When life is too short for Wagner

When life is too short for Wagner


norman lebrecht

September 29, 2020

My next essay for The Critic has yet to go online but I’ll offer you a taster of why Alex Ross’s brilliant new book Wagner-ism places us even more firly in diametrially opposed camps.

Wagner divides his audience between those who want to go on afterwards to dinner, and the rest who want to invade Poland. The most inflammatory composer that ever lived, he was an atrocious man of irresistible magnetism, a disrupter who left blood in his wake. One of my schoolteachers, a Hitler refugee, introduced him as follows: ‘Richard Wagner, may his name and memory be erased for ever and ever, was (deep sigh) a verrry great composer.’ That says it all.

As a child, taken by my stepmother to see her favourite opera, I could not work out why a young woman had to sacrifice her life for the flying Dutchman to find a bit of peace. At the Metropolitan Opera, I saw my watch tick past one a.m. as James Levine dragged us through that para-Christian rite known as Parsifal. Life, mine at least, can feel too short for Wagner.

I have survived four rounds of the Ring, been mesmerized by Meistersinger, stupefied by the longueurs of Lohengrin. The one that gets me every time is Tristan und Isolde which suspends the resolution of a chord for almost four hours, the longest delayed ejaculation in canon.

In awe of such tantric feats, I made a pilgrimage to the shrine – only to declare Bayreu-xit on seeing the old wangler’s descendant still running the show for the benefit of Angela Merkel and the German elite. At Bayreuth I felt, for the first time, physically soiled by art. This year, the onset of Covid-19 left no Ring-shaped hole in my soul.

That puts me in the opposite camp to the New Yorker critic Alex Ross, whose monumental new book, titled Wagner-ism maintains that Wagner was ‘the most widely influential figure in the history of music’ – possibly an even greater influencer than the actor Stephen Fry who shouts ‘miraculous’ on the book’s cover, thereby placing it beyond reasoned discussion….


If you want to read more, you’ll have to buy The Critic at a newstand, or wait til the full article goes online in the next few days.

Look, he even shapes nature.




  • Paul Dawson says:

    My view is that Ross’s book is impressively long on description, but rather short on analysis.

  • Hugh Kerr says:

    I love your review I’m reading it at present a chapter a night and so far so good. I’m with Anthony Arblaster in Viva La Liberta “ Wagner was a revolutionary in his youth and a reactionary in his old age but the music is wonderful “!

  • CYM says:

    A short book has a perfect title :
    « Wagner – The Horrible Man and His Truthful Art », by M. Owen Lee.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      The U.S. edition is titled “The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art”. Either way, it is one of the best-reasoned considerations of Wagner I’ve ever read.

    • Paul Dawson says:

      Thanks for the reference. I logged onto Amazon to buy it, only to discover that it has been sitting unread in my Kindle library for the past three years. A remedy is at hand!

  • Garech de Brun says:

    In 1881 an issue of the London journal “The Theatre: A Monthly Review” printed an anecdote about Rossini’s reaction to Wagner’s opera “Tannhäuser” when it was performed in Paris in 1861. A proponent of Wagner’s compositions named Auber encouraged Rossini to attend:

    Upon the conclusion of the third act he approached Rossini with something less than his usual sprightliness, having observed the master’s countenance to have been distorted by sundry formidable yawns during Tannhäuser’s description of his fruitless pilgrimage to Rome. “Eh bien, maître!” he exclaimed; “qu’en dites-vous? Avouez donc qu’il y-a de bien beaux moments!” “Je ne dis pas non,” replied Rossini, with a cynical smile; “mais il y-a aussi de bien mauvais quarts-d’heures!”

    • John Borstlap says:

      That performance cannot have been a very quiet one since that 1861 premiere was a big scandal: the production ran for only 3 nights and every performance was disruptet by catcalls, booing, whistling, shouting, so that singers and orchestra had to regularly stop to get their act together.

      • Garech de Brun says:

        Yes John, the Jockey club were upset about the ballet scene I gather. I have seen it many times when folk arrive late at Bayreuth from the pub!

    • William Safford says:

      A truncated version of that anecdote is recounted in the marvelously catty book “Lexicon of Musical Invective” by Nicolas Slonimsky.

  • Ulick Magee says:

    Wagner is akin to Marmite, you either love him or hate him there is no in between.

  • Luca says:

    “At Bayreuth I felt, for the first time, physically soiled by art.” Why, Norman? Bayreuth has always been run by a member of the family and there is absolutely no reason to suspect the present incumbent of being anti-Semitic. Seat prices are reasonable though one has to be very patient to get tickets. Why shouldn’t one share one’s pleasure with Angela Merkel? Most people wouldn’t feel soiled to see the Queen in the royal box at the Royal Opera House (which is more expensive than Bayreuth).

    • Geezer says:

      ROH actually costs less than Bayreuth Luca, for a start accommodation costs a bomb at the high season in August in Bayreuth, a box at ROH does not cost as much.

      HRH does not like opera much apart from a bit of G & S and Andrew Lloyd Webber. She like horses better. As Prince Philip once remarked she only likes things which fart and eat hay.

  • José Bergher says:

    In February 2013, at the Met, I saw a marvellous production of “Parsifal” twice within four days. Before then, I attended a dress rehearsal of the first act.

    • Ken says:

      What besides the cast was “marvellous” about that monstrosity? I walked out in horror from the FD after 45 minutes (that’s Parsifal’s entrance). He’s got on trainers, everyone else heretofore has been barefoot, Gurmenanz asks “Where are you from?” He must answer “The Land of Shoes,” I’m out. Such bullshit.

      • José Bergher says:

        The entire production was marvellous. And I was listening to the great music, the great singing, the great orchestra and chorus; I wasn’t looking at feet.

  • F. P. Walter says:

    Why is Wagner AS A HUMAN BEING any more “horrible” than billions of the rest of us? Norman’s own marvelous book on Jewish contributions depicts MANY individuals whose behaviors were jealous, insecure, dishonest, and hurtful . . . hurtful, in fact, to fellow Jews. Here’s a simple test. ASK YOURSELF: a) have I ever been envious? b) have I ever wanted to be the center of attention? c) have I ever been slow pay? d) have I ever lusted for somebody not my spouse? e) have I ever belittled others?

    If you can answer NEVER to all five, please post your full name on this thread. You’re a candidate for some sort of sainthood.

    If you can’t, you have traits in common with Wagner. I do. How about you, Norman? How about you, dear reader?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes yes yes yes and yes! And it got me a pay rise.


    • John Borstlap says:

      Sorry for my PA, what she says is simply not true. That is, the last bit. The rest is true indeed.

    • William Safford says:

      You’re kidding, right? You’re trying to justify Wagner’s behavior by suggesting that he’s just like us?


      a) rarely, and I try not to
      b) rarely — I usually avoid it
      c) rarely, usually if I’ve been absent-minded
      d) I’m not married
      e) I did once–and my mother corrected me

      Plus, there’s this detail:

      f) Am I anti-Semitic, and have I ever published anti-Semitic screeds?


      But that is one trait that Wagner shares with too many people in this world….

      • F. P. Walter says:

        You’re an inspiration, and I’ll pray to you henceforth, St. William.

        • William Safford says:

          Oh, please, don’t pray to me.

          Merely venerate me. 🙂

          But seriously, those qualities just make me a mainstream normal person, not a sociopath like Wagner.

  • Ulick Magee says:

    He may well have a point. There is not a single ounce of humanity in Wagner, his over inflated, bombastic compositions merely reflect his egotistical personality look at me, I am the greatest composer that has ever lived. All balls.

    For that reason he cannot be considered a desert island choice, life is indeed too short to watch a bonfire of the vanities.

  • John Borstlap says:

    People often confuse the man and his music with what other people have made of him/it.

    There is no single verdict possible on the man’s personality because he was an artist even more divived within himself than is normally the case with the creative type.

    Therefore, there is a lot of misunderstanding and slandering still around, being kept alive by the qualities of the music.


    The comparison of Tristan with purely biological processes passes-by the entire dimension of psychology and spirituality with which the work is suffused, W tried to transcend the physical part of human love onto a quite different level. But in the victorian 19th century and the materialist and thoroughly vulgar 20th century, this has still been found incomprehensible.

  • Leporello says:

    So much rubbish is written about Wagner; each bit feeding the next. People should get to know him through his art.

  • Clyde Jennings says:

    Wagner was a master of manipulative music, who never wrote a phrase the first-time listener had not already anticipated. But at least he orchestrated each composition with all the bombastic indigestibility at his command. Saving grace, though, he was such a horrible person, many don’t notice that his music amounts to a great portentous grunt

    • Novagerio says:

      I assure you, his contemporary audiences didn’t anticipate one single “manipulative phrase”.
      And if you really feel that way about Wagner, then you haven’t yet grasped his immense place in music history, or his influence on the “music of the future”, from Bruckner over Debussy and up to Schönberg.

      • Clyde Jennings says:

        I admit he has had great influence on all those composers of over-wrought music for disaster movies.

      • Clyde Jennings says:

        Oh come now. His influence was minor. His father was a greater enabler of chromaticism than the son. Please note Twain’s (or perhaps Edgar Nye’s) comment on Wagner’s music as being better than it sounds.

      • Clyde Jennings says:

        I like it when people authoritatively comment on the reactions of people a hundred years dead.

  • Novagerio says:

    Caravaggio and Carlo Gesualdo were both murderers. Should we hate their art too?

    • Geezer says:

      At least Gesualdo could make a tune. They were not linked to the Nazis.

      Wagner is not easy listening.

      • Novagerio says:

        Geezer: Because Wagner is not about “tunes”, it’s about emotions. If you want tunes, stick to Arditti and Offenbach.

        On the other hand, if you had understood that most of his music dramas are very much based on Leitmotifs, then you wouldn’t call it “tunes” (unless you grew up with only MTV)

        • Stuart says:

          My music library has four complete Rings but some of the individual operas stand-alone. But it is also packed full of Offenbach. To me, both touch the emotions – wouldn’t be without either. Wagner has lots of “tunes” and Offenbach is far more than just tunes.

      • Wagner Agnostic says:

        Gesualdo is easy listening compared to Wagner.

      • Allen says:

        “Wagner is not easy listening.”

        Damn! So that’s where I’ve been going wrong. Now I’ll have to replace my Wagner collection with James Last Greatest Hits.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Gesualdo wrote his very painful choral works after his desastrous fit of jealousy when he caught his wife with her lover, to calm the tortures of guilt that pained him for the rest of his life. Caravaggio was an equally unbalanced character with anger issues but surely not a wilful murderer:

      “Caravaggio’s gravest problem began on 29 May 1606, when he killed Ranuccio Tommasoni, a gangster from a wealthy family, in a duel with swords at Campo Marzio. The two had argued many times, often ending in blows. The circumstances are unclear and the killing may have been unintentional.”


  • David K. Nelson says:

    Deems Taylor is hardly remembered now for anything other than his appearance in Disney’s Fantasia (the most boring and pretentious parts of that film), and perhaps some recall his narration of how the bells and cannon fire were added to Dorati’s recording of the 1812 Overture for Mercury. Although he composed a lot of music, and two of his operas held the Boards at the Metropolitan Opera, and although he wrote reams of music criticism and analysis which at one time was all highly respected and made him one of America’s “public intellectuals” (and a part of the famous Algonquin Hotel “round table” of wits and writers), Deems Taylor is more or less forgotten today, and we are not the worse off for that.

    But in his time perhaps his most famous essay on music was The Monster, which was about Wagner and which has the virtue of getting to the point quickly, readably, and without footnotes. I found an online version here:

    I think Taylor captures the reason Wagner is hated with such passion even today, and why Wagner prevails. There is no fresh scholarship in The Monster; none is needed.

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks Mr Nelson for that fantastic link. Personally I disagree with Taylor’s conclusion the music justifies the behaviour – if Wagner hadn’t been such a narcissist he could have taken the advice of a good editor and his self-indulgent operas would have been elevated to masterpieces.

      But there is no doubt about his extraordinary musical talent and influence, in particular his innovations in orchestration. He invented film music 50 years before the first film.

      To be fair, with Wagner one is either pro or con, few sit on the fence.

      • John Borstlap says:

        According to an article in The Times on Sunday there seems to be one in South Wales, an elderly lady called [redacted] and she stays there even during rain showers.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Alarmed by this thread, 5 researchers from the Anthropological Department of the University of London went on a search and this afternoon, they found her on a road near Caerphilly and questioned her about her unusual standpoint on Wagner. It was raining but Mrs [redacted] insisted on remaining on the fence, armed with a large umbrella. It appeared that she liked some bits of the operas, and disliked some other bits, and stressed the point that much of it only sparked a mild, lukewarm response. She explained her condition as a result from the elopement of her husband with the younger sister of their neighbour, who had German parents who were passionate Wagner lovers.

    • William Safford says:

      Thank you.

      I actually have performed Deems Taylor’s music on a couple occasions, and I have an excerpt from one of his orchestral works floating around my rehearsal room somewhere, but I had never heard of this essay.

      I enjoyed reading it.

    • William Safford says:

      P.S. After reading that essay a second time, I was struck by how much the description of Wagner in the first four-fifths of it reminded me of the current occupant of the White House.

      We cannot imagine the orange enemy of the people having a dog as a pet, nor that he could be griefstricken over its death.

      Otherwise, they sound almost identical.

      That last fifth of the essay reveals the one critical and profound difference between the two:

      Wagner was, in fact, great at what he did–maybe not at piano playing or singing, but certainly at creating operas.

      Whether or not one likes his music or his dramaturgy, there is no question but that he has had a profound effect on Western classical music, and that many other composers whom we consider among the best were directly influenced by him, his music, and his techniques.

      • Marfisa says:

        W.S. Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
        Pol. By the mass, and ‘tis like a camel, indeed.
        W.S. Methinks it is like a weasel.
        Pol. It is backed like a weasel.
        W.S. Or like Donald Trump.
        Pol. [Aside, to an attendant] The fit o’ertakes him again. Summon a doctor.

        • William Safford says:

          “If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands.”

          –Douglas Adams

          • Marfisa says:

            Trump is not relevant in a thread discussing how Wagner life and personality impacts on our appreciation of his music. No doubt an interesting conversation could be had about the ways in which Trump and Wagner are, or are not, alike. Perhaps you should start a blog about it?

          • William Safford says:

            I dunno–I think you’re ducking the very real issues that our country and world face with this loon in the White House. Almost everything that the infected orange enemy of the people says is a canard, and we know from his multiple bankruptcies and lawsuits that he rarely pays the bill.

            Furthermore, we know from numerous women that he liked to goose them (and far worse). Of course, he only views women as chicks, not people.

            His presidency was supported by right wingers, but it has certainly not been what it was quacked up to be. It doesn’t help that his intellect is as light as a feather.

            He thought he had his own Waldvogels in minions like Steve Bannon, but their Mime-like deceitful words led him on a wild goose chase. In fact, their corruption, and his, may lead him to the twilight of his political career, as the voters fire him in November.

            The good news is that the worst of his cygnet-ure initiatives–if you can call them that, more like temper tantrums–have not taken flight. In fact they have barely grown, like his putative wall.

            So no, your comment does not fly. It is water off of a duck’s back.

  • Larry D says:

    If we invade Poland, do we still have to wear masks?

  • M McAlpine says:

    Wagner was no doubt an awful man. But if we are looking likability among the great composers we might have slim pickings. What of course sets Wagner apart is his repugnant and oft-stated racist philosophy (perhaps reflected in his works) which was uncomfortably close to what the Nazis brought to a final solution. So listening to Wagner involves us in this Faustian pact.

    • B. Guerrero says:

      Exactly. I’m one of the biggest fans of Gustav Mahler’s music you’ll ever find, but he was no picnic to get along with in real life. Many Mahler fans feel they have to make a saint of the man, but that’s as childish as it is just plain wrong.

  • Phil Greene says:

    Once you acquire Wagner Ears a lot of what you used to like fades away. It took me five Ring Cycles to get there, but I do not wish to encourage anyone because Bayreuth is crowded enough. If you don’t know The Ring by heart you should stay away, Please!

  • Phil Greene says:

    The US Air Force uses Wagner Music on their planes as they fricassee innocents as they Napalm civilians in Vietnam. Hitler merely listened to the Operas.

    • Wagner Agnostic says:

      Fool. In Mein Kampff Hitler says he is like Lohengrin!

    • Marfisa says:

      Should it be necessary to point out that the US air force is no longer bombing Vietnam, and that it was Coppola who used Wagner in a soundtrack? And that Hitler did rather more to promote the Wagner cult (and much worse) than merely listening to Operas?

    • Ed in Texas says:

      Merely listened? Seems to me I recall learning somewhere or other early on in life (or perhaps it was everywhere in those days) that Hitler managed to fricassee a few innocents in his day too. And did the Air Force really use the music on their planes, or are you confusing real life with an old war movie, which was Hitler’s followers’ mistake after attending certain operas? And, no, I’m not trying to minimize the Air Force’s atrocities, (and neither was Francis Ford Coppola) just trying to prevent some societal memory loss about our NATO allies on the Rhine.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Hitler was a vegetarian, did not smoke, refrained from alcohol intake and loved dogs. Does one have to eat big steaks, smoke havanas, get drunk on a regular basis and kick dogs to show one is not a nazi?

      • Clyde Jennings says:

        Cute. Jokes about Hitler are always tasteful and in style. How about not starting a world war that killed 60 million people (at a minimum), and not trying to exterminate a religious minority?

  • Simon A B says:

    Surely one does not gave to admire someone to acknowledge that they are influential…

  • Wagner Agnostic says:

    The worse thing in life is to take Wagner seriously, as Anna Russell explains.


  • B. Guerrero says:

    “Wagner divides his audience between those who want to go on afterwards to dinner, and the rest who want to invade Poland” . . . such silliness. If I invaded Poland, it would be for the beautiful women – and I’d be polite about it.

  • Doc Martin says:

    Recently, I came across a paper in BMJ by Göbel et al from the Headache clinic in Kiel. They claim Wagner’s migraine influenced the composition of his opera Siegfried. They discuss this on youtube.

    Attempting to correlate the condition of a composer with his compositions can be fraught with problems as is demonstrated by the interesting article of Goebel and colleagues. The title of this article is even in question as the original words of Mime are “Zwangfolle Plage! Műh ohne Zweck”, which could equally be translated as “Compulsive plague, trouble without end”, noting the use of Műh rather than the more commonly used German word for pain, namely Schmerz. This relates to the continuing trouble that Mime had in trying to forge together the shattered fragments of the sword Notung, as a result of the intervention of Wotan who shattered it to stop Siegmund beating Hunding in battle. Mime was a master craftsman, whose skill at the forge was without equal, yet he was incapable of forging the sword, hence his great frustration, and, indeed, trouble without end.

    The other problem is in taking Siegfried on its own, when the leitmotif has to be taken in the ring cycle as a whole. It is noted from the letter quoted in the article that Wagner had no trouble with composing Rheingold, but it is here that the themes first appear. The “migraine headache leitmotif” is the theme of the dwarf smiths in the underworld (Rheingold Scene 3), and is forever associated with smithing. Similarly the “migraine aura leitmotif” finds its first appearance in Rheingold with the appearance of Loge, who is the God of fire and lies as well as the patron off smiths. This appears again in Act 3 of Valkyrie when Wotan summons Loge to make the ring of fire which shall protect Brunhilde from only the bravest of the brave.
    Therefore, although the arguments put forward by Göbel and colleagues are interesting, I do not feel that the context of the leitmotifs in the Ring cycle as a whole can support their theory.

    It is very difficult to interpret music in the light of the situation of the composer unless there are clear signs that the work should be taken as autobiographical, such as in the first string quartet of Smetana, entitled “From my life”. The very title indicates the autobiographical nature, and includes in the final movement a very clear portrayal of his tinnitus.

    It is well known that Wagner suffered from an number of ailments throughout his life, including haemorrhoids, which in his day could only be alleviated by sitting in a shallow bath or basin of crushed ice. How piles influenced the composition of the Ring would be study worthy of the Nobel prize in itself.

    • Lancelot Spratt says:

      How Wagner’s Piles influenced the composition of the Ring?

      Well ironically one can buy an inflatable ring shaped cushion for folk suffering from them in most pharmacies. I gather they sell like hot cakes in Bayreuth!

  • Pedro says:

    I like good music. That’s why I like both Wagner and Verdi (and a few others too).

  • Alexander T says:

    Life too short for Wagner? I think not !!

  • John Borstlap says:

    I love going to concerts where they play Wagner, because you can then talk with your neighbour without being overheard.