Friday, May 12, 2017

"Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will" by Simon Callow

Biographies of creative artists vary a lot in the attention and balance they give to the “Life” and the “Works”. Sometimes the life almost overwhelms the works – Callas, Hemingway, Bernstein – sometimes the character remains hidden, overwhelmed by the grandeur of the creations. Or perhaps, as with Shakespeare, because while the works are ubiquitous the details of the life remain a mystery. When they are well done composer biographies illuminate our understanding of the work by selectively focusing on the relevant aspects of the life. That surely is the biographer’s goal? Most composers only have a presence in our lives because we listen to, or see (in the case of Opera or Ballet or musical theatre) their work. How they got to the work’s creation may be of interest incidentally but even if we knew nothing of the life at all the work can still engage us completely. Richard Wagner is different – very different! To begin to “get” his work you do, I think, have to get to know the man.

In the Foreword to his brilliant biography “Being Wagner” Simon Callow points out that Wagner “has been written about at greater length than any other composer”. This rather supports the contention that the man and the work are uniquely interlaced. I came to Wagner late – partly because I came to Opera as a whole late and partly because I took one look at the work and instinctively retreated from it. “The Ring”? Fifteen hours of stuff about gods and rhinemaidens and heroes and dwarves? Come on! But then I became conscious of the fact that if you have Radio 3 playing all day (as I usually do) you are going to hear some stunning, tuneful, accessible music from the man. The Siegfried Idyll. The prelude to Act One of “Die Meistersinger”. The astonishing “Tristan chord”.  So a few years ago I thought I better dive into the operas. Glyndebourne put on “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg“and I went. It was a fine production (directed by David McVicar) as I now know - though at the time it was the only Wagner I had seen and I was a bit puzzled. That I didn’t really “get it” is illustrated by the trite remark I made to a friend in the interval “It only seems to have one tune”. Hmm.

A few months after Die Meistersinger at Glyndebourne I received an offer from the Royal Opera House of half-price tickets for their latest revival of Graham Vick’s 1993 production of the work. Well that was a bargain not to be missed – and I didn’t. I think that it was at the end of Act 2 during the hilariously staged riot scene that I finally “got” the work. I got the story and the characters but above all I got the music – the way that the various musical themes underpin the action returning over and over again to accompany their characters or the story. I was hooked. I’ve since seen the opera in Paris, Helsinki, Munich, Berlin, La Scala, Amsterdam as well as again at Glyndebourne (a revival), and the Royal Opera (the very strange 2017 new production) and by the ENO at the Coliseum. I have also seen Tristan, Tannhauser, the Flying Dutchman and Lohengrin (but not yet The Ring!).       

All the above to show that when I started Simon Callow’s “Being Wagner, The Triumph of the Will” I came to it not as a complete Wagner innocent – but equally without much knowledge of the man and his life. Having now read the book I realise why Wagner is different! Callow’s beautifully written and thoroughly researched biography is not a heavy tome – and all the better for it. In around 200 pages of text he describes the life chronologically and unsensationally. The facts are extraordinary enough not to need embellishment. However the works are the thread holding the life together and to know them – even as sketchily as I do (Die Meistersinger excepted!) makes the story all the more astonishing. How did this strange, driven, dysfunctional egomaniac create works of such compelling beauty? And how was it that despite years, decades even, of rejection he persevered to leave as his legacy works absolutely unsurpassed in the canon of nineteenth century opera.  Or the opera of any century come to think of it.

Wagner was a revolutionary in every way. His operas of course but also his politics and his lifestyle. Callow describes the magnetic hold he had on people – not just on women, though certainly on them. Ludwig the “Mad King” of Bavaria was entranced and he used his wealth and power to get Wagner’s work performed and to help the building of the composer’s extraordinary Bayreuth Opera House (Festspielhaus ) project. In a lovely phrase Callow says that Wagner “…upset people because that is precisely what he set out to do.” Unlike, say Schoenberg, Webern, Berg or Stockhausen he did not do this with serial composition or by surrendering melody or structure. Wagner’s music is both conventional and unconventional at the same time - but it is far from inaccessible. David McVicar has said I don’t like the idea that any opera composer is approached as a kind of intellectual Everest to be climbed. If you have the capacity, if you have the openness of mind, Wagner will talk directly to you. He’ll reach you. He’ll find things inside you.” And Leonard Bernstein perhaps got to the heart of Wagner’s psyche “I have the feeling that Wagner never grew up in this sense, that he retained all his life that infantile feeling of being the center of the universe”

Wagner is an obvious example of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man” - where what seems noble on the surface is underneath dust. There is certainly nobility to most of Wagner’s work – but the dust was everywhere else and included, of course, his grotesque anti-Semitism. This was not a casual prejudice – Callow calls it a “sort of madness”. He studied anti-Semitic writings and befriended ant-Semites. And yet at the same time he created Parsifal which Callow calls “… the nineteenth century’s greatest expression of redemption, transcendence and forgiveness”. Pick your way around that! In the end Simon Callow concludes that we should forever be grateful that Wagner persevered despite the extraordinary obstacles along the way (many of his own making) and that he is “…a whirlpool at the centre of musical culture, dangerous and dynamic. He is the discomfort we must live with… we should be grateful, even if we may be glad that we don’t have to spend too much time in his company”   



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