On September 15, 1962, Ellen and I got married. She was 22 and I was 26. Standing at the altar, I was thrilled as she walked up the aisle with her father to the strains of Richard Wagner's "Wedding March," more generally known as "Here Comes the Bride."
It would be the last time Ellen was enthusiastic about Wagner, whose beautiful music and repulsive personality dominated the second half of the 19th Century. His music still flows copiously at larger opera companies, although it doesn't move Ellen. And that's no reflection on her musical taste, which is superior to mine. Back in his day, some of the great composers and critics had no use for Wagner (pronounced VAHG-ner). It's still true. His "Wedding March" comes from the third act of Lohengrin, which sophisticated people sometimes call "Lohengrin and Bear It."
I love Wagner now, although on our wedding day I probably didn't know the difference between Richard Wagner, the composer, and Honus Wagner, the old-time baseball star, who was nicknamed "The Flying Dutchman," which happens to be the only Wagner opera that Ellen truly enjoys.
We always laugh that after almost 44 years of marriage, the main thing that has come between us is Wagner. The only times we took separate vacations were when I was attending Wagner's Ring Cycle somewhere.
She thought I was nuts. Admittedly, Ring Cycle fans are mentally disturbed. You attend four operas that collectively last 15 hours -- and that's without intermission. In the afternoon, you go to a 2-hour lecture on that evening's opera, and then attend another 1-hour talk immediately before the performance. Wagner requires a large bladder.
At one of the Ring Cycles, I met a woman who was attending her 35th Ring. Even other Wagnerians, including me, considered such devotion self-flagellation -- paying penance for some past sin.
The Ring Cycle is a bit like Lord of the Rings. In writing his epic, Tolkien borrowed from the 13th-century Icelandic sagas, called Edda, just as Wagner had borrowed from them a century earlier. (And you thought Edda was only a crossword puzzle word, like aerie and eeler.) When most people think of opera, they think of ladies with horned helmets, breastplates, braids, and spears. They are the Valkyries. In the Ring Cycle, they carry the dead soldiers to Valhalla. In a classic monologue, the comedienne Anna Russell, after poking fun at the Valkyries, would say, "Oh yes. They are virgins. And I'm not a bit surprised."
Nietzsche adored Wagner. Later, Hitler admired the composer's belief in Aryan superiority and his anti-Semitism. (One unconfirmed rumor is that his father, who died in Wagner's infancy, was Jewish.)
In today's parlance, Wagner would be called a no-good son of a bitch. As Harold C. Schonberg writes of Wagner in The Lives of the Great Composers, "Amoral, hedonistic, selfish, virulently racist, arrogant, filled with gospels of the superhuman (the superman naturally being Wagner) and the superiority of the German race, he stands for all that is unpleasant in human character." Wagner had "a degree of megalomania that approached actual lunacy." He believed he was a god sent to earth by mysterious forces. Perennially broke, he loved and looted impressionable women. He seduced the wives of men who advanced him money. He was a political radical, probably not because of any idealism, but because he wanted to destroy the capitalists to whom he owed money.
But that isn't why Ellen has no use for him. Megalomania afflicted other composers. She finds his music tedious, repetitive, overemotional, bombastic, loud. I understand the argument but don't mind hearing beautiful, bombastic music repeated loudly.
Now, whenever Ellen leaves the house for at least four hours, I put on a Wagner CD or DVD. If she gets home before it's over, she permits me to let it run to the end -- usually, anyway.
Our romance began in spring of 1961 when we met at a party and began to talk about the symphonies of another German composer, Beethoven. She was a Northwestern student. She had a date. I didn't. She also had two boyfriends at Ivy League universities. I was a hick with a couple of degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I had to impress her. So I bought her what was then the most expensive long-play record album going. You guessed it. It was a new recording of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde -- all four hours. She was polite about it, not telling me for several months that she disliked Wagner.
By then I had stolen her from her Ivy League swains. I never told her that Wagner considered Beethoven's Ninth Symphony his ideal, "the human evangel of the art work of the future." Wagner believed his operas flowed from Beethoven's Ninth.
Had she known that back in 1961, the conversation might have died and the romance never flowered.