This weekend, CBC Toronto will be airing a conversation between Dominic Lawson and me on the question of Herbert von Karajan, and whether (as discussed on this blog) a bad man can make good music.
A comment by Richard V Harris has been rolling round my mind.
Biology, he writes, ‘is the science of exceptions, and we are not dealing here in absolutes (of goodness), only tendencies. Wagner was a great composer, but we do not see him as having been a good man, largely because he was an anti-Semite. I have no idea as to whether or not he privately carried out acts of kindness more than the average person.’
Well, from the evidence in his letters and autobiography, not to mention Cosima’s diaries, Wagner never knowingly performed an act of kindness without intending self-benefit. He abandoned his first wife Minna, milked the affections of rich women like Mathilde Wesendonck, seduced and impregnated the wife of his acolyte Hans von Bulow and flaunted his conquest to her father, Franz Liszt, who had done more than anyone to assist his career.
Cosima was just as bad. When Liszt lay dying in the middle of a Bayreuth Festival, his daughter was seldom at his side. Beside such wilful misanthropy, their rabid anti-semitism can appear almost incidental.
The question that arises is: did Wagner have to be such a brute in order to achieve his Ring? Every act of creation requires a degree of egotism. Do the greatest acts demand the most inhuman conduct? Discuss.