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Being Wagner

Penguin Random House; 256 pp. 
Paperback. $16.95 

Books Being Wagner lg 518

HAD RICHARD WAGNER been born in our era of hyper-articulated adolescent psychiatry he would no doubt, by the age of sixteen, have been medicated and incarcerated. Lazy, willful, resistant to education, already an author of violent, blood-soaked dramas, this short, angry, pimply teenager would have been deemed a threat to society. A prescription for Ritalin and a nice chat with Nurse Ratched might have changed the course of his life.

And, of course, the course of opera. “Had he been other than a musical genius, he would have been locked up,” writes Simon Callow, whose splendid new volume captures the man’s madness and music. Eschewing a hack’s against-all-odds psychoanalytic narrative in favor of a thoughtful portrait, Callow traces the evolution of an angry young man to an angry old man who, along the way, unalterably changed the dramaturgy of opera forever. 

But to call this book a “biography” would be to shoehorn it into a genre to which it does not entirely belong. The facts of Wagner’s life and the gestation of his myriad works are authoritatively presented, but where Callow differentiates himself from academics or acolytes is by simply spinning a damn fine yarn. A distinguished actor, director and author, Callow writes clear prose that turns Wagner’s life into an intellectual campfire story appropriate for those who know and love Wagner, those who know and loathe Wagner, and those who know absolutely nothing about Wagner but are easily enchanted by ghouls, kings, wars, exile and insane heroics. Think Roald Dahl meets Fitzcarraldo—on acid. “There is a distinctly 1960s quality to Wagner’s thinking,” Callow writes at one point, with various comparisons to James Dean, Arthur Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kurt Cobain. 

Not that the biographical underscore is lacking in rigor: on the contrary. Drawing from various sources, including Wagner’s privately published autobiography, Callow explores his embrace of Teutonic mythology, his unexpected maturation into composition and conducting, his dissolute pursuit of women (often the wives of his patrons), his sartorial flamboyance and his unrelenting swings from penury to luxury and back. 

Callow shies away neither from the profundity of Opera and Drama—Wagner’s tome that outlined his revolutionary plan to change music and theater—nor from the prejudice of Judaism in Music, his pseudonymously published pamphlet (cowardice was among his attributes) excoriating the presence of Jews in music. Despite the fact that “every Jew he ever met bent over backwards to help him,” notably Meyerbeer, who facilitated the premiere of Rienzi, Wagner thought of Jews as “nonentities” who polluted the German spirit. For those who would prefer to look away from Wagner’s rabid anti-Semitism, Callow turns our heads back to stare it in the face—and forward to its prefiguration of Nazism.

Callow pulls out the stops for the apotheosis of Wagner’s genius, the creation of The Ring and the opera house he designed to birth it. Madness! Madness all about, as he corralled unimaginable musical forces and technical resources (all of whom worked gratis; he would have it no other way), financial backing (thank you, Ludwig II) and emotional support. His long-suffering wife Minna having died, he married Cosima, daughter of Liszt and his mistress, Marie, Comtesse d’Agoult. Cosima had long cuckolded her husband, the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, a devotee of Wagner who championed his work; von Bülow conceded her destiny and granted her a divorce. It was a match made in Wagner’s heaven. As Callow tells us, she knew how to treat a god right. “Minna had tried to build a nest for him,” he writes. “Cosima built him Valhalla.”

Presumably, a good biography of a great composer would encourage the reader to sample his work or jump boldly into the ring of fire. But, as Callow reveals, without awe or sentiment, there is really no sampling Wagner, at least not at his apex. With the exception of a few overtures, extracted for easy money, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a lark, there are in his canon few recognizable tunes, arias, duets, ensembles—just extended motifs inextricably linked to character and drama. To consume Wagner is to devour a whale whole—the mythology, the drama, the music and the lunatic. Some readers of Being Wagner, and I hope there will be many, may be moved to do just that.-  —Matthew Sigman 

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