Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Manifestation of Migraine in Wagner's Ring Cycle

German Composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) wasn't the healthiest guy. He suffered from heart disease, skin disorders, acute infections, minor ailments, and most prominently, recurring headaches – the “main plague” of his life (Göbel et al., 2013). He complained of “Headache, ‘sick headache,’ ‘dyspepsia,’ ‘nervousness,’ melancholy, insomnia, indescribable suffering... Wagner had all of them all of the time” (Gould, 1903).

Wagner wrote many letters to his doctor, Dr. Pusinelli, over a 35 year period (Gould, 1903):
They begin with, "I have headache," and continue with complaints of bad weather and bad health; of growing old and loss of joy (aged 33 years); of increase of illness; working at composition with consequent frightful suffering; with prayers for peace, peace; moans at the uselessness of life; regrets at inability to get a good photograph; and sleeplessness. Baths and douches drive him nearly crazy. There is longing for his natural joyfulness; reiteration of physical and mental exhaustion; the thought of suicide; emphasis of his irritability and of his inability to write another line, etc.

A new article in the Christmas edition of BMJ by a trio of Göbels (Göbel, Göbel, & Göbel, 2013) focuses on Wagner's migraines and how he incorporated the attacks and auras into his operas. The specific example of interest is the opera Siegfried (1876), which is the third part of the Ring Cycle.
The first scene of act 1 of the opera Siegfried provides an extraordinarily concise and strikingly vivid headache episode. The music begins with a pulsatile thumping, first in the background, then gradually becoming more intense. This rises to become a directly tangible almost painful pulsation. While the listener experiences this frightening headache sensation, Mime is seen pounding with his hammer, creating the acoustic trigger for the musically induced throbbing, painful perception. At the climax Mime cries out: “Compulsive plague! Pain without end!”

A contemporary staging of Siegfried by Anthony Pilavachi portrays the character of Mime as a scientist in a white lab coat (see video below). Göbel et al. (2013) identify a “migraine aura leitmotif” that occurs in act 1, scene 3. It depicts the visual disturbances that accompany migraine aura. Mime sings, “Loathsome light! Is the air aflame? What is it flaring and flashing, glittering and whirring, what is swirling and whirling there and flickering around? It glistens and gleams in the sunlight’s glow. What is it rustling and humming and blustering there?”

Wagner's disabling migraines contributed to a 12 year disruption in his work on Siegfried, which was finally completed in 1871 and first staged in 1876. He wrote of his struggles in one of his many letters, this one to Franz Liszt in January 1857 (Gould, 1903):
My health, too, is once more so bad that for ten days after I had finished the sketch for the first act of Siegfried, I was literally not able to write a single bar without being driven away from my work by a most alarming headache. Every morning I sit down, stare at the paper, and am glad enough when I get as far as reading Walter Scott. The fact is I have once more overtaxed myself, and how am to recover my strength? With Rheingold I got on well enough but the Valkyrie caused me much pain. At present my nervous system resembles a pianoforte very much out of tune. 

The Göbels summarize their paper in the video below.

Here's hoping that your holiday season is headache-free!


Carl H Göbel, Anna Göbel, Hartmut Göbel (2013). “Compulsive plague! pain without end!” How Richard Wagner played out his migraine in the opera Siegfried BMJ DOI: 10.1136/bmj.f6952

George M Gould (1903). THE ILL-HEALTH OF RICHARD WAGNER. Lancet DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(01)34061-8 

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