Wagner – Monstrous and Magnificent

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How can we explain, or reconcile, the greatness of Wagner’s musical genius, with the baseness of so much of his life? He was an unsurpassed egotist. The focus of his endless monologues was entirely on himself and his self-assured opinions, to the exclusion or disparagement of others. He was a swindler who cheated people out of goods and money, buying lavishly, ignoring bills, and escaping just before the bailiffs arrived. He was a womaniser and an adulterer. His anti-semitism was not only trenchantly expressed in his writings, but also demonstrated in his attitude to, and behaviour towards, Jewish fellow musicians. Nonetheless, he believed that the world owed him a luxurious living, in return for the gift of the music he was bestowing upon it. 

The outstanding quality of that music, its beauty, depth and emotional power, places Wagner is the ‘premiere league’ of world composers. There is the raging storm in ‘The Flying Dutchman’; love’s unbearable intensity in ‘Tristan and Isolde’; the pounding hooves in ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’; the lyrical radiance of the ‘Siegfried Idyll’, the gut-wrenching funeral march in ‘Twilight of the Gods’; the luminous spiritual depths of the ‘Good Friday Music’ in Parsifal. Despite his colossal flaws and failures as a man, Wagner as a musician has given this world many of its greatest musical treasures.  

Wagner’s music, understandably, is not welcome in the state of Israel, but there are outstanding Jewish musicians, like Daniel Barenboim, who are among its finest  exponents. How can we reconcile the ‘monstrosity’ of the man with the magnificence of the music? As with all of us, Wagner’s mind had its conscious and unconscious aspect. Being a great artist, it was out of the depths of his unconscious that the greatest of his music arose. In his conscious mind, he was the anti-semitic ego-centrist, but not in his unconscious mind, as two of his dreams, recorded by his wife Cosima, reveal. 

In his early life, Wagner had disparaged and ridiculed the Jewish composers Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer. In a typically cutting one-liner, he’d said that Meyerbeer’s operas were “effects without causes!” In late life, however, he dreamt of having a conversation with Mendelssohn in which they were calling each other ‘du’, which Germans only use between close friends. And in a dream about encountering Meyerbeer at a theatre, the latter said, “Yes, I know, my long nose”, Wagner having poked fun at it. Wagner apologised, and the audience applauded their reconciliation. 

The Swiss psycho-analyst, Carl Jung, has shown how the unconscious mind can break into, and correct imbalances in, the conscious mind, sometimes through dreams. One part of Wagner was trying to bring home to the other part, the counter-productiveness of the unbalanced bigotry inherent in his antisemitism. Sadly, it didn’t succeed, but there was at least one part of Wagner that was sensitive and sensible, tolerant and caring. That, I believe, was the part out of which the finest of his music flowed. 

The one winner in all of this is ART. Wagner was a true artist – with rich unconscious depths of humanity and insight – and one of the priceless merits of great Art is how it can transcend the limitations and defects of the individual artist. Perhaps more of those who understandably cannot forgive, will begin to be able, for short periods of time at least, to set aside the worst of the deeply flawed man, and allow themselves to become lost in his best part, the incomparable music.

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In this short video, at 1:17, we hear one of the most beautiful melodies written by Wagner, or any other composer. After the chorus enters at 2:32, it can be heard again, behind their singing.

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