Christmas 2013: Medical Histories

“Compulsive plague! pain without end!” How Richard Wagner played out his migraine in the opera Siegfried

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f6952 (Published 12 December 2013)
Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6952

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  1. Carl H Göbel, research fellow123,
  2. Anna Göbel, research fellow14,
  3. Hartmut Göbel, professor of neurology1
  1. 1Kiel Headache and Pain Centre, Heikendorfer Weg 9-27, 24149 Kiel, Germany
  2. 2Cognitive Neuroscience, Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-3), Jülich, Germany
  3. 3Department of Neurology, University Hospital Cologne, Cologne, Germany
  4. 4Department of Neurology, University Hospital Schleswig Holstein, Lübeck, Germany
  1. Correspondence to: C H Göbel hg{at}schmerzklinik.de
  • Accepted 8 November 2013

Carl Göbel and colleagues explain why listening to Wagner might give you a headache

The medical problems of composer and poet Richard Wagner have been widely investigated. He is known to have had functional disorders, skin disorders, acute infections, and minor ailments, as well as heart disease.1 2 3 4 However, the condition that Wagner described as the “main plague of his life”5 was recurring headaches. The details presented in his writings and letters5 6 7 as well as the numerous diary records of his second wife, Cosima,8 9 confirm that Wagner had a severely disabling migraine disorder producing frequent migraine attacks, sometimes with aura.10 Here, we show how Wagner deeply interwove his migraine attacks and auras into his music and libretti, using the opera Siegfried (1876), the third part of the Ring Cycle, as an example.

Video

Musical depiction of migraine

The first scene of act 1 of the opera Siegfried provides an extraordinarily concise and strikingly vivid headache episode. The music begins with a pulsatile thumping, first in the background, then gradually becoming more intense. This rises to become a directly tangible almost painful pulsation (fig 1). While the listener experiences this frightening headache sensation, Mime is seen pounding with his hammer, creating the acoustic trigger for the musically induced throbbing, painful perception. At the climax Mime cries out: “Compulsive plague! Pain without end!”

Fig 1 “Migraine headache leitmotif” …

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