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

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

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?’

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