Review: Wagner, His Life and Music - Stephen Johnson.

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 19 November 2013 | 11:30:00 am

"For me, it was the experience of hearing Parsifal again in the legendary Hans Knappertsbuch recording that made me realise how important it is to identify the best in Wagner, and to show how it transcends and diminishes the worst". Stephen Johnson. 
Its an odd thing, but, in this bicentennial year, while there has been no shortage of books about Wagner, his work, his ideas, his influence or his family  - and they continue to arrive monthly - there has been a distinct shortage of straightforward biographies. So far, we have only been able to note Ray Furness', Richard Wagner (Critical Lives), a biography worth your attention, if only slightly marred by its uncritical approach to Wagner and his thoughts while sadly giving no attention to those that surrounded him. Perhaps writers feel that everything that can be said in a straightforward biography has been said? The trouble with this is, if we accept it as true - and I doubt it - most of these biographies are no longer available in English or are hard to find. Apart from the short guides, the only other biography of any note in recent years is Kohler's "Last Of The Titans - and that is greatly spoilt by a set of value judgements that are not only singly idiosyncratic but which Kohler no longer seems to maintain.  It came as same surprise then, to find that we had missed perhaps one of the better biographies for many years. And not just a biography but an accompanying four hours of Wagner's music, introduced with contextual, character and musical analysis.

Stephen Johnson's Wagner:His Life and Music  from Naxos Books is available in three formats: a  paperback book with two accompanying CDs of Wagner's Music, an electronic book for ebook readers without CDs and as a 9 hour or so audiobook. While not normally a "fan" of audiobooks - I struggle to concentrate with the things normally and prefer the written word - 4 hours of musical analysis (detailed in the case of Wagner's dramas) with extended full samples seemed simply too good an opportunity to pass-by and I thus, thankfully, put aside my usual reservations - although I have now also bought the accompanying ebook. 

Music journalist and presenter for Radio 3's Discovering Music, Stephen Johnson' is no stranger to Wagner or indeed producing intelligent introductions to his work. For Naxos he has already produced a series of audio introductions to  the Ring, Tristan and the Dutchman. These introductions have been both intelligent, insightful and not without wit - and he brings all of these qualities to this latest work. While a clear, enthusiastic and sympathetic commentator on Wagner and his work, he does not treat Wagner with the reverence that can lessen some biographies but neither does he stress above all else, the less pleasant sides of Wagner's personality - as far too many others do.  As he says in the preface,

"For me, it was the experience of hearing Parsifal again in the legendary Hans Knappertsbuch recording that made me realise how important it is to identify the best in Wagner, and to show how it transcends and diminishes the worst. There maybe - as some have argued - sinister racial overtones behind the image of the holy blood invoked in Parsifal, but most modern listeners have to be told the message is there to recognise it: Wagner never made it explicit. More to the point, it surely pales besides the wonderful elevation of compassion as the power that not only outfaces evil but offers integration and enlightenment to the divided modern soul. For most listeners, the opera's roots in Christian and Buddhist notions of self-transcendence eclipse whatever the libretto may or may not owe to nineteenth-century racial theories such as the once famous Count Gobineau. All this is only served and strengthened by the ingenuity and heartrending beauty of Wagner's music."

And this is a philosophy that is maintained throughout the book or 9 hours of audio. The main features, events, philosophies and influences on Wagner's life can be found herein. Wagner's work is placed firmly in the social, political and philosophical milieu of his time and Johnson manages to include facts, on occasion , that might be unfamiliar to even those with more than a "working knowledge" of Wagner. At the same there is a level of analysis and sophistication that is surprising for a book that one assumes is aimed at the neophyte.

More to the point, it surely pales besides the wonderful elevation of compassion as the power that not only outfaces evil but offers integration and enlightenment to the divided modern soul

It is certain that Johnson has kept up to date on much, if not all, of the recent literature around Wagner and anyone new or coming to Wagner will find much material here unfamiliar yet presented in a manner that makes it easily comprehensible and more importantly "balanced". Together with the audio introduction to Wagner's music, synopsis, background and analysis, this provides one of the best, and most intelligent, introductions to Wagner and his music in some-time. And it is not only the Wagner "neophyte" that will have much to enjoy here  as those with great familiarity with his work will also enjoy much here. Add to this, Johnson's lively narrative style (see sample below) and this is a set that would be hard not to recommend.

Note: We would not normally mention any particular retail outlet - except perhaps none profits or very specialised ones. And we have to say that Audible, being part of Amazon, is certainly anything if not commercial. However, readers maybe interested to note that they can  download the full audio book, as part of a free trial of Audible's membership. And should you just want this audiobook then you can cancel your subscription and the book remains yours. Google Audible and you will be directed to your countries local site. Otherwise, a quick search online should find a copy in the retail outlet of your choice.

One other thing, in the introduction Johnson notes that many people are only familiar with Wagner through the use of "Ride of the Valkyries" in Kubrick's "Apocalypse Now . The film nerd in me could not let it go by without saying that, that  landmark and exceptional film was actually directed by Francis Ford Coppola!