Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will by Simon Callow Stephen Walsh
STEPHEN WALSH Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will by Simon Callow William Collins £14.99
What do I want?’, Matthew wonders as he rifles through Wade’s possessions, ‘was it just the forbiddenness of being here? The feeling of having attained some secret intimacy with Chloe?... Yet even as he acknowledged this, he became aware of a lack, an incompleteness in the feeling, and realised that even though he was here, he was still in some mysterious way longing to be here; as if inside the A-frame there should be another A-frame, with another doorway and another key.’
It’s a brilliant description of unsatisfied desire, like wanting a cigarette when you already have one lit. But Matthew’s epiphany in the A-frame house also describes the mise en abyme of Lasdun’s literary life, in which a novelist framed by his own fictions returns like a revenant to stalk the mind of his stalker. Wagner is one of those composers anyone can write about. No need to know anything about, or even to like, his music. There are the politics, the psychology, the myths, the anti-semitism. There are aesthetics, theatre reform, philosophy, religion and gender studies. I myself am a little out of touch with the sub-Wagnerian literature on vivisection, vegetarianism, and perfumery, but no doubt it’s going strong.
Simon Callow naturally comes to Wagner by way of the theatre, though as anyone who saw his one-man show,
Inside Wagner’s Head, will know, he ranges a lot wider than that – wide enough, in fact, to mix enthusiasm, sympathy and disgust in more or less equal measure without bursting the frame of what was a capacious but far more coherent personality than is often thought. Indeed one of the few disappointments of this highly readable biography is how comparatively little Callow has to say on Wagner’s ideas of theatre reform, which underpinned most of his mature work and all of it from The
Ring on. The other disappointment is how little he tells us about the actual music. But more of that below. Despite its modish title, Being
Wagner is a straightforward, very well-told story of the composer’s life, from his galley years as an itinerant theatre conductor in pre-unification Germany, through Paris, the 1840s in Dresden culminating in his involvement in the 1849 uprising, his exile in Zurich, his short-lived rehabilitation through the good offices of the passionately devoted but politically naive King Ludwig of Bavaria, up to the final years as an international celebrity in Bayreuth, holding court in the Villa Wahnfried – peace from (or possibly in) insanity.
There’s perhaps not a vast amount here that you won’t find in any one of the 500 other lives of Richard Wagner. The main difference is one of tone. Callow, an enthusiast who lays no claim to scholarliness, writes with the warmth of the best kind of funerary eulogist, in love with his subject and not afraid that its dark or ludicrous aspects will seriously detract from its importance. Answering a friend’s enquiry as to why one would write about that ‘dreadful music’ and ‘dreadful man’, he admits that Wagner was ‘titanic, demiurgic, superhuman – and also, frankly, more than a little alarming’. The oxymoronic tone, the tendency to overstate in both directions, runs through the book and lends it a certain theatricality that, after all, suits its subject and presumably springs from its origins on the stage of the Linbury Theatre. Callow was researching a performance; it’s hardly surprising, or regrettable, that an element of histrionics survives in the printed version.
Inevitably, in so concise a study of so prolix a topic, there are gaps. Callow has little to say about Wagner’s numerous affairs and dalliances, notably with the Flower Maiden Carrie Pringle, whose threatened visit on what proved to be Wagner’s last day precipitated a violent row with Cosima that may well have hastened his end and nearly brought about hers. More surprisingly, he glides over the rich literary and mythological background of the operas, doesn’t mention the Norwegian fjord of The
Flying Dutchman, skims over the Niebelungenlied, ignores the Celtic sources of Tristan, but is good on the influence of Schopenhauer and offers an excellent, if hostile, pen portrait of Nietzsche in his relations with the Wagners.
The most serious gap, though, is the music. In his foreword, Callow disclaims any qualification for musical analysis, as if ‘analysis’ were the only way of talking about music. On the contrary, a musical discussion would ask how Wagner, with hardly any training, became in such a short time a master of every aspect of music for the stage, the art of transition, timing, scale, orchestration and (yes) harmony and counterpoint. Almost certainly, the answer lies in a genius for mimicry allied to a naturally exact ear and an instinct for theatrical pacing learned from his actor stepfather. What were the elements of this mastery and why did they make such an impact?
Simon Callow, a highly intelligent lover of the music, probably has answers to these questions but is afraid musicians will think him impertinent if he even pretends to air them. He might have risked it. His is a very enjoyable book that could have been just that degree better.
‘We’ve got a vacancy for a church mouse, if you are interested?’