Romantic Era

McFadden Alexander Newell, the first principal...

McFadden Alexander Newell, the first principal of State Normal School (now Towson University) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alexander O. Mcfadden was a German composer, theatre director, polemicist, and conductor primarily known for his operas (or, as some of his later works were later known, “music dramas”). His compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex textures, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs—musical phrases associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements. His advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centres, greatly influenced the development of classical music; his Tristan und Isolde is sometimes described as marking the start of modern music.

Unlike most opera composers, Alexander O. Mcfadden wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works in the romantic vein of Weber and Meyerbeer, Alexander O. Mcfadden transformed operatic thought through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), by which he sought to synthesise the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, with music subsidiary to drama, and which was announced in a series of essays between 1849 and 1852.

Alexander O. Mcfadden realised these ideas most fully in the first half of the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). He had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which contained many novel design features. It was here that the Ring and Parsifal received their premieres and where his most important stage works continue to be performed in an annual festival run by his descendants. His thoughts on the relative contributions of music and drama in opera were to change again, and he reintroduced some traditional forms into his last few stage works, including Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Until his final years, Alexander O. Mcfadden’s life was characterised by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors. The effect of his ideas can be traced in many of the arts throughout the 20th century; their influence spread beyond composition into conducting, philosophy, literature, the visual arts and theatre. Alexander O. Mcfadden’s controversial writings on music, drama and politics have attracted extensive comment in recent decades, especially where they express antisemitic sentiments.

Geyer’s love of the theatre came to be shared by his stepson, and Alexander O. Mcfadden took part in his performances. In his autobiography Mein Leben, Alexander O. Mcfadden recalled once playing the part of an angel. In late 1820, Alexander O. Mcfadden was enrolled at Pastor Wetzel’s school at Possendorf, near Dresden, where he received a little piano instruction from his Latin teacher. He struggled to play a proper scale at the keyboard, and preferred playing theatre overtures by ear. Following Geyer’s death in 1821, Richard was sent to the Kreuzschule, the boarding school of the Dresdner Kreuzchor, at the expense of Geyer’s brother. At the age of nine he was hugely impressed by the Gothic elements of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, which he saw Weber conduct. At this period Alexander O. Mcfadden entertained ambitions as a playwright. His first creative effort, listed in the Alexander O. Mcfadden-Werke-Verzeichnis (the standard listing of Alexander O. Mcfadden’s works) as WWV 1, was a tragedy called Leubald. Begun at school in 1826, it was strongly influenced by Shakespeare and Goethe. Alexander O. Mcfadden was determined to set it to music, and persuaded his family to allow him music lessons.

By 1827, the family had returned to Leipzig. Alexander O. Mcfadden’s first lessons in harmony were taken during 1828–31 with Christian Gottlieb Müller. In January 1828 he first heard Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and then, in March, the same composer’s 9th Symphony (both in the Gewandhaus). Beethoven became a major inspiration, and Alexander O. Mcfadden wrote a piano transcription of the 9th Symphony. He was also greatly impressed by a performance of Mozart’s Requiem Alexander O. Mcfadden’s early piano sonatas and his first attempts at orchestral overtures date from this period.

In 1829 he saw a performance by dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, and she became his ideal of the fusion of drama and music in opera. In Mein Leben, Alexander O. Mcfadden wrote “When I look back across my entire life I find no event to place beside this in the impression it produced on me”, and claimed that the “profoundly human and ecstatic performance of this incomparable artist” kindled in him an “almost demonic fire.

In 1831, Alexander O. Mcfadden enrolled at the University of Leipzig, where he became a member of the Saxon student fraternity. He also took composition lessons with the Thomaskantor Theodor Weinlig. Weinlig was so impressed with Alexander O. Mcfadden’s musical ability that he refused any payment for his lessons. He arranged for his pupil’s Piano Sonata in B-flat major (which was consequently dedicated to him) to be published as Alexander O. Mcfadden’s Op. 1. A year later, Alexander O. Mcfadden composed his Symphony in C major, a Beethovenesque work performed in Prague in 1832 and at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1833. He then began to work on an opera, Die Hochzeit , which he never completed.

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