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"Decoding Wagner: An Invitation to His World of Music Drama"

by Thomas May
Amadeus Press, 220 pp. $24.95
(includes two CDs)

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More has been written about Wagner than about any other composer, but Thomas May's new book (part of the "Unlocking the Masters" series from Amadeus Press) deserves a prominent place in this crowded field. May explicitly denies any claim to conclusiveness, instead making the pertinent observation that studies of Wagner reveal "a kind of artistic uncertainty principle": the act of interpreting is automatically skewed by the interpreter's own biases. As a result, May observes drily, "It's hard to find a controversy not associated with Wagner."

Instead of grinding his own axe, May focuses on how the operas themselves express Wagner's personal struggle with the universal issues of humankind: love, power, suffering, redemption and the quest for fulfillment. The book actually takes on the qualities of a suspense novel, the action driven by the conflict-ridden, all-consuming creative growth process of a towering artist and deeply flawed human being. With a keen sense for apt detail and a refreshing ability to upend tired clichés, May illustrates, opera by opera, how the composer's work unfailingly mirrors his personal odyssey.

Though the book uses no technical musical vocabulary, vivid insights abound. Through Der Fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin (a series of composer self-portraits, as it turns out), the reader can observe Wagner getting closer and closer to full creative actualization, but massive personal and artistic upheaval still lies ahead.

At this point, as May puts it, characteristically fusing the life and the work, "Like Lohengrin's reluctant song of farewell to his swan, Wagner here bids a bittersweet adieu to the art as he knows it." This sets the stage for Tristanund Isolde, wherein, for the first time, the characters' interior emotional states provide the real action. But after the death-suffused Tristan comes, startlingly, the exuberant, life-affirming Die Meistersinger, seemingly a throwback to the very kind of light entertainment Wagner had renounced - or is it? Die Meistersinger's topic is the creation of art itself. May makes it clear that, no less than his song-writing mastersingers, Wagner himself was struggling to reconcile traditional musical forms, which more likely guaranteed the popular success that he craved, with his concept for "the artwork of the future," which demanded entirely new modes of expression. It is against this backdrop, halfway through the book, that May takes on the Ring cycle.

In this context, the vast Nibelungen saga reveals itself as the culmination of Wag-ner's quest to understand his own painful experience of the world, and to create, as a result, art that would change people's lives. Without forgiving Wagner's glaring character flaws, May sheds new light on the paradox that a man who was so colossally egocentric could create works of such penetrating universality. Consistently thought-provoking, and accompanied by two discs of well-chosen musical examples, this book is likely to make neophytes and connoisseurs alike eager to reexperience the Wagner operas on an ongoing basis.


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