"As a human being he was frightening. Amoral, hedonistic, selfish, virulently racist, arrogant, filled with gospels of the superman (the superman naturally being Wagner) and the superiority of the German race, he stands for all that is unpleasant in human character." (Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers, 3rd Ed.)
Like it or not, we live in Wagner's future.
His ideas about how to delineate characters through musical themes is the foundation of film scoring since the silent era. Also, his vision of opera as a "gesamtkunstwerk" (unified artwork) encompassing music, visuals, narrative, dance and staging has had a tremendous influence on all performance-based endeavors. His scholarly work on mythologies preserved some of the central motifs of human storytelling for posterity.
In addition, he is an inspiration to all artists for his belief in himself and how incredibly hard he worked to become the composer he wanted to be. "His early works showed no talent," says Schonberg, and Wagner's family was not shy about letting him know that. But he persevered through poverty and humiliation, and succeeded completely, becoming the most famous composer in the world and immensely wealthy. He built Bayreuth, a temple to himself and a hall custom-designed solely to perform his works. In a final expression of his self-belief - and arrogance - performances of his final opera, Parsifal, were restricted to Bayreuth for 30 years after its premiere in 1882 (although the Metropolitan Opera only waited until 1903). Bayreuth continues to present solely Wagner's operas 130 years after his death.
None of this would matter if he had not created some of the most sheerly beautiful music ever written, and some of the most exciting stage stories as well. Perhaps because he presented himself as godlike, yet likely knew that inside he was all too human, his ability to get in the heads of the gods and goddesses of the Ring cycle transformed a tale that could have been mere swords and sorcery. All of his characters, in fact, are simultaneously iconic and down to earth, which may be the dramatic key to the endurance of his works in the opera house.
But it all comes back to those endless melodies and mesmerizing harmonies, creating a framework for spectacular singing and marvelous orchestral sounds. The question about the relationship of the art and the artist is age-old and not going anywhere. In his time Wagner promoted some truly despicable philosophies, which made it all too easy for the Nazis, 50 years after his death, to co-opt his music for their own nefarious purposes. Wagner challenges us to look beyond his pathetic human frailties and to see the splendor of his art.
How beautifully appropriate that the man responsible for the indelible Liebestod, which tells of a love that can only be consummated in death, breathed his last on the day before we celebrate Valentine's Day. As you sink your teeth into chocolates tomorrow, why not immerse yourself in Wagner's glorious and complex sound world.