Happy Birthday Richard Wagner

Happy Birthday Wagner, you pompous, self-absorbed, self-obsessed man.

You terrorised me in my late teens as I fingered my way through a dog-eared compendium of musical extracts, struggling to understand that damn ‘Tristan chord‘ in readiness for my A-Level Music exam.

I hated you for it and those endless self-satisfied musicologists, music teachers and officiandos who sneered at my inability to understand complex psychological terms and relate them to the series of harmonic progressions which seemed to tower over music itself. Not only had I failed to not experience first-hand the torment you were – as I was taught – depicting in your music, but I didn’t understand how you did it, why or why it was so important as to warrant so much analysis.

It’s just a fucking chord. That’s all.

I came to writing that on my A-Level music paper. Every other question had been a doddle, maybe even a pleasure to write. This was a trial. A series of circular arguments, spiraling in on themselves, automatically written with none of the ecstasy others told me it conjured up.

You have a marketing problem you see, guv. You’re way too overblown. Way too meaningful. In trying to be the ultimate you alienate those of us who need a bit of hand-holding. You are the kind of person who’s so completely bought-in to his own bloody hype that you’d have to be roped off at parties. Too cool for school. So far above everyone else around you on Planet Earth that no one can come near you. If they tried, they wouldn’t understand you – you wouldn’t let them. You’d lounge in a smokey corner wondering why you’d even graced these emotionally unintelligent plebs with your presence. And I’d bet you’d wear a cravat with a tweed jacket and tatty Converse shoes.

OK, so I’m being a little harsh. Mastersingers Overture wasn’t bad. That played to my love of occasion. In fact, had the headmaster of the school I went to chosen well and selected me as a prefect, Mastersingers was the music I would have insisted the school band played as I made my slow but considered walk to the stage to shake his hand and collect my tie. Mind you, I never had that opportunity, did I? No.

And of course, there’s the Ride of the Valkyries. Tuneful, upbeat and rousing, galvanising even the most unacquainted with the classical music genre to reach for the nearest pencil and wave inanely as your music unleashes their inner hitherto latent conductor. Either that or they’re searching online for a fancy dress outfit. No, not at all! Ride of the Valkyries isn’t a cliche. No way.

I shouldn’t be mean. It is your birthday after all. And there are plenty of other people in the world who adore your work. People are transported by its beauty. People for whom a life without Wagner would in a very real sense would be no life at all. I just don’t think that way, not yet. Maybe I will in time. After all, I never thought I’d ever listen to Radio 4. Now I listen to it all the time. Things might change. If they do, I’ll let you know.

Many Happy Returns.


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