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Wagner: His Life and Music / Stephen Johnson

Release Date: 05/01/2013 
Label:  Naxos Audio Books   Catalog #: NA0141  
Number of Discs: 7 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

WAGNER: HIS LIFE AND MUSIC & Stephen Johnson (nar); 1 Alexander Rahbari, cond; 1 Malaga PO; 2 Tamara Takács (mez); 2 Jen? Jandó (pn); 3 Johannes Wildner, cond; 3 Polish Natl RSO; 4 Read more class="ARIAL12">Pinchas Steinberg, cond; 4 ORF SO; 5 Michael Halász, cond; 5 Slovak PO; 6 Leif Segerstam, cond; 6 Royal Swedish O; 7 Lothar Zagrosek, cond; 7 Stuttgart St O; 8 Renate Behle ( Brünnhilde ); 8 Jan-Hendrik Rootering ( Wotan ); 9 Luana DeVol ( Brünnhilde ); 9 Ronald Bracht ( Hagen ); 10 Gerard Schwarz, cond; 10 Seattle SO NAXOS 0141 (7 CDs: 537:18)

Musical examples: Eine Faust-Overture 1. Wesendonck Lieder: No. 3, Im Treibhaus 2; No. 5, Träume 2. Siegfried Idyll (excerpt) 3. Rienzi: Overture 1. Der fliegende Holländer: Overture 4. Tannhäuser: Overture and Venusburg Music 5. Lohengrin: acts I and III Preludes 5 ; Bridal Procession (act II) 6. Die Walküre: Nicht streb, o Maid…Leb’ wohl 7,8. Götterdämmerung: act III, Immolation scene 7,9. Tristan und Isolde: act I Prelude 3. Die Meistersinger: act I Prelude 3. Parsifal: act I Prelude 3 ; “Good Friday Spell” music 10

I suppose I must preface this review by admitting that, at age 62, I had never previously “listened” to a book. Oh, yes, I’ve heard poets read their own poetry, mostly on those old Caedmon LPs, but listen to a book? Why? You need to have a device to play the “book” on, and although I do possess a portable CD player I never haul it around when I go out—too much danger of it being dropped and broken, or stolen. So what on earth would I play it on? Not only do I not own an iPod, iPhone, or droid, I wouldn’t know how to operate such a device if you gave one to me. And besides, this one is on conventional CDs, so there you are.

British author Stephen Johnson, whose book was originally published in hardcover by Naxos in 2007 (and in paperback in 2010), here reads it in an audiobook. I could not find many reviews of the original book online, save for two snippets from British newspaper reviews on Johnson’s own website, and it was not reviewed in Fanfare, so I had to approach it as if it were entirely new.

Johnson spends a good nine minutes going over generalizations about Wagner, not only references in other cultural media (such as an Oscar Wilde play) but also within pop culture. Johnson admits that although “this book makes no effort to gloss over the seamier details of Wagner’s life,” its principal purpose is to indicate how much of worth there is in his output.

The historical details of the events surrounding Wagner’s life, including the political and cultural environment in which he was raised, hold no surprises for the Wagnerphile, but one must remember that Johnson’s book is not aimed at them. It is, rather, aimed at the peripheral listener with an interest in but not a deep knowledge of the man and his music. The three questions we must ask ourselves are these: (1) Is Johnson’s book informative and full enough to give a proper impression of the man’s complete life, however much it needs to be condensed in a one-volume bio? (2) Is the writing good, and are there insights to be learned? and (3) Is the audiobook interesting to listen to?

Johnson explains how the theater was something that Wagner retreated into as a child to escape the harsh realities of the world around him. This is, indeed, an important insight into the mind of a man who could quite easily have channeled his enormous talent into orchestral or choral works exclusively. The composer’s “disturbed imagination” is described in some detail, as is his physiognomy, so close to that of the Nibelung dwarves Mime and Alberich (“small and bent, with a head too large for his body”). Because Wagner didn’t have a particularly affectionate relationship with his mother, he constantly sought a female companion to love and, more important, “rescue” him from the dreariness of his everyday life. He came to music relatively late, at age eight, and showed no particular talent at that time, but he did begin to develop fairly quickly. He was drawn in his early schooling to Greek drama. Yet despite all this, his family felt he was destined to become a great poet rather than a musician or dramatist. One thing that I had forgotten was that even at a young age, Wagner was taking private lessons that mounted up in costs that he could not pay—a trend that would continue throughout his life and reach into every aspect of his everyday living. Early on, he felt that the world owed him a living because he was so talented.

Little details like this—including his participation in a riot against the regime of Charles X in 1830, where young Wagner ended up in a brothel and awoke with a hangover—give a feeling of humanity to this man who is more often than not pictured as an inhuman monster. Johnson’s delivery is lively and consistently upholds one’s interest. He is by no means one of those insufferably dull British scribes who make everything sound stuffy even when their goal is the opposite. On the contrary, he comes up with some very nice turns of phrase and consistently injects humor, whimsy, and a bit of smiling in the voice as he delivers anecdotes that describe the events and people who helped to form his complex personality, his enormous talent, and likewise his gargantuan ego. The sense of entitlement that Wagner retained throughout his life seems to have had no realistic connection to the way he was raised, but was something he developed in his own mind because he was, without question, the most enormously talented person in his family and therefore (in his mind) someone quite “special.” Gifts of money always brought forth expressions of gratitude and resolutions to do better, yet he consistently broke the latter promises. He always had trouble making and, more importantly, retaining good friends. Ironically, the only consistent presence in his life was his sister, Rosalie, who remained true to him no matter how awful, obnoxious, or wasteful with money he could be.

“But with the music,” Johnson reminds us, “it is another matter”—and it always was. Marschner’s opera Der Vampyr and Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable drew him in just as much as Weber’s Der Freischütz had at an earlier age. Wagner even wrote alternate music for an aria in Der Vampyr, as he was later to write an alternate aria for Oroveso in Bellini’s Norma. Yet all in all, it was Beethoven’s Fidelio and in particular the dramatically realistic portrayal of Leonora by Wilhelmina Schroder-Devrient (who he also saw performing Bellini’s opera I Capuleti ed i Montechi ) that made him imagine a form of opera more emotionally expressive and dramatically explosive than anything that then existed in stage works. Wagner was thus continually drawn to works that were “socially redeeming” in addition to dramatically expressive.

Johnson also explains how some of Wagner’s essays on aesthetics are revealing if often difficult to read due to his love of overly-verbose language. His two-sided relationship with Minna Planer is described well: Wagner probably did love her to a point, but also manipulated her emotionally with wailing and gnashing of teeth when she walked away from him. He married her, partly, it seems, simply to have her stay with him: They fought vehemently almost as often as they loved each other. She eventually took up with a banker named Dietrich; Wagner tracked her down to her parents’ home and dragged her back. Apparently, their relationship was much like a situation comedy.

The composer’s complex relationship with Meyerbeer is explained in detail, as well as the circumstances in which Wagner failed despite Meyerbeer’s promotion—a failure that Wagner always blamed on the older composer for no really substantial reason. Wagner always believed that Meyerbeer praised him to his face yet sabotaged him behind his back, a judgment not only entirely untrue but entirely unfair. (Among other things, Meyerbeer helped Wagner secure the performance of Rienzi in Dresden that made his name there, yet received no thanks for it.) Yet it was probably this belief of his that led Wagner to fall in with the more virulent anti-Semites in Germany and Austria, a group of people he certainly did not create, as they were already numerous and vocal about their hatred, but who did not possess Wagner’s contacts or his skill in writing long-winded diatribes that actually got published.

The powerful influence that Rienzi had on the young Adolf Hitler is appropriately explained by Johnson as appealing to something already inside of Hitler, a desire for absolute power and influence. Certainly, the opera had played for 60 years, on and off, before Hitler saw it, and no previous German or Austrian took it to the extremes that Hitler did. Johnson also explains with fine lucidity the relationship that Wagner made in his mind between Greek drama and the Nordic legends or Eddas that eventually led to Der Ring des Nibelungen. Certain details, such as Wagner’s full participation in the Dresden uprising, are given somewhat short shrift, saying “it is not clear what role he played,” which makes it difficult for the newcomer to fully understand why Wagner was a political exile for so long. This is one of the few weaknesses in Johnson’s biography. A bit of imagination may have been of good use here, since no one who simply paid verbal encouragement to the revolution would have had a warrant out for his arrest.

Where Johnson scores strongly is in his tying together Wagner’s Greek drama influence, his love of luxury and physical affection, and his grandiose schemes that led to his wanting to create an “art of the future” that had deeper philosophical and even religious connotations. It was an enormous task for a now-rootless refugee to take on, let alone bring to real fruition, yet Wagner overcame all obstacles to convince others with power, money, and influence to assist him. The way in which Johnson reads the account of his ups and downs, and eventual success, makes it clear that he approves of the composer’s triumphs in spite of his tendency to use people, but by trimming the narrative to basics, and/or pertinent events in his life, makes the complex life of this complex man all the clearer. As someone who greatly admires Wagner the artist but detests Wagner the man, I tend to agree with him, but I would not necessarily give such an overall enthusiastic account of his life as it surrounded the creation of the works that continue to keep his name alive. Wagner is the kind of person who, if he were alive today, I would refuse to interview if asked to do so. I couldn’t possibly keep his reprehensible personal traits out of any discussion of his art, and that is not a condemnation of those works, because by and large he kept many of his personal prejudices out of the music dramas. Johnson does touch on this, of course, but points out—quite truthfully—that Wagner actually portrayed the “wandering “Jew” character of the Flying Dutchman sympathetically because he identified with him, just as he identified with Alberich in the Ring. This certainly complicates matters for those who prefer a tidy wrapping-up of his anti-Semitism. Only in Parsifal are his prejudices not only clear but unambiguous: Here, Wagner created a new religion based not on Christianity in the traditional and historical sense, but on the “purity” of a “holy fool” who is not only naïve in the beginning but who somehow manages to hold true to his basic sense of honor and morals throughout the heavy temptation provided by the Flower Maidens and Kundry. Parsifal, then, becomes the New Christ on whom a new religion is based. This is the most offensive quality of the opera to those of a traditionally religious persuasion.

The immense influence of Schopenhauer on Wagner is described extremely well, even to the point of describing the strong similarities between the German philosopher and Buddhism. Although Johnson doesn’t say so in so many words, this could well have been the cutting-off point for Wagner from the last vestiges of conventional religion. Schopenhauer also believed, as Wagner did, in the strong redeeming power of music. Interestingly, it was as much Schopenhauer’s philosophy as Wagner’s love for Mathilde Wesendonck that influenced his development of Tristan und Isolde. Johnson also touches, tastefully, on the probable sexual attraction of King Ludwig II of Bavaria towards Wagner. I hadn’t realized that one of the King’s “fantastic” castles had been used as the backdrop for the movie “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” There are no surprises in the composer’s friendship with Nietszche, his evolution of the Ring and Meistersinger, or his relationship with Cosima Wagner.

Considering Johnson’s argument (well founded, according to surviving letters and the accounts of conductor Hermann Levi) that Wagner’s anti-Semitism waned over the years, he really needed to say more about the pernicious influence of Cosima Wagner. Although Johnson admits that Cosima became his private secretary as well as his concubine and, later, wife, and although he mentions how Bayreuth was becoming a shrine for the faithful to flock to as if to a religious ceremony, he sadly neglects to state that it was Cosima who created the cult of Wagner-worship and fanned its flames; that it was Cosima who turned her husband into a demi-god; and that it was Cosima who, after her husband’s death, so derided and insulted Levi (and encouraged her children to do so as well!) that he finally left Bayreuth in embarrassment. There is no letter from Levi exonerating Cosima of her pernicious influence and rabid anti-Semitism, and as Oliver Hilmes put it in his excellent book Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth (Yale University Press, 2011), she was the firm link between Wagnerism and Nazism.

But because this is a book on record, Johnson is able to describe and explain Wagner’s great works and then have musical examples follow immediately. The hardcover edition of this book came with two CDs of music, but to have both together in one continuous narrative flow really is a wonderful achievement, and for that reason alone I would recommend this as an excellent introduction to Wagner’s sound world for a newcomer. Most of the recordings used have a spacious lyricism, which often works to the music’s advantage (the act I Prelude and act II Bridal Procession from Lohengrin, the excerpts from the Siegfried Idyll ), but there were times when I felt a lack of power or drama in the orchestral playing, as in the Overture to Der fliegende Holländer. On the other hand, Alexander Rahbari give us firm, well-paced performances of the Faust and Rienzi overtures, and Johannes Wildner does a good job with the Meistersinger act I Prelude. Curiously, Michael Halász takes the act III Lohengrin Prelude at a ridiculously fast clip—even Toscanini on caffeine never conducted it this fast, and yes, the music loses its shape when taken that fast. Conversely, the long excerpts from Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung are conducted too slowly, dragging out the phrases, and the singers are truly execrable (even the Rhinemaidens scream, and have wobbles). Johnson’s descriptions of the operas are also excellent, though I must take issue with his statement that Hitler was “uncomfortable” with Parsifal. A few months ago, I happened to read The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell, and in it she quotes Diana Mitford who, on the British radio program Desert Island Discs , mentioned that she had seen Parsifal at Bayreuth and sat in Hitler’s box. When the opera was over, he asked her how she liked it and she told him not much, to which he replied, “You will come to love it as you get older. I found that was true for me.”

All things taken into consideration, however, this audiobook is strongly recommended to the neophyte coming to Wagner, and particularly those coming to it via rock music, the film Apocalypse Now, or as a transference from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Johnson goes a bit deeper into musical analysis than one might expect from an “introductory” book, often describing the harmonic innovations by chord names and relating these to the feelings one encounters while listening to the music. And I absolutely loved Johnson’s descriptions of the music dramas and his turns of phrase, for instance that the regular 2/4 and 4/4 beats in Lohengrin need to be sensitively conducted, otherwise it tends to sound “as monotonous as a modern-day rock album”! You go, Stephen!! Great simile.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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