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Editorial: Forget the man, listen to the music

The 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner's birth might produce a spasm of anxiety

Musically speaking, Richard Wagner is one of the greatest talents that the Western tradition has ever produced. He not only redefined the nature of opera, he also reshaped the basics of music itself, laying the groundwork for everyone from Debussy to Strauss to Schoenberg. And all this, of course, while writing some shiveringly wonderful tunes.

Wagner the man, of course, was anything but wonderful. Rather, he was a self-indulgent egotist and a virulent anti-Semite. Add to that the Nazis’ subsequent co-option of his proto-nationalist mythic themes and it is easy to see why today’s 200th anniversary of his birth might produce another spasm of anxiety.

Yet it should not. Enjoying Tannhäuser neither infects the listener with its composer’s toxic views nor does it implicitly support them. Wagner’s nastiness was his alone. His music stands apart – and it is truly fabulous.