Book Review: The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: - Barry Millington

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday, 21 October 2012 | 4:51:00 pm

Regular contributor Daniel Carroll reviews Barry Millington's new Wagner book: The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, His Work, and His World. A further, if alas as usual idiosyncratic and "populist" review, will follow from your humble editor. However, Daniel's will remain the main source and most academic review for those with anything but a passing interest in Wagner. 

The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner

The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, His Work, and His World, by Barry Millington, is an outstanding new contribution to the biographical literature on this most incredible of composers— highly innovative in his theoretical conceptions, profoundly influential in their practice, and almost distressingly protean in disposition. All of these characteristics have been presented in previous products of Wagner biography. However, in consideration of these, Millington certainly set himself a formidable challenge to do what much of the literature does not, namely, not only to procure significant historical information about his life, including key dates, locations, and events, but to present the information pertaining to the specific technicalities of his musical-theatrical platform and especially the often prohibitively complex philosophical formulations to which he subscribed in a readily accessible manner. (Bryan Magee’s The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy is another excellent source in this regard.) In this clear, straight-forward, and exhaustively researched text, featuring beautiful color illustrations of key people and places in the continuing Wagner story, which are certainly a novelty in the academic literature on the composer, Millington accomplishes these objectives handsomely.

Millington explains his affordance of the moniker “sorcerer” to Wagner on both of its seemingly conflicting but actually interrelated grounds. On one hand, the term is used to indicate the almost magical powers of this composer and the transformative power of his music, and on the other, it alludes to the potentially corrupting nature of it all. (p. 6) Throughout the book, Millington makes reference to individual people, particularly composers, who evaluated the composer and his works in either or both of these manners and the role that such perspectives have played in their own artistic development. Irrespective of what one actually thinks about individual works or even his general musical “style,” the audaciousness, even if not the wholesale legitimacy, of the very mission that Wagner created for himself, which entailed (to summarize the aims as exposed by Wagner himself) the bestowal of a national salvation by virtue of a desperately required purgation of frivolous and ineffective theatrical conventions and their replacement by the Gesamtkunstwerk , is assuredly and unanimously accepted. (Incidentally, Millington addresses the implications of the Gesamtkunstwerk for modern cinema at great length.) (p. 258-268)

Interestingly, Millington officially opens the text with a brief discussion of the paternity dispute that is, apparently, still being considered in the literature. He introduces the man named Ludwig Geyer, and also broaches the possibility that he was Richard Wagner’s biological father.1 Millington concedes that the veracity of such a proposition “remains tantalizingly unknown and unknowable.” (Jonathan Carr had expressed this sentiment even more strongly in his 2009 book The Wagner Clan by stating that “barring exhumation and DNA tests,” this issue could not be dispositively settled.) (p. 25)

Millington presents with great detail and occasional humor Wagner’s highly erratic and confusing psychological profile. From his obsessions with the macabre and grotesque which were given expression in his gruesome Leubald und Adelaide in which forty-two people are killed and resurrected as ghosts (p. 15), to his bitterly painful resentment for the rejections of his theatrical reforms by the contemporary theatres, which caused him to declare his unreserved “contempt” for them (p. 38), an astonishing and perplexing mind emerges. It was certainly one full of abhorrently inflated delusions of grandeur, as evidenced by the insurmountable debts that he incurred to fulfill his every personal and artistic whim, grandiloquent expositions of his theatrical revolution and its vital and urgent necessity, and the rampant anti-Semitic components of his works as well as his personal worldviews.

The philosophical affinities which Wagner cultivated, such as those with Feuerbach (p. 96-97) and Schopenhauer (p. 166-170) and their influences upon his musical-theatrical conceptions are presented with admirable clarity. New insights as to the influences of Bülow’s Nirwana, a work inspired by the Buddhist/Schopenhauerian perspectives on life and death, on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde are herein given (p. 198). Millington also exposes the suicidal nature of not only Richard Wagner, but Cosima also, as well as Ritter and Bülow, thus indicating how Wagner seemed to be in the company of those similarly psychologically inclined if not philosophically as well (p. 197-198).

Millington offers some very new and intriguing information on not only the composer, but the institutions dedicated to him. Evidently, the collective of Wagner Societies which now exist the world over were initially established in Munich so as to raise funds for the ambitious enterprises at Bayreuth. It thus becomes apparent how they can not be perceived merely as “fan clubs,” but as entities which strove to make Wagner’s dreams come to fruition (p. 225). Millington also uncovers writings of Wagner which indicate the composer’s sympathy for the plights of domestic womanhood and, tellingly for our present era, his criticisms of “traditional marriages” and their capitalistic and proprietary nature (p. 243). The lore over Wagner’s final day, including multiple different accounts of the actual scene of his death including who was present, what was said, and how he was “disposed of” are also included (p. 244-245).

Millington closes the book with an examination of the current state of the Bayreuth Festival, including its recent family history, administrative personnel, and transformations in productions over the years. One of the still unsolved mysteries of the Festival is the connection between it and/or the Wagner family and the Third Reich. Millington mentions a substantial collection of documents that would indicate such information, but which have been kept hidden from outside examiners. He thus calls for these documents to be made available to both the academic and lay audiences who have a burning interest in this still most contentious of issues (p. 303). One is optimistic that such a release will be done, as it was for the Burrell Collection.2

The entire musicological and theatrical communities will profit greatly from Millington’s careful and revealing research. This book will stand in perpetuity as one of the great biographical works on the composer and will be of immense benefit to present and future researchers on this “sorcerer of Bayreuth.”

1 See my recent paper, “Hurn and Root’s The Truth About Wagner: Revisiting a Controversial Book After Eighty Years,” on “The Wagnerian” website for information on the dubiousness of the claim that Geyer was his biological father.
2 See the paper on Hurn and Root’s book mentioned above.

About the reviewer:

Daniel John Carroll is a graduate student and teaching assistant in the Department of Musicology and Ethnomusicology at Boston University. He has presented scholarly papers at academic conferences on philosophy and music (including the College Music Society and American Musicological Society) throughout the United States and Canada.

His academic work has been published in The New Grove Dictionary of American Music and several conference proceedings. Non-academic writings include articles for Pulse, the arts, entertainment, and culture section of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News in Moscow, Idaho and The Public Humanist. 

Upcoming research projects include a stint as Lecturer in Residence for Boston Metro Opera, participation with the Phenomenology Research Center at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and the global seminar “The Aesthetics of Music and Sound: Cross-Disciplinary Interplay Between the Humanities, Technology, and Musical Practice” with the University of Southern Denmark