Top positive review
17 people found this helpful
A magnum opus from a Wagnerian authority
on November 19, 2012
Barry Millington is editor of The Wagner Journal and has written extensively on Wagner for many years; so it is a pleasure to read his magnum opus on the old sorcerer, his life and times.
Before discussing the content, I must say that the book is magnificently produced, on thick quality art paper and it is profusely illustrated throughout (285 of them actually, 165 in colour).
Millington's style wears its erudition lightly and is bright and engaging from start to finish. I must admit I do find myself just picking it up and dipping into it very regularly and its style does facilitate this, indeed seems to positively encourage it. One can scarcely open the book at a random page without stumbling upon a wonderful sidelight thrown on an aspect of Wagner, his compositions or the context of the time in which they were fostered.
An example: I had often idly wondered why, in the Ring, Götterdämmerung jars slightly in comparison to the rest of the cycle. By this I mean, it seems closer in conception to more 'conventional' opera, for want of a better word. The huge set pieces such as Hagen's blood-curdling Summoning of the Vassals or the splendid Vengenance Trio in Act II seem at variance with Wagner's avowed distaste for self-contained set pieces, arias, duets and choruses (as set out in his essays of 1849-51). In fact George Bernard Shaw felt that the political allegory built up in the first three operas collapsed at this, the final hurdle. Millington explores the fact that the libretto for Götterdämmerung, though it is the final section of the Ring cycle, actually pre-dated the others, so is chronologically closer to Lohengrin than Rheingold, which goes a long way to explaining the phenomenon. This is a small point but I use it to highlight how Millington, with a wealth of contemporary material and more recent scholarship and research at his fingertips, imparts interesting nuggets throughout this splendid book in a breezy and absorbing manner.
He dissects both Wagner's character and his stage characters and it is, in that old cliché, a difficult book to put down. It is no hagiography, and every aspect of this most controversial of men and composers is studied in enlightening depth from his political persuasions, the charges of anti-semitism, his appalling money mismanagement, his perplexing relationship with the Bavarian King Ludwig and that with the long-suffering Cosima, the genesis of the Bayreuth project, right through to his alarmingly self indulgent cossetting. On this latter point it is fascinating to read of his love for pink quilted silk, satin and fur next to his skin, the velvet brocaded jackets and coats with matching neckties, caps and velvet slippers, his demand for rooms heated to a requisite temperature and lightly scented with rose oils and, when nature eventually called, especially fine English lavatory paper procured for the Master's personal use. Even Nietzsche sought out a fine seamstress in Basel to produce an exquisite silk undergarment for Wagner, about which he ruefully commented "once you've chosen a God, you've got to adorn him"(!)
The book also charts the rise of Bayreuth, the Nazi years, Wieland and Wolfgang's respective reigns and ponders what the future holds for the music festival.
If I had a minor quibble it would be that I would have liked to have seen a good few pages devoted to a critical discography, whereas the one which appears is rather too brief. But that is a minor cavil at best: I am certain that no lover of Wagner's inexhaustibly wonderful music will be disappointed with this book, which is engagingly written, well paced (there are no mauvais quarts d'heure here) and sumptuously produced. A magnificent work, worthy of its endlessly intriguing subject.