Biography Being Wagner
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