Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) – The greatest composer after Beethoven and Bach. He is also probably the most misunderstood composer who ever lived. In seeking opinions either about the man or his music, usually you will find either pure adulation, or absolute disgust. Even when he lived, Wagner was hated by a great many people, the object of scorn and ridicule, mostly because of what had been written about him.
My Personal Experience
A friend who knew about my interest in positive music came to visit me one day in 1974. He came to tell me about some music that he had recently discovered, composed by Richard Wagner. He felt that I might be interested in knowing about it if I hadn’t already discovered it myself. He told me that he had heard some orchestral music from Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, but he didn’t know where in the opera it appeared. He said that it described in music, the holy grail descending to man from heaven.
My first thought was that this was probably something that my friend had misunderstood. I held the belief that Wagner was an evil, over-the-top egomaniac who had abused his friends, lied to everyone, and had composed only bombastic and melodramatic operas that were boring and too long. The grail, however, as I understood it, was a very spiritual mystery that only those who had reached high states of spiritual consciousness could comprehend.
I decided to find out for myself whether nor not what my friend had told me was true.
Off I went to the public library, and there I checked out a record album containing selections from Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. I arrived back home, record in hand. Quickly I placed it on my turntable, turned up the volume, and then voila, I began hearing music that held me spellbound, almost breathless. It was the prelude to the opera itself. I wanted to find out more about the connection of this amazingly pure angelic music to the descent of the holy grail. After some research, I found a description of this prelude written by the great French poet Charles Baudelaire. This is an English translation:
From the very first bars the soul of the pious wanderer who is awaiting the holy vessel plunges into an infinity of space. Little by little, there forms before his eyes a strange vision that takes a body and a face. The vision becomes clearer, and the miraculous host of angels passes before him, baring the holy cup in their midst. The sacred procession draws nearer. The heart of the elect of God gradually stirs. It swells, it expands, ineffable yearnings awaken within him. He yields to a growing feeling of bliss as the radiant vision comes ever closer, and when at last the Holy Grail itself appears in the midst of the secret procession, he is swallowed up in a ecstasy of adoration, as if the whole world had suddenly disappeared.
Meanwhile the Holy Grail pours its blessings upon the saint in prayer, consecrating him a knight. Then the burning flames gradually mitigate their brilliance; in holy joy, the angelic host smiling upon the earth that they are leaving, returns to the heavenly heights. They have left the Holy Grail in the care of pure man, into whose hearts the divine essence has flowed, and the majestic company vanishes into the infinities of space in the same way that it first appeared.
From “Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris” by Charles Baudelaire – April 8,1861
Wagner Enters My Quest
Another door was now opening for me in my quest for the realities of harmony, and the nature of spiritual music.
This first concept that I had to challenge, after listening to this amazing music, was the one that I had adopted from the prejudices of other people: friends, musicians, teachers and writers, the idea of The Evil Wagner.
I remembered the author Corinne Heline, from whose books I had gained my understanding of music as an agent of healing and upliftment, and from whom I had first gained the idea of music for a new age – an age of enlightenment and spirituality – and most importantly, from whom I had gained the key to understanding the duochord, the name I had given to by discovery of the root chord of negative music. It was Corrine Heline who had started me on my journey eight years before. I remembered that she had written extensively about Wagner. Therefore, in search of her books I went.
Soon I found a copy of the book that I had originally read in New York City in 1967. It is called Music: The Keynote of Human Evolution. In this book Corinne Heline wrote:
“Richard Wagner composed true initiatory music, written for the purpose of awakening certain centers latent in the body of man. These centers, when fully functioning, will lift the human race far beyond our present concepts… Truly, Wagner was a musical prophet who lived before his day. In the New Age now dawning music will again be a ritual of Initiation, and Wagner’s music will come into its own.”
My spiritual-music mentor had spoken. I embarked upon the next leg of my quest to discover the realities of positive music. I needed to investigate Richard Wagner: the man and his music. Little did I realize that this step of my journey would encompass two years of my life.
There was so much to read and so much to listen to. At the end of these two years, I had acquired seven shelves of books written in German and English ranging from first editions to photocopies. At first, I read the most basic books written in English. After a year, I realized that that so much had been lost in translations and that the overwhelming prejudice against the man had overly influenced so many writers. I decided that I needed to learn German. I tried doing that by myself for a few months but found it too difficult with the tools then available to me, and so I took and adult education course in conversational German for a few months, to get a good start on my self-education.
In addition to the reading, I was listening. I had started with the beautiful prelude to Lohengrin. From there I had expanded to listening to all the purely instrumental extracts from the operas. The music completely took hold of me, just as it had when I first listened to North Indian classical music, and just as it had when I first discovered the Renaissance sacred music of Victoria and Palestrina. These instrumental extracts were the preludes to the operas; the excerpts from the Ring Trilogy, such as “The Ride of the Valkyries”, “Wotan’s Farewell”, “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey”; and “The Good Friday Spell” from Parsifal. All wonderful, beautiful. Next, I graduated to listen to the same music, but with the words. Finally, I realized that there was only one way to listen to Wagner, and that was by listening to entire acts, and finally entire operas. After this, I started studying and listening to the entire dramatic works, studying the scores when I could find them.
Discovering this great artist and these great dramatic works was a musical milestone in my life. Many people will never discover the joy and satisfaction I gained because they either can’t get past the all-to-common ideas about Wagner and his music, and/or cannot connect with the emotions and spiritual energy of works like Tristan und Isolde, Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal.
Little did I realize that I was entering the realm of the spiritual composers of the Romantic Era of Western classical music – Wagner, Franck, Bruckner and Scriabin.
From the online book: Music Through the Centuries by Don Robertson (2005)
Published on DoveSong.com – Revised and expanded in 2023
Chapter Five – The 19th Century: “Heart”