Bi­og­ra­phy Be­ing Wag­ner

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

Si­mon Cal­low (Wil­liam Collins, £14.99)

Si­mon Cal­low has done oper­a­go­ers a ser­vice by writ­ing a short, funny book about wag­ner. as nei­ther short nor funny are words one would usu­ally as­so­ciate with the sub­ject, it may of­fend true be­liev­ers (and wag­ner does take on the char­ac­ter of a reli­gion for some peo­ple). How­ever, for many wag­ne­r­i­ans, who want to pen­e­trate more deeply into the thought and per­son­al­ity of the com­poser, it pro­vides an ideal in­tro­duc­tion.

as an ac­tor, whose one-man show In­side Wag­ner’s Head was the in­spi­ra­tion for Be­ing Wag­ner, mr Cal­low truly in­hab­its the per­son­al­ity of this ex­traor­di­nary man, pre­sent­ing him as a gar­gan­tuan fig­ure: an in­ef­fa­ble ge­nius who was also a mon­strous grotesque of Balza­cian pro­por­tions. al­though i’ve been to many wag­ner per­for­mances over the years, i had never pre­vi­ously thought of their beget­ter as phys­i­cally ‘tiny’, with bug eyes and an unattrac­tive skin con­di­tion. i hope i can rid my­self of the im­age be­fore i next take my seat.

This book may not be for mu­si­col­o­gists. al­though, as mr Cal­low ob­serves, wag­ner was of­ten likened to a vol­cano, the au­thor is per­haps too apt to take the self-drama­tis­ing ge­nius at his own word when it comes to his child­hood and train­ing. it surely isn’t pos­si­ble that wag­ner could play his own works on the piano by a com­bi­na­tion of bravura and willpower. as a Ro­man­tic, wag­ner thought na­ture was a bet­ter tu­tor than con­ven­tional school­ing— it’s a theme of both Siegfried and Die Meis­tersinger—but even he must have worked hard at the piano in or­der to master it. Still, there’s lit­tle to go on.

How­ever, mr Cal­low is good on wag­ner’s con­duct­ing style and on Beethoven’s 9th, plus, in a lighter vein, the dogs and other crea­tures in his life, such as the par­rot that knew large parts of Rienzi. in lon­don, wag­ner pre­ferred the zoo to the peo­ple.

There re­mains the para­dox: the cre­ator of some of the great­est works, not just of the opera reper­toire but of western civil­i­sa­tion, was, in his per­sonal life, an over­ween­ing, sex­u­ally preda­tory ego­tist, who made a habit of bit­ing the many, many hands that fed him and was pos­sessed of some vile prej­u­dices: even in that ca­su­ally anti-semitic age, he was con­demned on all sides for Ju­daism in Mu­sic. (was one beef that wag­ner had against Jews their as­so­ci­a­tion with money lend­ing? He’d much ex­pe­ri­ence of it.)

mr Cal­low is se­ri­ous where se­ri­ous­ness is needed, but his keen eye for ab­sur­dity helps de­flate the pre­ten­sion and draws the sting of the un­pleas­ant­ness. i had never known wag­ner met Queen Vic­to­ria, but he was, in ev­ery sense, a phe­nom­e­non. Clive Aslet

Si­mon Cal­low presents Wag­ner as a gar­gan­tuan fig­ure: an in­ef­fa­ble ge­nius who was also a mon­strous grotesque

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