I woke up today and put on some Richard Wagner. Not my usual morning jam, as I don’t love opera and that is mostly what he wrote. But the orchestral overtures and preludes extracted from Wagner’s famous operas and presented as freestanding concert music form a singularly beautiful, vastly influential body of work, in many ways the most important bridge from the Romantic to the Modern.
If you want to understand modern music, you simply can’t ignore him. He was a rock star in his own lifetime, and his music is so deep in the groundwater of everything that followed, if you were to time travel and erase him, the entire edifice of modern music would probably just crumble. So, don’t, I guess? Don’t do that?
The visionary German composer innovated in practically every dimension of music: in orchestration (think of “Flight of the Valykries,” but that level of imaginative orchestral effect is in evidence all over his work); in his use of chromatic harmony (it’s beautiful and eerily familiar, but it never quite seems to arrive “home” in that diatonic, key-center way that describes, essentially, every composer before him); and, most of all, in form.
He almost single-handedly engineered a radical break from the inherited forms of Western classical music, those that evolved through the great line of Germanic composers from Bach through Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, all the way to Wagner’s contemporary and rival, Johannes Brahms. Wagner tossed it all. He invented cinematic music a solid 60 years ahead of cinema.
If you want to enjoy some Wagner, you better suit up and prepare for the heat. He was a terrible man. Extraordinarily beautiful, visionary music; pretty awful dude.
Yeah, so he was a vain, selfish, whining megalomaniac who surrounded himself with a culture of sycophancy. That describes half of them, one way or another. Wagner was not just an anti-Semite of the kind of that was tragically common in the parlors and professions of 19th-century Europe. He was, some would argue, nothing less than the author of an entire philosophical and cultural platform of anti-Semitism. Yeah, that bad.
It’s a tough one. I don’t have a programmatic answer about how I resolve these acute dissonances between the art and the artist. We run into this question more and more. Wagner is not the only one that forces my hand, just an unusual example in which the art was so great and the man so less great that he has been forcing our hands culturally for almost two centuries. He was Hitler’s favorite composer. Performances of his work are banned in Israel.
So many questions spin out. If you decided to blacklist one artist for biographical reasons, does biographical due diligence now become an essential part of your aesthetic process? Must you vet before you even listen, read, or watch? If not, who are you kidding?
I don’t have that answer.