Being Wagner by Simon Callow

I only started listening to Wagner a few years ago, though I was familiar with the bombastic ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’, not least because of its use in the movie, Apocalypse Now. I had imbibed the notion of him as a turbulent genius in the Romantic mould long ago. As it happens, this biography, penned by the esteemed actor, Simon Callow,  largely confirms this image of him. Surprisingly Wagner didn’t have a very early musical education like Mozart but started piano lessons at twelve and was as much taken with the world of theatre and ETA Hoffmann as music theory. His early years of composing were spent largely in penury and reliant on loans from friends until he came under the patronage of King Ludwig of Bavaria. He then had the means to stage his music dramas, culminating in the famous Ring cycle and its staging at the bespoke theatre in Bayreuth. Although Wagner could be of an irascible temperament we would be able to speak of him in the most superlative terms if it wasn’t for his virulently anti-semitic views which taint his legacy. Callow deals with these in a forthright manner and doesn’t attempt to excuse any of his well-documented behaviours. This presents a difficult conundrum for the listener. Should we separate the man and his work or is it even possible for someone whose personality so informs his music. Personally I feel that Wagner was misguidedly obsessed with creating a specifically German type of music (based on German myths) which led him to decry Jewish influence in Germany and in music. What he created though was a music which was concerned with universal emotions despite himself. In this way, I think we can still appreciate his work while having no illusions about the obnoxiousness of some of his stated opinions. ‘Being Wagner’ is a good place to start for the novice listener (like me) as it is short on music theory but gives a feel for the man and the scope of his achievements. Personally, I’m still far from the perfect Wagnerite. I really love some of his sublime arias and am stitrred by the orchestral music but without the German language would need a translation of the libretto(text) to understand the full drama. Nevertheless, this work will appeal to anyone looking for a description of the seeds of creative genius, whether opera is a genre that appeals to you or not.

This Book review was written by Kevin. Kevin attends New Horizon Hub as part of the Link Programme. We are delighted he still takes the time to write these brilliant reviews for us. Thanks Kevin.

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