enlightened me to the confusing and contrary world of Wagner. I listened to all 24 lectures while on my treadmill! So, not only do I delight in the 13 operas of RW, I have also dropped 8 ½ pounds! Bravo professor.
Date published: 2014-02-18
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Too Many Yucks for the Bucks I have purchased other courses presented by Herr Professor Greenberg and enjoyed them very much. Years ago I actually became very interested in opera through his course on opera appreciation. Having become particularly interested in Wagner's operas I was thrilled to see this course appear in Audible as an offering from The Teaching Company. I was able to use a credit to get the course---a great value but...disappointment followed. In his basic introduction to opera course, Greenberg makes periodic corny jokes but they do not detract from the content. This course, however, could be sold by the bushel for the amount of corn. Does he want us to take the subject seriously? Then why the juvenile jokes every 90 seconds? The music excerpts are a pleasant break from Greenberg's stand-up comedy. Okay, Wagner is a big, tough subject and a little levity can break things up. Agreed. But this constant wisecracking really detracts from the depth of the subject. The girls singing while they spin in a scene from The Flying Dutchman reminds Greenberg of a Nike sweatshop? Please. A little study of Wagner will lead you to a very complex man and a great artist. His themes are not cut and dry. Pure love doesn't always trump lust. Greed isn't always defeated by altruism. Even the gods are flawed in Wagner's great Ring Cycle. Wagner goes beyond what we would call the predictable plots of today. Bad guy gets killed, Good guy dies by some ironic error. No, Wagner twists around the plots with deep complexity---his characters are torn between choices of heaven and hell with neither choice being clear. It's a shame to dilute this great art with silly jokes. 2 stars because there is a lot of content of value if you can ignore the childish cracks. Finally, every one of these stand-up sessions begins and ends with canned applause. Why? If there is a "live" audience, why aren't they laughing at every joke? Maybe they didn't find it funny either? Why not add a laugh track? If we are to yuck it up for 19 hours, give us a laugh track. How about a periodic gong? If you want to learn about Wagner, get the operas on DVD and enjoy them. Pick up a biography and read it. For a much lighter experience, grab a six pack and settle in to this audio series. Greenberg will bring the corn. I regrettably cannot recommend it. Once beyond an introductory level course, learners want more material and less fluff per minute. In this course, it's just too much. Note: I purchased the audio version. My instinct tells me the video version would be worse, not better. But, maybe the video version is edited differently?
Date published: 2013-09-07
Rated 1 out of 5 by from A failure on many levels Before getting into the depth of the dreadfulness of Greenberg's Wagner course, I want to mention that I had listened to Greenberg’s "How to Listen and Understand Great Music" and found it to be very interesting. He makes too many not-very-funny jokes, but beyond that, I enjoyed them. Thus, when they put out this series for a fairly low price, I thought it would be a perfect thing to listen to while I was doing a car trip to Seattle to see Wagner’s cycle in August of 2013. His course starts out promisingly, actually. I was interested in hearing excerpts of some of his early works. I noticed, though, that his historical facts were often said much too emphatically. One example is on Wagner’s paternity. All reputable biographers feel this is unsolvable issue as there is much evidence on both sides of who was Wagner’s real father. Here Greenberg lands on one side, but by asserting that things are FACTS (his emphasis) that are, in truth, mostly conjectures, and have not been proven, he stacks the evidence instead of giving the full evidence on both sides and letting the listener draw their own conclusions. In fact, you wouldn’t even know that there are many folks who have concluded the exact opposite. This is what he continues to do the rest of the course: saying things of great controversy in a way in which you wouldn’t even know there was contrary evidence or viewpoints. For an introductory course, I find this to be intellectually unsupportable. The basic problem is that Greenberg has no in-depth understanding of Wagner or his music dramas or his prose writings, and has little understanding or sympathy for the works. The whole enterprise has a first-year college level feel to it, clearly “crammed” and completely lacking in nuance—cutting and pasting his talk from a very limited variety of second-hand sources. If you have read a lot about Wagner, as I have, then you soon learn that nothing written about him should be taken on face-value unless you do the homework and go to the original source. This he clearly did not do. I know far more about Wagner than he does—which shouldn't be the case!—and I find it pathetic that the Great Courses would put out such a course given his paucity of knowledge. You know this saying?: A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure. Greenberg is a man with one watch and it is a Dali-like watch. He is absolutely sure of himself and he shouldn't be. His principal source for his biographical material and analysis is pretty much plucked whole from the one-dimensional and twisted biography of Wagner by Gutman, "Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music." This is the “distorted watch” he rests his course upon. Essentially, it is “junk in, junk out.” (Go to Amazon to read reviews outlining some of the distortions in Gutman’s book, most of which find their way into Greenberg’s course.) Both Wagner the man, and the works themselves, are consistently described in a sneering, sarcastic and mocking manner. His musical analysis—the hows of why Wagner is so effective at writing music of emotional depth; his use of the orchestra, harmonics, melody, rhythm, silence, and time —is almost completely absent. His excerpt choices are often bizarre, ignoring much that is a “must hear” for minor passages. While he repeatedly says that the music is the most important part of the music dramas—a point that is universally acknowledged, including by Wagner himself—he then spends an inordinate amount of time reading libretto text, often without any point being made. Greenberg often repeats biographical myths or half-truths, and does so in a way that a listener who does not know the biographical material is led astray. He consistently exaggerates his material. His understanding of Wagner’s beliefs are often completely wrong, and always without nuance. His libretto analysis is generally crude and often without any basis in text or music. What I was hoping for was musical analysis. I am not a musician and am fascinated by the emotional and psychological depths oft Wagner's music. I was hoping for a course that really concentrated on how he achieved his effects. There is virtually none of that here. I would love it if there was a full course on Wagner on CD, particularly analyzing his music. But this is certainly not it. If you are interested in learning about Wagner via CDs or podcasts, it is far more beneficial to go to one of the available excellent Ring lectures such as John Culshaw’s, (if you google “john culshaw uccd2” you will find these lectures to download for free, plus more quality material about Wagner’s Ring from the New York Met). Some other sources that are good are both Speight Jenkins' or Perry Lorenzo's talks about the Ring that you can find on Amazon. If you want a more general analysis of Wagner and his musical effects on a podcast, please listen to the wonderful, incisive talk by Nicholas Spice called “Is Wagner Bad For Us?” Just google “nicolas spice wagner podcast” and find it on the list. It is a wonderful 76 minutes that far exceeds anything in this course. Save your money, and listen to it and John Culshaw for free. That will be a wonderful Wagner introductory course. Hopefully, someone will put out a much better full course on Wagner's music in the future.
Date published: 2013-08-29
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Disappointing This course gets 3 stars because Professor Greenberg could give an interesting lecture on how to boil water, but if you’re looking for the insight and enthusiasm he shows in many of his other courses, you won’t find it here. I think the problem is that Greenberg just doesn’t like Wagner. Nobody likes Wagner the person, of course, and nobody likes Wagner’s political views. But I don’t think Greenberg really likes Wagner’s music either. He respects it, but with the possible exception of Tristan and Isolde, I don’t think he enjoys it. As far as content, this course is similar to Greenberg’s “Great Masters” series of biographical sketches of composers. This course includes similar biographical information on Wagner. Wagner’s life is fascinating, and Greenberg does a fair job with it, though, as I mentioned, he is lacking in his usual enthusiasm. Added to the biography is an overview of Wagner’s operas and music dramas. The overview is mostly a plot synopsis of each work, with some musical examples thrown in. This is where the course was most disappointing. There is little musical analysis or explanation of what makes Wagner’s music great. Just an endless run through of “then Siegfried does this” and “then Alberich does that.” Contrast this to Greenberg’s fantastic course on Beethoven’s symphonies, which really shows you how the music works. With a few limited exceptions, that kind of stuff isn’t here. On top of this, Greenberg can scarcely hide how silly he thinks the plots and mythology that surround them are. Greenberg touches on leitmotifs, but mostly just to explain that he won’t spend much time discussing them. Greenberg is always worth listening to and he does tell some interesting stories and gives some worthwhile insights. This course is probably still worth listening to for listeners who aren’t already familiar with Wagner. But it could have been so much better! I’d love to see the Great Courses produce a detailed course on The Ring, perhaps by someone other than Professor Greenberg.
Date published: 2013-07-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from great introduction to wagner though it may not be the purist,s dream of a wagner lecture i found it very humourous and informative. some of the lectures can get into too much detail but this one had a nice mixture of the operas and the time in which he lived. the history is part of the music and has to be included. there.s no point in just explaining the music. There are things to laugh at when it comes to wagner,s own personality and his librettos have to be seen in a humourous context. Reading the librettos on there own would make them seem ridiculous without the music. it,s probably not for wagnerians who don,t see the lighter side of life but for all others it,s a great introduction
Date published: 2013-05-29
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Greenberg"s dislike for Wagner was too obvious. I would have liked more about the music and less about Wagner's anti-semitism and philosophy. Greenberg's opera courses are weaker than his other courses and this is the weakest.
Date published: 2013-03-01
Rated 2 out of 5 by from One-sided nonsense Positing that you cannot separate Wagner's operas from his life and prose writings is an overly facile and unrewarding critical approach. It barely scratches the surface of what these fascinating works are really about. Wagner's artistic creations taken by themselves,as music and libretto, have very little, even nothing, to do with anti-semitism. As a young English major in college my finest teacher taught that a work of art must be judged on its own words not exterior factors such as the artist's biography. Any other approach is, if you will, unscientific. When you use this critical method you will find that Wagner was operating on a level far removed from mere bias against one group or another. I personally believe that on a creative level he just wasn't that interested in any particular ethnic or religious group. Wagner's was dealing with philosophies and the depths of the human psyche that are of universal significance. In other words there is far more of interest in these works than can realized by viewing them as auto-biogrphies or bigotry. I encourage anyone who wants to study and understand these immensly rewarding works to experiece them directly by dvd or cd and carefully follow the words with a libretto. Make up your own mind based on the work itself . If you do this you will find that these works are actually inimicable to nazism. The messages of the Ring and Parsifal must have been and,in fact, were unsettling to nazis. To simplify, love and universal compassion weren't high on the Third Reich's agenda. Lastly, I was dissapointed that Professor Greenberg has perpetuated the rediculous notion that Parsifal is some kind pure blood aryan tract. This apparently originated with a nazi appologist who wanted to make this work palatable to his cohorts. All one needs to do is, again, follow this work with a libretto and listen to the music. Make up your own mind. I think you will find that this opera is about compassion for all life, including animals, and the integration of the male and female aspects of the human personality. You may also find that the music is the most sublime ever composed. To conclude, this course fails to reveal or even suggest the real depths of the subject.
Date published: 2012-09-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Overview This course is not intended for the musicologist or the Wagner expert, but it admirably balances attention to an extraordinary life and personality (for better or worse) and to the music itself. I have general knowledge of music and of Wagner and found much to learn and to review. And Greenberg could manage to make a shopping list entertaining.
Date published: 2012-02-28
Rated 1 out of 5 by from The Love Life and Finances of Richard Wagner This course fails as a discussion of Wagner's music. First, if you want a discussion of Wagner's role in 19th century intellectual history or 20th century political history, there are competent historians who could handle such a course. Greenberg is not one of them. Second, the relationship between Wagner and Hitler is quite disturbing. However, that is reason to shun Wagner altogether. Once - for whatever reason - we have crossed the threshold to a point where we nevertheless are going to listen to him, then his music should be fully analysed. This course fails to do anything like that. Remarkably, Greenberg flat out refuses to discuss Wagner's leitmotivs. His rationale not only flies in the face of the course description, which highlights Wagner's leitmotivs, but is belied by Greenberg's own extensive discussion in so many of his courses of one of Tristan and Isolde's leitmotivs. If you are interested in, say, how modern cinema continues to use leitmotivs, you will get no insights from this course. Indeed, Greenberg entirely omits any discussion of Wagner's use of rhythm, a topic he nevertheless discussed in his Fundamentals of Music course. In short, people who have taken Greenberg's other courses might expect extended, detailed expositions of Wagner's music. Instead, they get detailed expositions of his finances, his romances, his feelings about Paris, and his relationship with Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. There is a need for a course on the music of Richard Wagner. This is not it.
Date published: 2011-12-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Good Intro to Wagner What I was hoping for in this course was a framework upon which to hang Wagner's music within the grand scheme of classical work. I was not disappointed. But there are IMHO a few drawbacks. Prof. Greenberg never lets the opportunity for a bad pun go by. At first this is charming, but then becomes tedious. And the examination of the plots of the "musical dramas" becomes a bit detailed at times. My CD set came with one of the later CDs warped and not playable. I found that I did not miss the content enough to complain. A good way, however, to dip one's musical toe into Wagner.
Date published: 2011-12-07
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