Books

The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, His Work and His World

spacer By Barry Millington
Oxford University Press; 320 pp. $39.95

Books Sorcerer of Bayreuth 813

There's a pronounced Internet aesthetic at work in Barry Millington's bicentenary tribute to Richard Wagner. The author of more conventional books on the composer's life and works, Millington here takes a nonlinear approach to his vast subject, minimizing chronological structure in favor of associative jumps, pivots and stand-alone blog-like entries. The 285 images do a lot of the work, as they would on a website — instantly summoning period and place, major and minor players, polemic (anti-Semitic and other caricatures) and politics. Excerpts from scores and other documents appear in facsimile, while a huge assortment of stage pictures in color testifies to evolving taste in Wagner production. You've heard of the man's penchant for silks and satins? Check out his own designs for a frilly housecoat and breeches, in the chapter "In the Pink."

This is not to imply that Millington has produced a frivolous volume. He may not actually deliver on the promise to "demolish … stereotypes once and for all" — he sometimes magnifies them — and the portrait of Wagner that emerges here evokes less of a "sorcerer" than a flamboyant, eccentric celebrity. But this author's knowledge is daunting in its cultural–historical scope, and it is musically precise. If his treatment of the operas is uneven — with Parsifal dispatched more summarily than Der Fliegende Holländer — he usually has something to offer the beginner as well as the practiced Wagnerite.

It's no surprise that the Ring receives the most riveting treatment. The chapter's apparently casual organization — another symptom of internet contagion — can be off-putting, with sources, plot, music, poetics, philosophy, criticism, theory all vying for attention less courteously than in more traditional works. But that associative freedom, that crosscutting, also helps the discussion achieve resonance. Amid stimulating comments on the Ring cycle by Shaw, Adorno, Mann, we can brush past allusions to Jung, Schopenhauer and Marx and turn a page to read about key structures, the opening bars of Das Rheingold or Wotan's second scene with Erda, the role of ensemble writing in Götterdämmerung — and even the changing attitudes in recent years toward the role of leitmotif. 

In his relatively few chapters of straight biography Millington excels at compression and especially seasoning, by means of well-chosen details and deft use of quotes. He lets Liszt tell us about orchestration in Lohengrin, and Wagner boast, justifiably, of the hyper-charged content of Die Walküre's Act II. The author's own style may not be universally admired — chapter titles such as "Fatal Attraction: Tannhäuser" give some idea why — but it too may appeal to a different audience.

This book is very much of our own time. Millington tends, for instance, to emphasize the female characters, as he does justifiably in the "Senta-centered" view of Der Fliegende Höllander derived partly from Nina Parly's 2011 study. And what of the tolerance exhibited for Wagner's human excesses? But the surest sign of the times is Millington's ability to sugarcoat even his rigorous analyses, to favor the visual, facilitate browsing — and never tax our shrinking attention span. spacer

DAVID J. BAKER

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3