It has fallen to
me to be one of the less frivolous contributors to this Bikwil Wagner
issue. What follows, however, is something which only on a charitable
day might just pass for an "academic" or "formal"
paper. This short article will thus not be particularly learned, and
certainly it isn't boldly original. What it may be, though, is
interesting enough to motivate further explorations by the new Wagner
buff into a couple of the more technical aspects of the composer's art.
To that end, as we proceed I'll provide references to the literature I
found most illuminating while researching this topic.
The Vision Thing
Before we can talk about Wagner's
craft (at least that of his mature works Tristan, the Ring,
Meistersinger and Parsifal) we must first address his Gesamtkunstwerk
concept (= unified art form). In opera the method had long been to have
the various scenes sung by isolated arias or choruses which rarely bore
any musical relationship to each other. As a rule, operas set throughout
to music (whether arias, recitatives, ensembles or choruses) were called
"grand operas", while those with dialogue came to be known as
Wagner's intention, by contrast, was
to create a new kind of dramatic work, in which music, poetry, drama,
acting, scenery and spectacle could be combined in a meaningful and
expressive whole, and which was to be called, not "opera", but
"music drama". The Collins Encyclopedia of Music  offers a
deft summary of all the stipulations Wagner attached to the idea, which
included legends as subject matter, verse written by the composer, the
abandonment of conventions like the operatic ensemble, the orchestra as
equally expressive partner to the voices, and symphonic continuity.
From here on, however, I will be able
to focus on just two design implications of the concept: melodic and
orchestrational. I realise that this will omit a number of other
important topics, but space limitations dictate such exclusions.
One device Wagner developed to help
actualize his vision is known as the "leitmotiv".
Contrary to a widespread
misconception, neither the term "leitmotiv" nor the device
itself was invented by Wagner. His word was “Grundthema” (= basic
theme). The coinage of the word “leitmotiv” has sometimes been
attributed to Friedrich Wilhelm Jähns , who was applying it, not to
Wagner, but to Weber. Most commentators , however, confer the credit
on H. von Wolzogen, the editor of Bayreuther Blätter, who employed it
1887 when discussing Götterdämmerung, and who gave the leitmotivs
their well-known names.
So what exactly is a leitmotiv? Simply
put, in the words of the indestructible Anna Russell, "it merely
means a signature tune" for persons, events, emotions and physical
objects — a sort of motto chiefly used as a "device of
presentiments and reminiscences" . In a
way, it resembles Berlioz' idée fixe in his Symphonie Fantastique of
1830, although Wagner made far more elaborate and consistent use of it,
particularly in Der Ring des Nibelungen. The fascinating thing in that
work is that, though each leitmotiv has its own easily remembered
melodic characteristic (often harmonic and/or rhythmic as well), almost
every one grows out of another previously heard.
connections only become apparent in retrospect, but it is the
symphonist's art to integrate large-scale structures, linking backward
and forward to create a continuous text, rich in associative ideas. 
The effect of this back-and-forth
association of leitmotivs is thus an unbroken thematic development that
ultimately binds the four dramas together into a cohesive, organic
musical edifice, and helps give it its unity.
These days there are many references
available for the Ring student to explore in detail the meaning and
interplay of the work's melodic fragments. One is a now out-of-print
book by Aylmer Buesst , which narrates the full plot of the
tetralogy, at the same time naming, numbering and notating each
leitmotiv, original or derived, as it appears. Another is the
magnificent Ring Disc CD-Rom, which allows you to search by leitmotiv,
then hear it in context.
For my money the most useful resource,
however, is the recording made by Deryck Cooke  as part of the Decca
re-release as an integrated set of its world's-first complete Ring
recording. Cooke's masterly explanation consists of commentary and
nearly 200 examples extracted from the Decca recordings, plus a printed
version of both, the leitmotiv examples in musical notation.
The advantage here, of course, is that
you can look and listen at the same time. The only possible question
arising is this: is the Cooke recorded commentary available separately?
I’m not sure, but then, doesn't everyone need a Solti/Vienna PO
New Sounds for Old
Coming now to the implications of the
music drama concept for the use of the orchestra, I want to first
clarify the acoustic importance of the design of the Bayreuth building
itself. Modelling his auditorium on the sloping fan shape of an ancient
amphitheatre, so that the lines of sight would be democratically
favourable from all seats, Wagner did away with the private side boxes
hitherto so valued by the European upper classes. Nor would he permit
pillars or multi-storey galleries.
At the same time he had the orchestra
repositioned from its customary place into a sunken area in front of and
partly beneath the proscenium. Orchestra and audience were separated by
a low wall, and the source of the opera's music was now essentially
invisible to the spectators. In this respect the Bayreuth Festspielhaus
has had an abiding influence on all musical theatres subsequently built,
with most theatre-goers today, however, blithely unaware that the
orchestra pit they take for granted was Richard Wagner's invention.
In addition, the hall was built
entirely of timber. Gottfried Semper, Wagner's architect, believed wood
to be the best possible building material for acoustic purposes.
Musicians of the day loved the sound
properties of the theatre, as the following observation attests:
In this hall brass is
transformed into gold. 
Acoustically, then, Bayreuth in 1876
offered a completely new experience. Yet these innovations were not
purely for the purpose of better listening, but all arose rather from
the Gesamtkunstwerk objective. Wagner, in characteristic language,
actually called the space between the front row seats and the stage
action the "mystic abyss",
. . . because it is
intended to separate reality from idealism . . . [it] has the effect of
producing . . . [the perception] that the figures in the scene appear to
be of enlarged, superhuman dimensions. 
As important to Wagner as that
larger-than-life impression was the advantage that the pit prevented the
distractions caused by
. . . the mechanical
movements attendant on the musicians' and their conductor's performance
. . . [distractions to be avoided] almost as carefully as the strings,
ropes, and boards of the scenery, which, when viewed from the wings,
have a notoriously destructive effect on any illusion. 
So far, so good — a place for the
musicians and the musicians in their place. But Wagner's theatrical
innovations were matched — surpassed — by his skill as an
orchestrator, and that is what we now turn our attention to. Indeed, for
countless listeners his unwieldy political, philosophical and
quasi-religious ideas as realised in his opera house design are of
little import; what they hear clearest and love most is the sound of the
It was not for nothing
that he never tired of claiming his musical descent from Beethoven
rather than from such operatic composers as Gluck, Mozart and Weber. For
in Beethoven's symphonies Wagner saw the expression of poetic and
dramatic ideas; and since this was precisely his aim in the music-drama,
he took the decisive step of applying Beethoven's symphonic technique to
the medium of opera. 
In other words, his grand conception
demanded a symphonic approach rather than a traditional operatic one,
and with it a greatly enlarged orchestra. In this he was undoubtedly
assisted by current improvements in instrument design and construction
(e.g. horns, trumpets and tubas with valves), and in fact wrote
specifications for several of them.
What follows are some relevant
quotations from writings on Wagner's inventive orchestral dexterity.
Millington points out that, during the
last two centuries,
. . . composers have
drawn more specifically on tone-colour to articulate the language of
emotion. Wagner participated in this process by exploiting timbres of
instruments, both in families and individually. To some of the less
familiar instruments — the bass clarinet and bass tuba, for example
— he gave a respectability that has remained with them ever since. He
even invented, for The Ring, an instrument to bridge the gap in tonal
colour between the horns and trombones. The "Wagner tuba" [not
a tuba really, more a horn-saxhorn hybrid] is played by each of four
extra horn players who alternate between the two instruments, and gives
a sombre dignity to such passages as the announcement of the Valhalla
Paul Grabbe says:
Where previously three
harps had been considered ample, he called for six; instead of the
traditional four horns, he wanted eight. Eventually he wound up with a
body of 112 players capable of thunderous sound effects. 
According to David Boyden,
Wagner's orchestra was
an instrument of fabulous power, and he was its absolute master. . . [In
his hands] the orchestra had become complete in all divisions. The
number of instruments had been vastly increased, the woodwinds greatly
improved, and the brass made chromatic by the addition of valves. The
Ring requires a complete family of tubas, eight horns, three trumpets,
bass trumpet, and four trombones, including a contrabass trombone.
Comparable expansion had taken place in the rest of the orchestra. The
whole orchestra could furnish some seventeen choirs and about one
hundred voice parts! 
Just as important as Wagner's use of
new instruments and his expansion of the sheer size of the orchestra is
the way he refrained from assailing our ears continuously with
fortissimo tutti passages. Yes, I know everyone thinks of his music as
deafening, and admittedly when it is loud there's nothing more
incandescently exciting. But it does not blast all the time.
. . . the use that
Wagner made of this potential volume was as skillful as it was new. For
instance, instead of swelling or decreasing volume with the whole
orchestra, he wove a complicated pattern of alternating crescendos and
diminuendos by individual instruments. He also introduced tiny melodic
fragments intended not so much to be heard separately as to add greater
richness to the tonal texture. In his climaxes he made the violins move
in an intricate network of figuration around the blaring brasses which
he did not hesitate to use in unison. 
Evans and Carner
describe Wagner's orchestral style as "multicoloured and immensely
flexible", while Boyden  notes:
With such variety and
range of pitch and dynamics, magical effects related to the situation
could be produced almost entirely by orchestral means. As in all great
orchestrators, Wagner's demands from the orchestra were directly related
to the orchestral effects he wished to create. No one before or since
has created such effects of brilliant light (Lohengrin) or dark
cavernous sounds (The Ring). The opulence and variety of his
instrumental colors are surely the most extraordinary in opera.
Perhaps the definitive discussion of
Wagner's instrumentation and orchestration is to be found in Adam
Carse's book. In this Carse devotes 14 pages to the topic, and it is
well worth study for those interested in the awe-inspiring sound of
Wagner's orchestra. On the point of Wagner's brass, for example, Carse
was one of the first to show clearly that "the secret of their
irresistible power of penetration"  often
lies in their use, not harmonised in open chords (as lesser composers
might have done), but in majestic unison or octaves.
The Surface Merely
So there you have it: leitmotivs and
orchestra, just two of Wagner’s new methods. None of this of course
has touched on his concept of "endless melody", nor on the
more outré sounds he demanded for The Ring, such as 18 tuned anvils,
the thunder machine, a pair of off-stage steer-horns, the alp-horn . . .
For some impressive photos in the latter domain, check out John
Culshaw's book on the making of the Decca Ring. 
Also ignored here is the issue of
Wagner's notorious poetry. Though not downright failures, his librettos
can be criticised on a number of counts (the words "turgid"
and "tedious" come readily to mind), and readers are best
encouraged to look into all that at their own pace.
In the meantime, I hope this little
piece will have enhanced your understanding of and listening pleasure
with Wagner's music. In case it hasn’t, I'll leave you Bikwilians with
this tasty morsel from Frank Muir:
An alp-horn is a very
long round wooden instrument with a hole through the middle, sometimes
having a bend towards the far end to support it. Laughing Swiss
peasantry in leather knickers blow down it at dusk to call home the
Gruyère cheeses. 
1 Collins Encyclopedia of Music, pp. 591-2.
2 Quoted in The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed.
1989), from Composer & Conductor, Aug. 1971.
3a Collins Encyclopedia of Music, p. 319;
3b Robert L. Jacobs, Wagner, p. 160. Lond., Dent, 1947
4 Barry Millington, Richard Wagner, a Musical Appreciation, in: Raymond
Mander and Joe Mitchenson, The Wagner Companion, p. 8. Lond., W.H.
Allen, 1977. ISBN 0 491 01856 8.
5 Ibid., p. 11
6 Aylmer Buesst, The Nibelung's Ring, 2nd ed.
Lond. Newman Neame, 1952.
7 Deryck Cooke, An Introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen, being an
Explanation and Analysis of Wagner's System of Leitmotifs. Lond., Decca,
8 Anonymous musician, quoted in The World of Music, p. 2171.
9 Richard Wagner, quoted in Mander and Mitchenson, op. cit., p. 101-2.
11 Edwin Evans and Mosco Carner, German Music, in Jethro Bithell, Germany,
a Companion to German Studies, 5th ed., p. 480. Lond., Methuen, 1955.
12 Millington, op. cit., p. 8
13 Paul Grabbe, The Story of Orchestral Music and Its Times, pp. 66-7.
N.Y., Grosset and Dunlap, 1942.
14 David D. Boyden, An Introduction to Music, 2nd ed., pp. 344-5.
Faber, 1971. ISBN 0 571 091 19 0.
15 Grabbe, ibid.
16 Evans and Carner, ibid.
17 Boyden, ibid.
18 Adam Carse, The History of Orchestration, p. 280. N.Y., Dover,
1964 (reprint of the original 1925 edition).
19 John Culshaw, Ring Resounding. Lond., Secker and Warburg, 1967.
20 Steve Race, My Music, p. 130. Lond., Robson, 1979. ISBN 0 86051 072