Nietzsche was in no doubt: Wagner owed his success to his innate sensuality. The philosopher – most influential of the Wagnerites – began to have reservations about his hero in the mid-1870s, around the time of the first Bayreuth Festival (1876), though he never changed his mind about Wagner’s pre-eminence (‘Other musicians don’t count compared to Wagner’). It was Wagner’s decadence and sexual pathology that disillusioned Nietzsche. In 1888, not long before he went mad, Nietzsche wrote: ‘Is Wagner a human being at all? Isn’t he rather a sickness. He makes sick whatever he touches – he has made music sick.’
Nietzsche was also outraged by Wagner’s meddling in his own affairs. Wagner had written to Nietzsche’s doctor, Otto Eiser, attributing his devotee’s worsening headaches to onanism and, implicitly, homosexuality. Eiser, foolish enough to show Wagner’s letter to Nietzsche, was in no doubt that this occasioned the famous falling out between the two men. Nietzsche, most indignant, began alluding to Wagner’s silken fetishes, of which he had direct experience. Once he asked a former student of his where he could find a good silk shop in Basel so that he could buy silk underpants for Wagner. ‘One you’ve chosen a God, you’ve got to adorn him,’ he told the student.
Nietzsche, increasingly disaffected, spoke of putting on gloves when he picked up the score of Tristan und Isolde. ‘[To guard] against Wagnerian music I consider it imperative to exercise every caution.’
Caution, despite these entreaties, was thrown to the wind at the Perth Concert Hall last Thursday when the West Australian Symphony Orchestra celebrated its ninetieth birthday with a gala concert performance of Tristan und Isolde. A large, attentive, and, it must be said, ungloved audience clearly relished the concert, which stretched over five hours, with two longish intervals. (A second performance, broadcast live on ABC FM, followed on the Sunday afternoon. An ABC Classic recording of these performances will appear in 2019.)