Chris Goldscheider, who played sixth viola at the Royal Opera House, lost his hearing at a rehearsal of Wagner’s Die Walküre.
The musician sued his employer, and our High Court has just ruled in his favour. The damages are to be determined later.
Goldscheider suffered his problem as a result of acoustic shock. During the rehearsal he sat directly in front of the brass section and was exposed to a noise level of more than 130 decibels, which is about what a jet engine puts out.
The charity Help Musicians UK welcomed the judgement, referring to the 2015 survey, “where 59.5 per cent of musicians said they had suffered hearing loss and 78 per cent said working as a musician was a contributor to their hearing loss.”
At first I found this statement hard to believe. Such incredulity sprang from a lifelong acquaintance with musicians, many of whom played in symphony orchestras. This is only one man’s experience, but not a single musician I’ve ever met has complained of hearing loss.
I do know there are some such unfortunate persons among the musicians I haven’t met. But the proportions cited by Help Musicians sound unbelievably high.
Then it occurred to me that at play here may be the typical statistical trick of merging two categories into one. For example, I could say that, on average, my close friends have had 25.67 wives and girlfriends over a lifetime.
Yet you can’t tell on this basis how polygamous my friends have been, nor even if all of them have been married even once. For you to get an accurate idea, I’d have to do the right thing and separate the wives and girlfriends into different subcategories.
The semantic trick played by the charity workers is using the word ‘music’ to describe, say, both the Adagio from Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, K488, and the unbearable electronically enhanced din produced by tattooed, heavily drugged plankton.
I’d venture a guess that pop ‘music’ claims the lion’s share of hearing loss victims, and not only among the performers.
I once worked with a lovely, intelligent woman then in her early thirties. She was almost completely deaf as a result of a youth misspent at discos and rock concerts, a tragedy whose only positive effect was her inability to hear my silly jokes (these days all jokes told in front of women range from silly to criminal).
However, the tragedy that befell Mr Goldscheider was undeniably caused by his exposure to classical music, that of Wagner. The level that did the damage was lower than a peak of 140 decibels sometimes produced by aforementioned plankton, but close enough.
Being congenitally predisposed to look for first causes, I thought the situation over and came to what I consider the right conclusion, but not one I’d be able to defend with requisite intellectual rigour.
Mr Goldscheider suffered his condition as a result of playing not a symphony but an opera. And not any old opera, but an opera by Wagner, whom a wit once described, in one of the best one-liners I’ve ever heard, as “the Puccini of music”.
Could it be that God punishes people able to listen to Wagner or especially those prepared to play him? Could it also be that, though immeasurably more accomplished than pop, the anomie of Wagner’s music makes it philosophically closer to pop than to, say, Mozart?
There’s undeniably more (or less, depending on one’s point of view) to Wagner’s music than music. Jumping backwards, Wagner leapfrogged western culture, landing in the middle of Germany’s pagan past. This couldn’t go unpunished musically, as it didn’t go unpunished philosophically – or, in this case, medically.
I’m always suspicious of people who profess affection for Wagner’s bombastic, manipulative, often blatantly erotic output. The suspicion is mixed with latent envy: it takes the kind of fortitude I don’t possess to sit through one of the Ring operas in its entirety without losing the will to live.
Wagner was capable of producing great music in patches. But one has to be either insane or stoned to sit through, say, the 5.5 hours of Götterdämmerung, although I don’t claim sufficient medical qualifications to make this diagnosis.
As Rossini put it: “Wagner has some beautiful moments but terrible quarter-hours.” This is even better in the original French: to have a mauvais quart d’heure means having a rotten time.
Even my estimation of the sainted Enoch Powell went down a notch when, appearing on Desert Island Disks in 1989, he selected four pieces by Wagner out of the eight he was allowed to take with him. Listening to Wagner on a desert island until one dies? Suddenly suicide appears to be a valid, if manifestly un-Christian, option.
Getting back to the unfortunate Mr Goldscheider, I’m in two minds about his case. On the one hand, a man who chooses as his career playing in a 90-piece orchestra every night and twice on Sundays should know the risks.
Daily exposure to high noise levels can damage one’s hearing, even though I’m sure the proportion of victims among classical musicians is nowhere near as high as that cited by Help Musicians. But, to paraphrase the old saw, if you don’t like the noise, get out of the orchestra.
On the other hand, I hope Mr Goldscheider named the Wagner estate as the co-respondent in the lawsuit – and that he blamed the ROH not only for playing Wagner too loudly but for playing him at all. If so, he can count on me in his corner.