Thursday, 21 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 8. turn a toxin into a tonic

For many concert goers and music critics of the later 19th century, Wagner's music was considered toxic. 

The complexity of his works, their extreme emotional intensity and their long duration were thought dangerous to both body and mind. 

For those looking for the toxic qualities of Wagner's music there seemed to be convincing 'evidence'. The first tenor to sing Tristan in the music drama Tristan und Isolde died after only 4 performances. His opera singer wife, who was cast as Isolde opposite him, was distraught. In fact, she was so psychologically scared by the experience that she never sang again and was mentally unstable for the rest of her life.

Then, the American conductor Theodore Thomas realised that these apparent toxins could, if given to the right people, become tonics for body and soul.

Anyone needing to feed off emotional intensity; anyone needing to cope with complexity and enhance endurance: surely these people would benefit from a properly administered dose of pure Wagner?

The young nation of America had just such people: the up-and-coming business entrepreneurs (mainly men), who provided the vision, vitality, commitment and determination that was powering America into the forefront of the latter 19th century and the century to follow.

Wagner's music was transformed into a tonic which could 'saturate the human system, stimulating and revitalising weary entrepreneurs'.

So, like Theodore Thomas, seek to turn toxic ideas into tonics. How could their apparently poisonous traits result in benefits for a specific group of people?

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