Wagner and the animals

Don’t mistake me for an apologist for  Richard Wagner.  I am merely seeking balance.

It’s the birthday of Wagner: the composer, the dramaturg, the musician, the pamphleteer, the communist, the racist… Yes, all of those and more.

Was he also perhaps suffering from Asperger’s?  I say that purely from a kind of intuition.  I know two things about Wagner with certainty, leading me to this additional speculation:

  1. Wagner spent a big part of his life in exile, running from the law,  creditors….  That doesn’t mean he was naturally estranged from humanity, but it also suggests he was happy living on the edge, outside of the mainstream.
  2. Wagner had a special love for animals.  I’d go so far as to say that whenever he writes a scene involving an animal, the music is usually among the high-points of that opera.  If i didn’t know better i’d say Wagner likes animals more than people.

Maybe it’s all wrong.  But I’m putting it out there in context with the hate-fest that is the normal day-t0-day discourse about Richard Wagner, a man reviled for his anti-semitism.  Liking his music is almost something to apologize for.  Would it change our outlook if we were to discover that RW were pathologically estranged from people, that he has an excuse, owing to a disability?  Perhaps.

So on his Bicentennial, I am posting a series of examples of Wagner’s extraordinary love for the creatures in the natural world.  Here’s a quick list of moments that I turn to, in order of their composition:

  • Lohengrin: a swan pulls a boat carrying the knight of the grail, both upon his first and last appearances 
  • Das Rheingold: as Alberich shows off for his guests he turns himself into first a dragon, and then a toad
  • Die Walküre: the immortals come with immortal live-stock (Wotan and the Valkyries on flying horses, Fricka in a cart pulled by a ram).
  • Siegfried: a bear appears in the first few minutes, birds (one of whom talks) in later acts, and we hear tell of other creatures from the hero.
  • Die Götterdämmerung: Brünnhilde’s immortal horse became mortal when his mistress became mortal (in the previous opera).  At the end of this one she sings first to her father’s ravens (announcing the end of things), then directly to the horse moments before she mounts him and rides into Siegfried’s pyre.
  • Parsifal: a swan is again at the centre of things, shot by the hero upon his first appearance, and the first in a series of lessons in compassion.    

The most noteworthy example i know of is not operatic.  Wagner wrote a story during his first visit to Paris.  While it’s fiction, i can’t help feeling his identification at a time when he was himself impoverished.  The person in this story that seems to be Wagner’s alter-ego seems to have a sense of connection to animals, and leaves me feeling a little uncomfortable.  Do animals prefer some people over others?  It’s an odd question, and a nice counterpart to the one i put to you: does Wagner like animals better than people?

I can’t help thinking that Wagner seems happier with animals than humans.  His tales and his music rarely venture into places or situations that resemble normal life.  It’s all reified philosophy & passion, and doesn’t feel very real to me.

If only his pets could talk.

This entry was posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Personal ruminations & essays and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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