Customer Reviews: The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, his Work and his World
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on July 27, 2013
I'm not sure who this was written for. It is a mile wide and an inch deep. If you're a Wagner newcomer, there is much here that you will have no interest in, and indeed many references that only the "initiates" will grasp. If you are one of those initiates, you may find a few nuggets here (note the "mile wide") but for the most part the topics of interest are treated in a frustratingly shallow manner.

Other criticisms:

1. The organization of the book is an "original format" (author's preface) in a series of chapters that each "explor(es) a theme through text, illustrations, and documents." The result is a series of (mostly) disconnected essays rather than any sort of continuous development of a theme. Great, I suppose, for bathroom reading, but rather frustrating if you're hoping for a coherent narrative.

2. Millington's fixation on Wagner's anti-Semitism in some places renders his analysis of the musical works non-sensical. This is most apparent in his chapter on "Parsifal" where he resorts to contortions such as "there is no denying that the light of compassion burns brightly throughout this work. Compassion and an obsession with racial purity are its twin poles" (with no textual references to the "racial purity" part) and "Just as the notions of compassion and fellow suffering are common to both Christianity and Buddhism, so hatred -- in this case of other races -- may be seen as the obverse of love. Two sides of the same coin, love and hate, add up to a world view formulated on the concepts of racial purity and regeneration of the species" (again, with no textual support for the "hate" side of the coin.) The interjection of the opposites of the elements actually identifiable in the work as proof of Wagner's malevolence seems a bit of a stretch. While Wagner's anti-Semitism is undeniable and indefensible, Millington's support for its coloring of Parsifal strikes me as extremely weak. On the other hand, I will note that there are only a couple of chapters where, in my view, Millington goes astray in this direction.

3. Millington underplays (as far as my understanding goes) Schopenhauer's influence on Wagner's later works. The role of Schopenhauer's philosophy on Wagner's shaping of the Ring and later works is dismissed in a single paragraph. Millington's view might be correct, but if so, his minimization of Schopenhauer's influence deserves a book rather than a paragraph. Statements such as "Certainly Wotan's renunciation of his rule has less to do with Schopenhauer's denial of the will than with Feuerbach's transformation of human virtues" deserves a bit of explanation.

4. And most significantly, perhaps, Millington eschews any substantial analysis of the music. It is rather a truism that, with regards to Wagner, whenever the libretto is problematic, just listen to the music -- it makes everything clear. Or, in the words of another musical genius, "If you get confused, listen to the music play!" (Grateful Dead, "Franklin's Tower")

5. Final complaint, and mea culpa for this one -- "Sorcerer of Bayreuth" led me to expect a more in-depth review of Bayreuth productions over the last 137 years. There are a couple of excellent chapters on productions across the years, and many illustrations from productions of specific operas in particular times/places, but this is not the focused description and criticism of Bayreuth evolution that I'd hoped to read. I should have read the description of the book a bit more carefully, I suppose.

Those reservations aside, the illustrations alone make the purchase worthwhile for a Wagnerite. The additional bits of knowledge you're likely to glean from Millington's far-flung net are just the cherries on that sundae.

For Wagner-neophytes, I'd suggest looking elsewhere, such as Ernest Newman's "The Wagner Operas" for a wonderful analysis of the major works, or Millington's own "Wagner" for a more coherent and valuable biography of the man which also includes a better introduction to the music.
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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.
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on April 29, 2013
Barry Millington is one of the world's leading scholars on Wagner but this book is not at all academic or off-putting. There are hundreds (thousands?) of books on Wagner but i can't think of a better overall look at his life and works. And immediately on its release it has become the next book to get for those studying Wagner and the first book to get for those new to Wagner. Why so? First, it is so readable and entertaining that the scholarship flows through easily and it does not seem like work to read. While its structure more or less coincides with Wagner's life chronology, it is not a "this happened and then that happened" linear biography. Rather, Millington organizes his approach to Wagner by using a wide range range of themes. For example, many people dislike Wagner and his music because both were appropriated by the Nazis. But the chapter detailing this is not "in 1939 this happened and in 1943 that happened" but, rather a clever chapter detailing "how" the spread of the Wagner cult happened. And Millington does not let Wagner off the hook for this later appropriation. All the themes were there for Hitler and Company to use and the Wagner family completely cooperated with that use. (I am no relation by the way.)

Next, the illustrations are numerous and beautiful. I doubt there has ever been such a beautiful biography or history. Seeing, for example, playbills, paintings of stage scenes, drawings of Wagner and his critics, and numerous other topics really come to life. Much of the art is lavish and sumptuous, for example a beautiful reproduction of Fantin-Latour's painting of the "Prelude to Lohengrin" or the photo of the temptation of Tannheuser from the 2010 Covent Garden production of that work. And there are numerous other wonderful illustrations, drawings, caricatures, paintings, photographs, and other art.

Finally, Millington is able to include recently discovered art, recent stage production, and up-to-date research findings. I am not an academic but Millington is, and he is well aware of, and fairly presents, the controversies then and now swirling about Wagner.

Overall, this book is a sensuous delight, as is the music of Wagner, but in reading it we become educated about Wagner, about the issues and controversies of his times, about his unique theories of opera, about those who influenced him, and most importantly about him, warts and all. His ego was incredible--he wanted an opera house designed by him, only for his operas, with those productions to be micromanaged by him. But he worked 40 years and got exactly what he had wanted in the form of his theater in Bayreuth. He was not a nice person, we probably wouldn't want him as a friend (nor would he probably tolerate "the likes of us"-anybody other than a sycophant--as friends), he was a womanizer (but, we learn from Millington, not really as bad a womanizer as his reputation) and he was a horrible anti-semite. We learn this, and so much more, in Millington's fair and nuanced approach.

I highly recommend this for those first coming to Wagner as well as those Wagnerites wishing to learn more. This is absolutely the finest book on Wagner I have seen.
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on August 1, 2015
An interesting g biography of Richard Wagner. As a amateur musician, I was especially impressed with the discussion of operatic works. I became enthralled with "Die Meistersinger von Nuremburg" sixty years ago in college. I had never suspected that Beckmesser was Jewish until I read "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth." I used this as an analogy when I was involved in a program at the college where I taught involving student presentations. Faculty had to write criticisms of the presentation. When I mentioned Becknesser student response was "who is Beckmesser?"

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I am sure that it represented some bias on the author' part, but then this is a criticism of most biographer's. Wagner was definitely an anti-semite. I recall reading somewhere that he conducted Mendelssohn wearing gloves which he disposed of after the concert, If he were that much of a rabid anti-Semite, why did he conduct Mendelssohn in the first place? .

The book is an interesting account of Richard Wagner in all his imperious glory. I recommend the book to all Wagnerites and suggest further that they take much of the narrative with a grain of salt.
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on February 7, 2014
Wagner was an anti-Semite: this is a well known fact which should not distract from the fact that he was one of the greatest composer that ever lived.
Rather than focus on the music as music, this book is focused on the anti-Semitism of its composer. Anti-Semitism was rampant in Europe (and elsewhere) in that period (e.g. the Dreyfus affair in France, the controversy over Disraeli in England) so what is so unique in this case?
One must conclude that it`s a selling point, witness the headline of this site 'Wagner is one of the most controversial composer'. Musically there might have been controversy when it was first performed but nowadays, it is safe to say that there is unanimity on the value of that music.
The chapter on Parsifal borders on the ridiculous.
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on October 21, 2013
I have a lot of respect for Millington. He is a fine scholar and, in general, comes to a decent conclusion from what is--because Wagner left a trail of it--contradictory evidence. His "Selected Letters of Wagner," which he edited with Stewart Spencer, and his "Wagner Compendium," which he edited alone, are wonderful works and I recommend both without reservation. In all subject areas but one he is actually a breath of fresh air, giving facts and not wild speculation. But he does go overboard here, and elsewhere, on what is described above as " the anti-semitism that is undeniably present in the operas.". This is where he is in with the "in crowd" and has bought all sorts of things that are not at all evident in either the music and the text. If fact, it is all subtexual, if it is there at all, and is akin to a conspiracy theorist building evidence from subtle clues that 9/11 was the work of the government. It might be true, but I remind skeptical without hard evidence. In other words, it is quite deniable and many fine academics--see the Tristan Chord by Magee or works by Michael Tanner, for instance--have denied it. I can "hear" it his way, but I can also "hear" it without. This is because Wagner writes what Umberto Eco calls an "open work" which is available to different--but not unlimited--interpretations. I don't deny that, given Wagner's prose writings, one could could "finish" the work with his interpretation, but it isn't necessary to the works in the slightest. And there are many, much more humanistic, interpretations. All that said, he is a good guy--Barry--and I recommend the work with the above caveat.
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on April 15, 2013
A wonderful book for Wagner enthusiasts! A visually stimulating trip through Wagner's world. Plenty of good information for those looking for a simple one volume presentation of the man and his music. A great book to have for the bicentennial celebration!
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on July 26, 2013
Millington gives us gold in this detailed, yet lucid account. Biography and music are entwined skilfully. The paintings, photos and drawings on every page do far more than entertain, although each is of interest to a Wagner fan. They support the text. Many are stills from previous productions, up to 2011.
Millington's chapters and structure works well. As a Ring fan, I actually wanted more on these four operas, but I am being greedy. I'm going to the Melbourne Ring in December 2013.
I am savouring every page
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on November 24, 2014
This book is a good mix of biographical material and analyses of the operas. It is well written and easy to read.
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on January 6, 2014
Interesting authoratative presentation beautifully illustrated. The quality of the illustrations are worth framing. and add a bonus to the pleasa.nt reading.
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