Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


wagner-sculpture

The Migraines and the Music: Was Wagner Inspired by Headache Pain?

• December 12, 2013 • 4:57 PM

A Wagner sculpture in Munich. (PHOTO: ZYANKARLO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Three German researchers present evidence that Wagner interwove his headache pain into his operas.

The enigmatic operas of Richard Wagner have been subject to countless interpretations over the decades—political, psychological, and spiritual. Now, a trio of researchers is suggesting there may be a much simpler explanation for much of what he wrote.

His music, they argue, is in part a reflection of his migraines.

“Wagner deeply interwove his migraine attacks and auras into his music and libretti,” a team led by Carl Gobel, a research fellow at the Kiel Headache and Pain Centre in Germany, writes in the BMJ.

“The first scene of Act One of Siegfried provides an extraordinarily concise and strikingly vivid headache episode.”

The researchers demonstrate this contention by looking specifically at Siegfried, the third opera in his massive Ring Cycle. They even describe what they call a “migraine leitmotif” that recurs in the opera.

“The first scene of Act One of Siegfried provides an extraordinarily concise and strikingly vivid headache episode,” they write. “The music begins with a pulsatile thumping, first in the background, then gradually becoming more intense.”

While the music is rising in intensity, the character of Mime is “pounding with his hammer,” they write. “At the climax, Mime cries out: ‘Compulsive plague! Pain without end!’”

That music returns in Act One, Scene Three, at which point Mime complains “Loathsome light! Is the air aflame?” The researchers call that “a musical depiction of the visual disturbances of a typical migraine aura.”

If that interpretation sounds like a stretch, consider a letter Wagner wrote to Franz Liszt in January 1857. He tells his fellow composer that “for 10 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 most tremulous headaches.”

Apparently incorporating the pain into his score provided creative inspiration, but not physical relief.

So, if Wagner’s music gives you a headache, consider this: His pain was most likely much worse than yours.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

Tags: ,

If you would like to comment on this post, or anything else on Pacific Standard, visit our Facebook or Google+ page, or send us a message on Twitter. You can also follow our regular updates and other stories on both LinkedIn and Tumblr.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Follow us


Subscribe Now

Quick Studies

Banning Chocolate Milk Was a Bad Choice

The costs of banning America's favorite kids drink from schools may outweigh the benefits, a new study suggests.

In Battle Against Climate Change, Cities Are Left All Alone

Cities must play a critical role in shifting the world to a fossil fuel-free future. So why won't anybody help them?

When a Romance Is Threatened, People Rebound With God

And when they feel God might reject them, they buddy up to their partner.

How Can We Protect Open Ocean That Does Not Yet Exist?

As global warming melts ice and ushers in a wave of commercial activity in the Arctic, scientists are thinking about how to protect environments of the future.

What Kind of Beat Makes You Want to Groove?

The science behind the rhythms that get you on the dance floor.

The Big One

One state—Pennsylvania—logs 52 percent of all sales, shipments, and receipts for the chocolate manufacturing industry. March/April 2014