Wagner’s underwear

I sometimes wonder how classical music got stuck being so darn serious. An evening at the symphony or the opera still carries with it the unfortunate baggage of a sometimes bewildering set of audience expectations. Most notably, the question of when—and when not—to clap is still hotly contested, even though there seems to be evidence pointing to the fact that when much of the music in question was written, no such severe circumscription on inter-movement applause existed. Sorry, anti-clappers.

Then there’s the thorny question of what to wear. Given that we are now unarguably well past the days of Downton Abbey, I’m hard pressed to think of another profession that still requires men to own and regularly wear a tail coat and white bow tie. Naturally, this consume inspires some confusion for the ticket-buying public when they have to pick out their own attire for the evening.

Even the images we are regularly presented of the great master composers, like Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky suggest that music is something to be appreciated in an austere sort of way. Their portraits are serious and dark, all with a hint of scowl.

Scratch the surface just a little though, and you learn that what lies beneath is infinitely more…ahem…colourful.

Take as just one example, perhaps the scowliest of them all, Richard Wagner. Best known for turning the opera world on its head, Wagner created some seriously heavy (and long!) works for the stage. His impressive Ring Cycle of four operas takes roughly 15 hours from start to fiery, world-destroying finish, and it has bequeathed us the near-universally accepted image of an opera singer: terrifying woman in helmet with horns (or wings), braids and imposing shield and breastplate.

But what they don’t normally tell you is that über-serious Mr. Wagner had a surprisingly forward looking fashion sense. Think Prince in the late 1980s. Correspondence from the day suggests that Wagner had a thing for ruffled shirts, heavy perfume, ladies jackets and colourful silk underwear. In a letter to a Milanese couturier, Wagner requested “something graceful for evenings at home,” complete with bustle and bow. One could assume that he ordered this for his wife, but some suggest that assumption requires further examination. Consider the time Wagner escaped his Viennese creditors disguised in women’s clothes as supporting evidence.

As with any towering figure from history, it’s nearly impossible to root out the apocryphal from the factual. The point is that there are undoubtedly more sides to Wagner—and all the great composers—than we are accustomed to. This applies to his music too. Though most of his output consists of operas on a gargantuan, bombastic scale, complete with giants, gods, dwarves and mermaids, there are lesser-seen, more intimate creations as well. Maybe most touching is the musical birthday present he created for his wife, the Siegfried Idyll, inspired by their infant son Siegfried. The first performance took place in their home at sunrise on Christmas morning 1869. The instrumental forces required for this first performance were limited by the amount of space available on the staircase outside Mrs. Wagner’s bedroom, where it was unveiled to her, entirely bombast free.

I implore you to take up the torch with me and help dispel this destructive myth that classical music is all stuffy and serious. Inspiration for our fight is all around us, easy for the finding, including Wagner’s underpants.