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Wagner Bicentennial Symposium  
The Monster

Wagner_Caricature_251,720 words

Portuguese translation here

He was an undersized little man, with a head too big for his body — a sickly little man. His nerves were bad. He had skin trouble. It was agony for him to wear anything next to his skin coarser than silk. And he had delusions of grandeur. 

He was a monster of conceit. Never for one minute did he look at the world or at people, except in relation to himself. He was not only the most important person in the world, to himself; in his own eyes he was the only person who existed. He believed himself to be one of the greatest dramatists in the world, one of the greatest thinkers, and one of the greatest composers. To hear him talk, he was Shakespeare, and Beethoven, and Plato, rolled into one. And you would have had no difficulty in hearing him talk. He was one of the most exhausting conversationalists that ever lived. An evening with him was an evening spent in listening to a monologue. Sometimes he was brilliant; sometimes he was maddeningly tiresome. But whether he was being brilliant or dull, he had one sole topic of conversation: himself. What he thought and what he did.

Wagner_Caricature_25He had a mania for being in the right. The slightest hint of disagreement, from anyone, on the most trivial point, was enough to set him off on a harangue that might last for hours, in which he proved himself right in so many ways, and with such exhausting volubility, that in the end his hearer, stunned and deafened, would agree with him, for the sake of peace.

It never occurred to him that he and his doing were not of the most intense and fascinating interest to anyone with whom he came in contact. He had theories about almost any subject under the sun, including vegetarianism, the drama, politics, and music; and in support of these theories he wrote pamphlets, letters, books . . . thousands upon thousands of words, hundreds and hundreds of pages. He not only wrote these things, and published them — usually at somebody else’s expense — but he would sit and read them aloud, for hours, to his friends and his family.


Richard Wagner: Father of Dragons

He wrote operas; and no sooner did he have the synopsis of a story, but he would invite — or rather summon — a crowd of his friends to his house and read it aloud to them. Not for criticism. For applause. When the complete poem was written, the friends had to come again, and hear that read aloud. Then he would publish the poem, sometimes years before the music that went with it was written. He played the piano like a composer, in the worst sense of what that implies, and he would sit down at the piano before parties that included some of the finest pianists of his time, and play for them, by the hour, his own music, needless to say. He had a composer’s voice. And he would invite eminent vocalists to his house, and sing them his operas, taking all the parts.

He had the emotional stability of a six-year-old child. When he felt out of sorts, he would rave and stamp, or sink into suicidal gloom and talk darkly of going to the East to end his days as a Buddhist monk. Ten minutes later, when something pleased him, he would rush out of doors and run around the garden, or jump up and down on the sofa, or stand on his head. He could be griefstricken over the death of a pet dog, and he could be callous and heartless to a degree that would have made a Roman emperor shudder.

Wagner_Caricature_17_ParisHe was almost innocent of any sense of responsibility. Not only did he seem incapable of supporting himself, but it never occurred to him that he was under any obligation to do so. He was convinced that the world owed him a living. In support of this belief, he borrowed money from everybody who was good for a loan — men, women, friends, or strangers. He wrote begging letters by the score, sometimes groveling without shame, at others loftily offering his intended benefactor the privilege of contributing to his support, and being mortally offended if the recipient declined the honor. I have found no record of his ever paying or repayjng money to anyone who did not have a legal claim upon it.

What money he could lay his hands on he spent like an Indian rajah. The mere prospect of a performance of one of his operas was enough to set him to running up bills amounting to ten times the amount of his prospective royalties. On an income that would reduce a more scrupulous man to doing his own laundry, he would keep two servants. Without enough money in his pocket to pay his rent, he would have the walls and ceiling of his study lined with pink silk. No one will ever know — certainly he never knew — how much money he owed. We do know that his greatest benefactor gave him $6,000 to pay the most pressing of his debts in one city, and a year later had to give him $16,000 to enable him to live in another city without being thrown into jail for debt.

Wagner_Caricature_6He was equally unscrupulous in other ways. An endless procession of women marches through his life. His first wife spent twenty years enduring and forgiving his infidelities. His second wife had been the wife of his most devoted friend and admirer, from whom he stole her. And even while he was trying to persuade her to leave her first husband he was writing to a friend to inquire whether he could suggest some wealthy woman — any wealthy woman — whom he could marry for her money.

He was completely selfish in his other personal relationships. His liking for his friends was measured solely by the completeness of their devotion to him, or by their usefulness to him, whether financial or artistic. The minute they failed him — even by so much as refusing a dinner invitation — or began to lessen in usefulness, he cast them off without a second thought. At the end of his life he had exactly one friend left whom he had known even in middle age.

Wagner_Caricature_3He had a genius for making enemies. He would insult a man who disagreed with him about the weather. He would pull endless wires in order to meet some man who admired his work, and was able and anxious to be of use to him — and would proceed to make a mortal enemy of him with some idiotic and wholly uncalled-for exhibition of arrogance and bad manners. A character in one of his operas was a caricature of one of the most powerful music critics of his day. Not content with burlesquing him, he invited the critic to his house and read him the libretto aloud in front of his friends.

The name of this monster was Richard Wagner. Everything that I have said about him you can find on record — in newspapers, in police reports, in the testimony of people who knew him, in his own letters, between the lines of his autobiography. And the curious thing about this record is that it doesn’t matter in the least.

Wagner_Caricature_5Because this undersized, sickly, disagreeable, fascinating little man was right all the time. The joke was on us. He was one of the world’s great dramatists; he was a great thinker; he was one of the most stupendous musical geniuses that, up to now, the world has ever seen. The world did owe him a living. People couldn’t know those things at the time, I suppose; and yet to us, who know his music, it does seem as though they should have known. What if he did talk about himself all the time? If he had talked about himself for twenty-four hours every day for the span of his life he would not have uttered half the number of words that other men have spoken and written about him since his death.

When you consider what he wrote-thirteen operas and music dramas, eleven of them still holding the stage, eight of them unquestionably worth ranking among the world’s great musico-dramatic masterpieces — when you listen to what he wrote, the debts and heartaches that people had to endure from him don’t seem much of a price. Eduard Hanslick, the critic whom he caricatured in Die Meistersinger and who hated him ever after, now lives only because he was caricatured in Die Meistersinger. The women whose hearts he broke are long since dead; and the man who could never love anyone but himself has made them deathless atonement, I think, with Tristan und Isolde. Think of the luxury with which for a time, at least, fate rewarded Napoleon, the man who ruined France and looted Europe; and then perhaps you will agree that a few thousand dollars’ worth of debts were not too heavy a price to pay for the Ring trilogy.

Richard Wagner caricature about Tannhuser critics.What if he was faithless to his friends and to his wives? He had one mistress to whom be was faithful to the day of his death: Music. Not for a single moment did he ever compromise with what be believed, with what he dreamed. There is not a line of his music that could have been conceived by a little mind. Even when he is dull, or downright bad, he is dull in the grand manner. There is greatness about his worst mistakes. Listening to his music, one does not forgive him for what be may or may not have been. It is not a matter of forgiveness. It is a matter of being dumb with wonder that his poor brain and body didn’t burst under the torment of the demon of creative energy that lived inside him, struggling, clawing, scratching to be released; tearing, shrieking at him to write the music that was in him. The miracle is that what he did in the little space of seventy years could have been done at all, even by a great genius. Is it any wonder that he had no time to be a man?

Source: Deems Taylor, Of Men and Music (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1937).


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  1. Petronius
    Posted May 16, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Seems like Wagner suffered from the megalomaniacal delusion that he was Wagner.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted May 16, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      Good one!

  2. rhondda
    Posted May 16, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Women are always attracted to these wonderfully archetypal men whose daimon is wholly involved in their creative endeavors. They usually end up as their managers or secretaries or gatekeepers or causal lovers. For the naive, it can be devastating. So poor Cosima gets labelled a prude, but I bet he could not do what he did without her.
    I once had this discussion with a woman who was a forester. She disdained all artists who used women as their muse and then abused them. I asked her ” do you mean that we are to dismiss all great works of art because the guy was a jerk in relationships? ” Her answer was yes. Oh yes, she wanted to blend science and the humanities. I do not tell her that metaphysics is very different from science. Let sleeping dogs lie.

  3. Brian
    Posted May 16, 2013 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed reading that. Thank you.

  4. renzo
    Posted February 10, 2016 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    I loved it

  5. Gary Kaplan
    Posted March 7, 2020 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    Wagner was, indeed, a nasty piece of work. As a Jew, I have always had something of a guilty conscience because of my love of his music. He was, after all, among his other attributes, a virulent anti-Semite. Nevertheless, as Mr. Taylor has written in his brilliant article, was all this nastiness, all this self-absorption, too great a price to pay for the musical legacy he bequeathed us?

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