Over the past several decades, in virtually everything written about Wagner (except, bless them, Wikipedia), there is a caveat about his character, no matter what the subject matter. Usually the caveat comes at the very beginning. Here is a example, par for the course unfortunately, from a book called Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works by Phil Goulding. Now, the book is intended for the general audience and is not academic in nature. This is the beginning of the generally positive review of Wagner's music (ranked 4th on his list by the way):
Richard Wagner was a dreadful human being. He was a liar, a cheat, a wife-stealer, a home-wrecker, and a betrayer of friends. He was anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-French. He was immoral and dis-honorable. No one in music had a bigger ego, and he properly belongs high on the list of the World's Most Unpleasant men.
Or here is another one from another introductory book, Opera for Dummies by David Pogue and Scott Speck :
How do you assess a person like Richard Wagner? He was an arrogant, dishonest, jealous, hypocritical, racist, sexist, and passionately anti-Semitic human being.
Ok, just one more from The Rough Guide to Opera by Matthew Boyden and Nick Kimberley (who to their credit start with some positive things unlike the latter two, but their attacks are the most vicious and unhinged):
By most accounts, the man who did all this was a monster. Analyzing Wagner from a safe distance in 1872, Theodor Puschmann, a Munich psychiatrist, concluded that the composer suffered from “chronic megalomania, paranoia... and moral derangement.” He was a vicious racist and an infamous womanizer, fathering countless illegitimate children. He tyrannized his first wife then stole another man's wife, finding in her an echo of his limitless self-adoration (he habitually referred to himself in the third person). He was an animal-loving vegetarian (like Hitler), but behaved abominably to anyone who treated him with less than unquestioning devotion, and he seemed oblivious to the welfare of his family, cultivating an obsession for silks and other luxuries that kept them in perpetual debt.
What is a reader, new to opera, who is glancing through these books to think? Well, obviously, I think I will pass on this guy. And thus, the audience for Wagner is greatly suppressed from what his music deserves, truly. This sort of ad hominem attack of Wagner is ubiquitous. I've checked out dozens of introductory music books, looking for ones that didn't do this, and they are very rare.
Try it yourself in a bookstore sometime. I could give further, multiple examples, but it seems silly as the usual attacks are supplied in the three examples set forth above. Though tempted to rebut the absolute falsehoods here, I need to be patient and make the case more systematically. Which I will do, as the Wicked Witch of the West said, “all in good time.”
Of course, none of the books supply any footnotes to prove—or at least support in any way— their multi-front attacks. They just assert it. You don't have to prove the case because, the assumption is, this stuff must have come from somewhere and therefore must be true. Except that much of it is clearly untrue or twisted beyond recognition (the Rough Guide stuff is particularly nuts if you know the true story). Some, yes, is partially true and some, while true, deserves to be put in context and is much more complicated, compelling and interesting than these sentences imply. It is impossible to counter this character assassination quickly. They dump this crap all over him, and it will take quite a bit of work to clean it up.
What is missing with these mindless, lazy catalogs of faults is the real human being—only a botched caricature remains. Lost to history is any real sense of his personality and his humanity, or that he even had good traits at all (beyond musical genius, which everyone acknowledges). Let me do a full reverse and just give you an introductory paragraph with only mentioning things I consider positive (and all this is true, unlike some of the items in the quotes above):
Wagner was a well-read intellectual, profoundly interested in the world of ideas and the arts. Beyond being a composer, he was an activist, an author of multiple essays and books, an influential conductor and theatrical director. He was a passionate and charismatic man, with extraordinary vitality. Wagner was fun-loving and possessed a keen sense of humor, particularly reveling in word play and black humor. His tremendous love of nature led to an on-going concern for the degradation of the environment brought about through the excesses of capitalism, which was one of the most important themes of his monumental work, Der Ring des Nibelungen. He loved animals and crusaded against their mistreatment throughout his life. His greatest gift to humanity, no doubt, is that he was a focused and organized visionary; a man, beyond all else, true to himself and his ideals, and willing to risk all—fame and fortune, health and potential wealth—for his beliefs and his art.
(I drew this summary portrait from many sources but see this, pages 13-15, 23-24, 56-64, 76, 186-190, 263-237; this, pages 79, 85, 86, 138-143; and this.)
I do want to make this general point now: if you read from primary sources (his and others’ letters to or about him, his writings, contemporaries writing about him), Wagner comes off so much better, so much more likable and real, and so much more well-rounded than in virtually all short accounts, even the relatively fair ones (of which the Wikipedia entry is the only example I have found). This monster they have constructed is just not the authentic person. If you want to know the real guy, there is a great book that does that called Wagner Remembered (also cited above). It is excerpts from letters or memoires from a number people who knew or met him, the gamut of voices runs from Queen Victoria to one of Wagner servants. You get a real idea of his strengths and his weaknesses like no where else.
Of course, many people do not care at all about any composer’s character when they listen to his or her music. It’s irrelevant to them. In most cases, I share that feeling. But with Wagner, I do think it is relevant. First, many people do not divorce his character from his music. If I say I like Wagner, they often respond with something inane like this, “How can you like him? Wasn’t he a Nazi?” But if I say, “I love Richard Rogers' music” no one says, “but wasn’t he a rather cold man who was a depressed alcoholic and often unfaithful to his wife?” (All of that was true but I really don't care, of course.) The rules are different for Wagner, so the character question must be addressed.
A significant reason that the rules are different for Wagner is that he was different from other composers, and so there is some logic that he be treated differently. For Wagner, his music was political. He absolutely believed that art should be—his art was intended to be— a means for social change, setting down his views in a series of essays such as Art and Revolution, Opera and Drama, and The Artwork of the Future. His art sprang from his deeply held convictions, and it is virtually impossible to divide his character from his work. So, he himself invited the character discussion.
Consider this the introduction to the section of this blog about his character. I will be covering the good, the bad and the ugly of Wagner’s temperament and political views in a number of subsequent posts. Plus, I will be addressing how Wagner’s reputation got into the fix it is. I think the next post will be on the first thing you would notice if you were at a cocktail party with him: his remarkable megalomania.