Friday, March 29, 2013

Wagner: Sexist, Womanizer, and Wife-stealer? (Part 2)

Summary and links to the series of Wagner character posts:

I believe that Richard Wagner has been the victim of character assassination, which was started in his era but has come to full fruition in our own. While certainly Wagner does have character flaws, he is accused—casually, ubiquitously, and with no or little supporting evidence—of a whole host of faults, most of them exaggerated, and rarely counterbalanced with any sense of his goodness beyond musical genius. The result is that his true personality and character have been buried under an avalanche of mud. My introduction to that topic is here. I give a short introduction to his personality and character so that you can better understand the various charges here. I cover these traits: megalomania here;  the first part of this post here; his problems with money and, consequently, friendship is herethe charges that he was amoral or immoral, hypocritical and a liar here; the issue of anti-Semitism is here; the first part of how his reputation got into the mess it is can be found here and the second here. The series concludes here with some thoughts about biography and a selected bibliography.

The point of my last post was to make these arguments: First, Wagner, by 20th century standards, wasn’t particularly sexist and was actually quite progressive. Second, by modern standards, as well as those of the 19th century, he wasn’t a womanizer. Finally, by my standards—as I reject the assumption behind the term—he wasn’t a wife-stealer, and it is far more complicated than that in any case. In this post, I want to write a little bit more about those moral complications, giving a little more information about his character in this crucial area of his life.

Wagner liked women, and women liked Wagner. Setting aside for the time being the issue of his first wife, Minna, the company of women brought out the best in him, and he credited women with being his biggest and most sympathetic supporters. This doesn’t mean he couldn’t be an absolute jerk to women, as well as men. As should be clear from my previous brief character post, he was extremely emotional, which had both very strong positives and negatives that flowed from that fact. But in general, most women who knew him said very nice things about him and his conduct towards them, finding him “warm-hearted and kind”1 and “affable,”2 and “a tease and raconteur.”3 Wagner’s default position—when not upset or stressed by something—was clearly good humor, which was widely acknowledged by those who knew him. Even women with whom he was romantically linked, such as Mathilde Wesendonck or Judith Gautier, spoke well of him after their relationships cooled.4 For instance, Mathilde wrote towards the end of her life that “it is to him alone that I owe all that has been the best in my life.”5 

So he clearly wasn’t a complete ogre as he is often depicted.

Now, Wagner did have a very difficult marriage with his first wife, Minna. While I do think he was primarily at fault for the problems in this relationship in his 20s when he was consumed with jealousy, the problem seemed to abate as he got older (and as his passion cooled.) The real problem that doomed the relationship was well-expressed by his friend Malwilda von Meysenberg:
[Minna wanted him to make] concessions to the world which he could not and should not make. From her inability to grasp the essence of genius and its relation to the world, there arose constant friction in their daily life. Nevertheless, Frau Wagner was a good woman, and, in the eyes of the world, decidedly the better and the more unhappy of the two. My sympathies were more for Wagner, however, for whom love should have been the medium of reaching all human hearts. Instead, she made his cup of life more bitter still.6  
She wanted him to give up what she considered the nonsense of the “music of the future” and his endless polemics, and instead write operas more like his early Rienzi that could be staged and from which income could be derived and normality could ensue. But, of course, Wagner would have been a different man had he merely tried to make a living as Minna wanted.

Wagner was not blind to her misery or unsympathetic to it, and often refrained from an action, or did something affirmative, with only her needs in mind. But the gulf between them was far too wide, and his need for sympathetic support far too great, for the relationship to last. After their final separation in 1862, he wrote to Natalie, Minna’s daughter: “She writes in a vein which, by her own lights, is fair and just, nay, almost charitable and friendly. And ultimately she is quite right to see things as she does: it is simply that I see them differently—and therein lies our misfortune”.7

I don’t believe that when a couple is as mismatched as they were that blame is particularly helpful. They never saw eye to eye from his revolutionary period forward. What was he to do in this situation? They could stay together and make each other miserable, which they did for much of it. They could live apart, and remain married for the sake of convention, which is what they did for the rest of it. They could have divorced, but Minna didn’t want that and Wagner was more than willing to honor that wish. He always ably supported her, even during his worst financial crisis (more on that issue in a later blog post on money). To me, he was a stand-up guy given it all.

During the periods when they were separated, it is true that he did have affairs. But to say this is adultery really depends on your point of view. Since he did her the kindness of not divorcing, I personally have no problem with it and find no fault for that.

The relationship Wagner had with Mathilde Wesendonck was the exception. He and Minna were not separated when he fell in love with Mathilde, and Minna just didn’t buy his “but she is my muse and we aren’t having sex” argument. I understand her position, but I also understand Wagner’s. He finally found a woman who did understand, support, encourage, and nurture him—the thing that was his deepest desire all his adult life. She also provided a much-wanted intellectual companion: his letters to Mathilde are some of the most interesting and illuminating letters he ever wrote. Under his spell of enchantment with her, he wrote what I think was the most beautiful and emotional love music of his life: the first act of Die Walküre. And of course, Wagner let those close to him know—much to Minna’s shame and upset—that Mathilde was, via his unfulfilled passion and yearning for her, his muse for Tristan and Isolde.

He also made very clear, too, that another passion was equally responsible for that seminal work: the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who was “the greatest single influence in Wagner’s life” according to virtually all his biographers.8  His passion for Mathilde and Schopenhauer commingled—in his life, in his letters, in his dreams, in his music—to create Tristan and Isolde. The world would have been a poorer place without these great loves. I feel bad for Minna, truly, but I am more than happy that Mathilde, and Schopenhauer, entered his life as they did.

Wagner’s greatest wish—here articulated in his 1850 “break-up” letter to Minna, but repeated often throughout his letters and evident in his art as well—was to find “unconditional love, the love with which we love the other person as he is and love him, moreover, for the man he is.”9  Now on some level, you might think that is badly stated in that “we” is plural, but “he” is singular. But given that he wanted to become fully human through uniting with a woman—become “we” that is—and that the two together would love him, well that is Wagner! This great love was supposed to be in service to him and his work, that is quite clear.

Enter Cosima.

As I have already said, I don’t think Wagner was madly in love with Cosima as he was with Mathilde, but he was around 50 at the time and was primarily looking for a homemaker as well as an intellectual and emotional companion at that point in his life. So, in this, she was an able and fulfilling partner. Cosima, on the other hand, was madly in love with Wagner. She knew what he wanted in a partner, believed she was fated for that role, and offered to be all that he ever wanted and dreamed of in a woman. Wagner had witnessed that her marriage to Hans von Bülow was a disaster and, in fact, physically abusive (Wagner had seen Hans strike Cosima, and she told him that this wasn’t a unique incident).10  While Wagner and von Bülow were friends, the friendship was basically professional: von Bülow was an enthusiastic supporter of Wagner’s music and it was his claim to fame to be the conductor for it. What was Wagner to do? Deny his life-long desire for such a woman in deference to his friendship with the man (as he had done with Mathilde in deference to Otto Wesendonck)? Perhaps that would have been the honorable thing to do, but with the result of leaving Cosima and himself even more desolate and depressed than they both already were. Ultimately, as I think he should have and most people similarly situated would have, he chose love over honor.

Turning now to the sanctimonious critics who damn him for this act of “wife-stealing.” Perhaps they have the good fortune of a happy marriage, so it is easy to be self-righteous, not having gone through the hell of a bad marriage.  Or, perhaps the person who damns him for this has kept vows to an ill-matched partner for moral reasons, and feels superior for that denial. Well, bully for him (or, much less frequently, her). My bet, though, is that a whole lot of those critics are just pure and simple hypocrites.

As for me, I have been in a similar situation and I did exactly what Wagner did. This is but one reason why I sure as hell won’t cast a stone in his direction.

End Notes

1 Spencer, ed. Wagner Remembered, page 155
2 Ibid., pages 151, 226
3 Ibid., page 155
4 I haven’t mentioned Gautier before but Wagner was enamored of her towards the end of his life. He carried on a secret correspondence with her, which led many to assume that they were having a physical affair. But, as with Wesendonck, that is based on assumption and not proven fact. The reason for the secret correspondence will be taken up in a later post entitled: “Wagner was queer.” Stay tuned.
5 Ibid., page 105 
6 Ibid., page 121
7 Spencer and Millington, Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, page 561 
8 Magee, The Tristan Chord, see pages 133-40 for a summary of Schopenhauer's role in Wagner's life, music and philosophy. 
9 Op. cit. Spencer and Millington, page 192
10 Gregor-Dellin, Wagner, page 358 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Wagner: Sexist, Womanizer, and Wife-stealer? (Part 1)

Summary and links to the series of Wagner character posts:

I believe that Richard Wagner has been the victim of character assassination, which was started in his era but has come to full fruition in our own. While certainly Wagner does have character flaws, he is accused—casually, ubiquitously, and with no or little supporting evidence—of a whole host of faults, most of them exaggerated, and rarely counterbalanced with any sense of his goodness beyond musical genius. The result is that his true personality and character have been buried under an avalanche of mud. My introduction to that topic is here. I give a short introduction to his personality and character so that you can better understand the various charges here. I cover these traits: megalomania herehis problems with money and, consequently, friendship is here; the charges that he was amoral or immoral, hypocritical and a liar here, the second part of this article here; the first part of how his reputation got into the mess it is can be found here and the second here. The series concludes here with some thoughts about biography and a selected bibliography.


At the outset, let me just say this is hogwash, relatively speaking. There were, of course, very few men or women who could be termed “feminist” in the 19th century, but Wagner came closer than many, at least in certain areas. I think it fair to say that he had some misanthropic tendencies, but this was largely directed at men. He declared in one letter, for instance, that people were “worthless.”2  But, in a letter written a month later, he amended this slightly and said, “on the whole it is the men whom I find most repugnant, while women are soonest capable of making an agreeable impression upon me.”3 Throughout his life Wagner had and maintained many platonic friendships with women, treated them as equals, sought their opinions, and generally behaved as would a man who respected women as human beings.

As well, he was progressive in his thought. He was part of the “Young Germany” movement of the mid-1800s, which, among many progressive things, advocated raising the political and social  position of women. Concomitant with this was the “free love” movement, which sought to separate marriage and sexual matters from the state: Marriage should be for love only; if there was no love, it wasn’t a marriage. Wagner abhorred the fact that women were treated as the property of men. All these opinions were clearly elucidated via dramatic means in Der Ring des Nibelungen, particularly in Die Walküre.

I am a feminist, and I am drawn to Wagner in part due to that fact, as have been many feminists historically.  For example, read Wagner Nights, which details the history of women’s, particularly feminists’, attraction to Wagner’s music around the time of the suffrage movement in America. Wagner’s music and librettos are so attractive because women are usually very strong and very pro-active, often the prime instigators of the dramas. This is true of Senta in the Flying Dutchman; Elisabeth and Venus in Tannhäuser; Ortrud (though she is evil, unlike most of his female characters) and Elsa in Lohengin; Sieglinde, Brünnhilde and Erda in the Ring cycle; Isolde in Tristan and Isolde; Eva in Meistersinger; and Kundry in Parsifal.

All that said, Wagner had very traditional views of women’s and men’s roles in the world, as virtually everyone did in that century. He considered women more peace-loving and moral, compassionate and closer to nature.  He thought that men were rougher and often disagreeable, but that they were the movers and shakers of the world. This was the natural order. Even many feminists, as well-captured in Wendy Kaminer's book A Fearful Freedom, shared these views then and now.

According to Wagner, “a human being is both man and woman: it is only when the two are united that the real human being exists... But when nowadays we talk of a human being, such heartless blockheads are we that we only think of man.”4  Wagner wanted to become a full human being through the love of a woman.  He greatly desired her nurturing and support—to him, that was the job of a women—while he, the man, was creating his and, united, their life work.

Sure, this view of women and men is sexist, and should be so labeled in this day and age, but to categorize such a view from the 19th century is so ahistorical as to be senseless.  And to pin it on Wagner particularly, a guy very progressive about women in many ways, is particularly unhinged.


This one is absolute bull. Womanizers are guys who only want sex and pretend to care about the women in order to get it. Presumably over the course of their lifetime they have dozens, even hundreds, of casual affairs. This is so far from Wagner’s behavior as to be absurd.

First, he didn’t have many relationships. As explained by Wagner scholar Barry Millington in his Wagner Compendium, “[Wagner's] serious and casual affairs taken together hardly exceed a dozen.”5  But, more importantly, while it is clear from his music that Wagner did love sex, it is also clear from all his letters, his relationships, and his operas that for him love was supreme. For virtually all his relationships he truly cared about the women he was involved with, even the more casual relationships. He had many faults, but he wasn't a cad.

It has been said that men get in a relationship to have sex; women have sex to order to have a relationship. To the extent this is true, Wagner does not fit the profile of a womanizer; he fits the profile of a woman. He believed in love, sought it, despaired that he wouldn’t ever find it (and probably didn’t ever find what he was looking for, his second “happy" marriage to Cosima notwithstanding).

He was a true romantic.


One of the reasons people say he was sexist was because he was a “wife-stealer.” Now, this phrase gets my feminist hackles up. The whole logic of “wife-stealing” is that the woman is a possession of the man, and that the stealer is an interloper who takes away the man’s private property. To me the phrase “wife-stealer" is patently sexist, and an impossibility unless, of course, we are talking literal kidnapping (but the fact that the woman is a “wife” seems irrelevant in the kidnapping scenario). In any case, whatever you think of it, it isn't sexist to have an affair with another man’s wife.

Also, I have a long-held belief that in the affairs of the heart, people are way too judgmental (unless it comes to themselves or people they know intimately). Certainly, at the very least, you should know the full story before making a judgment. In Wagner’s case, people like to reduce him to “wife-stealer” with no context whatsoever. It would take much more space than I will devote in this post to give some sense of the full story, but I will sketch out a few brief facts to give some context. Wagner gets blasted primarily for his alleged adulterous relationships with Jessie Laussot, Cosima Liszt—Franz’s daughter—and to Mathilde Wesondonck, so I will just concentrate on those three, along with his first wife, Minna.

Wagner married  Minna Planer, who was a 27-year-old actress, when he was 23 in 1836. It became clear fairly early that they were mismatched. In their early years, Wagner, always emotional, was even more so, and was, according to Minna's daughter6, often very jealous. While there is no evidence that he was physically abusive, he was clearly a bellower (followed inevitably by being apologetic and sweet, begging Minna to forgive him and making promises that he would be better, which he generally wasn’t, of course).  The fact that Minna did, a year into the marriage, run off with another man for many months didn’t help matters. That said, his jealousy did abate after the early years of marriage and did not appear to be a problem for most of the marriage. However, their real break, beyond Minna’s affair, was over politics: Minna wanted a conventional life and Wagner became a revolutionary, first in politics and then in art. When he fled Dresden to avoid arrest for his participation in May Uprising of 1849, Minna would not follow. Up to this point, 13 years into the marriage, there is no evidence that Wagner—in contrast to Minna—had ever been unfaithful. But at this point of both physical and emotional rupture with his wife, Wagner had a serious affair with a woman name Jessie Laussot, herself trapped in an unhappy marriage, and resolved to permanently leave Minna for Jessie. Due to the intervention of Jessie's parents and husband it didn't happen, though Jessie did end up leaving her husband soon thereafter.

In 1850, recognizing his incompatibility with Minna in virtually all matters, Wagner wrote to her a long letter seeking the end of their relationship.  To quote just one small part:
We who, at the end of 15 years, understand each other less than before & who are condemned by our innermost natures to face each other as total strangers, shall we allow this misunderstanding to continue to rankle until our dying day, causing us both increasing torment?  I know – alas! alas! – that I cannot bring you happiness, living together with you!... If we can retain a memory of those features which we understood & admired in each other, we may continue to love each other even after we are separated.  For the sake of what remains of the love which still exists between us, I say to you: let us remain apart!7
Their break didn’t last, for practical reasons. Minna had ill-health (most seriously, she had congenital heart problems, which led to her death at 56) and was not able to support herself, so Wagner felt obligated to do so and, given his lack of monetary resources, he wasn’t in a position to keep two homes. Plus, he needed someone to run the household while he worked. Thus, ill-matched as they were, they gave it a go—punctuated by several separations—until the strain of their frequent quarreling was too much to endure. For all intents and purposes, a marriage based on love, which is the type Wagner respected and wanted, was over many years before their final separation.

Into this picture Mathilde Wesendonck appeared. She was married to a wealthy industrialist, Otto, and they both supported Wagner's art: Otto as a principal financial benefactor, Mathilde as a sounding-board and his muse. In 1857, Minna and Wagner moved into a small house on their estate. It was during this period that the emotional connection between Mathilde and Wagner grew. Both of them claimed vehemently that the relationship had never become physical. Scholars most intimate with their story tend to think, just as they claim, that while they did have strong feelings for each other, they never consummated the relationship.8 There were two reasons for this. First, neither Wagner nor Mathilde wanted to bite the hand that fed them: Otto. Secondly, using Mathilde as his muse for Tristan and Isolde, he wanted to share the emotions of his character Tristan—who suffered from his unfilled desires for Isolde—by denying himself his own yearning for Mathilde.

Minna didn’t believe Wagner and Mathilde’s denials of intimacy, though Otto did. And, given that Minna was right about his feelings, even if it was a chaste relationship, it still made enormous sense that she would be greatly upset. The upshot is that Wagner moved to Venice, alone, while Minna retreated to her family in Dresden. From this point on in—from 1859 to Minna’s death in 1866—they were mostly separated, with the final break coming in 1862.

Wagner had given up on love. In the letter to his friend Eliza Willie in June of 1863 in which he said of Mathilde that “she is, and remains, my first and only love,” he went on to say that henceforth, “my only desire is now to regain at least some sense of domestic calm.”9

“Domestic calm” was actually code for “I want someone to take care of me.” He really hated being alone and always wanted a sympathetic woman to tend his needs—practical, emotional, intellectual and sexual. He just wasn’t expecting much in the love department any more.

Therefore, he started casting about for a Minna replacement, even considering men for the role (though presumably without the sexual component). He asked at least four women and two men to move in with him to be his companion and caretaker.10 Cosima Von Bülow, the wife of the conductor Hans Von Bülow, was absolutely primed to take the role. Her marriage to Von Bülow notwithstanding, she had been smitten with Wagner from the day she met him when she was 16 (though given that he was a married man, and 24 years older, she didn’t think he was obtainable). She had married at 21, but quickly realized it was a mistake, so much so that she had tried several times to kill herself—and I think this is odd but I suppose it could have worked—via “attempts to contract various fatal illnesses” beginning in the second year of marriage.11  When Wagner and Minna finally separated, Cosima saw her opportunity and strove to become closer to him. Though they claim that they “sealed their confession to belong together” in November, 1963, I am fairly skeptical that Wagner was in love.12  First, there was the fact of his letter of a mere 6 months before saying that Mathilde was his only real love. But, also, because he was offering the “position” of care-taker/emotional supporter/lover to Mathilde Maier eight months after this alleged confession in June of 1964.13   It was only when Cosima showed up on his doorstep, with two daughters in tow, in July of 1964, that he withdrew his offer to Mathilde.

To call this wife-stealing just doesn’t give a true picture.

And let me just add that in the 19th century, the type of woman that Wagner wanted—a mature, intellectual, educated, and emotional lover of the arts and music—were in short supply and rarely single. Most woman did not get a formal education and married young by necessity and family pressure.  After the failure of his first marriage, the ability to attract a partner who would suit him pretty much necessitated a widow or an unhappily married woman.

I have more to say on this subject, so crucial to his life and art, but have run out of steam for the week.  So part 2 next week.

End Notes

1.To remind you of the charge from The Rough Guide to Opera: "He infamous womanizer, fathering countless illegitimate children. He tyrannized his first wife then stole another man's wife, finding in her an echo of his limitless self-adoration (he habitually referred to himself in the third person)."  My retort: First, where the writers came up with the "fathering countless children" I don't know; there is absolutely nothing in any reputable biography that says such a thing. It's totally fabricated. Second, the "tyrannized" charge implies that he was completely dominant over Minna, and this was not the case at all, except, perhaps, in their early years. They fought bitterly, it is true, but she held her own in their fights. Third, I have read most of his letters, and many biographies, and I have never seen him refer to himself in the third person, so it wasn't habitual, if he ever did it at all. The rest of the charges are handled in the text. 
2. Spencer and Millington, ed., Selected Letters of Richard Wagner,1987, page 263, letter of July 15, 1852
3. Ibid, page 278, letter of December 30,1852
4. as quoted in Shaw, G.B. The Perfect Wagnerite, page 129.
5. Millington, Wagner Compendium page 118. Millington's short article on Wagner's relationship with women is the best short piece available on the subject for the basic facts. For a book on the subject, this one written by German writer Eve Rieger seems like the most promising from reviews that I have read: Richard Wagner's Women 
6. Spencer, ed., Wagner Remembered, see page 122-124. Minna's daughter, Natalie, was born out of wedlock before she met Richard. She was passed off as Minna's sister, a secret that Wagner always kept; Natalie didn't know this fact until her old age. Wagner supported Natalie throughout his life, as he did Minna.
7. Op.cit. Spencer and Millington, page, letter pages 192-199, quote from 197
8. For instance, Barry Millington and Eve Rieger are of this opinion. People who think they did have a sexual relationship have no proof; it's just an assumption that ignores anything Wagner and Mathilde ever said. All I can say is: read his letters on the subject and it will make you a believer. But, as my partner Leslie always says, "I don't care if you have sex with someone, just don't fall in love." I believe, to Minna, it didn't matter if they had sex or not, what mattered was that he was totally in love with her, something he didn't deny.
9. Op. cit., Spencer and Millington, pages 559-560
10. Ibid, see pages 414 and 588 for those Wagner tried to recruit for this "position. "
11. Ibid, page 621
12. Gregor-Dellin, Wagner, page 326
13. Op. cit. Spencer and Millington, page 588

Friday, March 15, 2013

"The Bridal Chorus" (a.k.a. "Here Comes the Bride")

I’m on the road this week, going to my brother Ken’s wedding to his wonderful bride-to-be Marni. Since I am in the marriage mode, I thought I would use this opportunity to write a few random thoughts on the "Wedding March" by Wagner (a.k.a. “Here Comes the Bride”), the tune of which comes from the opera Lohengrin. As well, I will say a few words about the wisdom of the opera’s cautionary tale of love gone wrong.

I have always found it amusing that Wagner is most well-known for this tune. To me— knowing what I know now—this just abounds with irony. When I was young, I assumed that the words we associate with the piece were a literal translation of the German, i.e., “Hier kommt die Braut.” Nicht! In fact, while it is referred to as “the Bridal Chorus” in the opera world, the piece has nothing to do with an entry into a wedding ceremony, but instead it is about a different sort of entry, the kind that happens on the marriage bed specifically. A glorious chorus to sex! That’s my Wagner! It’s a subtle chorus, thoughnothing too blatant. But, still, that is the subject matter. However, the sex never happens because the poor couple never get there: mistrust ends their relationship before it ever really begins. So the song used traditionally for marriage is in fact about a broken-in-twenty-minute marriage. I love that.

So how did the Bridal Chorus become the Wedding March? It was Queen Victoria who started the craze! Queen Victoria, history’s most well-known prude, was a fan of Wagner's music, the composer of the 19th century's most erotic operas. Go figure.  Anyway, she selected it as the processional for her daughter Victoria’s wedding to German Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm in 1858 and it has been widely used as the wedding march ever since.

However, there was—and continues to be—opposition to that practice. Catholics and Lutherans both specifically counsel against it as a “pagan piece” not fit for the church. The internet is full of advice like this one not to use the music. I am sure Ken and Marni, committed Christians, would never use such a thing.  At our wedding, Leslie and I actually marched to "Imagine" by John Lennon, but if we renew the vows, it'll be to Wagner for sure!* Hopefully, with a full chorus. 

Another irony is that Wagner was actually anti-marriage. He was part of the free love movement and felt that marriage as then-constituted was wrong in that women were considered the property of men. To him, whether married or not, the crucial thing was love. He believed that any marriage without love was meaningless and the contract should be null and void; any couple that was in love should not have to marry to get societal respect. Wagner did get married, but only because it was absolutely necessary for the woman to obtain legal protection. But his anti-marriage views never changed. 

When Wagner’s music is used as the processional, it is normally matched with Mendelssohn’s tune from “The Midsummer Night’s Dream," (as Victoria chose to do at the time of her daughter’s wedding.) Thus, the pieces are bookends, “married” in their own way. But this usage began just around the time that Wagner had published Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music), originally issued in 1850 anonymously and then reissued under his name in 1869.  His essay particularly attacked Mendelssohn music as inauthentically German. So the final irony is that Wagner—nemesis of Mendelssohn's  music—became forever linked with him. 

I recently saw Lohengrin for the first time, and I do think Wagner has something valuable to say about marriage in the break-up scene. He used as his source material Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenback, which itself was a version of the "Knight of the Swan Tale" from medieval literature. The gist of the story is that the mysterious Lohengrin arrives on a boat pulled by a swan to defend the kingdom of Brabant and the Princess Elsa. They wed but with the promise that Elsa will never ask his name or where he comes from. She blows it and asks the question; he sadly leaves on the swan boat he came in on. Basically, the tale is about faith. Elsa must have faith in Lohengrin even though she can’t know very basic things about him. 

In Wagner’s version, I think he does a masterful job of showing the anatomy of a failed marriage in the scene directly following the Bridal Chorus. They start off very lovey-dovey. Here are her first words to Lohengrin alone in the bridal chamber:

How unfeeling it would be of me to say I was merely happy,
when I am filled with heavenly joy!
As I feel my heart go out to you,
I breathe delights that God alone bestows.

But Elsa’s apprehension starts to creep into their rapture, so she tries to find out his background:

Oh make me proud through your confidence,
lest I appear utterly unworthy!
Let me know your secret,
that I may clearly see who you are!

In a short time, she is riddled with angst and nearly a lunatic from her fears and doubts:

Nothing can bring me peace,
nothing can tear me from my madness,
save - even if it should cost me my life -
knowing who you are!

To me, there is tremendous wisdom in this scene. It shows how the seeds of doubt grow quickly to yield a poison that ruins their marriage. As is true here, so is true in life.

I happen to think Ken and Marni won’t have this problem. They are true and strong friends, and it is evident that both their love and their trust for each other is deep and broad. So, no worries on that score.  Have a joyous wedding day, Ken and Marni!  

But pity those who enter marriage without this solid basis. Elsa and Lohengrin's fate will be your own.

* Leslie and I got legally, federally, married after the Supreme Court ruling and we did march to the Wedding March - no chorus, as it was a small affair.  Our recessional, not traditional, was the Imperial March from Star Wars.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Richard Wagner's Personality

Summary and links to the series of Wagner character posts:

I believe that Richard Wagner has been the victim of character assassination, which was started in his era but has come to full fruition in our own. While certainly Wagner does have character flaws, he is accused—casually, ubiquitously, and with no or little supporting evidence—of a whole host of faults, most of them exaggerated, and rarely counterbalanced with any sense of his goodness beyond musical genius. The result is that his true personality and character have been buried under an avalanche of mud. My introduction to that topic is here. This is a short introduction to his personality and character so that you can better understand the various charges. I cover these traits: megalomania here; sexist, womanizer and wife-stealer part 1 here, part 2 herehis problems with money and, consequently, friendship is herethe charges that he was amoral or immoral, hypocritical and a liar here; the issue of anti-Semitism is here; the first part of how his reputation got into the mess it is can be found here and the second here. The series concludes here with some thoughts about biography and a selected bibliography.

What was Wagner like?

By all accounts, of those who loved him and those who loathed him, Wagner was an abnormal guy.

First, he was funny-looking, with an over-sized head perched on a fairly small body.  This is only relevant to his personality in that he was always very conscious of his appearance, but that is another story. Here is an account of one woman’s first impression:

Soon the young man appeared, strikingly elegant and, indeed, distinguished looking, in spite of the fact that his legs were much too short with such an extraordinarily pretty woman on his arm that she alone would have would have sufficed to make the couple interesting, even if Wagner had not had so remarkable a head as to prove involuntarily eye-catching.1

Wagner was the livest of wires, larger than life in almost every respect. He was described by French writer Édouard Schuré as a “floodtide that nothing can stem,”2 and by Franz Liszt as having “a great and overwhelming nature, a sort of Vesuvius.”3  Even his nemesis, the critic Eduard Hanslick, conceded that he was “the most remarkable of phenomena, a marvel of energy and endowment.”4

A highly emotional man, Wagner possessed very little in the way of a self-censor mechanism; he was quick to anger, quick to tears, quick to laughter, quick to frenzy. If people caught him on good days, they recounted that “he bubbled with with jokes, wild ideas and comic remarks,”5 was “utterly charming,”6 and that he was “full of fun” with “childlike jollity.”7 He was the life of the party.

But, his volatile temperament often put an abrupt end to the fun. Shuré captures this aspect well:

His high spirits overflowed into a joyous froth of acts of sheer buffoonery and eccentric jokes, but the least contradiction provoked unprecedented anger. Then he was like a caged lion, roaring like a wild animal, pacing the room, his voice growing hoarse and the words coming out like cries, his words striking at random. He then seemed like an unleashed force of nature, a volcano erupting... Everything about him was larger than life.”8 

In one famous example, when no one was paying attention to him at a party, Wagner let out a “brief but piercing” scream, and then announced he was going to read a book to everyone—from start to finish.9  In fairness to Wagner, the man who recounted this event, Robert Von Hornstein, then added the better side of his qualities:

Conversely, he was enchanting whenever he went walking with Ritter and me. Witty insights flew through the air. He regaled us with tales from the rich storehouse of his experiences. Many a word of wisdom there was to be heard... His whole goodnaturedness, of which he had plenty to supply, came to the fore.10

Ignoring the audacious rudeness of his “watch me” moment described above, lest you think that Wagner reading a book might be dull, not a chance. In reading recollections of Wagner, the most prominent thing that jumps out is his incredible intensity of emotion, which he used to great effect when he was acting, singing or playing out a piece, musical or not. As one friend put it, “his true element was the most violent excitement.”11  And when in such a frenzy, he was able to bring  his audience to a similar peak. If I could teleport back in time, top of my list would be to go to one of these “performances.”  To give you a flavor of this talent, this recollection comes from German sculpture Gustav Kietz when Wagner, as Kapellmeister in Saxony, was rehearsing his beloved Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. (By the way, all reports are that he couldn’t sing well at all.)

There were 300 singers all told, whom he was able, in his unique way, to bring to a pitch of real ecstasy. After repeatedly breaking off and starting again, he finally succeeded in making it clear to them that the passage ‘Seid umschlungen, Milli Vater wohnen’ and, above all, ‘Brüder, überm Sternenzelt muß ein lieber Vater wohen’ [from the "Ode to Joy"] should not be sung in any ordinary way but must be hurled forth in utmost rapture. Wagner did not always find willing acquiescence; but when, after untiring efforts, he finally sang the passage to them with a sense of ecstatic joy that transported them all to a higher plane and continued to do so until his own voice, previously audible above the others, could no longer be heard, the resultant effect was so tremendous that it will forever remain indelibly etched on the minds of all who experienced it.12

Ferdinand Praeger, a German composer, also noted his “Vesuvius-like temper,” but added, “Yet in all his bursts of excitability, a sudden veering round was always to be expected...subduing his ebullition, falling into a jocular vein, [he] would plainly show he was conscious of having exceeded the bounds of moderation.”13

But exceeding bounds was his forte. In a era with much more formality then our own, he frequently shocked people by his uninhibited nature, whether it be “taking [Peter] Cornelius in his arms and kissing him tempestuously,”14 or greeting friends by standing on his head, sliding down banisters, climbing trees, or scaling house walls.15  A typical account comes from Sebastian Röckl in describing a Tristan rehearsal:

If a difficult passage went particularly well he would spring up, embrace or kiss the singer warmly, or out of pure joy stand on his head on the sofa, creep under the piano, jump on to it, run into the garden and scramble joyously up a tree.16 

Everyone noted his “gift of gab”: a wild jumble of ideas and jokes flowed forth nonstop from his mouth with the accompaniment of his wildly gesturing body, which—not coincidentally I am sure—paralleled his new form of “continuous music.”17  Some hated it, such as the composer Robert Schumann, who said: “Wagner is impossible; there’s no doubt that he’s an intelligent person, but he never stops talking. You can’t talk all the time.”18 Hanslick agreed with Schumann: “He talked incredibly much and rapidly... He talked continuously and always of himself, of his works, of his reforms, his plans.”19  Others, however, enjoyed the one-man show, but only when he was in a good mood.

Wagner’s high emotionality created stress-related physical problems that plagued him his entire life, chiefly a skin condition and problems digesting food. There is a cottage industry of books and essays about what ailed him, some focusing on factors in the body, while most focus on his mental health, speculating that he had ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder, Bi-Polar Disorder, and, of course, megalomania. Through his 30s and 40s, he was plagued by suicidal feelings, which are recounted in the book, Wagner and Suicide. To read his letters, his physical and emotional discomfort are readily apparent. He was a mess.

To greatly add to his stress, he was perpetually in debt, having absolutely no more restraint in matters of money than in his life in general.

But with all the sturm und drang in his life, he still managed to produce fourteen operas, eight volumes of essays, well over 10,000 letters (and as in everything he produced, they weren’t short), an autobiography, and a theater house.

I will be taking up many of these issues in later posts: his debts, mental and physical health, depression, productivity, et al. This post is primarily to give you a sense of the man as a whole before I delved into this sort of detail later on. Let me sum up by quoting Shouré:

[Wagner was] the constant union between profound reflection and ebullient spontaneity. With him, excessive thinking had not dulled his vital spark, and whatever life’s vicissitudes, he never ceased to philosophize, combing a calculating, metaphysical intellect with the joy and eternal youth of a truly creative temperament.20

End Notes

1 Spencer, ed., Wagner Remembered, page 29. (First, I really don't know how to do end-noting in Blogger, so if you hit the link it doesn't take you back and forth from text to note.  If anyone knows how to do it, help! Secondly, the reason I am end-noting everything is to contrast with the usual litany of attacks without any references. As I have said before, I think Spencer’s book of remembrances is the best thing out there to understand Wagner’s personality. You can “look inside the book” at Amazon if you want to read more of any quote to see the context.) 
2 ibid, 180
3 Newman, Ernest, Wagner as Man and Artist, 2nd edition, Vintage Press, as quoted on page 173. Newman is the principal English-language biographer of Wagner, having published the fair-minded 4-part Life of Wagner beginning in 1933, as well as this shorter, earlier book (1924). By the way, Mount Vesuivius had erupted multiple times in the 19th century, which I sure accounts for using that particular volcano as the metaphor.
4 ibid, as quoted on page 179
5 Spencer, page 79
6 ibid, page 96
7 ibid, page 86
8 ibid, page 181
9 ibid, page 97
10 ibid, page 97
11 ibid, page 177
12 ibid, page 51
13 ibid, page 84
14 ibid, page 134; Cornelius was "supposedly bisexual," so this added to the shock.
15 Magee, Bryan; Tristan’s Chord, page 236.  
16 ibid, as quoted on page 236
17 Spencer, see for example pages 55, 81-89, 94-102, 192
18 ibid, as quoted by Hanslick ong page 46. In the same remembrance, Hanslick quotes Wagner as saying the following: “You can’t converse with Schumann: he’s an impossible person, he never says anything.” I expect that this is hyperbole and those quotes aren’t to be trusted as literally true, but there is truth in the quotes.
19 Newman, as quoted on page 173
20 Spencer, page 181

Friday, March 1, 2013

Wonderfully Megalomanic

Summary and links to the series of Wagner character posts:

I believe that Richard Wagner has been the victim of character assassination, which was started in his era but has come to full fruition in our own. While certainly Wagner does have character flaws, he is accused—casually, ubiquitously, and with no or little supporting evidence—of a whole host of faults, most of them exaggerated, and rarely counterbalanced with any sense of his goodness beyond musical genius. The result is that his true personality and character have been buried under an avalanche of mud. My introduction to that topic is here. I give a short introduction to his personality and character so that you can better understand the various charges here.  I have cover these traits: sexist, womanizer and wife-stealer part 1 here, part 2 here; his problems with money and, consequently, friendship is herethe charges that he was amoral or immoral, hypocritical and a liar here; the issue of anti-Semitism is herethe first part of how his reputation got into the mess it is can be found here and the second here. The series concludes here with some thoughts about biography and a selected bibliography.

Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.” G.B. Shaw

Lance Armstrong
Tiger Woods
Bill Clinton
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Hunter S. Thompson
Steven Jobs
James Cameron
Pete Rose
Richard Wagner

What do these names have in common?
  • They were all incredibly hard workers.
  • They were all self-made men (in the case of Woods and Rose, with a father pushing them, but they did the work).
  • They were tops in their fields.
  • They devoted obsessional time and energy to their craft.
  • They were far more energetic than the average person.
  • Within their work, they were all famous for being very jerky sometimes.
  • Most of them broke rules of convention or of law.
  • They all had messy personal lives, most with multiple relationships (some with multiple marriages, others with multiple affairs in and out of marriage).
  • They were all innovators, doing things in new ways or to new degrees.
  • They all thought they were better than everybody else doing something similar.
  • They had faith in themselves, they hustled, they delivered. They were driven, and they knew they were special in relationship to their peers.
  • They are my favorite fanatically-driven people.
I admire them all.  And I loathe many things about all of them.

I have always felt that for every character trait, there is a good and bad side to it. When you fall in love with someone, you see only the good side. Two years later you are trying to learn to live with the bad side. To bring it home, my partner Leslie really loved my spirit, my drive, my competence, my self-confidence. She soon learned of their flip companions: my tempestuous and judgmental nature, my impatience, my competitiveness. I try to keep the bad sides of these traits at bay, but I have failed many times in my life. But my good wouldn’t exist without my bad, and vice versa; they are two sides of the same coin. (I’m so sorry, Leslie! You deserve my good side, but don't deserve its evil twin.)

Similarly, megalomania has two sides. For the most successful narcissists, the bad side is their arrogance and lack of empathy, but the flip side is that they are visionaries, with rock-solid confidence in their abilities and the drive to make it so. They wouldn’t have done what they did without these traits that are completely entwined. As the saying goes, you gotta take the bad with the good.

But to call any of the men above megalomaniacs creates a problem.

Wikipedia says it as "a psychopathological disorder characterized by delusional fantasies of power, relevance, or omnipotence. 'Megalomania is characterized by an inflated sense of self-esteem and overestimation by persons of their powers and beliefs'. Historically it was used as an old name for narcissistic personality disorder prior to the latter's first use by Heinz Kohut in 1968, and is used these days as a non-clinical equivalent." [my emphasis added]

The DSM IV definition begins: "A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts." [my emphasis added]

This is the problem: the men listed above really had no delusions, their sense of self-esteem wasn’t inflated, they didn’t overestimate their abilities. They were special. These people actually have a lot of self-knowledge and a realistic self-appraisal. They all have been known to be jerky and arrogant, but they are not in a la-la land of delusion.

Because of the fact that some narcissists are very successful, there is now a movement to try to differentiate those types from the delusional types in leadership literature. John Maccoby calls them Productive Narcissists or Roy Lubit calls them Constructive Narcissists. The negative characteristics remain though; they are still self-centered jerks. Just successful ones.

I like this woman’s cheeky, but true, summary of this issue in her blog post entitled, "the importance of vision: what we can learn from total narcissists (even though they suck)."  (ed note - I just realized the woman who wrote this is Justine Musk - ex-wife of Elon, certainly a world-class meglomanic - so she really knows what she is talking about.)

She has gotten Wagner—and all those other guys—exactly right, in my book.

There isn’t a way in the world that Wagner would have accomplished what he did without being a narcissist, megalomaniac, or whatever you want to call it. It was certainly a trait of Wagner's, tiresome to many, but crucial to his art. So, I embrace it in his case, and in the case of all my favorite narcissists listed above. I just would not want to be in a relationship with any of them.

End Note

In writing this post, I realized it was very hard to tackle any particular characteristic—in this case his meglomania—without really addressing his character in a more integrated way first. So before continuing to address the character-attack list, I will step back in the next post and give a portrait of the man, which will help to inform all future posts.