Music History's Indebtedness to Narcissism

Imagine a world without Richard Wagner or Arnold Schoenberg. For those who had known them personally, this was most probably a life-long fantasy. But nevertheless, their input in the world of music was, and I do not use this word lightly, objectively significant. As much as it is driven by a disgust for their personalities, these composers' infamy has in fact deepened their music's legitimacy. Their respective proclamations of genius and mastery were not inconsequential, no matter how deluded. In fact, their aim to assert their self-worth has been fulfilled precisely because of this delusion. They believed in their claims’ legitimacy. And consequently, this belief is our first frame of reference when discussing them. Both these men exemplified the narcissistic personality traits. But, despite our general distaste for the condition, it is this which made their successes and triumphs so apparent. And given their importance in the history of music, we can only thank narcissism for this. This is an odd thing to say, and even an odder thing to put into writing. But the aura of mysticism and palpable emotion that their personalities have created among the music community, is something quite unlike many other composers. Through proclaiming their importance, our dispute of it consequently assumes it is a legitimate claim. Through dictating their genius, our distaste for it signifies an acceptance of its existence. We can only thank their characters for the passion it has brought to music, not to mention their musical advancements. And this calls for larger discussions about the links between the artist and the art, between analysis and interpretation and between fact and history.

It is firstly important to define was I refer to when using the world 'narcissism'. Firstly, if you are a medic, psychologist, or more generally someone who evidently knows more than me about the term (even narcissists are welcome to comment), please to feel free to share your input. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines narcissism as 'extremely self-centred with an exaggerated sense of self-importance, marked by or characteristic of excessive admiration of or infatuation with oneself'. In the case of Wagner and Schoenberg, it can be agreed that more than just a few of these characteristics describe their personalities well. But what is it about these attributes, combined with their musical talents, that allowed the composers to flourish and engrain themselves so well into the fabric of music history? And are these attributes relevant in any way to their longstanding importance in the world of music? The answers to these questions may not be conclusive or even critical in answering more important musicological questions, but a simple discussion could be fun and insightful. Particularly because they are among some of my favourite composers.

In the case of Wagner, his unique talents in self-marketing is at the centre of this discussion. His Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle is perhaps the most insightful of examples. Much of the attention that was given to the work was initially due to Wagner's vulgar, yet effective, boasting. In many cases, often surrounding the 1876 construction of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, his advertising techniques were pioneering for the time. From the months of May to August 1876, leading up to the premiere of the cycle, editor J. Zimmerman and critic Heinrich Porges published twenty-three detailed press releases in the Bayreuther Tagblatt which were distributed to one hundred and eighty outlets throughout Germany.[1] The contents varied from ‘behind the scenes’ details to audience responses.[2] Various tactics were employed to establish the information’s trustworthiness such as regularity and consistency of the releases and the use of local correspondents which led to some of the earliest attempts of ‘spin control’.[3] Furthermore, the frequency with which the word ‘Master’ was used to refer to Wagner together with claims that ‘a new era has dawned in the history of art!’ was astounding.[4] Additionally, Wagner had personally asked Porges to keep ‘intimate notes’ of the rehearsal process in order to ‘create a fixed tradition’.[5] References made to his operas being the ‘rebirth of Greek tragedy’ and the festival being an event of ‘German national significance’ aimed to affirm such a tradition. [6]

The meticulously controlled process of self-promotion is a clear sign of Wagner's calculated narcissistic qualities. And it was also a critical part to how Der Ring was thereon interpreted. It is almost as though, even now with widespread hate and distain by some for the cycle, the 'default' position in the minds of musicians, is that it is an epic and opinion worthy work - whether the opinion is good or not. Sure, it's immensely long, it pioneered new musical and dramatic styles and it explored fiercely new stage techniques, and those elements certainly helped in its success. But many other works have been pioneering. So, in Wagner's case, it is funnily enough his ridiculously outrageous nature which gave an aura of legitimacy and a historical worthiness to the work. Wagner's narcissism was not only apparent in the context of Der Ring, however. It was present, as with most innate psychological tendencies, throughout his whole career. From his deluded writings nothing short of maniacal to his entitled demands of King Ludwig II, his career was defined by an insatiable need to exhibit power and dominance in the artistic world. But most importantly, is that he believed it. And simultaneously, completely aware of the procedures needed to make his attributes useful. A delusional, yet pragmatic narcissist: what better combination for one wanting to take over the artistic world. And no matter how disgusting we may find him, he is nevertheless a figure which has influenced musical history dramatically. Opera after him would constantly be compared to his, the issue of separating the 'artist from the art' could almost define his musical legacy and his amplified sense of self-worth created a mystical sense of elevation no one, not even critics, can get enough of. As a personal fan of his music, I cannot be but grateful for his narcissistic qualities which allowed for his music to have come to my ears. But as a human, I find him repulsive. And it is this dichotomy which troubles us still today.

Now: Schoenberg. Narcissistic, but in a very different way. He was manipulative as was Wagner, but in a more intimate and personal way. He did not manipulate his audiences or attempt to shape his outwardly image, if anything he didn't give a damn about them or it. Instead, he manipulated those around and closest to him - more specifically, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Both very dear to Schoenberg, he was nevertheless (for the lack of a better word) an absolute bastard to them. His private and subtle degradation and humiliation of them was hurtful, yet also constructive, for the highly impressionable Berg and Webern. Even though only a few years younger, they deified their teacher, responding to his every request: from moving his furniture to completing his manuscripts on demand. But Schoenberg cared for his students deeply, as can be shown by his efforts to help them grow as composers and people. His nuanced and complex relationship with them serves only to prove the extent to which his narcissism pervaded every aspect of his life.

His narcissism got him far. He established the Society of Private Musical Performances in 1918, which was responsible for constructive and critical dialogue between some of the most important composers of the 20th century. Schoenberg was not embarrassed to define the group as elitist and more than happily invited only those ‘intellectually capable’ of analysing and discussing new compositions. Schoenberg was also an extremely accomplished composer in his own right. Taking on the task of dismantling the tonal system by inventing his new twelve-tone theory and redefining many forms until then glorified by his ancestors. Even though the theory did not stand the test of time as Schoenberg had intended (one hundred years to be precise), it nevertheless made a mark. Subsequent music was often seen in light of the theory, and many did in fact continue the tradition. Schoenberg's outspoken nature was in large part a reason for the prominence of his works. Once again, his musical talent and works cannot be discounted as unimportant. And as an avid fan of his music, and having dedicated far too much of my spare time researching, analysing and agonising over his works, writings and correspondences, I can only be grateful for his fearless narcissism.

It is not that Wagner and Schoenberg's narcissism allowed mediocre music to come to the forefront of history, but more simply, that their situations incite a fascinating discussion about how entangled both their personalities and music are. Their music is, maybe more than many other composers, constantly interpreted in light of their character. Their narcissistic qualities were able to bring their talents and pioneering works front and centre. These composers changed the course of music history, whether good or bad. And as deluded, often harmful and always outrageous their attributes were, their importance in bringing these composers to prominence opens up a range of questions.

In the case of Wagner and Schoenberg, their narcissism was a self-fulfilling prophecy. For them, 'all press is good press'. And in hating their music, those who wish for it to be shunned and their art be seen solely in light of their personalities, are but fulfilling exactly what the composers had intended. It is in this way that the element of narcissism can be seem as so crucial. If they hadn't advertised and posed themselves as the gods they saw in themselves, their music would not have nearly as much traction as it still does. It cannot be denied that it was an important part of how we see their music and very simply why we still hear it today. And by extension, we can then assume that music is always inextricably linked to a composers' character and life. So no, maybe we can't separate the art with the artist. No, maybe Wagner should not be listened to. No, maybe Schoenberg should retrospectively be called out for his elitism. But we can’t deny that their now established infamy has also allowed for other, often completely opposed movements to take place. Movements which captured the hearts of those vehemently opposed to Wagner and Schoenberg.

In all of music history, the image of the 'crazy', 'mad' and 'deranged' artist has mystified us. But the negative qualities these artists actions infer often become selective depending on the listener’s musical or maybe political and social tastes. John Lennon told us to 'Imagine', but his temper tantrums may have left much to be desired by those around him. Jim Morrison allowed many to escape in his drug-laced, hypnotic melodies, but I'm sure his girlfriend trapped in the room he had set fire to wouldn’t have been humming them during her own escape. History's ebbs and flows, whether good or bad, are what make it so rich. And Wagner's and Schoenberg's cases are no exception. If we romanticise and hope to be mystified by the ‘crazy’ artist, then we should assume it fully. And so, I invite you to be mystified by what could only be possible through delusion and complete self-absorption. And I invite you to indulge in a way that makes you feel guilty. Even if for a split-second, be grateful for the privilege of being able to just listen to this music without having to have met these intolerable characters. And as perplexing it feels to write this: be grateful for their narcissism.


Rita Fernandes, October 2020

[1] Nicholas Vazsonyi, “Press Releases from the Bayreuth Festival, 1876: An Early Attempt at Spin Control,” in Richard Wagner and His World, ed. Thomas Grey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p.401 [2] Ibid. [3] Ibid. [4] J. Zimmerman, “Press Releases from the Bayreuth Festival, 1876: An Early Attempt at Spin Control,” in Richard Wagner and His World, ed. Thomas Grey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p.405, 410 [5] Nicholas Vazsonyi, “Press Releases from the Bayreuth Festival, 1876: An Early Attempt at Spin Control,” p. 402 [6] Ibid.

Rita has also written:

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Jacob Kirkegaard / 4 Rooms (2006)

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