What is true of Constitutions, governments, and churches, is also true of works of art and of artists who create them. There is no perfect work of art, and no artist who is not in some ways flawed. As many of us have learned in life, often one’s best strengths lie close to one’s weaknesses, and appear together. The very genius of Bach’s music, with its highly developed counterpoint, at the same time makes it inaccessible for listeners who need more immediate melody, less “complicated music.” J. S. Bach has worthily been called “the musician’s musician” because he demands an unusual degree of musical learning to appreciate his compositions; and for those who make the effort, who are willing to apply some intellect to listening to him, Bach pays such rich spiritual dividends.
The music of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) puzzles me perhaps more than that of any other serious composer in Western music. Granted, it is flawed and imperfect, like all the works of human beings. For some, it seems immediately accessible, but generally, those who appreciate Wagner’s music (mainly his “musical dramas” or operas) have spent hours listening to it, and acquired their taste for it gradually. Some of his compositions are more immediately approachable, so that nearly anyone could find some delight in them--for example, the orchestral masterpiece known as the “Prelude to Die Meistersingers von Nueremberg.” Following in the tradition of Beethoven’s symphonies, this prelude is powerful, rich in melodies and harmonies, provocative in its orchestration and even counterpoint, and often exhilarating, especially when performed by a competent orchestra and heard in a concert hall. So much of Wagner’s music, however, requires patience and work, and perhaps even a tolerance of what may sound like wild gymnastics for operatic voices. In listening to selections from his “musical dramas,” I often have the sense that Wagner uses the voice to effect splashes of sound, and to create immediate emotional effects on listeners, rather than composing anything like arias or songs in the more usual fashion of 19th-century opera. Clearly, Wagner has a musical language of his own, and it takes work to discover it and to enjoy it for what it has to offer. One must, in effect, suspend expectations of “opera” or “song” to enter into Wagner’s musical world.
I want to draw on several of Wagner’s compositions in order to explore a puzzle in my mind. At the outset, I want to make clear what this puzzle is: How can it be that at least some of Wagner’s music is at once delightful and disturbing, a brilliant work of art and perhaps dangerous decadence? I would ask this question even if the National Socialists--including Hitler--had not idolized Wagner, and given his music a very questionable if not just plain bad reputation in many quarters. On the contrary, I do not wish to lay on Wagner’s music “guilt by association.” Admittedly, it makes one wonder why Hitler and some of the Nazi leaders loved Wagner’s music so much. And that adulation may give a hint to an underlying problem. But it would be unjust and foolish to reject all of Wagner’s music because some really bad human beings wallowed in it. A mass murderer may go crazy for Beethoven, but I surely would not throw out Beethoven’s music on that account. The puzzle for me, however, remains: Why is it that in listening to Wagner intently--really listening, absorbing the music, trying to understand the words--I may feel at once delight, interest, and emotional disturbance? What is Wagner doing in his music? That is the question.
That Wagner is one of the great geniuses of western music, or at the very least of 19th century music, should be evident to any student of music history and composition. According to my understanding, Beethoven was truly revolutionary in western music, because on a scale utterly unheard of before him, he unleashed a full range of emotions in music, and did so with extraordinary power and sheer genius of composition. As I have noted before, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (#3 in E-flat) is perhaps the pivotal composition in the last four centuries of western music. From the opening, crashing, clashing chords, one enters the world of explosive emotions powerfully expressed in symphonic sounds. The Eroica is unforgettable, and surely rocked and jarred its early hearers. Since Beethoven, the composer who most advanced the Beethovian enterprise in music was Richard Wagner. Indeed, I think that Wagner not only learned from Beethoven’s genius for expressing emotions, but pushed the release of passions in sound to new and perhaps unsurpassed heights. But here is a key difference between Beethoven and Wagner: As the overwhelming and returning emotions in Beethoven’s compositions are rage and sentimental love (and often a quick vacillation between these two extremes), Wagner’s music is not drenched in anger or rage at existence. The emotions I hear in Wagner, and which his music provokes in me as I listen, are at least two: a kind of dreamland Romanticism that pulls one away from the world as it is; and sheer erotic passion. Indeed, I know of no one who has expressed sexual desire and its consummations in music to compare with Wagner. Dreamland Romanticism is common in 19th century music, but even here, Wagner excels most of his contemporaries through his compositional skills.
Let’s consider briefly a few examples of his music. I will refer to several compositions, and invite the interested reader to listen to them. Most would be available for free listening on YouTube.
In a composition such as Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of his relatively early opera, Lohengrin, one hears a beautiful example of a the music of 19th century Romanticism: lyrical, emotionally charged, relatively simple and direct (not heavily contrapuntal), and with that sense of dreaminess or floating so common in Romanticism. What especially impresses me in this composition, other than its sheer beauty, is Wagner’s compositional technique. It would seem to be an outstanding example of Romanticism’s fondness for organic growth: the entire Prelude begins from a single note, gradually builds to a full orchestral sound, and then recedes back into a simple sound and silence. It is if Wagner develops a whole, glorious plant out of a single seed, and then the plant quietly withers away. In my opinion, this Prelude shows Wagner not only as a master of musical composition, but as a highly skilled master of the orchestra, using its rich colors to magnificent effect. And the emotional effect is one of peace and delight, free from strife or anger. In a word, Wagner knows what he is doing, and he can powerfully move audiences through his skills.
Wagner’s music that has most captivated my attention in recent months comes from his breakthrough musical drama, Tristan und Isolde. At the outset I admit that I have never heard the entire opera, although I have listened intently and repeatedly to selected parts of it, especially the Prelude (which Wagner called “the love-death”); the love-duet between Tristan and Isolde that begins, “O sink hernieder;” and then the utterly unforgettable and unsurpassable final “Liebestod” or “Transfiguration” sung by Isolde over the body of her dead lover.
Without having recourse to parts of the Ring cycle, one can detect, if you will, the glory and the potential danger in Wagner in these selections from Tristan und Isolde. The music is rapturous, and if well sung, perhaps some of the most memorable and unforgettable music one will hear in his or her lifetime. I would challenge anyone to find in the entire repertoire of western music any composition as expressive of erotic love as the love-duet and the final piece conventionally known as “Der Liebestod,” the lovedeath. Here one discerns the challenge that is Wagner’s music: in some senses, utterly beautiful, brilliantly composed, excitingly orchestrated; and yet, is it not also decadent or destructive in some difficult-to-express ways?
Art is not neutral. It communicates the spirit of its creator. In the case of music, if the composer was spiritually, mentally, emotionally healthy, then the music has mainly beneficial effects. J. S. Bach, Mozart, and Haydn are healthy souls, and their music nearly always refreshes, cleanses, elevates the soul of the hearer. Of course overindulgence in any art may do some damage in the sense that one must still perform duties; but in proper balance, compositions by healthy souls bring beauty and refreshment into the active listeners. But what happens if the composer is spiritually ill, or mentally ill, or emotionally ill? Does it not seem likely that his or her compositions would be, to some degree, diseased? Good comes from good, and bad from bad. “A good tree produces good fruit.” A good, healthy soul produces good, wholesome music.
And then there is Wagner. Admittedly, I so love listening to the compositions mentioned that I could do so by the hour, and be entranced, almost as if I were indulging in a drug. And in some way, his music is intoxicating, and perhaps addicting. That claim has been made, and seems to show up in Wagner-groupies who travel around the world to hear his operas. What I know is what I experience, and I am trying to communicate it as clearly as I can. On the one hand, the music is simply gorgeous--at least when beautifully sung, as by Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad, or Birgit Nilsson or Weltraud Meier, and so on. I am in awe at what these human voices can do and communicate as they sing the music Wagner composed. One aspect of the Wagnerian experience: amazement at such beauty. But something else takes place as one listens to the highly emotion-laden, extremely intense music. What happens?
What is the experience of Wagner’s music that leads me to call it “decadent,” or damaging when indulged in unthinkingly or unguardedly? In both Wagner’s words (and he wrote his own libretti, which are often strange, bizarre poetry) and in his music, one experiences an emotional intensity that clouds one’s sense of solid reality. The music so overwhelms the listener that he or she becomes absorbed, transfixed, perhaps ecstatic, or even sexually aroused. In parts of the love-duet (“O sink hernieder--Sink lower into the night of love”) and in Isolde’s unsurpassable “Liebestod,” the music becomes more erotically charged than any other music I have ever heard. That testifies to Wagner’s genius and ability to communicate in sound intense emotions. In effect, the listener becomes utterly at the mercy, if you will, of Wagner the master composermagician, whose music enters into the soul with such force and power that the listener becomes spell-bound, or intoxicated, or even, as I noted, sexually aroused. Wagner inflames the passions, even while subduing reason, putting the thinking part of the hearer to sleep through puzzling, strange expressions, but inundating, flooding, stimulating, exciting the lower passions of the listener. Is Wagner exercising what Nietzsche called “the will to power” in the way he fully dominates his listeners by his music? That is a fair question. What I experience is that my soul becomes utterly at the mercy of Wagner through his words and music, so much so that even my breathing is affected, my heart-rate changes, and I find my imagination being filled with fantasies. All that through music? Yes, through music and words in a setting of intense emotional drama portrayed on the stage. Isolde utters nearly orgiastic cries of delight as she is ravished by the male part, taken by the orchestra, for Tristan lies dead. Her singing is far less a song in any sense than sexually suggestive splashes of sound erupting from a woman in a sexual frenzy.
Wagner is the master music-magician. I say this as a summary point, but do not wish to negate his artistic achievement. If you know of any music more powerfully erotic than the love-duet or Liebestod, I would have to hear it to believe it. To be a master magician in any art or science, one must know what he or she is doing, and do it with consummate art and knowledge. Wagner is a true master-singer.