Creative geniuses as selfish — Richard Wagner version

Wagner, in a letter to Franz Liszt:

“If I am obliged to plunge once more into the waves of an artist’s imagination in order to find satisfaction in an imaginary world, I must at least help out my imagination and find means of encouraging my imaginative faculties. So I cannot live like a dog, I cannot sleep on straw and drink common gin: mine is an intensely irritable, acute and hugely voracious, yet uncommonly tender and delicate sensuality which, one way or another, must be flattered if I am to accomplish the cruelly difficult task of creating in my mind a non-existent world.”

Wagner was a man of many mistresses, fine food and drink, and the beautiful comforts of life. And his point in the quotation is that to create at the highest level, the Wagnerian creator needs high-level stimulation in all areas of life.

Wagner’s lifestyle is in contrast to another musical great’s, Rachmaninoff, who in this quotation implied a more ascetic focus on creating and creating alone that submerged other elements of life.

So given the high quality and quantity output of both Wagner and Rachmaninoff, should we conclude different strokes for different creative folks? Some artists are sensual, and some are ascetic; some surround themselves with luxuries, and some live plainly; some have active social lives, and some are loners?

Source: Quoted in Michael Tanner’s Wagner (Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 24.

Creative geniuses as selfish — Rachmaninoff version.
Creative geniuses as selfish — Maria Callas version.
Creative geniuses as selfish — Beethoven version.

4 thoughts on “Creative geniuses as selfish — Richard Wagner version

  • April 30, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    Richard Wagner was one of the most “multifaceted” geniuses of all time, and, somewhat justifiably, an egomaniac. He had to be. His brain had so many “wrinkles” that one thing led to another, as one note led to another, and one opera led to another. He recognized in “Tannheuser” the two sides of human desire, the pilgrim spirit of holiness and the Venusberg grotto of pure lust. Just like an ancient Greek, he knew there was a mean. However, he was thwarted by various commercializing composers like Meyerbeer (a kind of Cecil B. deMille) and developed an anti-Semitic attitude, although he had no prejudice against Jews as artists. He admired their musicality, but felt it echoed their strange Yiddish accent and their estrangement from the One True God. Wagner believed in the redeeming power of love, seen most profoundly in TRISTAN but also in MEISTERSINGER and THE FLYING DUTCHMAN. I daresay he regarded sex as an expression of love, rather than the reverse. He would have spat in Freud’s face. Wagner also believed in the communal nature of art, that peoples or ethnic groups could be united (almost religiously) through sharing art was were the ancient Greeks during their tragic festivals. Most of the “bad” stuff we hear about Wagner comes from his alleged status as “Hitler’s favorite composer” (in fact, Hitler preferred light opera, such as Lehar). The genius of Wagner contributed to the rise of the new “Germany” (Bismarck’s child) and addressed the Germanic inferiority complex (that they had produced no Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, and the like). He was sociable, but not with pom-pah-pah types, and loved art, music, drama, poetry and read widely in philosophy (mainly Schopenhauer, to whom he sent a score of GOTTERDAMMERuNG). They still refuse to play his music in Israel (to my knowledge). Scholars have dismissed the notion that Wagner was supposedly half-Jewish, but his paternity is uncertain. Either he was the son of a Herr Wagner, or, his mother’s second husband, Ludwig Geyer. It is said he composed TRISTAN only after feeling the silk of his merchant-host, Otto von Wesendonk. (Mathilde Wesendonk was his inspiration for Isolde, and they were intimate. She lovingly inked out his pencil scores and gave him several poems, which he set to music (WESENDONK LIEDER). He changed opera forever, and composed with such grandeloquence that people who like Donizetti or Mozart are embarrassed by his éclat. Wagner is one of the few composers who had a philosophy and whose music is improved by the listener’s knowing that philosophy. Yet, conductors like Toscanini, who did not like Wagner’s views, adored his music. In Paris during his “era” people would ask one another, as a social qualifier, “Etes vows Wangerien?” Other admirers of Wagner were Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Bruckner, and a host of minor composers, even the poet T.S. Eliot. More books have been written on Wagner than any other composer. He did find marital stability with Cosima (Liszt) von Bulow, although he fooled around with his chorus girls. When you see Cosima’s picture you’ll understand why. It helps to be fluent in German to appreciate “Tricky Dick” Wagner. It helps to be “Nordic” or Northern European. Moreover, all the great Wagnerian singers are Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, and their like. An Italian tenor singing PARSIFAL would be laughed off the stage. If you like Wagner, you ain’t no Nazi, but if you don’t like him, you’re also not tone-deaf. Those who can’t handle the operas should try the “Siegfried Idyll.” I’d also recommend the Metropolitan Opera theatre broadcasts in HD. If you survive that (Die WALKUERE lasted six hours!) you have been “baptized.” Be warned, Wagner can sweep you away. Women are often sexually aroused by his music. It is full of “love”, no joke. But it can help your marriage immeasurably!


  • May 5, 2012 at 6:11 am

    To readers of my “essay” above, please forgive the typos. I wrote quickly, enthused by the subject. Professor Hicks corrected the most obvious boo-boo. “Silk” for “slim”. As for Schopenhauer, Mr. Hicks’ link is worth reading, and accurate. Wagner was inspired by the philosopher, and Wagner was a second-rate poet, although as a librettist, he was first-rate. To prove my point you have only to read the libretti of William S. Gilbert, of Gilbert & Sullivan, which are available on Gutenberg download. Or, say to yourself, “Do-re-mi, do, a deer a female deer” without Rodgers music. Or, “raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens…” Hammerstein was not a great poet either. In another vein, Larry Hart can be read with amusement, but with Rodgers’ music, the gems lilluminate
    In a similar vein, the ROMANTIC MANIFESTO by Ayn Rand is a derivative essay most helpful to a composer or writer. Art is recreative and it is moral, almost de facto moral. No matter how clever, SWEENY TODD is a disgusting play. Rand specifies 4 main ingredients, THEME, STYLE (Sense of Life), PLOT and CHARACTER. The best writers, in my view, derive plot from character, that is, the action comes from who and what they are. Is that not the hardest part of writing a novel?
    Wagner was motivated by poetry, philosophy, religion and “art”. He was a first rate music critic (like Berlioz, from whom Wagner learned much about orchestration). However, Wagner is known for his many “extreme” views, as expressed in JUDENTUM IN MUSIK. Everyone forgets that he praises Mendelssohn highly in this essay. But Wagner keeps the ethnic emphasis alive in his essay. Many readers fail to appreciate that various cultures have different tone-rows or scales which please them, but fall short of worldly applause. The Asiatic ear delights in pent atones, and, so, interestingly, does the Appalachian hillbilly (“I gave my love a cherry”)(“Down in the valley, valley so low”) Please see some Wikipedia article on scales. Western music is descended from the Greek ‘modes’, like the Doric, Ionic, Lydian. The genius of Bach in the WELL TEMPERED KLAVIER essentially explores all the possibilities of “diatonic” music. We have a twelve-tone system (which Arnold Schoenberg used in a perverted and dogmatic formula for “new” music).. That Schopenhauer liked Rossini and Mozart is no surprise : Rossini is the pupil of Mozart. Mozart is the greatest music genius of whom we have any knowledge. The famous conductor (and friend of Wagner) was asked, “Who is the greatest composer you know?” and he replied, “You mean, BESIDES MOZART?” But the settings of the Italian libretti of Lorenzo da Ponte by Mozart are Austro-Germanic. There is no wailing Mediterranean tenor. Rossini’s are similar restrained. For grand Italian opera, one must have Verdi, but for “Eye-talian” opera that moves the heart, Puccini is the grand master.

    In essence, the genius of Richard Wagner was that of a poet and composer who had learned much from Beethoven and Mozart, who deplored Italian mamma-mia stuff, and who thought music could convey the immensity of LOVE and the tragedy of its BRIEF course. The moral side of Wagner is his denouncing of materialism (the Rhine gold which is turned into a power amulet, the Ring) in favor of love pure and simple, the lump of gold glowing at the bottom of the Rhine, celebrated by the Rhine maidens, and destroyed by Alberich’s perverse lust for their flesh and their innocent possession, the Rhine gold.

    It is like condemning coarse sexual desire in favor of monogamous bliss. Everyone who knows anything of the subject knows, married sex is THE BEST.


  • May 5, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    @Stephen Dahl:
    Enjoying your distinctive and provocative mini-essays on musical history and criticism.

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