Operatic migraine

“Art” is an emotive phrase and “artist” is perhaps even moreso. Art carries with it mystery around its act of creation and that mystique transfers itself to the artist, the creator. Yet the fascination with biography of artists, from sculptors to filmmakers, reveals that we know art is not so mysterious when you understand the person from which it springs. This has been revealed clearly in a new study showing that Richard Wagner’s operas are sometimes a direct reflection of his problem with migraines.

Richard Wagner (born 1813 – died 1883) was a German composer, primarily known for his operas. Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. His operas, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex textures, rich harmonies, and orchestration. Unfortunately, Wagner has been tainted by anti-Semitic sentiments in his writing and his appropriation by the Nazis. However, his operatic work has undeniable power and it seems that at least part of that work may have arisen from his own problems with migraines.

Wagner himself described his migraines and headaches as the “main plague of his life”. So researchers investigated his work to see if the migraines made their way into it…and it seems they did.

In his memoirs Wagner reports that he was suffering from his migraines in 1865 as he composed his opera Siegfried. The researchers say that the main character of Siegfried sings of “loathsome light” and “rustling and humming and blustering” all reminiscent of the experience of migraine. The music too is pulsating and thumping, gradually becoming more intense. At the climax of the music the main character cries out, “Compulsive plague! Pain without end!” The researchers say the whole sequence is a representation of a painful, pulsating, sensory migraine episode.

The researchers also report other instances where Wagner’s suffering is reflected in “scintillating, flickering” melodies. Knowing the source of artistry is not to diminish it in fact seeing the human roots of spiralling art only serves to heighten the experience of it.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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