Richard Wagner, a great composer and innovator in music has a really bad reputation. I consider people’s judgements wrong and would like to examine the man with a clean slate only in terms of the possibility of his psychopathy. We will look at both the man and his creations.
The main charges made by biographers and critics that stand out in any reading about the man are antisemitism, habit of incurring debts, and philandering.
The most disturbing charge, that of antisemitism, doesn’t impinge on the question of psychopathy. A psychopath can be a bigot or thoroughly open minded. But I do have a few words to say on his behalf in this area if only to dispose of it. Critics point mostly to an essay he wrote called Judaism in Music which I have read and didn’t really find offensive. The main thesis is that music comes from deep within a culture with its roots in the soil and the language of a people. Since Jews don’t have this kind of background, they can’t exemplify the music of Germany the way someone who does have these roots could do. The essay was largely motivated by Wagner’s resentment of two Jewish composers of his time, Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer who had been enjoying a level of success Wagner considered undeserved. Despite his intellectual views, Wagner had Jewish friends and worked professionally with some Jewish musicians. The bitch of the thing is that his second wife, Cosima, was antisemitic which was bad enough. But Hitler happened to be a huge fan of Wagner and his works have been linked with Hitler ever since the Third Reich. I am reminded of how Taylor Swift is being accused of racism and white supremacy due to the fact that the alt-right has taken her on as their darling. I wish to emphasize here and now that the fact that someone likes the works of an artist should not impugn the reputation of the artist. Enough said.
I’ve been a fan of Wagner since college days. Or, I guess one isn’t supposed to use the word “fan” for someone in the classical tradition. I’m an admirer of Wagner. There. That sounds a lot more dignified. Wagner’s music is in the classical tradition, of course, but it’s really romantic as opposed to classical. Beethoven and Mozart are classical. Anyway, my sister and I would have heated arguments about Wagner’s propensity to get into debt. She was all judgie about it but I didn’t give a rat’s ass whether Wagner paid back his debts. He was a great man and he gave the world far more value than the monetary worth of his debts. Once he said, “They’ll be building statues to my memory but if I try to help myself now…” (quote from memory, not word for word). But here’s a trait that does relate to psychopathy. Psychopaths are said to be irresponsible and have a parasitic lifestyle.
The third charge, that he was a philanderer, is based on the fact that he was married twice and had a famous affair with a beautiful woman named Mathilda Wesendonck. She was married as was his second wife before he took her away from her husband, himself an admirer and friend. Wagner’s behavior was pretty mild by modern standards. Still in all, he was no pillar of conventional family values.
Wagner was very intense. He fully recognized his own genius. Was he grandiose? I would say so. Now let’s move on to his work. While he is considered a composer of opera, he called his works Music Dramas. Operas were loose structured upon which songs, or arias, could be hung. Wagner’s Music Dramas were Gesamtkunstwerken. That means, the music, the story, the lyrics were created as a unified whole. Wagner believed music comes from language. The rhythm of the speech gave birth to the music. He didn’t write arias, songs. His Music Dramas had an endless melody. It was an organic whole.
Der Ring des Nibelungen is a series of four separate works that tell the story of the birth and demise of the world. Whole books can (and are) written about the Ring. I’m limiting myself to discussing it in terms of psychopathy. The hero of the Ring is a young upstart named Siegfried. The gods have erred and brought the curse of gold upon the world. Only Siegfried could rid the world of that curse. Wotan deliberately created a race of heroes from which Siegfried could spring forth. However, he was karmically unable to fix things since he had brought the situation about. That reasoning is very un-psychopathic since he took full responsibility for his sins and had real remorse. Now Siegfried, a free spirit with no karmic ties to Wotan, was guiltless and able to act. One of the most emphasized qualities of Siegfried was that he was fearless. He couldn’t even conceive of what fear might feel like. When the wicked Mime tried to teach Siegfried fear, he describes the feelings that he, Mime, experience. But Siegfried thinks it’s a marvelous new experience. He says, “gern begehr ich das Bangen, sehnend verlangt mich der Lust!” (“I would gladly feel this ‘fear.’ I yearn for that pleasure.”) Because of his fearlessness, Siegfried is a great hero. He is light and joyful.
Cunning manipulativeness also come into play in this work. Hagen and Alberich con a family into using Siegfried to fulfill their own ambitions. A Tarnhelm or headpiece has the power to transform the appearance of the wearer into any form desired. Siegfried wears the Tarnhelm and penetrates a wall of fire in order to win for Gunther the hand of Brunnhilde who is really Siegfried’s woman. They have first given Siegfried a potion that makes him forget all about her and fall in love with Gutrune, Gunther’s sister. The Tarnhelm is kind of like a mask behind which the wearer hides his true intentions. Of course, the cunning is seen as an evil thing, not something Wagner would identify with.
In looking at Wagner’s life and work as a whole, I don’t see enough clear evidence of psychopathy. He probably had some psychopathic features. He worked ruthlessly towards his goals. He was grandiose and fearless. But there is not enough to clearly answer the titled question with a yes.