By the early 1870s the 60-year-old Wagner was in the habit of ordering a wide range of silk underwear, silk and satin dressing gowns and other clothes for home wear, plus furnishings of the same materials for a special relaxation room, all in pale pink. These written orders were discovered by the local press in 1877, together with orders for a variety of perfumes. The resulting image of the great composer was held up to mockery, including a cartoon showing him in high-heeled shoes and wearing roses in his hair.
But no one seemed to take any notice of Wagner’s intense same-sex friendships, notably with the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The language of their letters is shocking even today, considering Wagner was a married man with children, but at that time romantic friendships between men were totally acceptable to mainstream opinion, and only became suspect at the end of the century when early gay campaigners started to attract public notice.
But is all this really that important? Mozart wrote to his wife that he would give her pretty bottom a good spanking when he got back from his travels — who cares? Everyone has their own special erotic or quasi-erotic interests, and they are of little concern to others, and certainly don’t, in the case of composers, have much, if any, connection to the music they wrote.
Wagner visited a gay couple when he was in London, but isn’t known to have ever engaged in any same-sex activity himself. The truth appears to be that he was unusually sensitive to the feminine side of his nature, and came to understand that it stood in some kind of special relationship to his creativity. The silk trappings were, it seems, part of the context in which he placed himself when trying to compose, but the results included music of often quite exceptional ferocity.
All this and much more is examined by Laurence Dreyfus, a professor of music at Oxford University, in Wagner and the Erotic Impulse. In recent decades, he points out, Wagner has been the object of intense scrutiny on account of his anti-Semitism, an undoubted part of his mind-set but only debatably present in the music itself. But in his own day it was his depiction of sexual relationships that caused the most comment. Tristan und Isolde not only shows but celebrates an adulterous relationship, and in Die Walkure, Siegmund and Sieglinde are championed in one that is both adulterous and incestuous. Furthermore, the music in general was perceived as being quite exceptionally sensuous, as is displayed by Thomas Mann in his story Tristan, in which the playing of that opera’s score on the
piano is seen as capable of provoking hysteria.
If music can be divided between that which asks for calm analysis and bestows spiritual uplift, as Bach’s or Beethoven’s arguably does, and that which induces a drug-like altered state of consciousness, the sort of experience many people seek at a modern pop concert, then Wagner undoubtedly belongs to the second category.
Much of the tone of subsequent Wagner criticism was set by Friedrich Nietzsche. As a student he used to visit the Wagner household for breakfast, and was deeply influenced by the great man. In adulthood Nietzsche turned against him, declaring that his last opera, Parsifal, represented a diseased sensibility, and was crudely theatrical. This rupture may have had its roots earlier when Wagner had told Nietzsche’s doctor that masturbation, and possibly homosexuality, were probably responsible for the younger man’s psychological problems.