Wagner: why the music of the brilliant German composer is often misunderstood and considered difficult

Are you repelled by The Ring? Turned off by Tristan? Michael Scott Rohan asks why people find Wagner so difficult to get on with, then suggests how to get past the barriers and enjoy his music in all its glory

Richard Wagner

Wagner! The very name conjures up musical images: something vast, shadowy, Germanic, powerful. And up to a point that’s true, but it’s not the whole story.

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How would you describe Wagner’s music?

There’s light, laughter, the power of nature and, above all, love. In fact, you could say that Wagner, the ultimate Romantic composer, is all about nature and love. If his name also evokes fat ladies in horned helmets, or jackbooting squareheads, that’s what others have made of his vision.

All the same, he remains deeply controversial – no mean feat for an artist a century and a half after his death. He never called his music-dramas ‘the music of the future’ – that’s just another Wagner myth – but they undoubtedly helped create it. It’s been said, rightly, that we owe modern music to Tristan and Isolde (which we named one of the best operas of all time) and hardly a composer after him escaped his adventurous musical influence: Strauss, Sibelius, Dvoπák, Rimsky-Korsakov, Holst.

Debussy, writing Pelléas et Mélisande, said that one had to guard against ‘old Klingsor’, the evil enchanter in Parsifal, on every page; but he still ended up quoting that same opera. Most, though, responded like Vaughan Williams: ‘a feeling of recognition, as of meeting an old friend…’; or Puccini: ‘next to Wagner, of course, we’re all mandolin-twangers…’

Even his rival Verdi collected his scores admiringly, and in Falstaff affectionately quotes Parsifal. Sviatoslav Richter, pianist supreme, remarked ‘I had three teachers: my professor, my papa, and Wagner.’

BUT Wagner’s music appeals just as directly to non-musicians. Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, insisted that if his detective’s house was on fire, the first thing he’d save was his Wagner collection. A similarly smitten Cotswolds businessman, Martin Graham, founded his own Wagner festival – in a converted chicken shed. People often think Wagner sounds like film music, but that’s because he’s influenced it so constantly, from the earliest days to the present; for example, Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu and Terrence Malick’s New World borrow the Rhinegold prelude’s primeval swirls, and it deeply influenced Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator score.

Nevertheless, for some this extraordinary little German’s enormous creation is anathema, and even unbiased music-lovers can be daunted. Why? Chiefly it’s the fog of myths and misconceptions that surrounds him: that his scale is mere bombast, that he’s unbearably long. Actually, he’s no more grandiose than Beethoven, Mahler or Schoenberg. Operas by Monteverdi, Handel, even Mozart Don Giovanni – aren’t much shorter. Nor the Greek dramatists, Goethe or Shakespeare, Wagner’s dramatic models; and his emotional and intellectual humanity puts him on their level.

Why are Wagner operas so long?

If his operas are long, it’s because there’s so much there – and the more you get to know them, the shorter they seem. Admittedly more active, human subjects like The Flying Dutchman and Die Meistersinger are easier going than the more philosophical and psychological Tristan and Parsifal. But you don’t need to plunge headlong into the latter, as we’ll see.

Nor do you have to mug up for weeks. Not content with re-imagining the nature and staging of opera, Wagner developed a unique compositional technique based on motifs, short themes with dramatic associations. Fanatical commentators systematically dissected these, gave them pat name-tags – ‘Renunciation of Love’, ‘The Spear’, ‘The Curse’ and so on – and insisted poor listeners memorise vast lists before being admitted to ‘The Experience’. Which is monumental rubbish; what great music was ever tinkered together like Lego? Wagner’s technique is vastly more complex.

Motifs aren’t fixed; within the sweep and flow of his great scores they grow from a few roots, develop, mingle and re-form with stunning, subconscious complexity. Often we only perceive them surfacing briefly, like leaping dolphins. And they’re too subtle to be summed up by tags: the so-called ‘Renunciation of Love’, for example, accompanies both Alberich cursing love and Siegmund triumphantly affirming it in the Ring cycle.

You can learn something of their true complexity from analyses like An Introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen, Deryck Cooke’s recorded lecture on the Decca label (443 5812) – but you don’t need to. Sort out a few basic motifs, if you like, and worry about the rest later.

Other Wagnerians are usually only too willing to help. Wagner audiences tend to be a lot less clubby and snobbish than in opera generally, or other genres. And they come in all ages. As a teenager and student I found plenty of company at reasonably priced Scottish Opera and ENO performances – including my future wife, who’d stood through the Ring in Vienna! And I see just as many younger types packing the floor at Wagner Proms today. The exception is Bayreuth – Wagner’s own theatre, which his less gifted descendants and their hangers-on have squabbled over since. Today, in musical and dramatic decline, it’s increasingly a fashionable venue for jetset wrinklies (though, after a ten-year ticket wait, nobody looks that young!) Even there, though, you’ll see shabby students lining up for returned tickets.

One reason Wagner appeals to younger listeners is that he draws on imaginative worlds familiar from books, films and even video games: those of myth and fantasy. CS Lewis discovered the Ring as a child from Arthur Rackham’s classic illustrations, while his friend JRR Tolkien was much more deeply influenced by Wagner than he cared to admit.

But even more mundane tastes can warm equally well to the earthy sublimity of Meistersinger, or the erotic intensity of Tristan, its love potion the merest symbol for unleashing buried desires. Wagner’s emotional world, with its themes of isolation, alienation, longing for love and fulfilment, and conflicting masculine and feminine natures, is intensely modern; it influenced both Freud and Jung. And Wagner’s political world, his god Wotan a tragic picture of towering idealism corrupted by ambition and compromise, is also bang up-to-date. No wonder so many politicians like him.

Why is Wagner’s music considered dark?

But it has a dark side. Many people still assume Wagner was a Nazi, or inspired them. That’s Nazi propaganda. Hitler loved Wagner obsessively, true, but so did Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism. Other Nazis loathed Wagner; ideologues like Goebbels and Alfred Rosenberg saw all too clearly that he was their opposite – a romantic Socialist revolutionary, in later years an increasingly quietist mystic. They co-opted him, like other long-dead cultural heroes; but they also banned Parsifal.

Sadly, Wagner was crankily anti-Semitic, but so, among others less vilified, were Yeats, TS Eliot, GK Chesterton and Stravinsky. Wagner never suggested violence against Jews, believing they should assimilate – he had no Nazi-style delusions about Germans being ‘racially pure’. He wasn’t a racist generally, opposing slavery. And he had close Jewish friends and assistants, many of whom lived as part of his family, and recorded his kindness and generosity. In that he was probably less anti-Semitic than the average 19th-century German, and one might wish the Nazis really had imitated him. And – unlike Chesterton – his works aren’t anti-Semitic.  

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As well as being one of the greatest German composers ever and best opera composers Wagner is one of the greatest composers of all time