Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Lessons from Wagner about innovation: 3. allow life and living to transform your ideas into the unexpected

When, around 1850, Wagner started thinking about writing an opera based on the story of Tristan und Isolde, he saw it as nothing more than a quick money spinner: something to keep him solvent whilst he worked on bigger, more ambitious projects.

By 1854, however, his perception of the work forming in his mind had changed radically: now he was calling Tristan und Isolde a full on 'monument to love'.

By the time Tristan und Isolde had been completed and was being performed across Europe, some 15 years later, Wagner's perception of it had transformed into a dramatic revelation. When looking upon what he had created he became convinced that he had introduced 'something fearful upon the world' and that 'only mediocre performances' could save him as 'completely good ones (were) bound to drive people mad'.

Wagner's revelatory view of Tristan und Isolde has been borne out down the years, with composers, critics and audiences alike being stunned, baffled, repelled and inspired, often all at once, by its bold, innovative, unique world of sound, space and action.  

What had caused Wagner's radical changes of perception? How did they eventually culminate in the creation of such a revelatory work?

What Wagner did was allow life and experience to mingle with, influence and mature his thinking. In 1850 Wagner was a fugitive. He had taken part in the European revolts of 1848 and was on the run. He had first hand experience of breaking rules, going against convention and experiencing the consequences, just like Tristan and Isolde.

Also, whilst the story of Tristan und Isolde's was fermenting in his mind, Wagner was having an affair with the wife of one of his firmest friends and supporters. The parallel with the Tristan and Isolde story is unmistakable, and his intimate experience of illicit love must surely have strengthened his interest in and empathy for the Tristan and Isolde legend. 

And in and amongst all this Wagner continuously added to his knowledge and expertise, not only through challenging himself to write new and ambitious works but also through studying the works of the leading philosophers and thinkers of the day.

Wagner allowed the above rich and heady mix of life and living, knowledge and experience to flow into every aspect of his existence, including his work, and it was this which enabled a quick money spinning idea to transform into one of the most influential musical works ever written.

So, if you need to come up with new and innovative ideas, allow life and living and your developing knowledge and experience to permeate your thinking and ferment within it. You may well end up with something unexpected, but it may also be much more than you expected (even if your mix of life and living, knowledge and experience is a little less heady than Wagner's).


(To read more posts in this series go to the July, August and September 2016 Blog Archive.) 

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