Encountering Wagner

By Brian McCreath

Richard Wagner, one of history's most complex and confounding figures, becomes a little more understandable at his Swiss villa. But only a little.

It's hard to think of an individual who embodies more extreme contradictions than Richard Wagner. The dark side of Wagner generates a list of characteristics unleavened by their familiarity: an ego of gargantuan proportions; a flagrant home-wrecker; a financial manipulator usually one step (barely) ahead of his creditors; and, of course, an outspoken anti-Semite.

Hear Discovery Ensemble and conductor Courtney Lewis perform Siegfried-Idyll in our Fraser Performance Studio

The positive side starts with the music: revolutionary, seductive, majestic, overwhelming. In the context of his creations, how important is Wagner's dark side? It's the perennial question surrounding a person whose incredibly outlandish artistic vision was matched only by a series of equally outlandish life events.

My background as a trumpeter pre-disposes me to have some kind of affection for Wagner's music, I suppose; it's simply a thrill to play. But moving beyond those trumpet parts and into the operas themselves and then into the circumstances of Wagner's life has always been daunting to me. So having the chance to visit Tribschen, Wagner's Swiss home in exile, with a group of Classical New England listeners during our 2012 LearningTour was an opportunity to at least try to understand Wagner the person.

It helps - and quite a lot, in my opinion - that Tribschen is the setting for one of the more charming stories from Wagner's life. (I know. "Charming" and "Wagner" ... not easy to integrate.) It was at Tribschen in 1870 that Wagner wrote Siegfried-Idyll, a 20 minute, loving, musical birthday card to his wife Cosima, the woman he married earlier that year. (The story of their relationship takes us back to that bafflingly dark side, but let's not go there, at least for the moment...) It was apparently performed for the first time at the bottom of the stairs as Cosima's birthday morning wake-up call.

Since then, the Idyll has been inextricably linked to the place, and, indeed, the score in Wagner's manuscript holds pride of place in what is now a Wagner museum at the house. The Idyll even constituted the first music to be performed at the newly inaugurated Lucerne Festival in 1938 and has been programmed during the festival each year since.

Being there, at Tribschen, meant standing in the same room in which Wagner was a host for Liszt, Nietzsche, and King Ludwig II. It meant gazing across the lake to see the same view that Cosima saw from her bedroom window. Did it all make Wagner more understandable? Yes and no.

As at similar sites I've visited - St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach worked; the Budapest Opera House, where Mahler's Symphony No. 1 was premiered; Bertramka, the home where Mozart stayed while visiting Prague - I could picture Wagner's life in more detail. I could imagine him putting the finishing touches on Die Meistersinger. I was in awe of his regular treks in the nearby Alpine mountains. And that story of the premiere of the Idyll has far more specific surroundings than before.

But all those dark characteristics still seem just as dark.

There's never a necessity to relate personally to the creators of art. If the art has integrity, we relate to it, not the artist. In the case of Wagner, the picture of the creator is more detailed and colorful than ever before for me. Hearing and watching his music and operas will carry with it some meaningful added context after visiting one of his homes. Wagner remains an artist whose genius is indisputable. And he remains someone whose life, to me, is even more fascinatingly improbable than before.



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