Wagner, a man who knew what he wanted and how to get it, has always been the most controversial figure on the musical scene. From his time to ours, the man and his music have attracted as many fervent detractors as devoted disciples, and it is little surprise that he has inspired more written words – both for and against – than almost any other human being in history.
He was a titanic genius or a boorish anti-semite, or both, depending on point-of-view. The predicament of the great conductor, Hans von Bülow, sums up part of the Wagnerian argument which raged in the nineteenth century. Von Bülow, a fervent supporter of Wagner’s art (but presumably not of his morals) conducted the first performance of the composer’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg only months before his own wife, Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt, left him to live with Wagner.
The affair had been public for some time, not least to von Bülow, who worshipped Wagner almost as a god. But now Wagner’s powerful and pathologically generous patron, the unhinged King Ludwig II of Bavaria and the mighty Liszt himself were less than happy. And did Wagner care? Not a bit. Everything and everybody were servants to what he called his all-encomapassing art.
One of the strangest aspects of Wagner’s hold over people and events was that even his greatest foes were overwhelmed and eventually won over by the man himself. Though discussion still rages over Wagner the man, the music must tell its own story. Listen to the majestic, stirring Prelude to Act 1 from Die Meistersinger and the sublime, touching portrait of his most endearing character, Hans Sachs: poet, philosopher and cobbler, in the Prelude to Act 3 of the same work.
Wagner: Monster? Magician? Both? Two things are certain: the music will continue to be played with the same fierce commitment as the arguments, pro and contra, are rehearsed.