Review: The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia. With An Extensive Preview

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 10 January 2014 | 1:28:00 am

The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia
EDITOR: Nicholas Vazsonyi
DATE PUBLISHED: November 2013
FORMAT: Hardback
ISBN: 9781107004252

Encyclopedias, especially specialist, one volume sets, are works fraught with risks. There is of course the question of what to include and what to exclude. The intrepid editor is unlikely to satisfy all readers with what is given inclusion and worse will be those facts that are left in the editors waste basket. And even when an item is included, can every reader be satisfied with the depth of coverage given to their preferred favourite subject?

And  who does one get to contribute? They are most likely to be experts in the subject area but this itself carries inherent risks. If they are academics, and they most likely are, they will, to steal a term from that most misunderstood of philosophers Thomas Kuhn, be swimming happily in whatever paradigm dominates the field at the time. For example, you are  unlikely to find a large number of physicists, assuming you could find a large number (such as Peter Woit, Lee Smolin, Philip Warren Anderson, Sheldon Glashow, Lawrence Krauss, and Carlo Rovelli.), contributing to an Encyclopedia of String Theory who believe that the imaginations of those  that try to doggedly construct a unified theory of everything - in a post-structuralist world -   is only matched by the number of new dimensions that need to be generated to maintain the theory's  integrity .

Finally, who is the encyclopedia aimed at? At other experts? Researchers or the non specialist but interested reader? These decisions will impact the level of explanation and the language used. Too "technical" - without explanation -  and you alienate the general reader. Too superficial and you make the volume of little use to a researcher.

So, one can see that the editor of an encyclopedia must:  hold a strong rein on their contributors, keeping them on track, making sure that their articles are balanced - even if they must out of necessity exist within the dominant paradigms -  maintain an adequate level of depth and yet be understandable to what was once called an "educated reader" (whoever or whatever that might be) and yet themselves have a very strong knowledge of the subject area so that they know what articles should be commissioned. And of course they themselves must try to retain a level of neutrality that would make a Zen monk groan. Alas, it is unlikely such a person has or ever will exist with all of these  skills, at such a level to compose the  "perfect" encyclopedia - especially on such a complex individual and his music as Richard Wagner. What we can only ever hope for  is a work that distances itself from imperfection as much as it might.

With this in mind, what are we to make of the first ever Wagner Encyclopedia? Perhaps one of the most ambitious projects in academic musicology and certainly the most ambitious around Wagner and his work? It is certain that its editor Nicholas Vazsonyi, has the background to manage such an ambitious a project. As Professor of Foreign Languages and Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of South Carolina he has written or edited a number of books close to this project. These include:

Lukács Reads Goethe (1997),  followed by two edited volumes, one on German national identity formation between 1750 and 1871 (2000) and the other entitled Wagner's Meistersinger: Performance, History, Representation. 

His last book, and one I have recommended many times, is the highly original, Richard Wagner: Self-Promotion and the Making of a Brand. To add to his credentials he was co-organiser, along with with Anno Mungen (University of Bayreuth) of the excellent WagnerWorldWide 2013 project, a series of linked lectures and conferences around the world. He also has recently joined the editorial board of the German Wagner journal WagnerSpectrum .

To this, we must add a roster of Wagner experts, many familiar to visitors of this site, that would have to jostle each other aside to take a bow on the stage at Bayreuth. 

Of course, none of this guarantees success. However, while certainly not perfect, sometimes frustratingly so, this is not only perhaps the best we could have asked for but the best that we can, or should expect to receive  for a very long time - if ever. We can only be grateful that it was Nicholas Vazsonyi that Cambridge Press approached for this project. 

The range of subjects covered is extensive. Indeed, many hours of fun can be found by opening a page at random to find a Wagner related subject that one might not have considered. Yes, the usual subjects are covered.Topics such as Wagner's works - in great detail -  "biographies" and discussion of all of the major figures from the dramas, discussions of degeneration, nationalism, Endless Melody Bayreuth, Levi, Schopenhauer,Wagner's politics (in a standout entry by Mark Berry,  possibly one of the most concise yet detailed and readable explorations of this subject), Wagner's prose works  (often looked at individually and in some detail) production history (an eight page entry from Evan Baker) a detailed biography (written by Derek Watson)  however, there is always something to surprise. A detailed entry on Wagner's "servants" for example? Or what about a look at Wagner's pets?  Or his barber? His American dentist? One is certain, that should the Wagner Societies ever decide to stage "pub quizzes" then this would be the book that enterprising quiz masters would turn. For anyone interested the full index can be found by clicking here. 

However, this is not to suggest that this is not a book for the "serious" researcher, whether in history, musicology or any related subject. Indeed, it would be impossible to believe this book should not find its way into the libraries of any English speaking school, college or university  And any undergraduate or graduate student composing a dissertation or thesis  around Wagner would make a serious error to not refer to it - either for its clear exploration of of ideas or as a source for further reading. - although like any reference work, it is not immune to errors and anyone using it for research would be wise to investigate a subject thoroughly 

However, and there is always a "however", it is, as I have suggested, not a perfect book. Its greatest failing is what it does not include or looks at only superficially. Lets look for example at two of Wagner's early works separated by only a short time: Rienzi, and Der fliegende Holländer. Whereas the Dutchman receives 8 pages of detailed analysis, Rienzi is given only just over 2. Why? Yes, in Rienzi Wagner certainly has not acquired the "voice" that would soon become so obvious in the Dutchman but it is still a fascinating work - more so given this fact alone. And lest we not forget how popular it was at the time - the work that, without doubt, truly launched his career. It is also a work that I would argue is better than many of the juvenile works of Mozart or Verdi yet these are often given much prominence in their respective areas. And things are worse for earlier works, with Die Feen only getting a page to itself (it is not much larger than an entry on Wagner's pets). Could it be the editor has bought into the Wagner/Bayreuth Circle propaganda machine that attempted to dismiss these earlier works? A surprising development for an author that has so closely examined Wagner's "branding strategies" but most importantly a very much missed opportunity.

There are other very strange findings also. Lets look at Wagner's xenophobia - much discussed therein. as one would suspect and indeed welcome in such a work. Search for "Jew" (all related to his anti-semitism) and you will find 38 entries. Search for "French" and you will find one - under an entry noted as France. Worse, search for Jesuit - another of Wagner's peculiar, persistent, paranoid obsessions - and you will find none. Or lets us look at another one of Wagner's peculiarities; his confused and inconsistent misogyny (Alas, Wagner could be an outrageous (and like most of his characteristics highly inconsistent) misogynist. No entry of this can be found although  it is discussed briefly under an entry titled "women".

There is a similar problem with two of Wagner's nastiest, most xenophobic and frankly horrid writings: Das Judenthum in der Musik and Eine Kapitulation. A search for Das Judenthum in der Musik results in 33 entries -(a few of which consist of more than one page) and ultimately brings one to a three page examination of this "work" and its legacy. (a well written piece by Pamela M Potter that is highly recommended even if you can only access this book at a library). A similar search for Wagner's equally, if not in many ways worse and more lurid  Eine Kapitulation returns 6 entries. with none devoted purely to it. The most detailed analysis is in the entry "France" Here it is given two sentences that clearly propagates the Wagner Circle myth that actually Wagner didn't mean it, he was simply misunderstood and it was really only a criticism of German opera - and this is despite the joy it takes in starving Parisians forced to eat rats, or the denigration it metes out to a range of French artists, writers, etc. The French certainly took it seriously enough to help officially ban Wagner's work across two decades (No separate mention of this ban and thus no entry in the index) (For a detailed examination of Eine Kapitulation please read Thomas S. Grey's Eine Kapitulation: Aristophanic Operetta as Cultural Warfare in 1870, Richard Wagner and His World Edited by Thomas S. Grey)

I noted at the beginning  Kuhn's notion of "dominant paradigms" in academia. In Wagner academia this is is one where Wagner's anti-semitism is dominant, eclipsing  and informing everything: his life, his work, his writings. Everything else, his paranoia and hatred of the French and Jesuits, his misogyny, his views that the "black race" was the "lowest of them all"  are either ignored, considered "of his time" or else countered by his positive treatment of women, for example, in his dramas. Of course, Adorno is always cited so as to give an air of academic respectability to this paradigm (a rather good 3 page entry) yet it gained general popularity only after Robert Gutman's Wagner biography in the '60s (no entry) and continues a long tradition originally started by the Nazis (38 entries). This is a paradigm that allows allows Hans Rudolf Vagut to conclude an entry on Anti-semitism by saying, " In the end, there is no point in denying that a significant part of the operatic (sic) at least imbued with the spirit of anti-semitism.  That spirit  is communicated only indirectly....through coded characterisations and allusions." However, here or nowhere else does he, or anyone else,  suggest that we must logically conclude that Wagner projected racist or xenophobic characteristics of his  other "others" onto his works: the French, the Jesuit or "the lowest race of them all" the Afro-Caribbean.  Indeed, it means that such a subject is not even considered and should you make it you would no doubt be greeted with derision.

The above is the dominant paradigm in Wagner academia, as I have said,  but what is extraordinary about this encyclopedia is how little, in relative terms,  Vazsonyi allows it to intrude on its structure - with the odd exception as I have hinted at. Indeed, it is more evident by what is missing then what is included (Although there is an odd bias here and there but it is generally superficial). Given this dominant paradigm, I cannot see how any other editor could could have done a better job. Indeed,with perhaps a very few small exceptions, most would have allowed this view to dominate. We are very lucky indeed that Cambridge Press selected Vazsonyi as editor.

Of course, what you want to know is "should I buy this book? My instant reply is that if you have more than a passing interests in Wagner - and visiting here I would suspect that you may - then not only should you buy this marvellous, unique work, filled with insights,  but you must. The only "sticking point maybe a cost of  £120. If this is not an issue for you, then go out now. However, for everyone else, remember that the Cambridge artist Encyclopedias are always released later in paperback format. If we look at the Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia - which is a slimmer volume  and sells in hardback at £150 - it can be bought for around £30 new in paperback format and less from some sources on Amazon. If you can/have to wait, then this is certainly the best option. Whichever is the case I think you must at some stage at least spend time reading through it.