Wagner: A Polemic Wunderkind

Master or monster, mos def a miserable model/mannequin.
Master or monster, mos def a miserable model/mannequin. // Creative Commons

Fraught with adultery, debt, fierce rivalry and intensely isolating narcissism, Wagner’s own story was nearly as operatic as those he created for the stage.

“Master or Monster: Richard Wagner at 200,” an exhibit in the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library in Sterling Library, celebrates the 200th anniversary of the German composer’s birth. The display includes letters, photographs, books and essays pertaining both to Wagner’s prolific career and to his scandalous personal life.

Many aficionados consider Wagner to be the father of modern classical music, as first conceived through his opera “Tristan und Isolde.” Wagner invented the revolutionary “music drama,” using leitmotif and “endless melody” to create cohesive, all-encompassing works of art rather than just collections of arias and recitatives. He was one of very few composers to write both the libretto and the score to each of his operas.

But the exhibit skates past Wagner’s artistic legacy and crashes headlong into the shrouded reality of his insufferable narcissism.

Of the five of Wagner’s letters on display, two are exceptionally ridiculous. In one, Wagner demands that a publishing house rectify a typo in a libretto of his (a substitution of “damned” [“verdammt”] for “cursed” [“verflucht”]). In another, he begs his American dentist to raise a million dollars to help the Wagner family relocate to the United States (which they never did).

“Master or Monster” derives its title from Deems Taylor’s radio talk for a 1936 concert of Wagner’s music by the New York Philharmonic. The talk, later published as “The Monster,” enumerates Wagner’s personal shortcomings — from his insatiable thirst for praise to his disproportionately large head. Wagner considered himself “Shakespeare, and Beethoven, and Plato, rolled into one,” Taylor says, ascribing to him “the emotional stability of a 6-year-old child.” Taylor also describes how Wagner poached his second wife from his best friend and most dedicated follower, and that even while seducing her, Wagner was searching for a wealthier woman to marry.

Conspicuously missing from the list of Wagner’s faults is his anti-Semitism.

In a less-than-subtle effort to compensate for those of Wagner’s modern admirers who have “sought to avoid or downplay his anti-Semitism,” the exhibit’s curators have chosen to address the issue “head on,” as archivist Richard Boursy writes in the exhibit’s introductory remarks. Many descriptions of correspondence and photographs on display conclude with a non sequitur noting how many years elapsed between their authors’ deaths and Hitler’s rise.

The exhibit’s most controversial object is Wagner’s essay, “Das Judenthum in der Musik,” in which he argues that Jews cannot rise to musical greatness because they possess no creativity — only imitative capacities. Later in his life, however, Wagner admitted that much of this ethnic prejudice was a product of his rivalry with Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, both of whom were much more successful than Wagner at the time.

A 1869 magazine caricature depicts the composer as a tiny, round man hammering a pointed object into a disembodied ear. Here, Wagner seems as acerbic and irritating as the other objects in this exhibit make him out to be. The cartoon bears a resemblance to Wagner’s most animated tenor, Elmer Fudd, whose rendition of “Kill the Wabbit” seems more sinister in the context of Wagner’s life than Fudd’s anti-lapin libretto could ever suggest.

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