Haunted By Wagner

by Brendan James

Nicholas Spice, unnerved by the power that Wagner’s music has always held over listeners, asks if the German composer is “bad for us”:

In the early days, the expressionistic intensity of Tristan und Isolde produced violent reactions in its audiences. The young Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu fainted and had to be carried out of the theatre (he was to die of typhoid from eating a contaminated sorbet a day after his 24th birthday); Chabrier and Ravel both burst into tears while listening to the Prelude. But Berlioz, while reviewing the opera positively, privately admitted to being disgusted by the music, and Tristan became associated in some quarters with loss of self-control and moral atrophy. …

[Composer Claude] Debussy said that it was ‘hard to imagine the state to which the strongest brain is reduced by listening for four nights to the Ring … It is worse than obsession. It is possession. You no longer belong to yourself.’

We don’t tend to give music this much credit anymore, but there’s a reason why Wagner’s music formed the backdrop to some of the most horrific episodes of European history, and, more recently, one of the more chilling depictions of the Vietnam War, seen above.