May 22nd

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.

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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.

The Discussion: 3 Comments

it’s unfortunate that Wagner’s work are so long, and most people have only had the chance to hear extracts. and it’s usually the same extracts that recording companies have chosen to popularize over and over again. most people instantly recognize these exracts by now and, to my mind, they’re not appreciated anymore as much as they ought to be. cliche Wagner pieces you might say.
over the years i’ve appreciated listening to Mahler more than Wagner precisely because this treatment by record companies hasn’t occured with him. you can only appreciate Mahler by listening to his symphonies in their entirety. nobody (fortunately) listens to just extracts of his works. it’s probably unfair that i’ve appreciated Mahler much more than Wagner because of this. so far, i’ve never had the chance to listen to an entire work of Wagner’s.

March 4, 2005 @ 6:14 am | Comment

Sorry for the late reply (it only took me four years to get to this, somewhat longer than usual). I love Mahler. I am curently going through a love affair with the last movement of his 9th Symphony. Nothing as deep or stirring has ever been written.

Wagner and Mahler are closely tied, but are still in very different spheres. Along with its ethereal beauty and bewitching harmonies, Mahler’s music is loaded with a cynicism (sometimes bordering on mockery) that Wagner’s lacks. It’s striking similar to the cynicism of Heinrich Heine and Robert Schumann. Wagner was perhaps a bit too aloof, too self-important to engage in any of that. The result is a certain purity to his music that I love. He wasn’t playing games; it was all art for art’s sake.

Wagner’s musical decadence is more raw, and often more easy to relate to than Mahler’s because it is always related to a story and an ideal – not only a story, but to one dealing with archetypes to which we can all find some common ground. Yes, I adore Mahler, am totally in awe of his genius. But when you consider Wagner’s ability to touch nearly everybody, to write music so invasive that it reaches into your mind and heart and demands attention, even reverence…well, let’s just say that in the history of all art there’s only a handful who could achieve that. Once you get it, and I mean really take the time to understand when it was written and why, not to mention the technical audacities that so shocked the late-19th century musical world, only then can you experience Wagner the way he intended. And to do so is to ride with the gods straight up to Valhalla. There is nothing like it, and it’s totally substance-free.

Thanks for the comment and forgive the tardy response.

January 8, 2009 @ 12:20 am | Comment

When I listen to the great film music composers I hear the influence that composers like Mahler have. The music of Mahler paints images in my head.

February 23, 2009 @ 4:23 am | Comment

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