Simon Callow Is Even Less Reliable Than Wagner About Wagner?

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday, 19 February 2017 | 1:41:00 am

It seems that Micheal Tanner finds Simon Callow an even more unreliable Wagner Biographer than Wagner. He has a poor grasp of Schopenhauer also. Our own thoughts will be arriving shortly. 

The dust cover features one of the best-known caricatures of Richard Wagner, his enormous head in this version opened like a boiled egg, with a photograph of Simon Callow either emerging from his skull or sinking into it. The idea is that rather than just writing another book on this over-biographised figure, Callow will let us know what it was like actually to have been him, something he also tried in his one-man show at the Linbury Theatre, Inside Wagner’s Head. Callow tells us that he has been a lifelong Wagnerian, but that only in the last four years has he investigated him as a man, reading the most important biographical and, especially, autobiographical works, together with a fair number of critical studies.

So we have one flamboyant theatrical figure claiming to portray another. Wagner’s narratives of his life — there are many of them — are notoriously unreliable, often with dramatic intent. Callow is not the man to mind that; and he adds a large number of inaccuracies and flourishes of his own, so that, in many respects, the book turns out to be a mine of misinformation. Callow even gets Wagner’s birthday wrong, twice, though it is correct in the chronology at the end. More seriously, he takes Wagner’s word for it that it was seeing the great soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient as Fidelio in 1829 that determined him to become an opera composer, and also was a lifelong influence on his view of the ideal operatic performer. But it has long been known, and stated in several of the books Callow lists in his bibliography, that she didn’t perform in Fidelio then. It was part of Wagner’s mytho-autobiography.