Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for The Music of Richard Wagner

Music History Monday: A Man for All Symptoms: The Death of Wagner

We mark the death, on February 13, 1883 – 140 years ago today – of the German composer Richard Wagner, in Venice, at the age of 69.  He had been born in the Saxon city of Leipzig on May 22, 1813. Wagner’s Health Writing in Hektoen International – A Journal of Medical Humanities, George Dunea, MD, states that: “[Richard] Wagner was an extraordinarily highly strung individual.” Do you think, Dr. Dunea?   In fact, he was a pathologically overwrought individual, a certifiable narcissist who required maximum stimulation at all times whether he was awake or asleep.  (Yes, even asleep.  As a young child he kept his many siblings awake at night by shouting and talking while he slept.) Wagner was not born a particularly healthy person, and as an adult, his personal habits and constant excitability exacted a considerable toll on his already compromised constitution.  Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association back in 1903 (Gould, George M.; The Ill-health of Richard Wagner, JAMA 1903; 51: 293 and 368; as articles go, this is an oldie but a goodie!), Dr. George Gould described Wagner as having the collective symptoms of: “[Thomas] DeQuincy [best known for his Confessions of […]

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Be Careful Who You Give Things To: A Cautionary Tale

A composer’s most prized possessions are his/her autograph manuscripts: complete scores notated in pencil or ink. (We pause to rue the passing of such hand-written manuscripts. As a new generation of composers notates music using computer programs, the art of music calligraphy will go the way of the hand-copied illuminated manuscript, and technology will claim another victory over an ancient craft. But worse, we – as students and lovers of music – will lose an irreplaceable resource: hand-copied manuscripts, from which we can learn an amazing amount about composers, their music, their personalities, and their creative processes. In the same way a graphologist – a handwriting analyst – “reads” someone’s handwriting for insights into his personality, so we can “read” a music manuscript for insights into a composer and the piece itself. Absent such manuscripts, we will be so much the poorer.) Autograph manuscripts are unique in that there is only one “final, autograph manuscript” of any given piece. In the days before photocopy machines, composers guarded their unpublished manuscripts with maternal ferocity, storing them in safes and vaults. Because of everything it embodies, the greatest gift a composer can bestow is the gift of a manuscript. A composer will […]

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