Tristan & Isolde Prelude, Extract
A confession: Wagner was the last composer on this course that I fell in love with. In fact for a number of years I’d resisted his what seemed to me his rather dubious charms. But once I surrounded to his charms…
There are problems with Wagner, ones you can’t just avoid. He was rather unpleasant in his nationalism, and vilely unpleasant in his anti-semitism. You often hear arguments about whether some of his characters (particularly Beckmesiter and Mime) are Jewish caricatures, but you don’t even need to go that far to the arrogant, snickering way he deals with these characters as nasty. It feels like Wagner would be on the side of the bullies. It doesn’t help that his great male heroes often feel like ‘college jock’ lunks, caricatures of male stupidity.
But – there’s always a ‘but’ with Wagner, and this is a big one – how much do you weigh that with on the other side?
The music is stunning, brilliant. And full of insight. Philosophical, political, psychological insight. With Wagner there is always a superb intellect, working in harmonious conjunction with artistic ability of the highest order. Once you surrender to the Wagner army, you’ve just got to lay back and admire the size, the ingenuity, the power, and the beauty of the entire enterprise.
There’s so much that’s so good about Wagner, it makes the objections easier to accept.
Wagner affected all of his contemporaries, whether by influence or reaction. And it wasn’t just composers: artists as diverse as T.S.Eliot, Van Gogh, or Baudelaire were mesmerized by Wagner’s work, and most particularly by Tristan & Isolde. So brilliant and revolutionary was this sound, it was no wonder so many of Wagner’s contemporaries described it as ‘The Music of the Future’.
But History, as so often, tells a different tale, and Wagner remains important now for what he wrote, not who he influenced. This was never an act anyone could truly ever follow. As one of those early devotees, Claude Debussy so memorably put it:
Wagner’s music was a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn.