Being Wagner

(by Simon Callow) (2017)

Wagner was the Richard Nixon of Art: Revered, and reviled. Hugely accomplished and hugely flawed. Shining Knight and Scaly Dragon. So many words have been written by him, about him, for him and against him that when our literary friend Janelle sent us this book as a gift, it evoked a wan sigh – another Wagner book by an enthusiastic amateur, you might say!  Quelle Horreur you might say!

Well, you all ought to be ashamed of yourselves!  This is a lovely book, full of sound insight and as easy to slip between its sheets as with the Siegfried Idyll. That Callow (last seen assuring a dim American dowager that he has Oscar Wilde’s fax number) is the author is not so odd: a long-time devotee of theatre and opera, he uses his theatrical sensibilities and wide research to unlock the artistic and egotistic impulses of the Maestro, all to good purpose.

We don’t know that it is possible or even sensible to try to get into Wagner’s massive skull, but his drive, energy and burning artistic ambition are brilliantly described, in appropriately majestic, theatrical prose:

The Flying Dutchman was the first real music he had ever written, the first music, as he put it, that he had written not from his conscious but from his unconscious mind. Its failure taught Wagner a lesson. The singers in the Dresden Dutchman had had no idea what to do with the music or the words he’d written for them. How could they? They’d never come across anything like it. He began to understand that, if the work he intended to write was to make its due effect, he was going to need a new kind of singer, a new kind of orchestral playing, a new kind of production, a new kind of theatre. Above all, he was going to need a new kind of audience, one educated by him. And he was going to have to do all this by himself – he understood that very clearly. It was a matter of willpower.”

If he was to write the work of art of the future, as he fervently intended, he needed to be very clear about what it was. Exiled, of utterly uncertain future, he decided to write no more music until he had achieved that clarity. It took him five years. For a man out of whom music had poured unstoppably for fifteen years, simply to switch off the flow and take stock for five entire years borders on the heroic.

Cosima and Wagner “made an odd couple to look at: she was Amazonianly tall, with severe, beaky features; he was uncommonly short, with a somewhat simian lope. But it was a perfect match. They were of one mind: his. She saw him as a Sublime Master, which helped him; Minna had always seen him as the needy, difficult, gifted boy she had first fallen in love with. Minna had tried to provide a nest for him; Cosima built him Valhalla…She gave him, in fact, a life fit for a hero.”

Wagner “had transcended the spirit of the Greek theatre into German form, rescuing German art and the art of the stage from the triviality and mediocrity which threatened to engulf both.”

Before Freud and Jung, Wagner made the old myths mean something again; like them, he looked beyond the rational brain. He saw man as a turbulent, troubled, writhing, longing, betraying, creating, destroying, loving, loathing mess of instincts and impulses so deeply buried within us that we scarcely dare look at them. He forced us to do so. He was all of those things himself. Had he been anything other than a musical genius, he would have been locked up.


1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Janelle McCulloch

    October 28, 2017

    What a brilliant review! Makes me want to go out and read (and see, and hear) Wagner, and I've never felt I had the mental energy to do so before now. I particularly love the line "Shining Knight and Scaly Dragon". Perhaps you should write some more books, Mr Jakobsen?? I also love the book's sub-title - The Triumph of the Will. It sums up life, and writing, and just about everything in between.

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