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Why Wagner’s operas may give you headaches

During the German composer Richard Wagner’s lifetime (1813-1883), his musical works — especially his operas — were considered a threat to the physical and psychological health of audiences everywhere.

Physicians warned that attending a performance of a Wagnerian opera could lead to “nervous strain,” particularly among young women. Indeed, as the Guardian’s Kate Connolly pointed out in an article commemorating the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth last May, “Wagner was blamed not only for the premature onset of menstruation but also infertility, melancholy, hysteria and hypnosis.”

To underscore the danger, one 19th-century psychiatrist noted that “a large number of the mentally ill are passionate lovers of Wagnerian music” (a classic example of confusing correlation with causation).

Influenced by migraines

Concerns that the concert-going public would become ill from listening to Wagner’s “dangerously stimulating” music were, of course, ridiculous. (Yes, yes, Wagner’s patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, apparently passed out during a performance of the opera “Tristan und Isolde,” but Ludwig was emotionally eccentric to begin with.)

Still, that’s not to say that Wagner’s own neurological problems didn’t inform and influence his music. For, as three researchers at Germany’s Kiel Headache and Pain Centre propose in a paper published in this year’s Christmas issue of BMJ, Wagner suffered from frequent and debilitating migraine headaches — episodes that are intricately interwoven into his music and libretti.

The researchers use “Siegfried,” the third opera in Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nebelungen” (Ring Cycle), as their prime example:

The first scene of act 1 of the opera Siegfried provides an extraordinary concise and strikingly vivid headache episode. The music begins with a pulsatile thumping, first in the background, then gradually becoming more intense. This rises to become a directly tangible almost painful pulsation. While the listener experiences this frightening headache sensation, Mime is seen pounding with his hammer, creating the acoustic trigger for the musically induced throbbing, painful perception. At the climax, Mime cries out: “Compulsive plague!” “Pain without end!”

That language is telling, say the authors of the BMJ paper. For in his own letters, Wagner referred to his headaches as the “main plague” of his life.

‘Out of tune’ nerves

Wagner also acknowledges in his letters that he was suffering from migraine headaches in September 1865, while composing “Siegfried”:

My health, too, is once more so bad, that for ten days, after I had finished the sketch for the first act of Siegfried, I was literally not able to write a single bar without being driven away from my work by most tremulous headaches. … At present my nervous system resembles a pianoforte very much out of tune, and on that instrument I am expected to produce Siegfried.

The authors of the BMJ paper also point out that Act 1 of “Siegfried” includes musical elements — a “scintillating, flickering, glimmering melody line with a zig-zag pattern” — that imitate the characteristics of a typical migraine headache.

But perhaps more to the point, the character Mime complains about “loathsome light” and “rustling and humming and blustering” noises.

Migraine headaches are often accompanied by extreme sensitivity to light and sound.

Wilde’s take

Although Wagner completed Act 1 of “Siegfried” within a few months, he put the opera aside a year later, in 1856, and didn’t return to it until 12 years later. The opera’s first performance was in the German town of Bayreuth on Aug. 16, 1876.

There’s no record of how many people became physically or mentally ill after that initial performance. But we do know that the Irish wit and playwright Oscar Wilde, a contemporary of Wagner’s, wasn’t worried.

“I like Wagner’s music better than anybody’s,” he wrote. “It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says.”

The BMJ paper can be found on the journal’s website. BMJ has also put together a great video to accompany the paper. It includes scenes from a production of “Siegfried” that presents Mime as experiencing a severe headache.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/18/2013 - 12:14 pm.

    Music that’s better than it sounds

    Hitler counted Wagner as one of his great inspirations. If that doesn’t give a person headaches, nothing will.

  2. Submitted by Paul Wojda on 12/18/2013 - 02:29 pm.

    And given the sheer length of a Wagner opera . . .

    probably many bladder problems too.

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