The slap-happy world of Richard Wagner

Posted: December 11, 2016 in music, Record reviews
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The Best of Richard Wagner
Various artists

Masters of Classical Music, Vol. 5: Richard Wagner
Various artists

Richard Wagner believed his greatest talent was for comedy. Friends recalled his laugh as “a steadily increasing rumble, as from Krakatoa” [citation needed]. He loved tall tales, double entendres, put-downs, smack downs, non sequiturs, slapstick, sarcasm, and knock-knock jokes. What that man couldn’t do with five flights of stairs and a runaway piano!

If Wagner and his best friend, Franz Kafka, weren’t up to something, you can be sure they were up to something else. Wagner dared Kafka to write a story about a man who transforms into a bug; Kafka bet Wagner he couldn’t steal Alsace-Lorraine without waking up the French. They had fun fun fun until Otto von Bismarck took their T-bird away.

Scholars believe that Kafka was an uncredited writer on Wagner’s 1867 musical-comedy smash, Die Meistersinger of Nurnberg. You can easily spot Kafka’s influence in this recounting of the plot:

  1. A group of men compete in a singing tournament.
  2. First prize is a female virgin.
  3. Somebody wins.

Wagner’s biggest joke of all was Der Ring des Nibelungen. One night when he and Kafka were stoned and waiting for the pizza to arrive, Wagner said, “My operas are just as histrionic as Italian and French operas. Why am I not famous? What am I missing?”

Kafka released all the smoke from his lungs and said, “Norse gods, Richie.”

The next morning Kafka couldn’t remember anything, but was he surprised 25 years later when Wagner sent him a truck full of manuscript!

Purists will call The Best of Richard Wagner blasphemy for compacting Der Ring des Nibelungen into 60 hair-raising minutes when it normally takes eight and a half weeks to perform everything from the opening roll call through the incest and the attack by American helicopters until the final annihilation of the Valhalla Metropolitan Statistical Area. But this Reader’s Digest version keeps Wagner’s love of practical jokes alive long after Wagner faked his own death in a kiln explosion just to scare Kafka but while he was sneaking away he stepped on the tines of a rake, the handle hit him in the head, and he fell into a hole and died.

If you liked The Best of Richard Wagner, you might also like Masters of Classical Music, Vol. 5: Richard Wagner, which includes highlights from Der Ring plus hits that were never collected on Wagner’s studio albums, including “Tannhäuser,” “O Tannenbaum,” “Bob & Carol & Tristan & Isolde,” and “My Way.”

By our standards, Wagner’s music is about as subtle as a brick soufflé, but his sense of humor lives on. And of course we can rejoice in the 20,000 letters he and Kafka exchanged, including the fantasy animal drawings.

Richard Wagner loved to laugh, but even he had his limits. If he were alive today he’d totally beat the crap out of Coldplay.

Random Pick of the Day
Sonny Clark, Cool Struttin’ (1958)
The only music I listen to from the 1950s is jazz. I don’t know why that is. While the ’50s were actually going on, I didn’t know much beyond Mickey Mouse vs. Mighty Mouse.

But in the ’50s, jazz wasn’t what they hid on an obscure college radio station. Jazz wasn’t something that had an annual festival where the headliner was always somebody like Crosby, Stills & Nash because when a jazz festival wants to make money, the first thing they do is get rid of the jazz.

Jazz in the ’50s was still the soundtrack for movies and television. My parents danced to jazz. There was even a button on our radio that said “Jazz.” When you pressed it, a pleasing red color popped up behind a tiny plastic window. I don’t remember what pressing the Jazz button did if you were listening to Mozart or the Red Sox, but I still think of jazz as something that’s red.

Maybe I came to associate jazz with the unreachable world of grown-ups. The music has an allure, a sophistication, and a mystery only grown-ups possess. Wait a second, I am one. Oh shoot.

I suspect that in 1958 and for many years after, Cool Struttin’ was the smooth platter you placed on the turntable when you threw a party for all your jazz cat friends. You’d let it spin while you all stood around drinking cheap red wine and pretending to understand Ulysses. If you like jazz but you can’t approach hard bop without first waving a white flag, give Cool Struttin’ a try.


  1. Laurel Sercombe says:

    Oh you hipster you. I bet you did understand Ulysses.

  2. thecorncobb says:

    I’ll have to spend some time with Wagner & see if he grows on me. You never know unless you do. For example, Terry & I spent Thanksgiving week in Freeport Bahamas, in a Air B&B while I did some work at the port, without Internet or TV and limited phone, but a big screen TV & plenty of DVDs. She likes musicals and I watched Fiddler On The Roof & Les Miserables -movies frankly I never cared to watch- with her, & liked them both very much & now we are looking for performances of the plays nearby so we can immerse in the live experience. But I do enjoy Jazz -Coltrane is never dull, & just sampled some Sonny Clark, thank you- for its 50s post war nostalgia and similar reasons you give. It is a feeling that washes over me when I listen. But, brother Blues rules, with a taproot that reaches into the soul, and the genesis of rock and roll, which I enjoy with especial zeal. Thanks for this, Run – DMSteve!

  3. Wm Seabrook says:

    One evening at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus while Wagner was putting on his gloves to conduct Mendelssohn’s music, Kafka turned to Cosima and said “Do you know the difference between a prize bull and this orchestra? A prize bull has horns at the front and an arse-hole at the back!”

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