Richard Wagner, 1813-1883

I listen to instrumental music when I write. It’s mostly classical music, varied with ethnic music from the area I’m writing about, and motion-picture soundtracks. My all-time favorite composer is Richard Wagner.

Our relationship started out rocky, as many do. I was entering my early teens when my mother borrowed an LP of the first act of Die Walküre from the public library. It was an ancient recording that featured Lauritz Melchior as Siegmund and Lotte Lehman as Sieglinde.

It was also summertime, we didn’t have air-conditioning, and my mother liked to play music LOUD.

I was horrified. This was not the kind of music I wanted to have emanating from a house that other people knew I lived in.

I dressed up as a protesting Flower Child, and posed for a Polaroid photo, holding a sign that said, “Help Stamp Out Opera.” But it was a fruitless gesture (as were most Flower Child protests, I think). Ma kept taking that album out of the library, until she went out and bought the whole opera on LPs (Wilhelm Furtwangler, conductor).

There were no MP3 players with dual ear buds, back then. I spent a lot of time out riding my bike. But then it rained, and where I was raised, that meant a couple of days’ downpour, cooped up in a hot, damp house … Ma, my younger sister, Richard, Wilhelm and me.

But then the rain stopped, the sun came out, it got hotter and muggier – and I decided I liked opera, after all. I think it was the fire music at the end of Die Walküre that did it.

(Finale of Die Walküre)

I put away my plastic flower lei and protest sign. Ma and I started singing along in German, from the libretto of Act I (Act I is still my favorite). When I left home for college, Ma gave me the Furtwangler recording, which did not enhance my popularity in the dorm. She also bought a piano reduction rehearsal score that I carried around the world in my library for forty years, until my youngest son could play the piano well enough to make a simplified recording of Siegmund’s Winterstürme solo for his grandmother’s 80th birthday. My middle son gave me a 13-CD set of Der Ring des Nibelungen, for my birthday.

When I was working on a special edition of Irish Firebrands, my youngest son said, “OK, Wagner. What is the purpose? Gesamtkunstwerk?” It had been more than half a lifetime since I’d lived in Bavaria and studied German, so I had to look that one up:

“Total work of art.”

It’s a concept that Wagner didn’t invent, but as an artist he believed in it, and came the closest to expressing it in his Ring cycle of operas. His approach to expressing emotion and characterization through musical motifs inspired the development of the motion-picture soundtrack.

Now he’s helping me write my second novel, The Passions of Patriots, as I play excerpts from all of his operas for my writing “mood music,” and watch and write down the arc of my main character’s alienation and redemption.

Gesamtkunstwerk? Ja. Richard Wagner und ich.

(Finale of Götterdämmerung)

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