Review: Richard Wagner: A Life In Music. Martin Geck

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 11 October 2013 | 2:03:00 am

Review by Lucy Beckett
Admiration tempered by judgement
Richard Wagner: a life in music
Martin Geck, translated by Stewart Spencer
University of Chicago Press, £24.50
 
Wagner was born in Leipzig in 1813, a few months before Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig. He died in February 1883 having seen his last work Parsifal through to its first production, at his own “festival playhouse” in Bayreuth, in the previous summer. 

Wagner’s constantly expanding bibliog­raphy, swollen this year by his bicentenary, is now approaching the scale of Shakespeare’s. While Shakespeare’s biographers, for lack of information, have to imagine most of what they say about his life, biographers of Wagner have the opposite problem. Wagner never stopped telling everyone what he was doing and what it meant, in an enormous auto­biography, hundreds of surviving letters and huge essays. His second wife, Cosima, wrote a diary, mostly about him and what he was saying and doing, on practically every day of the last 16 years of his life. This mass of ma­terial has to be treated with circumspection: both Wagner and Cosima were adepts of spin long before the concept was named. ­To write a good new “life and works” of Wagner is an exceptionally difficult task, for this reason and several more: the controversy that has swirled round his music – did it complete or destroy the central tradition of Western music? or both? – at least since the first performances of Tristan and Isolde in 1865 and of the complete Ring of the Nibelung  in 1876; the controversy about his political and social views and their effect on his work: was Wagner a proto-fascist German nationalist whose works are vitiated for ever by what Hitler found in them? Did Wagner’s anti-Semitism find noxious expression in characters he invented and the music that brings them to life? How can contemporary directors cope with works combining Teutonic mythology, nineteenth- century realism, medieval chivalric lore, Schopenhauer’s recommendation of the renunciation of the will, and a lot more?

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