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Abstract Notions

Editor Christian Williams explores the nature of consciousness through art, culture, and spirituality.


See It Soon: Wagner and Me

by Christian Williams


Tags: Music, Documentaries, Recommendation, Christian Williams,

stephen fry wagner and me

British actor and writer Stephen Fry tries to reconcile his adoration for Richard Wagner’s music with the revolting worldview of the man himself in the 2010 documentary Wagner & Me. 

I’m not embarrassed to say that there are certain pieces of music that always move me to tears. They are, in my opinion, examples of transcendence; instances of human creativity that bypass my brain and tap directly into my soul. One of these pieces is the overture to Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, which celebrated its 168th birthday on Oct. 19:

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to this piece, but it gets me every time. And it’s not just this piece by Wagner; the same thing happens to me during the Prelude to Act 1 in Lohengrin and the Liebestod in Tristan und Isolde. In fact, I can’t think of another composer whose work emotionally moves me more than Wagner.

Which is why I’ve struggled with the fact that some of my favorite music—some of the most achingly beautiful music ever composed, in fact—was created by such a spiteful and hate-filled man as Wagner. It pains me to know that the same hand that penned this music also penned an influential essay titled Das Judentum in der Musik (Judaism in Music), through which he demeaned and belittled Jewish contributions to German music, and essentially laid the groundwork for the type of anti-Semitism that the Nazis would embrace as enthusiastically as they did Wagner’s music. So I know now this is how it will always be between Wagner and me: for as much as I love his music, I’ll always loathe the person behind it.

It’s a personal struggle that I’m not alone in dealing with. British actor and writer Stephen Fry adores Wagner’s music even more than I do, and does so despite the fact that he’s Jewish and lost family members in the Holocaust. It’s with this understanding that in the 2010 documentary Wagner & Me, we accompany Fry as he visits the legendary Bayreuth Festival, where he tries to reconcile his love for the music with the ugliness of the man. Along the way, Fry reinforces the notion that Wagner was a genius and the starting point for modern music. A particularly memorable scene focused on the legendary “Tristan chord” played on Wagner’s own piano is an especially poignant reminder of just how revolutionary his music was.

What I love about this film, though, is that Fry’s approach to the Wagner controversy couldn’t be more simple. He’s Jewish and has every right to despise everything about Wagner, but he chooses not to deprive himself of the beauty that he finds in is his music. In a way, it’s a special act of defiance. By confronting and acknowledging Wagner’s ugliness, Fry effectively decides that he won’t let the man spoil the music; music that has outlasted the man and now belongs to all of humankind.

The film was a breath of fresh air for me, as it helped me finally shed the guilt I’ve experienced regarding my love of Wagner’s music. It reminded me that before I knew about the man, I loved the music. And for both Fry and myself, that’s all that really matters.

Christian Williams is editor in chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com, and follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.