Being Wagner: The Story of the Most Provocative Composer Who Ever Lived
By Simon Callow
(Vintage Books, 192 pages, $16 trade paperback)
Richard Wagner’s music is an acquired taste. A more difficult acquisition than most. I’ll admit to being much attracted to Mark Twain’s sarcastic take, which was (relying on my memory here, so I may not have the exact quote): “Wagner’s music is a lot better than it sounds.” Just so.
I know there are devoted Wagnerians out there, including fictional ones like Detective Chief Inspector Endeavor Morse, and real ones like Simon Callow, the author of Being Wagner, which repaid my reading time even though, with a few pleasing exceptions, mostly overtures, I’ve found Wagner’s music overlong, overloud, overwrought, and more than a little baggy. Where many have found profundity and heard beauty (which Wagner was not much interested in), I and many others have experienced only Teutonic tedium at unconscionable length. His Ring Cycle operas (music dramas Wagner preferred to call them) are about as long as the American election cycle and no more edifying, a least for me, and even for many others with better musical pedigrees than I can claim. Anyone who can watch these seriatim deserves the Music Lover’s Medal with oak leaf clusters and the Steel Butt Badge.
But even music lovers as underwhelmed by Wagner’s artistic output as I am can enjoy Callow’s short and readable treatment of a small man with a large talent and an even larger sense of entitlement. As the name of the book implies, Being Wagner is more about the man than about the specifics of his music. Callow concedes he is neither a musical performer nor a musicologist. “I am a well-informed music lover, but it would be entirely inappropriate for me to attempt musical analysis.” I will also desist for the same reason. Being Wagner is about the oddly-shaped little man who left a big impression on serious music and was a Big Foot in the history of the 19th century.
Wagner thought his talent and his musical gifts to the world licensed him to be demanding, haughty, rude, petulant, entirely self-centered, neurotic, unreliable, a spend-thrift when he had money (usually someone else’s), over-attentive to the wives of others, offensive in the highest registers, an all-around impossible man. “Had he been anything but a musical genius,” Callow concludes, “he would have been locked up.”
And he very nearly was. It’s no surprise that a belligerent man, as sure as Wagner was that he could better arrange the way human beings lived through his music dramas, should take the revolutionary road in politics. The turmoil that engulfed Europe in 1848 was to his liking, and he took an active enough part in the attending violence, with dicey associates such as the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, that warrants were issued for his arrest. These restricted his travel for a decade or more.
But somehow Wagner managed to survive ill-health, ill-report, irate husbands, the long arm of the law, and near constant poverty between brief flush periods sponsored by various beguiled patrons, including “Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria.” This last bankrolled Wagner’s later career at considerable expense to Bavaria, and is either credited with or given the blame for the exhaustive and exhausting operas that are still performed today, and remain controversial.
Wagner cared not for beauty and was contemptuous of mere entertainment. He had the sense of humor of road salt. His operas didn’t so much dwell on ideas as attempt to get below the analytical to the emotions lying beneath, the more disturbing the better. No laugh riot was our Richard. No up-lifter. I should think one leaving the opera-house after watching Wagner at his deadliest would have some idea how wartime submariners felt after having been depth-charged for a couple of hours.
Unlike with Mozart before and Verdi and Puccini after, for Wagner the drama and its meaning were what was important. The music was only there to reinforce the sermon. Quite opposite of, say, The Magic Flute, or Don Giovanni, where even if opera-goers have no idea what the hell is going on in the story, and Flute is certainly a challenge to keep up with in this regard, they can still be carried away by the music, which is the purpose of the whole elaborate business. With Mozart, the goofy story is the oyster. The music is the beer you wash it down with. But our Richard had more important fish to fry. He was in it to save the world. You could almost call him a musical pamphleteer more than a composer. (Checking on the shape of the world since Wagner went to his reward in 1883 — about which reward there is reason for concern — he was roughly as successful as other world-savers.)
One of the controversies that will always stick to Wagner is that a certain wee corporal, who caused the world immeasurable death, destruction, and heartache in the 1930s and until the Allies put an end to him and his mad designs in 1945, claimed Wagner as his favorite composer. (I seriously doubt though that Adolf ever sat through Ring of the Nibelung.) It’s not hard to see, music aside, what charmed Hitler. It was Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism. Wagner’s pamphlet, Judaism in Music, published in 1850, caused him to lose popularity during his lifetime and after. This is a Europe where anti-Semitism was hardly unheard of. Not just a passing prejudice for Wagner, he was subject to going into rants against Jews at any moment. Just the sort of thing to charm one of the next century’s monsters.
All in all it’s a gaudy but fascinating story, told concisely and well by Callow. By the way, if that name sounds familiar, there’s a reason. The multi-talented Callow is also an actor and director whom you may have seen in guest shots on one of the popular British TV series —Inspector Morse, Lewis, Midsomer Murders, Poirot, Death in Paradise — or on the silver screen in such as A Room With a View, Shakespeare in Love, Howards End. Perhaps his best known movie role was as the entertaining bon vivant Gareth in the popular Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Callow has also written books on Orson Welles (a starter on my All-American, All Pomposity team) and Charles Laughton. Based on my experience with Being Wagner, I’ve added these to my to-read list.