Friday, October 25, 2013

Wagner’s Influence: Credit is Due

Wagner’s impact on Western culture can hardly be overestimated. –Annegret Fauser1

If you are a fan of film music such as Star Wars or the Lord of the Rings; if you like the experience of watching theater in a darkened theater; if you think it makes sense that the orchestra is in a pit and the conductor faces the musicians to conduct; if you are glad that late-comers aren’t seated; if you appreciate the artistry of conductors in general; if you are a member of or enjoy modern orchestras; if you like the music of Richard Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, Bruckner, Elgar, or Schoenberg; if you are glad about the rise of the first gay rights movement and feminism in the 19th century; if you appreciate music or opera that is highly sensual; if you are relieved that our sexual mores are not based on female repression any more (or, at least, as much);  if you think the central symbol of The Lords of the Ring is compelling; if you are a enthusiast of Joyce, Mann, D.H Lawrence, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf or G.B. Shaw; if you like T.S Eliot or the French symbolist poets like Baudelaire or Mallermé; if you love Cézanne, Renoir, or Gauguin; if you appreciate the “decadents” of Great Britain like Wilde and Beardsley; if you are into Nietzsche’s philosophy; if you work as a fund-raiser or promoter, or have hired a promoter or fund-raiser; if you have enjoyed a summer music festival; if you are intrigued—if not convinced—by Freud’s dream theory; and, yes, if you are a Zionist; then tip your hat to Richard Wagner, as he had a vast influence on all this, and much more.2

Wagner was without peers. Those who want to reduce him to just a composer are closing their eyes to history, to reality.  There was and is nobody else remotely like him in the modern era; he was the most important cultural figure in the 19th century, launching a movement known as Wagnerism that had a profound affect on all the arts, and a number of social movements, with reverberations that are still obvious to this day. And, yet, most people don’t know this because his influence is generally unacknowledged, or under-acknowledged, in modern times. I agree with Bryan Magee who says, “The extent to which this [influence] has been willfully ignored is almost incredible.”3

The average educated person probably knows only that he had influence on the history of music, particularly opera and movie music, and also that he is thought to have influenced the rise of Nazi Germany. The latter is well “known” because most articles put his anti-Semitism and Hitler’s admiration of him in the heart of the piece, even though the facts are often botched.  I googled “Wagner Biography” and the top link is this one.

The opening of the article:

Born in Germany on May 22, 1813, Richard Wagner went on to become one of the world’s most influential—and controversial—composers.  He is famous for both his epic operas, including the four-part, 18-hour Ring Cycle, as well as for his anti-Semitic writing, which, posthumously, made him a favorite of Adolf Hitler.  There is evidence that Wagner’s music was played at the Dachau concentration camp to “re-educate” the prisoners.

Now, the fact is there is little evidence that Hitler read any of Wagner’s prose works, but in any case, why is it in the second sentence of a biography when it had not a thing to do with Wagner’s life?  And what is that sentence about his music being played at a concentration camp doing in a biography of Wagner at all?4 That biographical article does say he was an “influential composer,” but the rest of the article doesn’t really mention it, beyond his influence on movie music.

The biography above is the sort of tripe which I recounted in this series of posts on the character assassination of Wagner, that has have drowned out virtually everything that I am writing about in this post.  We seem, collectively, to be embarrassed, perhaps shamed, to the point of massive denial that a man who was loved by Hitler and was anti-Semitic was that influential.

Yet, extraordinarily influential he was.  What I mean by this can be put in three categories.  The first is his own creative invention—that is, he was the first to do the particular thing—and society followed (see below for some examples);  the second category is all the people who explicitly fell under the sway of  Wagnerism—most of those I listed above fall into this category—and tried to emulate his example within their own artistic vision and craft, whether they were poets, painters, writers or musicians; the third category consists of those for whom it is easy to trace the influence of Wagner, though the person may have tried to minimize a connection or, even, deny it.  This last category I won’t be addressing at all, beyond this post on Tolkien written by my wife Leslie in September, which gives an illustration of this sort of influence.

The author David Large writes about this phenomenon:

We speak of ‘Wagnerism’ but not Mozartism, Beethovenism, or Brahmsism.  Wagner’s influence, especially during the peak period of Wagnerism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reached far beyond the world of music and theatre, embracing most the other arts, as well as philosophy, social theory and politics…. It is astounding how many fin-de-siècle artists and intellectuals believed that Wagner’s multifaceted legacy could be of use in enhancing their work, not to mention their lives.5  

This is obviously a massive topic, well beyond the scope of what I can accomplish in a blog. That said, in future posts I will be exploring his impact on cinema, his impact on our sexual mores, feminism and gay rights and his impact on music and conducting. As for his influence on fin-de-siècle European and American culture in all its multiplicity, I am merely going to recommend sources to read. I have added them in the section entitled “Wagnerism” to my bibliography here. But, as an example, please read the two posts (also written by Leslie) about Wagner’s influence on James Joyce here. There could be a similar blog post—or book—about each artist I mentioned above and many whom I have not mentioned, in which the specific influence of Wagner is traced. I will leave that for others to write. (Of course, some have been written, and if you want more references, just ask.)

Creative Invention

In the first category—his creative invention—all of it flowed from his views about drama, much of which he articulated at length in his essays, particularly "Opera and Drama" and "The Artwork of the Future." Wagner believed that music was the most effective means to dramatic expression, but his music was always in service to the drama and not the other way around. Essentially, he wanted the audience's attention to be riveted on the work, therefore he advocated, among other things, applause only at the end of the act, no late-comer seating, the orchestra hidden in a pit, and the hall being dark.6 It isn’t as if someone else wouldn’t have come up with these things sooner or later—they seem rather “duh” to us today—it is just that he was the one who did it first, because he was so focused on dramatic reform.  He was obviously right: good job, Richard!

The interior of the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth,
the site of the first orchestra pit, among other innovations.
Another “duh” creative invention of his was to turn his back on the audience when he conducted.  Until Wagner, conductors either faced the audience or a few did a sort of side-stance.  The Russian music critic and teacher Nikolay Kashkin described the revelatory moment for him:

Wagner amazed everyone at the beginning by standing in front of the orchestra.  Before that time, conductors in Russian, as in the rest of Europe, used to stand in the first row of the orchestra facing the audience, but Wagner stood in front of the orchestra, turning his back to the auditorium, and it seemed so natural and sensible that everyone has done the same since.7

Exterior of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus,
home of much of Wagner's creative invention.
The whole enterprise of building the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was, of course, another creative invention of Wagner’s.  It was the first summer music festival and remains one of the most famous.  Now, of course, there are hundreds of festivals, some also devoted to the music of one composer (though few do so exclusively, as Bayreuth continues to do with rare exceptions).  Its impact is hard to imagine, but it was enormous.  David Large and William Weber write in the introduction to Wagnerism in European Culture and Politics:

The Wagnerian movement was unique in its time in endowing one artist with such stature and respect that a special institution was built to perform his art according to his wishes.  Artists of all kinds looked in wonder at the festival, at the independence and power it afforded Wagner, as well as at the movement that had grown up around him by the time.8 

In his quest to improve drama, Wagner also improved stage machinery and theatre design.  He didn’t “invent” any of the machinery itself or draw the plans himself, but he did hire people to bring to life his exacting vision.  So, for example, he explained the concept of the orchestra pit—and a variety of other innovations—to the architect to draw.  In terms of stagecraft, he worked with his stage technician, Karl Brandt, to invent, among other things—in a term coined by Shaw after viewing the innovation—a “steam curtain” to create the effect of fog.9

Some Thoughts About Art, Influence, Culpability and Credit

Umberto Eco argues in “The Poetics of the Open Work”:

A work of art is a complete and closed form in its uniqueness as a balanced organic whole, while at the same time constituting an open product on account of its susceptibility to countless different interpretations which do not impinge on its unadulterated specificity. Hence, every reception of a work is both an interpretation and performance of it, because in every reception the work takes on a fresh perspective for itself.10

To paraphrase, it is our experience of a work that closes it, at least for that moment of experiencing it.  At the next experience, it will be different, as our own life changes, our reaction to and interpretation of the work will likewise change.  Wagner’s works are all open, with a multiplicity of interpretations that is staggering, yet at the same time “do not impinge on [their] unadulterated specificity.”  Thus, Wagnerians can be found all over the political and social map.  While his followers in Bayreuth interpreted his works in increasingly nationalistic and conservative ways after his death, this was by no means the general case.  According to Large and Weber in their Wagnerism survey:

If Wagner’s name has been increasingly associated with Nazism and the Third Reich, our survey shows some quite different tendencies.  Among the national movements we have seen, a tendency toward the Left was if anything more common than one towards the Right.11

In general, the Wagnerian movements were liberal in England, American and France, communist in Russia, and a mixed bag in Italy. Moreover, outside of Bayreuth, many German Wagnerians were much more liberal.12

To me, I can’t hear anything proto-fascist at all in Wagner’s works—quite the opposite in fact—but others can.  Neither of us is “wrong” per se; we have both “closed” his works, but in vastly different ways.  I believe the explanation for this is that the emotional content of Wagner’s music is so strong that it, essentially, creates a fairly rigid confirmation bias.We hear what we want to hear; we close it in a way that confirms our deeply held beliefs.

If Hitler was in fact influenced by Wagner’s music to do what he did, that is because he closed the work in a way that is unavailable to me and, thankfully, virtually anyone else. (There is very little evidence, by the way, that Hitler did any such thing but if that were the case, then it would be very similar to Charles Manson, who closed the Beatle’s White Album—including infamously the song “Helter Skelter”—in a way that somehow justified slaughtering a number of people he did not know.)

If Wagner had not been anti-Semitic but Hitler still had done what he did, I don’t think anyone would think Wagner was culpable. Because Wagner was publicly anti-Semitic, however, many people do think he was culpable for Hitler’s actions since he was a big fan.  This is exactly what Joachim Kohler argues in the book Wagner’s Hitler.  Yet we know that Wagner grew up in a society that was thoroughly anti-Semitic.   It wasn’t just the common folks who had these opinions, but most of his intellectual influences—Kant, Heinrich Laube, Bruno Bauer, Schopenhauer, Proudon, Johann Fichte, Mikhail Bakunin, and Hegel—were anti-Semitic.  In the blame game, they then must be also culpable, as were those who came before them.  And, thus, we must go back in time to the original sin of Jew-hating as I wrote about here.

Further, for people to believe that Wagner was that influential to be responsible for a mass murder that happened more than 50 years after his death, then they also must logically get as much credit for the product of his other influences. With this mindset, for instance, since he directly and profoundly influenced the Zionism movement founder, Theodor Herzl, we must give Wagner credit for the existence of Israel.  And if he is that influential, he must be given credit for everything that came out of Wagnerism—all the art works, all the music, and so forth. 

But that is just silly.  We know he isn’t directly responsible for any of that.  Beyond his own creative inventions, he was just an influence, albeit a significant one for many. If he had not existed, the only thing that is certain is our lives would have been different, art would have been different.  We can never know in what exact ways.  In chaos theory, changing even little things can have a large effect on later developments. A famous theoretical example is that the effects of a butterfly flapping its wings could be part of a causal chain leading to a hurricane developing weeks later. If it is true that, at least theoretically, a small thing can lead to large change, what of a Wagner, who was not butterfly-like but instead juggernaut-like?  In the film Its A Wonderful Life, we are shown how different life would have been in one small town if one man, George, had not been in it.  It’s a doable exercise because the variables are fairly small.  A comparable film could not be made with Wagner as the protagonist; I believe to remove him from history is literally unimaginable.

I have no problem with people heaping an appropriate, and fair, level of scorn and finger-pointing at Wagner for his failings as a human being.  But I do have a problem with those people ignoring his deep and positive contributions to our society, both his wonderful musical legacy and his influence in art and culture.  It deserves acknowledgement.  It deserves celebration.  He deserves credit.

End Notes

1 Grey ed., The Cambridge Companion to Wagner. This is the first line of the article “ ‘Wagnerism’: responses to Wagner in music and the arts” by Fauser, 221
2 Most of the references in this paragraph I will give in more detail later in this post or blog (or have done so earlier). There are two that won’t be covered other than this endnote. First, the Freud reference is summarized here.  The author summarizes it thus: “Wagner offered a powerful dream theory that predated by a half a century essential elements of Freud’s dream theory such as the unconscious, condensation, and secondary revision. Díaz de Chumaceiro shows that this theory was almost certainly used by Freud in formulating his own interpretation of dreams.”  The second is the reference to the promoter, which comes from this book, in which he makes the case that Wagner was the first modern promoter and that many of the techniques he used would be a template for 20th century promotion and fund-raising.
3 Bryan Magee, Aspects of Wagner, 48
4 I wrote about Wagner’s influence on Hitler here, which post goes into this whole area in detail, but specifically shows that there is no direct evidence that Hitler ever read any Wagner prose and it wasn’t his anti-Semitism that inspired him. The evidence for the Dachau reference is thin, and doesn’t relate to Jews in any case.  It comes entirely from this one source, who describes that music was used to "reeducate" the political prisoners—such as communists, gays, Jehovah’s witnesses—in the first year of the camp, with Wagner as an example of the type of music played. The belief that Wagner was played in the death camps, however, has no evidence. It is pure urban legend. The reason this is relevant is that this so-called fact is used to continue the ban on Wagner’s music in Israel.
5 Millington, ed.,Wagner Compendium, 384
6 Edward Dent, Opera, 83. For a detailed study of the influence of the Bayreuth theater, read Investing a Theatrical Ideal: Wagners Bayreuth Festspielhaus here. (You have to sign up, which is free, to read the full article.)
7 Spencer, ed., Wagner Remembered, 146
8 Large and Weber, Wagner in European Culture and Politics, 8
9 Dent, 128
10 Umberto Eco, The Open Work, 3 
11 Large and Weber, 278-9
12 Ibid., read conclusion for more detail on this

Friday, October 18, 2013

Wagner Potpourri - Audio and Video links

I had a lot going on this week, so I am taking a writing break, and instead consolidating in one post a large number of audio or video links about Wagner.  These are not links to his operas, because those are easy to find with a Youtube search. Instead, these links are to a wide variety of things about or related to Wagner.  Some of them have been elsewhere on the blog, but I wanted to consolidate them here for ease of finding them.  I've embedded my favorites, and given links to the rest.

Musical Commentaries and Spoofs

First up is the most brilliant thing ever done on Wagners anti-Semitism as far as I am concerned. Yes, it’s a repeat from earlier in the blog, but it’s the best!  From the genius of Larry David in the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode “Trick or Treat.” The beginning:

And the denouement:


This next item is from the 1943 film  Hi Diddle Diddle with Pola Negri, with Brünnehilde’s famous bit from Walküre and the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser—to the point of tedium, at least for the Wagners.  Check that out in the trippy wallpaper:

Below is another repeat, Anna Russell’s lecture on The Ring. (The first part is embedded, the second two parts are links.)  But if you havent seen it, it is certainly one of the great comic monologues of all time, and a good introduction to The Ring at the same time:

The second part is here.  The third part is here.

There are two 2 1/2 minute introductions to The Ring out there, both worthy of viewing:  Here is one that does it with music and speech balloons; here is another that does it via sketching with narration.  Together, you will have it down!

And then, there is Bugs Bunny in Whats Opera, Doc.  This is a weird Italian version, because Warner Bros. had them pull down the English versions for copyright infringement.  And I would have embedded it, but they didnt allow it.  Damn them. Anyway, here is the link.  For those who don't know the music well, the cartoon uses a fusion of music from Tannhäuser, Flying Dutchman, Rienzi and The Ring.

If you are interested in musical structure, this one is about the Wagners musical language in Tristan und Isolde.  Part two is here.

Another repeat, but one of the best things I have ever heard (or read) on Wagner, is Nicolas Spices lecture entitled “Is Wagner Bad For us.” You can read or listen here.   Or download the podcast here.

Finally, here you can find the original John Culshaw lectures on The Ring, which are excellent (scroll to the bottom of the page). This link gives you more than that, though.  The site by Richard Tryhall also features “The Passion, the Myth and the Mania,” another good radio broadcast about The Ring, among other things.

Biographical documentaries and films

The best documentary about Wagner available online is from The Great Composers series from PBS. There is a lot of nonsense in it, so take the commentary with a grain of salt. For instance, they have a bit from an an Auschwitz survivor who says Wagner was “the person who was the first to preach a separation of the races. The first, in fact, who created the notion of a nation of masters.” This is just utter and complete nonsense; Wagner did nothing close to either thing. So, in this sense, the documentary does the so-called “objective balance” that means quoting “both sides,” but in an uncritical manner. That said, it is fairly interesting and accurate on most biographical details and of high quality.

Here is a shorter (34 minutes) straight-forward documentary biography.  However, see the warning in the comment section below about its (lack of) accuracy.

The most prominent film biography of Wagner is the multi-part BBC production starring Richard Burton. While the film quality is high and the music is great, Burton is crap as Wagner. He plays him as unrelentingly dour and insensitive, and that just wasn’t his personality, at least the majority of the time. He was manic, upbeat, fast-talking, full of wit and humor. All the descriptions I have read of his personality bring to mind someone like Robin Williams. Yes, he could be mean, cutting, angry, and hysterical but he was more often sweet, kind, funny and engaging. So, the most essential part of the film is just completely off. I wrote a longer critique of this series at the end of my bibliography here. For those who are, nevertheless, interested, the full series is here. However, I would suggest it would be better to see it in these four parts: One, Two, Three, Four.

Here is a documentary on the making of the the influential Patrice Chereau Ring in 1976 at Bayreuth, including the filming which was shown in the USA on PBS in 1983.  It is immediately followed on the same Youtube broadcast by the Stagehands Ring, about the San Francisco Ring production from a backstage point of view.

This is Stephen Fry’s documentary on his attempt to square his passion for Wagner with his guilt as a Jewish man (with Spanish subtitles!). Part biography, part fan worship, part exploration, it’s interesting and Fry is always charming. This is an oddball thing that doesnt really fit the heading, but Fry hosted a debate” between an advocate for Verdi and an advocate for Wagner as to who was the most important figure, with musical excerpts from both mens works.  It is entertaining though silly in many ways.

For those interested in Wagners benefactor, King Ludwig II, here is a documentary biography.

Musical Style Adaptations and Parodies

The above Happy Birthday to You is Tristan-style.  John Phillip Souza arranges the Star-Spangled Banner, Tannhäuser-style, hereSouza also decided Parsifal could be a march (really??).  Listen here.

Here is Wagner’s Ring on piano for four hands by Gabriel Fauré and André Messager, described as “a satirical set of brief dances on the main themes and leitmotifs of Wagners Ring. Listeners familiar with the Ring Cycle will immediately recognize the melodies being parodied.”  

For jazz adaptations of Wagner, below is Stan Kenton’s orchestra doing Ride of the Valkyries.

Here’s a German brass band doing a Wagner medley, Dixieland style. 

And here is Valery Caper’s “Winter’s Love,” transforming the music of Siegmund and Sieglende into a bossa nova, from the album Wagner Takes the A Train.  The title track, for which I could not find a link, combines 29 Wagner Ring motifs into a cool jazz piece.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Wagner's Erotics

Isolde’s orgasm changed everything. – Sam Able, Opera in the Flesh

Wagner wrote music about sexual desire and fulfillment in an amount and manner that marks him as the supreme musical eroticist of all time. Laurence Dreyfus, who examines this in detail in his book Wagner and the Erotic Impulse, begins his book:

To treat eroticism in music might seem an exercise in vain speculation since—tempting as it is to draw connections—most composer leave, at best, only a hazy trace in their music. Not so Richard Wagner (1813-1883), who more than anyone else in the nineteenth century made plain his relentless fixation on sexual desire, a fixation documented in private correspondence, personal diaries, published essays, and, of course, in his operas and music dramas. Wagner’s obsession with sex also sparked a remarkable reaction to his works, which, in its public parade of the issue, changed the course of music history.1

I would go farther than Dreyfus and add that it changed the course of romantic expression in the arts in general and played a crucial role in early sexual liberation movements, particularly, but not limited to, Germany. I will save this topic, however, for a later post.

Wagner’s central concern in life—philosophically, emotionally and spiritually—was romantic passion and sexual desire. He believed that the Judeo-Christian society had screwed up royally by treating sexual desire as sinful, seeing the body as something shameful, and treating artistic depictions of the the highest expression of love between two human beings, the life-creating sexual act, as offensive and depraved. Instead he thought that art should revolve around human beings—not God—and should celebrate life, the human body and, most centrally, sexual love, harking back to the Greek model.2

That said, Wagner had mixed feelings about casual sex. Every fiber of his being strived for a passionate love with a woman. He truly felt sexual expression in that context was the peak of human existence; the uniting of man and woman was, to him, “the path to salvation.”3 However, he indulged in his twenties in what he called “a cocky inclination toward a wild sexual recklessness,”4 which he seemed to have both enjoyed and felt—just like the pious Christians that he abhorred—was, in fact, wrong and, ultimately demeaning to both men and women. These sorts of loose sexual encounters seemed to have ended when he fell passionately in love with Minna, his first wife. From then on, he sought not meaningless sex, but grand romance, erotic passion. And he poured his soul into bringing this need, this yearning, out in his music. Dreyfus contends—and I don’t think there is any one who is familiar with the classical canon who would disagree— “that Wagner was the first to develop a detailed musical language that succeeded in extended representation of erotic stimulation, passionate ecstasy, and the torment of love.”5

As defined by Dreyfus, an erotic work alludes “to sexual objects and desires but stops short of arousing the spectator’s or reader’s sexual feeling.” He then defines pornography to be those works with “lurid designs and graphic methods of depiction [which] target both explicit sexual arousal and its gratification.” He then puts it another way: “The further we situate an artwork away from sexual organs, the “higher” its form of eroticism. By contrast, the more closely we approach them, the “lower” and more pornographic the effect.”6

Music, of course, is nebulous, lacking clear objects of representations. If you see Rodin’s “The Kiss,” you may or may not find it erotic, but what it represents is clear. And the same goes for an painting, novel or, to a lesser extent, a poem.

A kiss is clearly a kiss...
...but that this is one sexy piece of musicnot so easy to tell.

This ambiguity of music is what made it possible for Wagner to create very sexual music—and get away with it. No author could have written something as clearly erotic in that era without being banned. Indeed, for example, the poet Charles Baudelaire—who was to become a huge fan of Wagner in 1860—was criminally prosecuted, convicted and fined in 1857 for publishing six of the poems within the Les Fleurs du Mal collection, none of which would raise an eyebrow today.

Even though Wagner was continually representing sexual passion within his music dramas in highly erotic musical language, Dreyfus points out that Wagner’s supporters could play dumb, as “music’s freedom from clear erotic depictions permitted his early advocates to skirt around the issue, at least in their public utterances, and espouse his higher ideals and values.” Not that censors didn’t try to stop him, as “outraged critics...disclosed the frank details and named, in a kind of litany, the composer’s transgressions about decency.”7

While some critics heaped criticism on the whole of his sensual oeuvre, most of the direct fire was aimed at two places: Act 1 of Walküre and the whole of Tristan und Isolde. In many instances, it wasn’t because critics thought the music wasn’t good; instead, they thought it was too good. Seductive, the work of the devil. In the case of Walküre, Wagner manages—quite extraordinarily and audaciously—to get the audience to identify with, root for, and yes, even get aroused by the emerging sexual love between the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde.

The critic Gustave Stoeckel said of Act 1 of Die Walküre (read his full critique here), 

All the scene seems to tremble under the wild glow of sensual love... It is impossible to criticize while hearing it. All aesthetics, theory and morals, are chased out of one; one’s breath is bated and the beating of the heart seems to stand still, the whole soul bewitched by an irresistible power.... During the performance, all that is sensual in human nature is wrought up to its wildest acting by the alluringly tempting music.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? And it is! It is!

But then Stoeckel surveys the damage done:

...after the intoxicating enjoyment is over, you perceive the ethical anarchy of the whole scene, which upsets all the holy emotions of a pure soul, defies the teachings of morality and is in direct antagonism to established rules and customs. [For] the curtain closes upon a scene which offends Morality and Religion, wakes up the sleeping passions in human nature which a refined and cultivated taste must abhor and detest. The masterly treatment is all the more offensive, because of its influence upon a sensitive nature.

Thus, the reason people find Wagner dangerous is this: He screws with their own morals successfully. He creates a cognitive dissonance that they must resolve. Even the deeply religious were liable to get turned on, or at least completely drawn into Wagner’s world view, by what they considered morally wrong and completely decadent, like the critic Stoeckel.

What can I say? I love that Wagner used this very radical way to make a point that is near and dear to my heart: to decry the subjugation and institutional rape of women within a “marriage” not of their choosing.8 In any case, the music is of breath-taking beauty and passionate ecstasy and that works for me, too.

As for Tristan und Isolde, his “monument to this most beautiful of dreams”9—that is, passionate love—it is basically from start to finish centered on eros, often at a fevered pitch. Bryan Magee wrote: “I do not think there is a more erotic work in the whole of great art.”10 I concur. With this work, he threw down the gauntlet to Christian moralists, seeking to overturn centuries of sexual repression with one evening of music drama. What is great—to me at least— is that he really did move the culture forward, in a direction towards a less repressed sexuality.

His opponents did not, of course, take this challenge lightly, creating on onslaught in print that lasts to this day, though as I have pointed out in past blogs, the main charge against him has morphed from moral and sexual outrage to his anti-Semitism. The outrage at the time was real; some people were really disgusted, having never heard anything like it. Wagner’s music —like all erotics depending on your point of view—lives in the zone between eeew and oooh. I will let one speak for all those whose reacted with disgust: the pianist and composer Clara Schuman (and wife of the other composer Schuman, Robert).  After hearing Tristan in 1875 in Munich, she wrote in her diary:

It was the most repulsive thing I have ever seen or heard in my life. To be forced to see and listen to such sexual frenzy the whole evening, in which every feeling of decency is violated and by which not just the public but even musicians seem to be enchanted—that is the saddest thing I have experienced in my entire artistic life.11

But enchanted many were; enchanted many new listeners still are. After first hearing it, there were many reports of people crying, fainting, and losing sleep in the thrall of it. The conductor Walter Bruno was one of them. He first saw it as an adolescent and recounts his feelings:

So there I sat in the uppermost gallery of the Berlin Opera House and from the first entry of the cello my heart contracted in spasms.... Never before had my soul been deluged with such floods of sound and passion, never before had my heart been consumed by such suffering and yearning, by such holy bliss, never before had such heavenly transfiguration transported me away from reality.... [A]fterwards I wandered aimlessly in the streets—when I got home, I recounted nothing and asked not to be questioned. My ecstasy sang further within me through half the night, and when I awoke the next morning I knew that my life had changed.12

It wasn’t quite that strong with me, but it was pretty close to that to tell you the truth.

Mark Twain, not so swayed but not outraged either, wrote: “I know of some, and have heard of many, who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away. I feel strongly out of place here.” Here is an article that describes more of the frenzy over Tristan and Isolde

Though it is erotic, it is decidedly not a hearts and flowers sort of piece, but instead concentrates on the hell of unquenched desire, which can only be resolved—to tormented Wagner—in death. As a friend who recently saw it wrote to me:  I gotta say, I don't get that opera. All this longing for death. Longing for the death of longing.” Clearly, not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you can enjoy anguished love, there is no work better in my book.

The music drama ends spectacularly with a full-on, real-time musical representation of orgasm, from the first stirrings of arousal to climax and post-coital recovery. It still blows my mind that he got away with it. It works as high art or, I can testify, like porn.

Here is a description of this remarkable piece from Sam Abel’s survey of musical sexuality, Opera in the Flesh:

Isolde’s death occurs at the moment of her musical climax. Wagner’s highly chromatic music surges in increasingly intense and heavily scored waves, building to a climactic moment of several extremely tense high notes followed by descending scales, then slowly sinking into the complete exhaustion of post-orgasmic death. Wagner’s accompanying text, though secondary to the emotional effect, highlights the musical ecstasy; it resonates with sensual language and ends with the words “hochste Lust,” highest physical pleasure. Wagner carried musical sexual discourse to the edge of literal expression, embodying the sexual act onstage disguised as death. The influence of the “leibestod” on later operatic music is pervasive, both for Wagnerian and non-Wagnerian composers, in the nineteenth century and beyond.13

Now, I know for a fact that to those ill-disposed to opera, they can’t hear it. I played it for a highly sexual friend some years back, thinking she would appreciate it, and her only comment was “I don’t enjoy listening to sopranos; they sing too high.” Fine, miss Isolde's orgasm; see if I care. But for those who want to give it a go, here are two versions, one without the singing (in case you, too, hate sopranos) and one with the singing. Close your eyes while listening and don’t think about it; just feel the music. 

The orchestral version:

Or with the singing:

If you didn’t hear it and feel it, to use Dustin Hoffman’s quote in The Graduate, you’re missing a great effect here.

Sexual repression, of course, never stopped men. They just created two categories—virgins and whores—and married the one, and used the other. And, while not the industry it is today, men could find porn in various forms if they wanted it. It was women who were particularly victimized, their lives circumscribed, by the sexual mores of the time. And it was women—and another victimized group, gay people—who particularly responded to Wagner’s erotics. In Joseph Horowitzs survey of Wagnermania in fin-de-siècle America, Wagner Nights, he puts it this way about the women who flocked to performances: 

The bad effects of husband and bedroom were silenced by a musical-dramatical orgasm as explicit and complete as any mortal intercourse. And Isolde’s second-act duet with Tristan—their clandestine Love-Night, shutting out the world, beckoning dissolution—was a secret pact, a shared conspiracy with Wagner.... For the moment, the parlor spinet, the neurasthenia of the bedroom, were banished and forgotten. The Wagner pilgrims were addicted, body and soul.14

Wagner was the then-alternative to the chick-flick or the paperback romance. While romance novels were being written in that era, nothing existed that was close to Wagner’s romantic, erotic pull. His music was a revelation to women who were starved for the full sensuality that they had long been denied.

Willa Cather, an enthusiastic Wagnerian, for one wrote of one of these women in her poignant short story, Wagner Matinée. It is written through the eyes of the womans dispassionate nephew. You can read it here.

I will be writing more about Wagner’s effects on sexual mores in a later post. For now, if you want to sample some of Wagners erotic music, I have put some some examples of my favorites below. They are put in chronological order, but if you are only going to try one, watch—rather, listen—to the Leibestod above.  In any case, I don't recommend listening to them all in one sitting as that would be like eating way too much of really rich dessert. 

Here is a clip from Tannhäuser:


Now to me, Elizabeth is just bursting with sexual energy; she wants to jump Tannhäuser's bones the second he hits that hall. What is funny to me is that most discussions about eroticism in Tannhäuser center on the Venusberg Bacchanal scene, which is fine but doesn’t feel erotic to my tastes unless the choreography is done particularly well. The fact is, I don’t like orgies. That said, here is a clip that is mildly titillating:

I will take Elizabeth’s ecstatic song of repressed but-ready-to-burst love over Venusberg any day.

The Ring has two long erotic sequences. One is the first act of Walküre (ignoring the music of the brute, Hunding). The music is just gorgeous and, often, ecstatic. You can listen to the whole act here - a concert version.

Or just a segment of some of that ecstasy here: 


The next erotic sequence in the Ring is the scene of Brünnhildes sexual awaking in the last act of Siegfried. It’s a marvelous piece of psychological insight into any woman’s sexual awakening, not just a former goddess. The whole scene goes on for 30 minutes; here is just the end when Siegfried is trying hard to convince Brünnhilde to let her fear go and embrace him as a lover (but no subtitles).  I think you can tell he succeeds.

The morning after their passion (in the first scene of Götterdämmerung), the music is equally good, if taken down just a notch in intensity. It starts with a beautiful orchestral piece in which with the lover’s are intertwined via higher and lower instruments echoing and then overlapping each other, becoming one. Then the singers enter to give a night-after recap about their new-found love (and then continues to Siegfried's Rhine Journey): 

As for Tristan und Isolde, the second act “love duet” is about thirty minutes of music, but this clip is the finale.  It is the concert version so it ends with an actual climax. In the opera, there is no such thing—the lovers never consummate their passion—as they are caught at a very inconvenient moment (at timing 7:50 here). This music is very similar to, but different from, the Liebestod. Lyrics aren’t really needed; let’s just say they are confirming that they are one, and they are the entire world:

If you watch these clips and are unmoved, Wagner is not for you, that is for sure. But if you respond as I do, welcome to Wagnerland.

End Notes

1 Dreyfus, Wagner and the Erotic Impulse, 1
2 Magee, Tristan's Chord, 93
3 Millington and Spencer, Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, 432
4 as quoted in Dreyfus, 52
5 Ibid., 2
6 Ibid., 9-10 – all quotes in paragraph
7 Ibid., 12 – all quotes in paragraph
8 If you don't know the plot, Siegliende and Siegmund are the siblings.  When Siegliende was young she was forced to marry the brutish Hunding.  She's is escaping this fate with her brother. The principal point Wagner was trying to make was that forced marriage—marriage without the women’s desire—was a worse outrage than consensual love of any stripe could possibly be. Women existed as the property of a man in Europe during his time; yes, they were “free” to say no in most cases, but since there were very few alternatives for women, most had to marry—and families all but forced them into it in many cases—no matter what their own feelings. There were no real choices for women until the modern era. Wagner wasn’t advocating incest; he was advocating that only a freely-chosen marriage of love was legitimate, no matter what the law said. This point still needs to be made, as many women are still not free to make their own choice in much of the world today. Wagner cared about this to, literally, his dying day. The article he was working on at the time of his death is here, in which he reiterates the point he made decades before in this scene (and in others).
9 Selected Letters, 323
10 Magee, 36
11 as quoted in Dreyfus, 37
12 as quote in Dreyfus, 5
13 Abel, Sam, Opera in the Flesh, 94
14 Horowitz, Joseph, Wagner Nights, 214

Friday, October 4, 2013

Wagner's Abnormal Mind - Part 6: Conclusion

Over several posts, I have been laying out various puzzle pieces to understand the very abnormal brain of Richard Wagner. I am going to do a synthesis in this post; for the details consult the other posts here

Wagner’s life of stress

Wagner was born with various attributes that manifested when he was still a boy: very high sensitivity, high sensation-seeking, and an optimistic and tenacious will that proved to be extraordinary. None of these things are pathological in and of themselves, but in combination they contributed to the enormous stress he endured throughout his life, and led to his developing both mental and physical problems.

In his childhood, Wagner's stress stemmed partly from his head-strong nature, which led him to often pit himself against family and authority. He also had stress from his sensitive nature, particularly in his family environment. For instance, nightly dreams of terror were met with upbraiding, not tenderness. Throughout his life, he considered himself to be singular: a man against the world. Adding to the problems that his natural temperament gave him was the financial stress his family was under via the loss of his father and step-father, the aftermath of war, and his frequent exiles from the family as he was so difficult to contend with.

He had no benefactor, no family money to help him along his chosen path. Virginia Woolf wrote that “a poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance.”1 What is incredible about Wagner is that he was one of those with not a “dog’s chance” and yet he managed to become the most famous and influential composer of the 19th century. His drive to create, to promote his vision, to defeat all obstacles before him, was completely single-minded and nothing short of miraculous and awe-inspiring. All this came at a high price: chronic stress that wrecked havoc on his body and mind.

His biography as an adult is filled with one major stress-inducing event after another, usually self-created, but almost always in service to his vision. I will just give a short summary:
  • He had no regular means of support until he was 50; he was constantly in debt, often fleeing creditors.
  • He escaped from Riga at high risk, to avoid imprisonment for debts.
  • He suffered through abject poverty in Paris for three years while trying to make it as a composer.
  • He escaped Germany after an arrest warrant was issued for his revolutionary activities; his co-conspirators ended up in jail for over a decade.
  • His marriage was full of strife for decades, including infidelity on both sides.
  • He had tremendous difficulty getting any of his operas staged outside of Germany (and many inside of Germany).  His only clear triumph until late in life was Rienzi (which he later denounced).
  • He was attacked regularly in the press for both his music and his lifestyle.
  • Even after King Ludwig rescued him financially, he was at the center of scandals from his affair and marriage to Cosima and with the release of the letters from his seamstress.
  • He was attacked in the press and via demonstrations—very logically and rightfully—by the Jewish establishment after the re-release of his article “On Judaism in Music.”
  • He took on a near-impossible task of building Bayreuth to stage the Ring. The whole enterprise was on the edge of collapse when King Ludwig saved him again.
But beyond the stress that life events put on him, Wagner put stress on himself through the composition process. In this letter, he describes this process.
I recognize now that the characteristic fabric of my music...owes its construction above all to the extreme sensitivity which guides me in the direction of mediating and providing an intimate bond between all the different moments of transition that separate the extremes of mood.
But this art is very much bound up with my own life. Extreme moods in a state of violent conflict will no doubt always remain part of my nature: but it is embarrassing to have to consider their effects upon others. To be understood is so indispensably important. Just as, in art, it is the most extreme and the grandest of life’s moods that must be made intelligible (moods which on the whole remain unknown in ordinary people’s lives, except in rare times of war and revolution), this understanding can be achieved only through the most well-defined and most compelling motivation of these transitions, and my entire work of art consists very much in producing the necessary and willing emotional mood by means of this motivation.2 [emphasis added]
Essentially, he became extremely good at triggering the emotions he needed to produce the extreme lows and the soaring highs of his music. Wagner played with emotional fire, putting his health at serious and continual risk, in order to be in the “state of violent conflict” necessary to compose his works. Thus, his musical talent centered on his ability to access deep, wildly varying emotions easily and fully, and then create a musical language to compose those feelings. That was his creative genius in a nutshell. Is it any wonder that after composing, he often needed to go to a sanitarium for recovery?

There is now a large body of evidence that stress is the trigger for both physical and mental problems, as I wrote about here.  Physically, Wagner developed life-long problems with hemorrhoids and irritable bowel syndrome, a variety of long-term severe skin problems, including recurrent erysipelas and shingles, migraines, leg ulcers and abscesses, respiratory problems, bilateral hernias, nervous exhaustion, and, finally, the heart disease that killed him.3  Every one of those problems can be caused or made worse by stress. Wagner himself believed that most of these physical ailments were related to his stress, and all his biographers agree.

In the case of some conditions, there can be a genetic predisposition to it. For instance, via a number of studies summarized here, it is clear that bi-polar disorder has a genetic component. However, just because you have inherited a genetic predisposition for that disorder does not mean that you will develop it. That is where gene expression comes in.

I will take a quick detour regarding gene expression, because it is so interesting (and relevant). You know those killer African bees? They aren’t different, genetically, than our honey bees. So why are they so aggressive? A scientist had a hunch that it was really about environment, so he took a bunch of African bees and implanted them in a honey bee colony and visa versa. Guess what? The implanted African bees became as docile as their adopted mates and the implanted honey bees became just as aggressive as the others. This article discusses this example among others, in both humans and animal species. Its conclusion is: “When it comes down to it, really, genes don’t make you who you are. Gene expression does. And gene expression varies depending on the life you live.” Stress is hypothesized to be a central culprit in the gene expression of a wide variety of illnesses, both physical and mental.

This is where the “who was Wagner’s father” issue comes back. I wrote about it here, and pointed out that there was evidence on both sides. However, the fact that his step-father Geyer seemed to have the same disposition as Wagner to both manic and depressive states, not to mention creative talent in several fields, has tipped me to the “Geyer is the father” side of the equation.

I have argued that Wagner was on the bi-polar spectrum as he clearly had periods of depression alternating with manic, or at least, hypomanic periods. All the usual signs of mania or hypomania as specified here existed in Wagner, according to everyone’s account of him, along with his own self-account:
  • Unrealistic, grandiose beliefs about one’s abilities or powers
  • Feeling unusually “high” and optimistic OR extremely irritable
  • Sleeping very little, but feeling extremely energetic
  • Talking so rapidly that others can’t keep up
  • Racing thoughts; jumping quickly from one idea to the next
  • Highly distractible, unable to concentrate
  • Impaired judgment and impulsiveness
  • Acting recklessly without thinking about the consequences
  • Delusions and hallucinations (in severe cases)
Beyond the last symptom (and the fact that he had the will and the wherewithal to complete all his unrealistic, grandiose plans), all of those symptoms describe Wagner perfectly. As for depression, he fit all those via self-reports, too:

  • Feeling hopeless, sad, or empty
  • Irritability
  • Inability to experience pleasure
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Physical and mental sluggishness
  • Appetite or weight changes
  • Sleep problems
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Thoughts of death or suicide 4
Throughout his life, his letters contain many references to a number of depressions. Here is part of a letter to a friend describing a long depression in 1937 at the age of 24:

My light-heartedness has long been consumed by the financial misery that battened on my natural, sanguine resilience... All cheerfulness, all freedom, all openness fled before me: I can describe my state in no better way than by telling you that this was a year when I wrote scarcely a single note, conceived noting & comprehended nothing. I was deeply unhappy!5 

By his 30s, thoughts of suicide became a constant theme:

I finally began to pine away and my thoughts turn increasingly towards death. I was on the point of returning to Zurich when I was again beset by my old complaint: I am paralyzed, overcome by melancholy and unhappiness....6

Hell, his entire oeuvre was suicide ideation

If you want to read more about his bi-polar nature, the author John Louis DiGaetani makes the case in his book Wagner and Suicide.

As for the other DMS categories of mental illnesses that people want to slot him into: sure, he fits into a bunch of them. I will leave it to those with expertise to sort that out, but there can be no doubt he would have received a diagnosis of mental illness if he presented to any therapist with his behaviors, actions and feelings. But concentration on his pathology does not explain his massive success in a large number of pursuits. Which brings us back to the question:

How could he have done it?

That is, how could Wagner have been so massively successful in doing what he did in the face of so much illness? My argument is that due to his very strong will and single-minded focus, he learned to control his conditions enough to be able to be productive. It wasn’t a smooth process, as he was often derailed by illness, but it was a very deliberate process. He learned to control his conditions in two large ways: through creating and following a workable routine, and through medication (both prescribed and self-medicated). And then he succeeded because—in spite of the risk-taking that would have derailed most folks, as well as his often demented personality—he had so much talent that others kept saving him from himself. And they did so often in the nick of time; thus in this, he had massive luck.

Let’s see then what Hans Sachs can weave to turn the madness his own way, to serve for noble works. – Hans Sachs talking to himself in Die Miestersinger


By his mid-30s, Wagner knew he was in deep trouble in terms of his ability to continue working in the manner that he did. For him, it was the nervous exhaustion that he found most debilitating. He could work through physical pain, but not emotional shut-down. When he over-worked, it would often take a month or two to get over the effects of it. Thus, as he wrote to his friend and benefactor Julie Ritter in 1852,

...if I am to produce anything else, it can only be achieved by subjecting my entire nervous system to a most elaborate course of treatment. Above all, I need a will of iron to keep a close check on myself, more especially to be able to break off completely from my work, both quickly and at frequent intervals, so that, by dint of regular outings, I may distract my cerebral nerves form their present self-destructive course.

Of course, only my art can sustain me and disguise from me how insipid my life has become. The enormous effort it takes to do so is something I must seek to lessen as best I can.7

In terms of his “course of treatment,” he took a 9-week course of a water and dietary treatment at a sanitarium the year before, in 1851, which had little positive effect, as he describes in his diary briefly: “Dreadful nervous state: very thin and pale. Total insomnia.”8 In 1852, he tried another course of treatment, but this one in his own home: concentrating on diet, quiet and exercise, which he describes to Theodor Uhlig here:

I have now made a proper start on my course of treatment: apart from my diet—from which I do not exclude the occasional glass of good wine—it consists of a cold bath in the morning and a fifteen-minute warm one (22 degrees). Its effect on me is most soothing and gently invigorating. Above all, it does me good to get out into the open air, where I wander for 2-3 hours every morning before I settle down to work. The time I spend on work never lasts more than 2 hours: through working for 5-6 hours, as I often used to do in the past, I seriously overtaxed my nerves.9

He tinkered with his routine throughout his life, but he always kept a set one with a mix of walking, specific dietary times, proscribed period of composition, and relaxing through socializing in the evening. His general routine with Cosima went like this:
  • 9:00 – small breakfast with Cosima
  • 10:00-2:00 – work (no interruptions)
  • 2:00 pm – large lunch (on the dot)
  • 3:00 – rest
  • 3:30 – correspondence if he had any, otherwise start walk
  • 4:30 – walk
  • 7:00 – light meal
  • 8:00 – salon where there was nightly talk, music and reading with guests
He intensely disliked a change in routine.  For instance, Cosima wrote on October 15, 1874, “R has to write a letter in the morning, which always upsets him.”  This sort of mastery via routine was certainly a key ingredient for him to tame his volatile and changing moods.


Wagner self-medicated all his life in a some very normal ways: he was addicted to nicotine, which he took regularly primarily via snuff, but also through cigars and cigarettes; he drank, principally wine and champagne, though he also drank beer and, I am sure, spirits when the occasion did arise; he also was a regular coffee drinker.

Wagner offering Bruckner snuff
He used them in the usual manner: caffeine and nicotine throughout the day to bring him up; alcohol in the evening to calm him down.

However, as a young, manic man, he had regular insomnia. For that, he needed something stronger. He wrote to his friend, Keitz, in 1852 that he “required from our [doctor] Lindemann not cure, but merely palliatives to make my existence as an artist possible as long as this existence can be maintained at all.”10 The palliative he received was laudanum, which is a tincture of opium. He used this to help him sleep and calm his nerves until the end of his life. 

Wagner had a five and one half year period when he composed not a lick of music, which is singular in the history of great composers. This writing block ended very soon after he started taking the laudanum. As related in Wagner, Last of the Titans, “In December 1853, he told his benefactress Julie Ritter that thanks to Lindemann’s ‘method’ he not only felt ‘far better’ but was writing music ‘with the greatest and most consequential delight’.”11 To his friend Keitz, he wrote in June 1854 that, “I keep up my spirits merely by intensive work... I really feel pretty much as I should like to, even though there is not a day without bad hours. I often take some of Lindemann’s powders.”12 Thus, the medications, his rise in spirits, and the end of his unproductive drought were clearly connected.


Something will turn up! – Mr. Micawber, David Copperfield

But the Fates intervened, as they always did in some mystic way or another, when it was a question of saving Wagner for posterity. – Alfred Newman, Wagner biographer

I make my luck. – that obnoxious guy from the movie Titanic

Wagner was on the edge of the abyss many times in his life. Here are a few highlights.
  • As a young man, he managed to get into and out of three duels, all with “formidable duelists” and, luckily for him, without a shot fired.13
  • He was the trustee of his mother’s pension, and got within one thaler of losing it all via gambling. But he doubled down and rebuilt, luckily, enough to replace the pension amount and to settle his existing debts.14
  • In 1839, he made a desperate flight from Riga, in Russian territory, to escape creditors and debtor’s prison. His passport had been impounded; he, with wife, dog and possessions in tow, had to slip through a well-guarded border, with armed sentries every 1000 feet. Luckily, he did it without getting caught or shot.15
  • He made another desperate flight from Dresden to escape an arrest warrant for his revolutionary activities. Luckily for him, and with the help of Franz Liszt, he made it out, unlike all his other close co-conspirators who spent many years in prison.
  • Once again trapped by debts, and debtor’s prison still an ever-present threat, luckily for him a rich industrialist, Otto Wesendonck, paid his debts and offered him a quiet place to compose. And, yes, then he promptly fell in love with his wife, and the gravy train came to an end, but still it was a good period, all in all.
  • He once again had to flee his creditors in March of 1864. He wrote in a deep despondency to one friend, “some good and truly helpful miracle must befall me, otherwise it will be all over!”16 Luckily for him, one did: King Ludwig II’s courier found him on the run, and told him the King wanted to pay all his debts and provide for him so he could write the rest of the Ring.
  • He decided to build his theatre in Bayreuth, as opposed to King Ludwig’s wishes of a site in Munich, so Ludwig withdrew his support. Wagner desperately tried to raise the money, initiating a fund-raising program that is the template for modern-day funding raising,17 but it came up far short. The project was about to go bankrupt when, luckily for Wagner, Ludwig changed his mind and saved the project.
  • By the age of 40, Wagner had developed plans for all his later operas, and for building his theater.  Luckily for him, his health held out just long enough to finish all his work at age 70. He died seven months after the premiere of Parsifal.
I bring up all this luck here, because it relates to his mind. Wagner was always optimistic, though often thwarted as a result of the excessive risks he took. Yet, on the edge of failure, he was always saved in the nick of time. Thus, his optimism would return, he would feel fated to succeed and so it would continue. He never got the comeuppance—except in leading an extremely stressful life—that he probably deserved. Lucky for us.

But it certainly wasn’t primarily fortune. He had all the ingredients of success: passion, motivation, initiative, persistence, vision, resilience, energy, self-knowledge and talent. These things all helped him make his own luck.


Wagner’s chief area of genius was, of course, musical composition. But he was wildly creative and influential in all sorts of ways well beyond just that, which I will be writing about much more in coming blog posts. While he did not show any particularly strong creative gifts as a child, as I wrote here, he was a highly sensitive child: to the arts, nature, beauty, animals as well as to things that were horrible, frightening or disgusting.  To live his early life among creative artists certainly was crucial in setting his path, but I believe that his particular talent arose primarily from his sensitivity. 

It certainly wasn't clear that he would become a musician.  As quoted by Thomas Mann, Nietzsche said of Wagner’s childhood:

His youth was that of a dilettante all-rounder who didn’t seem to know where he was going. He was not confined by any inherited family tradition to one particular artistic discipline. Painting, poetry, acting and music were as much as part of his life as a scholarly upbringing and an academic future; a casual observer might well have supposed that he was born to play the dilettante.18 

Mann then comments, “...Wagner’s art is a case of dilettantism that has been monumentalized by a supreme effort of the will and intelligence—a dilettantism raised to the level of genius.”  I think that insight captures some truth about Wagner's breadth of accomplishments, but it doesn't really give enough due to his innate music genius.  In any case, he made the absolute most of all his talents, but it was his will that was the truly incredible part of the equation.

To summarize Wagner’s awesomely abnormal mind, I would say that through his world-defying will, he was able to harness his talent, which sprung in large part from his unusual sensitivity, to create an oeuvre of exception beauty and depth. However, his risk-taking, which became clearly pathological, put him on a life-long figurative tightrope—foreshadowed by that literal tightrope he learned to walk at age 10—that always kept him close to the abyss. Luck and tenacity, with the help of many staunch supporters, got him across the chasm safely. 

All that said, I believe that his will, his talent, his behaviors, his thoughts were all beyond his conscious control as I argued in these posts. Yes, his life and mind are awe-inspiring, if sometimes horrifying, but the good and the bad in him and his works were really just a direct product of an interaction between his genetics and gene expression, upbringing and environment, brain processes and brain chemistry, none of which he had more than very minor control of, at best. He was absolutely unique, and his works reflect that completely, but I truly believe his massive will was not free, but just a product of his abnormal brain.

1 Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, page 26
2 Millington and Spencer, ed., Selected Letters of Wagner, 475
3 Wagner Experience, 74-76
4. From here.
5 Selected Letters, 71; this letter was Wagner's attempt to get money from his friend; some therefore discount his pain.  I do not.
6 Ibid, I forgot to note the page, dammit, but it’s in there!
7 Ibid, 265-266
8 Millington, Wagner, 50
9 Selected Letters, 260
10 Burrell Collection, Letters of Richard Wagner, 192
11 hler, Wagner, Last of the Titans, 305
12 Burrell, 198
13 Newman, The Life of Richard Wagner, Vol 1, 78-79
14 Ibid., 79
15 Ibid., 244-245
16 Selected Letters, 583

18 Mann, Pro and Contra Wagner, “The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner,” 103