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Commentary: Healing art from a sinister soul?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 9, 2012 - Most artists I know are rather leery of being called healers. More to the point, they don’t think of their art as medicine.

In their view, art provokes. It elicits ideas. It pleases the eye or ear (without titillating or entertaining, which distinguishes pornography or television, respectively, from finer forms of art). It incites or sometimes soothes, but healing is something many contemporary artists would eschew.

Art, some even believe, has no real purpose at all. It is only distinguished from other human-made objects by the fact that it isn’t done for any utilitarian purpose.

Music, I argue, is different. It is medicinal. It does in fact heal. This isn’t just the conjecture of a music-obsessed clergyman, but a well evidenced scientific hypothesis. The assertion was made as far back as Plato (“music, particularly harmony, is … meant to correct any discord which may have arisen in the courses of the soul, and to be our ally in bringing her to harmony and agreement, and rhythm too was given by God for the same reason.” Timeaus.)

It is also easy to find this idea in the Hebrew Scriptures (David’s lyre healing Saul’s “demons,” for example). But now, we have empirical evidence.

Musical therapy was started in the 20th century. The first academic study of music’s medicinal properties was published in 1948, following the practice in World War II. There is now evidence that musical therapy can aid those suffering from brain degeneration regain some physical movement. And other studies show it increases cooperation among people. There is even a clinic in Germany that has experimented with using music in lieu of anesthesia!

Of course most of us don’t need scientists to tell us that music can affect you emotionally – often in very therapeutic ways.

But there is a problem for those of us who love music. I call it the Richard Wagner/Michael Jackson dilemma. Some of the best music every written or performed has been done so by very sick persons. In the case of Wagner, it strikes me (and many others) as very odd that some of the most extraordinarily beautiful, provocative and healing, music ever written was composed by a very vile man.

Wagner, 1813-1883, produced what many believe to be the greatest work of art by any single person. His “Ring Cycle” is approximately 17 hours of music – vocal and instrumental – divided into four operas (originally a trilogy with a prelude called Das Rheingold). It was a revolutionary piece and is, now 150 years later, still selling out theaters. The Metropolitan Opera did three cycles last spring to sold-out houses. The Met will do the same this spring. Hundreds of thousands travel great distances and go to great lengths to sit through these 17 hours. I’ve done it twice. I’d gladly go again tomorrow.

But, again, there is a problem. Richard Wagner was not a good man. He published, more than once, anti-Semitic diatribes. He spent much of his life running from creditors. He, more than once it seems, seduced the wife of a friend. He had issues. Some would call him evil. And standing as we do on the other side of the Holocaust it is difficult not to use the word evil about men who had his opinions.

And yet, 200 years from his birth, we are still talking about him. I have no way to verify this with certainty, but it is said that only Jesus and Napoleon have had more books written about them. And this is because of his music.

It was revolutionary in its chord structure. He forever changed the way conducting was done. Opera would never again be the same. And even contemporary movies (“Star Wars” being a prime example) bear his influence in the use of musical motifs to signify characters. Before the famous melody of Darth Vader, before Tolkien’s “Ring,” there was Wagner’s Wotan, the god of the Valhalla and the ring of the Nibelung.

So how do I deal with the Wagner/Jackson dilemma? Given that millions love Jackson in spite of his rather significant character flaws, maybe it’s not an issue for most. But Wagner, post-Nazi Germany, is a special case. My answer is twofold. One is to recognize that, though he was a deeply flawed man, when it comes to Nazi Germany he has suffered guilt by association. And second it is to recognize that great art has often been produced by very flawed people. Maybe it is their soul’s need for healing that elicits the artistic output. I think the latter helps to present a few facts in support of the former.

Hitler loved Wagner’s music, excepting Wagner’s last opera “Parsifal,” which was ultimately banned in Nazi Germany. And so it is assumed that his music was the theme for that era. But nothing is further from the truth. In the year Hitler came to power (1932-33) there were 1,837 separate performances of Wagnerian operas. In 1939-40 there were 1,154.

There is a telling story from an early party rally in Nuremberg, when Hitler brought in the Berlin orchestra to play “Die Meistersinger.” Tickets were given to all party officials, who instead attended beer halls and cafes. Hitler, infuriated, sent patrols to gather up the party functionaries. The next year he issued a command for attendance. But when they crowd “yawned and snored” their way through, even Hitler gave up on the idea, never again making the opera obligatory.

A number of Hitler’s contemporaries were clever enough to know that Wagner’s operas were in direct opposition to the Nazi philosophy. And while those of us who love Wagner’s music don’t particularly find comfort in Hitler’s passion for the music, it’s worth nothing that Hitler loved many things we still consider OK to love.

If you aren’t certain, come and hear for yourself. Union Avenue Opera is performing the first of Wagner’s Ring Cycle (“Das Rheingold”) on August 17, 18, 24, 25. Don’t expect it to cure your cold, but it might just set your soul at ease. Or set a soul at ease on edge, which sometimes is another form of healing. Either way, come to be moved and surprised yet again that “straight licks are hit by crooked sticks.”  

(Scott L. Stearman is senior pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church and will be giving two talks on Wager for Union Avenue Opera on Aug. 9 & 16. His wife will be singing in the production as well. See http://unionavenueopera.org)

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