Wagner's musical niche

Some people worship Wagner like a god and others despise his music. Why does his music evoke such strong feelings far beyond that of any other composer? I have a possible explanation, one that Wagner himself alluded to.

A key feature of Wagner's mature musical style is the persistent non-resolution of harmony. In fact, the 'Tristan' chord is all about harmonic ambiguity and how an ambigous chord resolves onto another ambiguous chord. It's not that Wagner never resolves a harmonic sequence into a perfect cadence but that the music often sets up the expectation of a resolution at the end of a phrase and then suddenly shoots off in another direction.

Other composers do, of course, thwart the listeners' expectations from time to time, but Wagner makes this a key feature.

In Aspects of Wagner, Brian Magee runs through a list of famous people who love Wagner. He then goes on to discuss how a key feature of these people is a constant searching and longing in their minds.

Might not the solution to Wagner's influence, both positive and negative, be quite obvious? The music is full of unresolved harmonic tension and therefore appeals to people with unresolved minds?

I did a degree dissertation on Wagner where I attempted to explain why Wagner arouses more passions than any other composer. Some people worship Wagner like a god and others cannot stand his music. I discussed the thoughts of various writers, then analysed Wagner’s mature style, particularly his focus on the non-resolution of harmony and melodic line which is the most striking aspect.

My theory is that Wagner appeals to people with unresolved elements in their minds and that they feel empathy with it in a way that is different from any other composer. Likewise, people with ‘resolved’ minds find Wagner disturbing as it represents a mental place they don’t feel comfortable with.

As part of my degree dissertation I went to a meeting of the British Wagner Society in London and handed out Hans Eysenck's personality questionnaire which idenfitied Introversion/Extroversion and Neuroticism. My theory was that Wagnerians would score highly on introversion and neuroticism. It wasn't the case. There were no identifiable personality traits that were outside the figures for the population as a whole. I believe that there is a personality trait in those who like Wagner but not something that a mathematical survey could uncover. The conclusion to my work was a negative one, that the appreciation of Wagner is not determinant on having one of the key personality traits.

The academics who marked my work didn’t like what I had done. They nit-picked the details and ignored my wider argument and when I asked my tutor he said “it was not what they thought”. It added to my belief that academics are no different to the rest of us. They like to be flattered, like to have their own arguments vindicated, and are no more interested in new ideas than anyone else. I recognise that my theory might not be correct but I would have expected it to be an interesting starting point for discussion. I was also told “we’re interested in what you think not what others have written” for which I was totally incredulous. The whole point of my dissertation was an analysis of what other writers had said about Wagner’s uniqueness and its effect on people, and my original idea was to draw these ideas together. I pointed out that the writer Theodore Adorno had concluded that Wagner’s style is full of unresolved harmonic tension, that Brian Magee had pointed out that Wagner’s style appeals to emotionally unresolved people and my conclusion drew these two elements together. My tutor was utterly uninterested in that. So much for academic curiosity.

Anyway, the internet gives one a chance to put ideas out there without having to pay for something to be published and, most likely, get ignored.

Wagner wrote two books in which he discusses his theories about music drama. They are long-winded and tiresome to read and are an attempt to put a deep philosophical meaning to Wagner’s chosen musical style. The books pretend that he had consciously chosen to compose in his particular style for deep and meaningful reasons, whereas in reality he merely wrote the books to justify the musical style he had a talent for anyway. However, there are some interesting elements to it.

He talks about ‘endless melody’ and the end of music that is split into specific periods of time; in other words, an end to the construction of music in 8 bar sections. This way he felt the music would attain to some higher level of emotion. Most modern music dispenses with the traditional 8 bar construction of the Classical period (Mozart, Haydn etc) yet only Wagner seems to have such a powerful emotional impact, both positive and negative, so it must be something else.

When I first discovered Wagner the most apparent thing about it to me was that there were a large number of unresolved harmonic cadences. I also liked the loud bits which seemed to have a level of intensity in the orchestration beyond other composers such as Tchaikovsky. I felt that the unresolved harmonic tensions left my psyche in a kind of heightened state of tension. One of the first passages I heard was the end of the Valkarie. The loud section where Brunhilde and Wotan ‘embrace’ (I’ve never been interested in the storylines, just the music) builds a huge sense of emotional intensity, then moves to the dominant chord and sets up for a resolution to a perfect cadence. Then, just when you expect a resolution of this tension, the music changes key and the emotional and tensional release that a perfect cadence would bring does not happen.

The music whips you into a frenzy of emotion but does not allow you to feel the release of that. It leaves you in a heightened state of tension which, I believe, is the principle reason why some people love it and an equal number can’t stand it (with an equal number in between). Perhaps it appeals to some people in that the loud bits fill their minds with a powerful and dominating sound and leaves them in that state without bringing them back down to a normal state of mind again as other composers would do.

Wagner said that music would reach a new 'sublime' new level after the point at which the music comes in and when it enters its “endless” phase; in other words - when the melody and harmony fails to resolve to its starting point. Wagner made a conscious choice about his late style in that he believed the persistent non-resolution of both melody and harmony would lead to a heightened state of emotion in the listener. On the other hand the music may just reflect Wagner’s own personality and he didn’t, as such, choose to write in his later style but that it just evolved. However the Mastersingers is in a more conventional compositional style and Wagner had the ability to consciously compose in different styles. It was Wagner's musical niche to write music with persistent non-resolution of harmonic tension which, he believed, would draw the listener to a new 'sublime' level. However, Wagner didn't reckon on this 'sublime' level only reaching a certain percentage of people; an equal number find it boring and even harsh, and an equal number again consider Wagner just like any other composer.