Wagner Guilt

Below is another guest contribution from Tanner Cassidy, author of last month’s post on issues of programming in classical music. Here, Tanner addresses his conflicting relationship with Wagner, his music, and his complex legacy.

Tanner Cassidy

I have suffered tremendous loss in a time of tremendous loss. At the end of a string of announced cancellations, the Lyric Opera of Chicago has canceled their production of the Ring Cycle. Plane tickets, years of payments, and careful planning it seems were all for not. Due to the way of the world right now, the creeping paranoia of cancellation has been brewing for some time, but the news finally arriving initially felt like I was finally beginning to accept this impending grief as reality.

However, even admitting this loss to any sort of public causes consternation to well up in my chest. I am ashamed of my proclivity for Wagner. Despite my best efforts, I am not comfortable with my choice of favorite composer. To even mention him as my favorite seems wrong, but before perhaps stating the obvious, I would like to explain the origin of this taste. 

I do not come from a musical family. I do not come from a well-off family. To be blunt, I do not come from a very cultured family. I hold no embitterment towards this, as how could I? It would be unfair to do such injustice to my parents, and they provided for me in ways that weren’t musical in nature. However, this meant I gleaned all of my musical taste from my middle and high school wind ensembles. A saxophone player, the world of orchestral and especially vocal music was foreign to me, and my mediocre schools lead to a lack of any variety or depth in repertoire. There was an exception that stuck out to me in my sophomore year of high school, however. My band director passed out Lucien Cailliet’s transcription of “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” from Lohengrin. We rehearsed, did a fair job at the concert, and put it away. The effect of this piece, however, took hold. I found in this piece my first taste of what orchestral and classical music could bring. It deepened the uncertain love of music I had at the time, and opened up the world of opera and chromaticism. In fact, the first theory paper I ever wrote was on this piece that I so treasured, and to this day it serves as a means of calming me down when I feel stressed. 

What I did not know was what this rabbit hole would lead me to. I was enamored by the music—the lush orchestration, shifting harmonies, beautiful motives, etc. What I did not pay attention to (initially) was the plot, the libretto, the context, or even the piece’s placement within Lohengrin. I found these things later, of course, but they were not a part of what attracted me in the first place. When I found other Wagner instrumental excerpts I experienced similar aesthetic delight. It was around this time that I discovered a smudge on the mental image of this music. When looking up more works by this strange German man, a biography began to appear. First, at a trickle, some of the more nefarious details of his life came to be. These were initially shallow, such as his habit for extramarital affairs and his reputation at the podium. However, at the moment, I had no cause for alarm. I knew next to nothing of music history, and he seemed at first glance as flawed as any other.

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