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Decoding Wagner: An Invitation to His World of Music Drama (includes 2 CDs) Paperback – December 1, 2004


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Decoding Wagner: An Invitation to His World of Music Drama (includes 2 CDs) + Dvorak : Romantic Music's Most Versatile Genius (with online audio) (Unlocking the Masters Series) (Amadeus) + The Mahler Symphonies: An Owner's Manual (includes 1 CD)
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Product Details

  • Series: Unlocking the Masters (Book 1)
  • Paperback: 220 pages
  • Publisher: Amadeus Press (December 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1574670972
  • ISBN-13: 978-1574670974
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 6.1 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #851,333 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In the voluminous Wagner bibliography, Thomas May's book occupies a special place. Concise but remarkably information-packed and accompanied by two CDs of excerpts, it is addressed to those who seek a deeper understanding of Wagner's operas. The controversies--artistic, human and moral--generated by Wagner's innovative ideas and reprehensible behavior frequently obscure the greatness of his achievements. May performs an extraordinary feat: although unflinchingly aware of Wagner's arrogance, self-aggrandizement, duplicity, faithlessness, hedonism, greed, political opportunism, chauvinism, and anti-Semitism, he communicates boundless admiration for the composer and passionate love for his works. Suggesting that the very schism between Wagner's flawed character and idealistic aspirations inspired "monumentally stirring meditations on the contradictory range of human experience," he correlates and reconciles his "monstrous ego" with his sublime genius. The evolution of Wagner's operas, from his early and incomplete attempts to the late, often extensively revised masterpieces, culminated in a lofty artistic vision: the "total artwork" which, combining all the arts, would result in heightened experience and spiritual elevation. Wagner wrote his own texts, considering poetry and music inseparable and himself equally master of both, an assessment not universally shared. May takes the librettos very seriously, following them from their historical or mythological origin to their final form with formidable but unobtrusive erudition. Among his references are the Buddha, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Thomas Mann, and T.S. Eliot, and he must have read everything about Wagner as well as Wagner's own often repellent autobiographical, theoretical, and political writings (which make one wish he had written nothing but music). May's musical analyses are equally riveting and absorbing. He traces the operas' ever-increasing depth, breadth, and grandeur, the growing importance and masterful use of the unifying leitmotif and the "Wagnerian" orchestra, and the often hidden strands that connect them despite their individual uniqueness. Opera lovers spurred by May's book to hear these works performed could not wish for a more knowledgeable, illuminating, and inspiring guide. --Edith Eisler

Review

" . . . savvy and concise . . ." -- Atlanta Journal Constitution, January 7, 2005

" . . . well written and clearly presented." -- American Record Guide, July/August 2005

". . . [an] excellent critical overview . . . you can't beat the pairing of the written word accompaniment with CD examples." -- The Bookwatch, April 2005

". . . interesting and intriguing . . ." -- Opera Opera, July 2005

". . . this primer leads the way to an appreciation for [Wagner] and his music." -- Forbes FYI, Spring 2005

"May offers compelling evidence of [Wagner's] complexity, alongside direct and illuminating discussions of the composer's most famous works." -- La Scena Musicale, July/August 2005

"This book is likely to make neophytes and connoisseurs alike eager to reexperience the Wagner operas on an ongoing basis." -- Opera News, June 2005

"Thomas May lives up to the promise of Decoding Wagner by de-mystifying the operas. . . ." -- Rocky Mountain News, January 29, 2005

"an approachable guide to appreciating the composer's operatic genius. . . . a generous selection of Wagner's music is included . . ." -- Operatoday.com

More About the Author

Apart from playing trombone in the school band and the usual radio pap, I discovered music in a serious way at a relatively late age - when I was around 12. That was around the time I went crazy over an abandoned piano and thought I could learn to play all the Beethoven sonatas in a year or so "if I applied myself." At least I didn't lack for foolhardy ideas about how music actually works. A year or so later I began my first attempt to compose a symphony -- to "prepare the way" for the opera on "King Lear" for which posterity had destined me -- when I discovered with horror that my main theme in E major had been stolen by Anton Bruckner. But I've been trying to make up for lost time ever since, and music is a passion inseparably bound to my love of theater, fiction, poetry, film, and the other arts.

After starting my writing career as a freelancer for "The Washington Post" under Tim Page, I was lured to resettle on the West Coast when I was hired as part of the first team of music editors at Amazon.com. Nowadays I'm a full-time freelance writer focusing on music. My interests are voracious, from early music to Nico Muhly, and I have a serious passion for exploring how contemporary composers are transforming the legacy of "classical music" (imploring indulgence for the quotation marks: it's just that I've found they're the most efficient way to deal with that burden of a misnomer).

These days I write for the online newspaper crosscut.com, Listen magazine, and Gramophone; I also regularly contribute to the program books of some of the leading institutions in the music world. Since 2009 I've served as the English writer and program editor for the Lucerne Festival; I also translate German for the Lucerne Festival and other institutions.

Please visit my blog at www.memeteria.com or follow me on Twitter @memeteria.

Customer Reviews

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This is an excellent book with valuable and pertinent information on Wagner and his operas.
bigdcowgal
I found this to be an excellent overview of Wagner and his operas in a book of only 200 pages or so.
Dan Sherman
I used to be an opera singer and I have to say this is a fabulous book for any fan of Wagner.
Charles Decker

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

65 of 66 people found the following review helpful By Dan Sherman VINE VOICE on January 23, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I found this to be an excellent overview of Wagner and his operas in a book of only 200 pages or so. This book is for someone who is fairly familiar with the plots of Wagner's operas -- no plot summaries are presented -- and gives a good sense of how Wagner developed as both a composer and dramatist. The book is written mostly around the ten major operas wrote -- a chapter for each with an extra chapter to introduce the Ring. Although the book is relatively short, the reader learns a lot about Wagner's sources, his use of these sources, and key features of the individual operas. A portion of the discussion of the operas is tied to the CDs - one for the Ring and the other for the non-Ring operas. The CDs are primarily "greatest hits" - from the operas, with text making reference to different points on the CD in terms of timing.

This book is probably not the first book you read on Wagner -- I would recommend "Wagner Without Fear" by William Berger as an introduction to Wagner and his work. For other readers, this book really provides quite a bit of diverse information in a small space. The book is well-written and meets the needs of many readers in that it written around individual operas. A reader can go right to the opera of interest, but I think may will also want to read through the entire book to better understand the context of individual operas and their place in Wagner's development.

The book has a good bibliography (though it would have been nice to have some annotation).

The book is a good value as is, but with the 2 CDs (primarily BMG recordings), it becomes an excellent value. Any reader interested in Wagner should consider owning this book. 5 stars.
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40 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Meg C. Halverson on January 18, 2005
Format: Paperback
This is a terrific read: entertaining and briskly paced. May considers historical and social factors in Wagner's work without bogging down the reader with theory or dull historicism. In fact, this work brings me a greater appreciation for Wagner than I thought possible (I'm not, my apologies, an opera fan). I would recommend it to the casual theater goer, the fine arts critic, opera fans, and anyone interested in music or 19th century theater.
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Charles Decker on February 8, 2005
Format: Paperback
I used to be an opera singer and I have to say this is a fabulous book for any fan of Wagner. Tom May has done a terrific job of making this difficult material accessible, and the accompanying CDs help considerably. Even if you feel you have read everything there is to read about the maestro, you will find this book absorbing and very illuminating. Plus you'll probably want to buy a new recording of Tristan und Isolde as well [maybe the most beautiful music ever written, in my humble opinion]. I think Amazon may sell that too. LOL
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By BigBadZep on April 14, 2011
Format: Paperback
I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical when I first picked up Thomas May's "Decoding Wagner". Having previously read another "introductory" book on Wagner, William Berger's "Wagner Without Fear", I was worried this would be more of the same in that vein: glorified plot summaries that largely gloss over the penetrating insights that the operas offer in favor of shallow commentary that lose all of their appeal if the reader ever becomes familiar with Wagner first hand.

Thankfully, Thomas May does not dumb down the subject matter. If you're new to the operas this book will not not outline every detail of their plots, but they will give you a greater impression of the underlying messages in Wagner's works and a much deeper sense of what they are "about" then any plot summary can convey to you. May does a tremendous job at tracing Wagner's preoccupations as an artist while offering cohesive and insightful synopsis of the music-dramas that are also refreshingly brief. Ultimately he gives the listener the tools needed to experience these operas and to get something really profound out of them. In fact, even though this book is geared to the beginner I found that he had myself, a hardened Wagnerian, looking at the works in a new light and seeing things in them that I hadn't seen before.

As for the debate about the alleged nationalistic and anti-Semitic content in Wagner's art, I feel May handles the issue with an open-mind and gives it the space it deserves. Which is admittedly not much. Time and time again, those of us who immerse ourselves in Wagner's music-dramas and treat them as works of art find that those issues hardly come into play in our experience of them, if at all.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By CT06831 on September 4, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Well written and straight forward.
A good introduction and overview of Wagner's Operas.
A good first start in understanding Wagner's Operas
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