If you are one of those people who think listening to Wagner’s music is painful, there may just be a reason for that: researchers at the Kiel Headache and Pain Centre in Germany claim the great composer and librettist (1813–1883) was in the throes of migraine attacks while working on some of his operas, and that his suffering is reflected in the famously somber music.
Here are the heads-up, as it were, on these findings: the researchers believe that the first scene of Act One of Siegfried, the third opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, “provides an extraordinarily concise and strikingly vivid headache episode. The music begins with a pulsating thumping, first in the background, then gradually becoming more intense.” They go on to say that “while the music is rising in intensity, the character of Mime is pounding with his hammer. At the climax, Mime cries out: ‘Compulsive plague! Pain without end!’” (As Wagner himself once remarked, “I write music with an exclamation point!).
There is evidence that Wagner did indeed suffer from frequent and severe migraines. In a letter he wrote to composer Franz Liszt in 1857, he described the migraines quite creatively as a “scintillating, flickering, glimmering melody line with a zig-zag pattern.” He went on to say that “at present, my nervous system resembles a pianoforte very much out of tune.”
In fact, Wagner and his music have often struck the wrong notes with audiences of his generation and beyond—and not all the controversies he had sparked can be ascribed to his migraines. He was Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer, but, in all fairness, Wagner can’t be held responsible for events that occurred decades after his death. However, some prominent 19th-century physicians claimed that Wagnerian operas caused a number of cases of mental illness among his listeners, attributing this pathological effect to the length of the operas along with the lack of rhythm in his music.
To this day, there is no credible evidence to support the assertion that Wagner’s music, whether migraine-fuelled or not, could have had such an adverse impact on his listeners. After all, this could, conceivably, be all in their heads!
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