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Richard Wagner: A Life in Music [Kindle Edition]

Martin Geck , Stewart Spencer
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Best known for the challenging four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, Richard Wagner (1813–83) was a conductor, librettist, theater director, and essayist, in addition to being the composer of some of the most enduring operatic works in history, such as The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Tristan and Isolde. Though his influence on the development of European music is indisputable, Wagner was also quite outspoken on the politics and culture of his time. His ideas traveled beyond musical circles into philosophy, literature, theater staging, and the visual arts. To befit such a dynamic figure, acclaimed biographer Martin Geck offers here a Wagner biography unlike any other, one that strikes a unique balance between the technical musical aspects of Wagner’s compositions and his overarching understanding of aesthetics.

Wagner has always inspired passionate admirers as well as numerous detractors, with the result that he has achieved a mythical stature nearly equal to that of the Valkyries and Viking heroes he popularized. There are few, if any, scholars today who know more about Wagner and his legacy than Geck, who builds upon his extensive research and considerable knowledge as one of the editors of the Complete Works to offer a distinctive appraisal of the composer and the operas. Using a wide range of sources, from contemporary scholars to the composer’s own words, Geck explores key ideas in Wagner’s life and works, while always keeping the music in the foreground. Geck discusses not only all the major operas, but also several unfinished operas and even the composer’s early attempts at quasi-Shakespearean drama.

Richard Wagner: A Life in Music is a landmark study of one of music’s most important figures, offering something new to opera enthusiasts, Wagnerians, and anti-Wagnerians alike.

Editorial Reviews


“Geck brings to his book on Wagner’s ‘life in music’ a rare combination of profound knowledge of Wagner and his work and an unfailingly intelligent capacity to select and to discriminate, so as to produce a clear account of all the operas and music dramas in the context of Wagner’s life and changing ideas. . . . People who would like to know more about Wagner, and people who have loved his music for years but would like to know more about why they do, will find a great deal in this book to enjoy and to admire.”

“Geck describes a Wagner who is grounded, focused and even cautious, a savvy realist and ironist rather than a flamboyant, flailing ideologue. . . . Suffused with his readings of contemporary productions of the operas, Geck’s musical analyses are succinct and superb, and he is skilled at finding clues to Wagner in the interstices of his career, like the early rarity ‘Rienzi’ or what he calls ‘the revolutionary drafts’ of never-completed works that Wagner envisioned before embarking on the ‘Ring’ cycle.”
(New York Times)

“As an editor of Wagner’s Complete Works, Geck brings a deep familiarity with the composer to his task. He seems to have read everything Wagner ever wrote and, what is more, a substantial portion of everything that has ever been written about Wagner.  Geck is thus able to document his claims about Wagner’s life and works with apt quotations, often drawn from obscure corners of the composer’s correspondence and recorded conversations. . . . The result is a multifaceted investigation of Wagner’s achievement as the supreme master of music drama.”
(Weekly Standard)

“Geck adds to the crowded field of literature on Richard Wagner with this intriguing exploration of the composer’s life and thought as exemplified by his music. . . . An excellent biography.”
(Library Journal)

“Geck, one of the most distinguished contemporary German musicologists, knows an enormous amount about every aspect of Wagner’s life and works, but this book is . . . much more about the works than the life. . . . The book is best read . . . as a fairly loose-knit series of improvisations on themes that Geck has been mulling over for most of his life.”
(Literary Review)

“Martin Geck’s new biography deftly weaves both familiar and unfamiliar facts about the composer to create a striking, fresh portrait, or rather a tapestry, shot through with insightful remarks on musical matters. The contributions of language, harmony, leitmotif, voices, instrumentation, and stage production to the elusive goal of a ‘total artwork’ are illuminated from the perspective of Wagner’s own life and writings as well as that of many notable contemporaries. Geck engages the politics of Wagner’s legacy honestly and without polemics. A series of brief interchapters on key Jewish figures in the composer’s biography and in his reception offer a novel, constructive approach to the vexed theme of Wagner’s anti-Semitism. The scholarly frame of reference is truly international. Geck succeeds brilliantly in synthesizing the complex phenomenon of Wagner in a thoroughly approachable yet consistently provocative study.”
(Thomas S. Grey, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Wagner)

“Martin Geck’s major new study of Wagner’s oeuvre moves at a fast but engaging pace. In a remarkably fleet translation by Stewart Spencer, the book is studded with historical insights, not least because Geck capitalizes on little-known diary entries, letters, and documentary evidence that imbue his readings with genuinely fresh perspectives. The author’s erudition is worn lightly, and his provocative forays into the so-called Jewish Question—by treating a succession of Jewish figures in the Wagnerian universe in separate ‘contrapuntal’ chapters—encourages a contextual view of the composer’s work at the same time that it grapples with what we might treasure in Wagner today.”
(Laurence Dreyfus, author of Wagner and the Erotic Impulse)

"Geck succeeds in what he originally set out to do: to uncover the ways in which Wagner still holds a poignant mirror to the face of our own age and time. A better incentive to commemorate the composer’s 200th birthday can hardly be imagined."
(Nexus Institute)

“Geck’s biography is commendably self-reflexive. He points to Wagner’s lack of distinction between ‘life’ and ‘art’; he shows awareness of the nature of history as writing, even briefly discussing ‘language games’ and Hayden White’s rapprochement between history and poetry. Such an approach is perfectly possible, indeed desirable, for a dangerous, radical Wagner. . . . Geck’s fine synthesis deserves to be read, especially as beautifully translated by Stewart Spencer.”
(History Today)

About the Author

Martin Geck is professor of musicology at the Technical University of Dortmund, Germany. His other books include Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work and Robert Schumann: The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer, the latter also published by the University of Chicago Press. Stewart Spencer is an independent scholar and the translator of more than three dozen books.

Product Details

  • File Size: 4053 KB
  • Print Length: 464 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press; Tra edition (September 18, 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #447,308 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I first encountered the German musicologist, Martin Geck, through his book on Bach. His writing was so thorough, so knowledgeable and so sympathetic that I assumed he was a baroque specialist. But last summer, as I began reading Richard Wagner A Life in Music, I found the same virtues applied to Wagner's romantic realism. This is not a huge book, it's under 500 pages. However, Geck has the ability to make every word count, to suggest more than he says and compress much meaning in each page. His focus in each chapter is very tight; he doesn't let his writing sprawl. Still, he manages to relate events in Wagner's life and details of his character which are new to me. Although the main purpose of this volume is biographical, I find his comments on the individual music dramas as they unfold chronologically to be original and perceptive. One touchstone in evaluating the quality of an artist's biography is: Does it make you want to return to the artist's work and experience it informed, refreshed and excited. Geck's book achieves this excellence. Geck's biography was published in Germany last year. This year another book on Wagner was published in England and the U.S. It is The Wagner Experience by Paul Dawson-Bowling. I have already reviewed this title for Amazon, so I won't repeat my enthusiastic gushing about it. But Dawson-Bowling's book makes Geck's seem, well, conventional. There is space enough in the Wagner Universe for both types of books, and I would encourage anyone who passionately admires Wagner's music and dramas to read these two books in tandem. I have been doing so for the past few months. I am purposely reading slowly, with many interruptions to play Wagner's music, reflect on the meaning of the Wagner Experience and write my own commentary on these inexhaustible works of creative imagination. I can't think of a better way to pay homage to this art we love, that enriches us and renews us continually.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Erudite, Balanced, and Focused on the Music October 15, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The title of this book is (for once!) an accurate indication of what it contains - an in-depth, detailed, and extremely knowledgeable discussion of the music, rather raking over the coals of the the (over?) familiar biographical details. So for example, the early years of Wagner's life (up to Leubald) are addressed in a couple of pages, which is something of a surprise if you are expecting (as I was, initially) a more "conventional" biography. This pattern is repeated for all subsequent works - some essential details are provided, but the focus is always on the music, of which the author has a deep understanding. I found this book insightful, informative, and a pleasure to read. To take one example of many - this book makes a very persuasive case in presenting how early Wagner's artistic "vision" was formed, and how he remained faithful (!) to this vision throughout his life (in music, of course). A must for anybody interested in understanding Wagner's music.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars ANOTHER book about Wagner?! October 22, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In a field filled to overflowing with new studies of Wagner (surely the most written-about artist in history), Martin Geck's 444-page work paddles desperately to keep from sinking under the hundreds of other volumes. Geck's book (translated bravely and capably from the 2012 German original by Stewart Spencer, a specialist in this composer) blends a chronological account of Wagner's developing intellect with analyses of each of his operas. In those analyses, Geck tries -- and largely succeeds -- in finding something new and important to say about each work. The result is a valuable, if not INvaluable, addition to the groaning shelves of Wagneriana.

Further, his book gives non-German-speaking readers access to many of the scholars whose books and articles remain untranslated -- scholars listed in Geck's bibliography: 21-pages long, all in fine print!

Sidebars offer details about Wagner's interactions with many of the JEWISH composers and impresarios whose lives interwove with his career. Here Geck uncovers many fascinating and little-known facts and anecdotes.

The book's interior graphics (in black-and-white) include many of Wagner's portraits, well known or otherwise, beginning with the book's front cover: a close-up profile of Arno Breker's giant, aggressive 1939 marble bust of the composer, erected outside the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. That portrait alone makes this book hard to ignore.
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