Wagner claims another victim

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.

8 thoughts on “Wagner claims another victim”

  1. I lost my hearing, not from listening to Wagner, but from the effects of chronic sinus. The loss of hearing arises from repeated perforation of the eardrum, which undoubtedly Chris suffered over an extended period of time, but it was not likely to be the result of one performance, or even a few. In other words, he almost assuredly knew, over a very extended period of time, what was happening to him, but, like a committed smoker, he ignored the long-term threat for the sake of the here and now. Very fortunate for him that compensation courts and tribunals will bend over backwards to support any claim for damages against employers. I once worked for a shipping company that was successfully sued by the widow of a sailor who died while busy with a prostitute, of a heart attack, thousands of miles away from home. The court agreed that the man was ‘on the job’ even though he was clearly not in his usual place of work. It ‘goes with the territory’, just as over-indulging in Wagner is bound to cause you some kind of physical or psychological damage.

  2. I hope the ‘elfansafety’ industry doesn’t get hold of this. All musicians to wear earmuffs. Audiences banned from music venues and must listen in the surrounding streets at a distance of at least 50 metres (100 metres in the case of plankton music). And that is just for starters. Soon, all residents and visitors to Salisbury will have to wear full Ebola suits for the next ten years.

  3. ‘I’d venture a guess that pop ‘music’ claims the lion’s share of hearing loss victims, and not only among the performers.’ This used to be true, but modern monitoring techniques have greatly improved. Orchestra pits for West End theatres are fairly quiet places. Many of the musicians wear headphones and go through a mixing desk as they do in a recording studio. The result is music which sounds like a CD with artificial echo and sounds panned out across the stereo spectrum.

  4. I am retired now but played cello in a Symphony Orch for 30 plus years . Yes it did damage my hearing but not catastrophically . I have lost the higher frequencies which my audiologist wife tells me is something that will happen with age anyway . Sitting in front of the Brass section was painful but sitting next to the piccolo player was the worst of all !
    I am a huge fan of the music of Wagner . He has written wonderful stuff . The opening of Tristan, the First Act of Die Valkyrie , large sections from Parsifal . The prize song from Meistersinger .
    What an effect he had on musicians such as Liszt , Debussy , Mahler . The man was an astonishing genius with an amazing capacity for work . Writing and orchestrating mammoth works in a relatively short space of time .
    Mr Boot , I know you will like the comment Rossini made after hearing Tannhauser ( what a great tune in the Overture) . Rossini said ” One needs to hear this music more than once . I won’t be going again ! “

    1. Well, de gustibus… and all that. However, you’ll notice that you’ve only mentioned bits and pieces of Wagner, not, say, any of the Ring operas in their entirety. There I agree with you, and of course there’s no denying Wagner’s influence on subsequent composers (I’d add Shostakovich to that list), especially through that first Tristan chord, from which, someone said, all modern music came. But I think there has to be more to music than just the ability to show how far tonality can be bent without breaking, or to orchestrate large works with technical mastery. Music, to me, is the quintessential Western art and as such it has to encapsulate the spirit of our civilisation in its content. If it does that, the form is immaterial: for example, James MacMillan shows that it’s possible to write great Passions in the modern atonal idiom. If it doesn’t do it, as Wagner’s music doesn’t in my view, then no amount of technical mastery will make it palatable — outside some gorgeous fragments.

      1. Wagner was looking to create a music drama and his first success with that was Lohengrin ( sublime Holy grail Prelude to start) ,first performed in Weimar in 1850 ! RW declared ” that he was seeking to free himself from the tyranny of the final cadence “. Something that J Macmillan now enjoys . Not for Wagner the Italian comedia style entractes and dances that turn up in stop start early operas by Verdi . Verdi went closer to the music drama influence created by RW in Othello ( 1887) and Falstaff (1893 ) . Undoubtedly the influence of RW .
        Here comes the bride . A catchy tune from Lohengrin which appeared at my wedding and thousands of others .
        Another wonderful composer heavily influenced by RW was Anton Bruckner . He regarded Wagner as a demi -god . Could that gifted musician be so deluded in his hero worship ?
        As for encapsulating the spirit of our civilisation in its content you have lost me there .
        Do you mean Holy Spirit ?
        Try the Siegfried Idyll . Short , and beautiful from start to finish .

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