A recent study by researchers in Germany suggests that health problems can affect the style, creativity and inspiration of songwriters and composers.

Studies have already shown how Beethoven’s progressive deafness resulted in his three different (and increasingly poignant) styles. But in a paper – published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) – researchers show how German composer Richard Wagner used his disabling migraines and headaches to compose his operas.

Wagner’s medical problems have often been investigated and he even described his headaches and symptoms as the “main plague of his life”. However, the latest study closely examines the structure of Wagner’s opera Siegfried, the third part of the Ring Cycle, to highlight how the composer’s ailments influenced his work.

The researchers say Siegfried opens with a pulsating thumping which gradually becomes more intense until it reaches an “almost painful pulsation”. At the climax, the main character cries out “Compulsive plague! Pain without end!” which the researchers believe is a representation of a “painful, pulsating sensory migraine episode”.

In his memoirs, Wagner gives an account of the symptoms he had in September 1865, around the time he composed Siegfried. The composer openly voiced his suffering caused by the “nervous headaches” he had while composing this opera.

Wagner’s depiction of his migraines included a “scintillating, flickering, glimmering melody line with a zig-zag pattern” while a main character sings of “Loathsome light!” and “rustling and humming and blustering”. The researchers say the music has all the characteristics of a typical migraine and the experimental flicker frequency gives “important clues” about the performance speed intended by Wagner.

The researchers conclude that, although Richard Wagner was “severely burdened” by migraine, he used his suffering creatively – “letting future generations take part in his emotions and perceptions”.

There is a video extract from the study’s findings HERE…

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