Every year, as May 22nd approaches, I give the day some special thought. It is a mystical day for me, the birthday of the composer who, more than any other person living or dead, inspired me and shaped me into the person I am today (for better or worse).
The very name Richard Wagner tends to arouse strong emotions in people. Some equate him and his creations with Nazism (which is unfair) and with anti-Semitism (which is, to a large extent, fair). Others complain that his music is boring, over-long, over-wrought and “heavy.” On the opposite end, his works have inspired a fanatical loyalty that is literally unprecedented in all of art.
There are few if any other classical composers or artists to have entire cultural movements bearing their names. The word “Wagnerian” is applied to theater, music, paintings, literature, poetry, philosophy and even behaviour. Most major cities have Wagner Societies, groups of unashamed fanatics who meet monthly to hear lectures on their hero and exchange opinions. Infinite numbers of books have been written about him, and every year there are more and more. And fanatics like me snap them up with an unquenchable curiosity. No, there is truly nothing else quite like it.
So why all this fuss, all this controversy and emotional outpouring over a long-dead composer? The answer lies, of course, in his music. As Nietzsche sarcastically, yet not mistakenly, remarked, “There is nobody else but Wagner — everything else is mere music.”
Wagner’s music isn’t like that of other composers, and that is no exaggeration. It probes and explores areas of the psyche — “invades” is perhaps a better word — that were hitherto considered taboo to the artist. His music, for example, recreates the sexual act in all of its white-hot passion, while at other times it evinces feelings of awful pain, unbearable sorrow and pure ecstasy. Not everyone is comfortable with art that sneaks into such private realmss; many flee in near-horror. But once the effort is made and you understand what this art is all about, there is no turning back — Wagnerianism is for life.
Normally I would expound on this, my very favorite of all topics, for hours on end. But May 22nd this year was not only Wagner’s birthday, but also my first day at a new job in a new nation, so I’m a bit too worn out to go on about it. (You should probably be very grateful.) Let me just add that Wagner had the misfortune of being Hitler’s favorite artist and, perhaps unfairly, their names will forever and inextricably be intertwined. It’s a true shame, for without the Nazi nimbus, Wagner would be far more approachable than he is today. In order to join the fraternity, one must first overcome the historical association, and then the many challenges posed by the music itself — it is long, it does have boring moments (though not many), and it does require a good deal of concentration and effort.
Even so, to say that the rewards far outweigh the challenges does not say nearly enough. Wagner’s music has the power to move the loyal listener literally to previously unexplored emotional states. It is like nothing else, no other opiate or confection or what-have-you can even begin to compare….
A moment ago I apologized for not having the stamina to expound on this topic, and now I see I’ve expounded quite a bit. Let me end it here, and anyone who wants to know how to begin the journey toward becoming The Perfect Wagnerite can send me an email. Best.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.