Radio

Music is one of the biggest things in my life. I need it as much as love. If I don’t listen to about an hour of music each day I get twitchy, and float loose of my mooring somehow. That listening has to be proper listening — not just having it on in the background while I am reading. (Listening while I am cooking or gardening somehow lets more of the music through.)

After nearly fifty years of listening to classical music, I have about seven hundred CDs, and maybe a dozen DVDs and Blu-rays. At a rough calculation, this equates to about 1,000 hours of listening. As if this were not enough, I have also resumed buying vinyl, mostly from op shops. (I bought some from a record fair recently — I drove most of the way, then walked, to limit what I bought to what I could carry back.) I only have a few dozen LPs, and am trying not to buy too many more. When am I going to get to listen to it all? This is particularly the case, considering that what I switch my amplifier to most often is the FM tuner: ABC Classic or 3MBS.

What is it about radio that I find so addictive? For one thing, I love the unexpectedness of it. ABC Classic, in particular, seems determined to keep listeners in the dark about what is to be broadcast. I have had extensive correspondence with them about this, in which I have also bitched about the shortcomings of their web site. The latter comments were acknowledged, and things improved after a lengthy and no doubt hideously expensive redesign. (This was in progress when I began bothering them. There are still, however, plenty of links that lead nowhere.) From this correspondence I learned that their research indicated — I am paraphrasing — publishing music listings on the web site was not a priority for listeners, at least for breakfast or afternoon programs. ABC Classic conceded that there was interest in having advance access to listings for concerts, which are mostly broadcast around midday. The entire programs of a week’s worth of selected midday concerts can therefore, now, be read on the ABC Classic web site.  3MBS-FM, by contrast, publishes a monthly guide for subscribers, available in hard copy or as a .pdf, for $85 a year — including postage for those who select the hard copy. This guide lists almost everything they broadcast in their daytime programming. (Students, concession card holders, musos, and other impecunious folk can subscribe for about $55 a year.)

Both stations, ABC Classic in particular, post programs on their web sites. These can, for a time, be played back on demand. Being the owner of a vintage stereo, this is not a lot of use to me. (I have tried various Rube Goldberg-type arrangements, which work, but the results sound unpleasantly processed.) However, I have progressed from battling ABC Classic about their inscrutability, to embracing this new and austere universe. I have learned to keep an ear out for hints from the more humane presenters, who actually tell the scattered and huddled listening hordes what is coming up. Audiences Australia wide must be keeping an ear out for a hint of a complete symphony or concerto. Quick — put on a coffee and warm up those valves!

But there is also something about radio broadcasting that I have become really attached to. It is the aural equivalent of seeing a film at the cinema. If you watch the movie at home on the DVD player, you see and hear the same program, but the experience is different. Having everyone who is tuned to a particular station listening to the same program at the same time is similarly different. A radio audience is a kind-of community; a special thing in our fragmented times. Being able to send in SMS comments is a great enhancement to this sense of togetherness. Listening to these comments makes you realise that other people like classical music too, and they tune in while doing their gardening, driving tractors and trucks, walking the dog, or just to listen. 

I also love how radio broadcasts can remind you of music that you know, but has gone off your playlist somehow. ABC Classic has copped some stick in this post, but props to them for playing big chunks of Mahler, Bruckner, Schubert, and even Wagner, amidst the everlasting Mozart. (Just not the Clarinet Concerto again, please! For about six months! And enough of the Mannheim School already.) Further kudos are deserved for giving Australian composers past and present, and local ensembles and performers, a platform. There is more music out there than one can ever hear, just as there is sitting on my study shelves. But the familiar galaxies and constellations are not dimmed by new stars.

Librarian chic

The Nine Publishing Good Weekend papers that came out last Saturday featured a story about libraries. It was a good read, with a number of personal interest stories. Any librarian, past or present, who objects to that story must be a curmudgeon, right? Well, count me in — to a point.

There was a lot to like about the story. Props to Jane Cadzow for wanting to write something positive about the institution which is a synonym for dowdy and boring. It was only recently that I saw an outfit of (I think) skirt and jumper described as “librarian chic”. Actually, I have just had a through-the-looking-glass moment when Googling this phrase. There was an entire session devoted to exploring “librarian chic” at the IFLA conference last year in Kuala Lumpur. I’m not making it up, you know! Here is the session abstract: 

“Have you ever made a quick judgement about someone because of what they’re wearing? Sure, we have all done it. Does this mean that the way we dress at work influences how we are perceived and categorized in society?
The topic of Librarian Fashion opens a myriad of questions: Should librarians wear a uniform? Can we wear tattoos? Should we dress with dignity – and what does dignity mean? What about piercings? Jewels? Religious or political symbols? Does it depend on a personal choice, on the country we live in, or on the position we hold in the library? Should a library director dress like a librarian or like a director? Do you believe in enclothed cognition?”

Go to the conference web page, scroll down to session 142 — it’s near the top — and click on it. Six papers are supposedly in English (I haven’t checked this out — no pun intended).

Dragging myself back to the Good Weekend article, the author set a few hares running, but failed to follow them to their burrows. Take the quote from Michael Moore about librarians being dangerous revolutionaries. This was just plonked out there with no explanation, for shock value. (Those nice librarians, dangerous! Ooh!) But what makes librarians dangerous? Providing books and other materials that are communally owned, for people to take home in an orderly way, is actually quite an anarchistic thing to do. It would be much more profitable for publishers if all of us had to buy our own copy. This arrangement would probably be better for authors too. (The Australian Lending Right schemes are intended to compensate authors for sale income that they have lost because libraries have been lending out their books. But that’s a story for another time.)

The article stressed the egalitarian nature of public libraries, which of course is all well and good. The same applies to university libraries — everyone is supposedly equal at the enquiries desk, whether they are an undergraduate or the vice chancellor. Partners in a law firm, however, definitely get preferential treatment over the paralegals and other lesser breeds. I remember hearing a law librarian, at a conference explaining how she had learned the art of the “elevator pitch”, in case she came to share the lift with a partner. Hold the boring memos requesting funding — just front them directly! Requests from those who make funding decisions tend to get priority.

Egalitarianism is a fellow traveller with co-operation, and libraries are intrinsically co-operative institutions. If your local library doesn’t hold a book (or whatever) in its collection, staff will get hold of it from another library via the inter-library loan system. (There may be a charge to the end-user for this service.) In Australia, this is facilitated by Libraries Australia, which is a kind of national union catalogue. The co-operative ethos of all this obviously runs contrary to that of free market capitalism.

This kumbaya stuff has its limits, though. It’s stretching the point, as the article does, to say that borrowing books from a library is something that “runs on trust”. There is no covenant without the sword, and libraries have fines for late return. (Some librarians, as the article pointed out, think these should be done away with.) Library fines these days are fairly nuanced in their application. It is a well kept secret that in many cases, if books are returned one or two days overdue, a fine will mostly not be levied. This is based on research that found that most delinquent loans are returned soon after an overdue notice is issued. Lose a book, though, and you have to pay the purchase cost, plus a processing fee. (This happened to me, after I left a library book that I took on holidays, and left in the pouch in front of my airplane seat. After calls to the airline lost property didn’t get it back, I just went to my local branch and ‘fessed up. Oh yes, I’ve done that, said the librarian who processed my payment.) Don’t just hope the library will forget about it, though: you might have to pay the accrued overdue fines as well!

The article, as the author acknowledged, only looked at municipal or public libraries. It is encouraging to read that these are doing well, in Australia at least. Of course, libraries come in many other flavours. Universities and higher education institutions largely still have them. Ditto for schools, law firms, museums, government departments, and research institutes — the last four coming under the umbrella term of special libraries. I suspect newspaper libraries are a thing of the past, along with many other special libraries. Survivors are under threat from managerial types who think that everything is now freely available, in full text, on the web, so what do we need libraries and librarians for? (This ignores the question as to why publishers have suddenly become philanthropists, happy to give content away online that they charge for in hard copy.)

Special library work allows staff to acquire expertise in the topics featured  in the collection. This expertise is a bit like topsoil — slow to form, easily lost. Its loss is one of the worst aspects of the closure of special libraries. Collections that have been painstakingly built up are also scattered to the four winds. With luck, a library somewhere else in the world will have these titles. If it is a back run of a really specialised journal, however, it is probably only available in hard copy. Articles and conference papers can be tough to get hold of; most libraries don’t lend these materials out. If it is available in a database, libraries which have a subscription are often forbidden by their user licences from using the database to fulfil interlibrary loan requests. The more specialized the request, the harder it is to fulfil, and the really out-of-the-way stuff can only be delivered by a librarian who knows the nooks and crannies of that topic area. Just hope that one of those is on your case!

Politicians are happy to bang on about the knowledge economy. The special library, however, continues on the endangered list. This is particularly the case in a place like Australia, where managers are rewarded for closing down expensive and outwardly unproductive things like libraries. So, yes, celebrate your local library! Use it or lose it! Would you rather have that, or Amazon?

New normal

Well, we saw Dr Parente this morning, and the news continues to be good. Everything is looking fine on the blood test; the PSA continues to be undetectable. Dr P was saying that everything was totally normal, then corrected himself. An undetectable PSA score is not normal. However, I’m happy to be an outlier — some might say, a freak — in this context!

So, how high should PSA be? According to Medline Plus, a score of 2.5 is considered normal for males 50 or younger. This will rise gradually from that age onwards. But in the context of prostate cancer, it is not so much the quantum of the score as its trajectory that counts. If your PSA takes a sudden jump, that is what gets everyone suddenly very concerned. As the Medline article says, prostate cancer can’t be diagnosed from a PSA test alone — that needs a biopsy. The test just raises a red flag.

The reliability or otherwise of the PSA test for mass screening test is extremely controversial, as it should be. But for individuals, there doesn’t seem to be another test that is as good. My impression is that males are under-tested, insofar as we tend to be at the GP’s office less often than females. So when a man in his fifties or older finally gets around to going to the doctor, the GP may order PSA to be tested as a just-in-case.

My message to male readers? It ain’t rocket science — get it checked out! Early detection still gives the best prospects. Men may feel reluctant to open that door; I certainly did. But just because you need to pee more often, it could just be benign prostatic hyperplasia. Treatments for this condition cover a spectrum of “let’s just keep an eye on it” to something more elaborate. That is a judgement that obviously needs to be made by a specialist. On the other hand, and not wanting to be alarmist, but you could have no symptoms and have something going on that needs to be nipped in the bud. (This was my experience.)

If you see a specialist, and want to get some more information before you commit yourself, get along to a prostate cancer survivor’s group, or join one of the discussion lists. You don’t need to have had an operation to join a group or a web site. But if you want to talk to those who have had surgery, radiation, chemo, or whatever else, this is a great opportunity. The Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia is a good place to start.

The presence of an absence

I have been somewhat absent from the airwaves lately. The last couple of months have been rather busy, which has mostly been great. But the busy-ness has one downside — of which more later.

In the last couple of months I have had a lot of objectives to work towards and interesting things to do. Principal among these is becoming a volunteer at the Melbourne Museum’s Biodiversity Heritage Library project. To get to the Museum, I catch a train to Parliament station, whence it is a lovely walk along Spring Street to Victoria Street, through the Carlton Gardens, past the Exhibition Building. This route takes me through what I think is one of the best parts of Melbourne, with its wonderful Victorian buildings, wide boulevards, and formal gardens with mature trees and herbaceous borders. The trams go dinging past along Nicholson Street; one couldn’t be anywhere else.

Volunteers at the Museum are well supported; there are about 500 of us (of whom only a handful works on BHL). The induction was very thorough, and I now have my entry tag on a lanyard, like one of the cast of Utopia. I am also enjoying the feeling of being part of an enterprise again, the opportunity to learn new things, and the sense of being valued for my skills and experience. So BHL is an all-round winner, combining exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction.

How does exercise come into it?  To get to the Museum, I catch a train to Parliament station, whence it is a lovely walk along Spring Street to Victoria Street, through the Carlton Gardens, past the Exhibition Building. This route takes me through what I think is one of the best parts of Melbourne, with its wonderful Victorian buildings, wide boulevards, and formal gardens with mature trees and herbaceous borders. The trams go dinging past along Nicholson Street; one couldn’t be anywhere else

I hadn’t heard of the Biodiversity Heritage Library before I stumbled across it at at talk for Rare Books Week. This page gives an idea of what the project is all about. Briefly, it is a worldwide consortium which scans historic biodiversity-related books and other documents and publishes them to the web. These documents are uploaded in full text, described with correct metadata, and publicised on Twitter and other social media. What sorts of things are in there? Charles Darwin’s library is an example; “over 500 of the 1,480 books in Darwin’s library … complemented with fully-indexed transcriptions of Darwin’s annotations”. What else might you find? Who doesn’t love polar bears (ursus maritimus to you)?

These materials are of interest to several communities. Climate change is putting ecosystems all over the world under pressure, with extinctions on the rise. Biologists studying these things need information about plant or animal species’ original discovery, extent, habitats, and appearance. This information is contained in books and scientific journals, but also in periodicals such as proceedings of natural science associations, and archival material like field notes. The latter sources, however, are “grey literature”; things that libraries tend either not to collect, or house in closed access stacks and rare book collections. Many of the documents also feature stunning biological illustration. So this is a site of endless interest to book and design as well as scientific nerds. Discoverability is an emphasis; everything is properly catalogued and described with scientific terminology. What a wonderful project this is — getting these documents out of stacks and rare book collections, into the public domain, for anyone with a web browser to enjoy and learn from.

What else have I been up to? I went to ANAM (another great Melbourne institution) for a number of concerts and master classes. These involve music students nearing graduation, and those visiting Australia to teach them. The standard is high and the ticket prices very low. There are often friends around to have lunch with. Last month there were a few trips to town involved with a couple of prostate cancer-related research studies. (One of these, involving three months of exercise classes, won’t start until November.) I am getting to grips again with Proust, albeit with a certain resistance — I managed to lose volume 1 of the Penguin “In search of lost time”, The way past Swann’s. (I just cursed and ordered another copy from Reading’s.) I spend a lot of time listening to music, either in the kitchen or in the study on my old valve stereo. Now that spring is springing, I will have no excuse but to get outside and beat our little garden into some kind of shape. For the rest of the time there is

  • book group (once a month)
  • the ex-RMIT coffee group (ditto)
  • exercise class followed by lunch (weekly)
  • hauling myself off to the gym (nominally twice a week)
  • going for walks (ditto)
  • food shopping (about three times a week), and
  • cooking (almost every day).

I am still feeling very well, and that is allowing me to keep up this level of activity. The exercise I am doing is a big part of that. I am becoming quite the evangelist (that is, a bore) about movement. My sleeping is better, doubtless partly due also to the exercise. Without this I would not have the energy to do a lot of these fun things. So I have gone from feeling a bit under-engaged to having (literally and metaphorically) lots of pots on the stove. Having many things to do also provides me with distractions. The shopping and cooking have always been my jobs, and I enjoy them both. Everything else I am doing voluntarily, I can schedule my Museum work at times when I can actually get a seat on the train. My book group, exercise, and coffee buddies are retirees; we can all do things when it suits us. Rush hour commutes are a thing of the past.

So what’s the downside? I find myself now a bit short of writing time. Of course, this is a pretty good problem to have! I just need to schedule in some “quality time” for writing. Doris Lessing called one of her books of essays A small, personal voice. Putting the words on a screen helps me focus on that voice, and make sense of things. I see Dr P on the 23rd, and will post the results of that appointment shortly after.

Of a retiring nature

It is now four years since I retired. I don’t remember the exact date of my last day at RMIT, but it was definitely around mid-August, 2015. All the events leading up to that — the appointments with superannuation consultants, haggling with the university over how much I would get in my payout, my farewell morning tea — all seem from another era.

I retired in a way that is probably the least recommended — going from 100% to 0%. I used to call it “jumping off the jetty”. My doing it this way was due to how my retirement came about. My former work group was being transferred to another campus, quite a distance from the city campus where they previously worked. Staff who would have been disadvantaged by that transfer were offered a separation payout; leaving the university was a condition of receiving the payout. At the time, I was happy to accept the conditions and avoid the extra travel. Stopping work overnight, however, did make it a more difficult transition than tapering down my hours gradually.

Of course, paid work involves a lot more than a salary. It is social interaction, the exercise of skills and talents, the feeling of being part of an enterprise. Paid work is a big part of how we define ourselves. When it stops it is easy to feel that you have become a bit peripheral, even useless. To put it another way, retirement can be a loss; dealing with it consequently involves a form of grieving. I did see a therapist with whom to talk the process over. For anyone who hasn’t received any counselling or advice from their employer, super fund, or elsewhere, I recommend it.

Like grief, I found retirement to come in stages. (After I wrote this, I stumbled across a ‘proper’ Six Stages of Retirement article on Investopedia.) Stage One was terrific at first: like being on holiday, but not having to go back to work. In Stage Two, the reality began to sink in that in most days there were a lot of hours to fill. This was quite a setback; I was not having nearly so good a time. In Stage Three, I gradually began to investigate options for taking up those hours. Many of these are not obvious at all — for example, volunteering at the Museum. The reality is that, unless you start a big project like enrolling in a course, restoring a vintage car, or sailing around the world, one new interest won’t be enough. You will need to find a number of things that fit what you have to offer: interests, income, energy levels, and location. It is not just having enough to do; you need enough of the right things to do.

It has taken me quite a while to find a way of being retired that suits me. It has been a matter of trial and error (which is really, as someone said, trial and learning). This has been complicated for me by ill health. As well as having to work out what to do with myself, I have also had to work out two medical diagnoses; first low iron, then prostate cancer. The investigations associated with the former, and the treatments with the latter, have been extensive and thus time-consuming. I have had as well to contend with the effects of chronic acute insomnia. This is something that continues to affect my memory, concentration and energy. (I feel these effects even when, as in recent months, my sleep has improved.) 

How I have dealt with these circumstances comes down to three strategies. (Yes, things do come in threes.) First, I have tried a range of things. Many of them I have liked, a few I haven’t. You never really know what learning a foreign language or volunteering at a community radio station — to name but two — will be like until you try them. Second, it is helpful to ask yourself occasionally how you would like your life to be different. Doing this revealed that I would like more interaction. Identifying this as a goal led me to do things like joining a book club. I also switched my exercise class to a day on which the participants get together for lunch afterwards. I enjoy both these things a lot. Third, I have been adding activities to my schedule gradually. After doing this for a little while, I feel I have enough to do, without being over-scheduled.

Most days involve one or more of the usual domestic suspects: washing, food shopping and cooking, writing and replying to emails, paying bills, and making appointments. Exercise is another priority, being one of the best things that I can do to maintain myself in a well state. Any holes are filled by listening to music, reading (I am having another go at In search of lost time, the Penguin edition), going for a walk, writing, gardening, digitising vinyl records, and handyman stuff. 

So what has my week looked like so far? 

  • Monday: neither of us can actually remember what we did, which is a bit of worry! I think this was a catch-up day after going to a concert on Sunday afternoon.
  • Tuesday: I walked around to the gym, then went into town to pick up my pass for the Museum, where I will soon begin volunteering. I did some food shopping on the way home.
  • Wednesday: had coffee with some former colleagues, then did some more shopping. Our niece was staying with us that night, so there was extra cooking to do.
  • Thursday: did some washing before my exercise class late in the morning, then had lunch with some of the guys.
  • Friday: more washing, then did a bit more food shopping in the morning. I had been volunteered to bake a cake for a family get-together over the weekend — this is baked and just needs frosting.

There was a good balance in all this of time at home and time out. Or as retired GP put it: you need something physical, something mental, and something social. I wish someone had told me this before I retired! Still, I can definitely say I never wanted to turn the clock back.

Nothing to see here …

The main news, and you will forgive me if I repeat myself, is the PSA is still undetectable.

Getting the all-clear from the good Dr P always gives me a bit of a boost. Before we saw him I had made an appointment for the following day (i.e. today) for an induction from the volunteer co-ordinator at the Melbourne Museum. (I will be working there on a project to make digital scans of archival scientific documents, and add metadata to records linked to those digital images.)  Being involved in this enterprise will be a good thing, because manageable. I will be there only a morning a week, breathing those cataloguing muscles back into life after five years of inactivity. I made notes on the train on my way in about how much I am really appreciating Melbourne this winter — the grey days, the European lanes in the CBD, the lovely gardens and Victorian buildings through and past which I walk on my way to the Museum. 

The morning went the deceptive way of days when everything seems to just fit in. I left the GT in a side street and walked back to the station. The train before mine stopped the traffic at the level crossing on Riversdale Road in nice time for me to cross, touch on with my Myki, and get the all-important coffee. I had allowed half an hour to get from Parliament station to the Museum, plenty of time to walk along Spring Street, past the Royal College of Surgeons, through the Carlton Gardens, and, with a slight detour, past the Exhibition Building. (In the course of my Museum induction, I learn that this huge structure, the best preserved of the Victorian era exhibition buildings, is technically part of its 15 million item collection.) 

Of course, when things seem to be going just right, some sand gets thrown in the gears. I had planned to do the food shopping on the way home. In my haste to leave early in order to get the coffee, I had forgotten to bring both the cool brick for the little esky in the car boot, and (disastrously) the shopping list. Rather than have to go home then go out again, I reconstructed the extensive list of comestibles as best I could on my homeward journey from the Museum. I decided to go to the supermarket, then the butcher, so that the meat wouldn’t be sitting in the esky sans cool brick. Of course I promptly forgot about this, arriving at the butcher first. Curses! Should I backtrack to the supermarket? No, I’ll just get the meat, then whiz through the grocery shopping so the meat doesn’t go off. (With ambient temperatures of about 12 degrees, this was never likely, but it is one of the things I am most neurotic about.) Of course, not having a proper list, many things remained annoyingly needing to be purchased in a second excursion tomorrow.

That day I am to have two cooks, the first to make a banana bread for morning tea. One of our neighbours is moving to the inner city; she and her daughter have been clearing the ancestral home. I offered to bring them around coffee and a snack to sustain them in this enterprise. Fortunately, they have no dietary issues for me to consider. (I wouldn’t mind if they did, it just makes things a tad more complex.) Unfortunately, I am not sure that I have enough sugar — this being one of the things left off my reconstructed list. If I don’t, I am going to have to improvise by making up the shortfall with a few spoons of jam. (I have done this once before — one just has to take a guess at quantities — but it worked surprisingly well.) The second cook is dinner for us and our niece. I have all the ingredients for the main course, but not the dessert. So I will have to head out after morning tea and get the things I left off the list. You’ll be sick of hearing about this list! I’m sick of thinking about it! My usual scattiness is being given a turbo boost by the stress of measurement anxiety — bringing me back to the start of this rather ratty blog post.

Still, compared to what they could be, the little niggles and irrits I am having a whinge about here are great problems to have. I do know this. Thank you, universe! You feel you can’t make things too easy for me — in case I get too complacent? Fair enough. You the man.

Wagner isn’t as bad as he sounds

Anyone even faintly interested in opera will have noticed the recent discussion about addressing the racist and sexist elements in grand opera.

There is nothing surprising in this. Opera and theatre companies worldwide don’t just keep rehashing the same productions, but relentlessly re-jig them. This is done for several reasons. They hope to find find new lessons in, and possibly new audiences for, the classics. For this to occur, productions have to be recast for modern tastes. It is easy to sneer at the search for relevance, but modern audiences don’t want to come along and see a museum piece on the stage. They want the works of famous composers and dramatists, and new ones, to speak to them about their lives now.

Grand opera has come under the spotlight recently for several reasons. First, just thinking of a few core repertoire operas — Carmen, Die Walküre, La Traviata, Madame Butterfly, and Tosca — the heroine gets it in the neck every time. Or, as Lindy Hume puts it, ” … opera narratives of rape, murder and abuse, or stereotypes – from Carmen’s “bad girl” to Cinderella’s “good girl” – go unquestioned by creative teams” (Limelight In Depth: Shifting the Opera Gaze). The Conversation article “Opera is stuck in a racist, sexist past” and one in the SMH “Opera’s tragic heroines should remain centre stage” give further perspectives to this discussion. Butterfly has also copped some stick for the “ethnic exoticism” of its Japanese elements and characters, which is being portrayed as cultural appropriation.

Being a Wagner person rather than an opera person, I have no real argument with any of this. Where I do get a bit tetchy is when the old Aunt Sally of Wagner and anti-Semitism gets dragged into the discussion. This happens in The Conversation article, which takes a passing pot shot at “the lightly-veiled anti-Semitism in Wagner’s Ring Cycle”.

Yes, Wagner was an awful anti-Semite — no argument there. One could be forgiven for thinking that these views were unique to Wagner. In fact, of course, anti-Semitism had a huge number of enthusiastic adherents around that time. In nineteenth-century Europe, many nationalists were also anti-Semitic. This isn’t to excuse his views; it is just to suggest that one needs to see them in the context of the time. 

Pointing to Hitler and the Third Reich is the next thing that Wagner antagonists do. Yes, Hitler was Wagner’s number one fan, and made several trips to Bayreuth. (He dragged along many other top Nazis as well, although most of them were bored rigid by the experience.) This all happened in the 1930s, long after The Master fell off the twig. So it seems a bit unsporting to lay this at Wagner’s feet. (And is the fact that someone liked a composer a valid reason for not liking him yourself?)

The other problem for people who blame Wagner for causing the Second World War is that, if he had not written his essay “Judaism in music”, we would not have known that he held these repulsive views. Why do I say this? The fact is that there are no Jewish characters in his operas. There is no discussion of Judaism in his operas. None. It just doesn’t happen.

Ah, the critics say, look at the unsympathetic characters in the operas; Alberich, Mime, Hagen, and Beckmesser. They supposedly display Jewish characteristics. In this argument, Wagner’s anti-Semitism is in his operas, if you only just know where to look. Well, excuse the hell out of me, but what, exactly, are Jewish characteristics? And how, exactly, do those characters display them? I have seen all the last seven operas either live or in the cinema, including two live Ring cycles, and I can’t see that any of the characters is in any way, shape, or form Jewish. (Bryan Magee, author of the fascinating book Wagner and philosophy, dismisses all these covert-racism claims for lack of evidence.) 

Wagner isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; I would never criticise someone for not liking him, any more than if they disliked Delius, or Percy Grainger, or Tchaikovsky. It’s still a free country! Is it asking too much, though, to expect this opinion to be based on the music? Get a Wagner opera out of your local library, grab a libretto (freely available on the web), and pay him the compliment of listening to his music with an open mind. If you still think it isn’t good music, fair enough. But I’m betting you’ll find a lot to like.