Wagner’s life and times laid bare in new biography

Barry Millington succesfully brings his authority on the composer into a new volume

People say there are more books about Richard Wagner than about anyone else in history except Napoleon and Jesus Christ, and it may be true. I once added to the pile myself (an introduction that reissues next year for the composer’s Bicentenary), and writing it taught me that there are four things a Wagner book has to juggle with: the life (which is messy), the music (monumental), the ideas behind the music (challenging), and the legacy (very challenging, not least when you reach Adolf Hitler).

How you fit these elements together is a question that’s clearly exercised Barry Millington, the Garden Suburb-based author of this latest book and a leading Wagner authority who has written extensively on the subject in the past, including an encyclopaedic Wagner Compendium twenty years ago.

For his new work he’s chosen a synthesis of chronological biography and thematic handbook that tells the Wagner story but with diversions into essays (on anti-semitism, on the cult of the composer, on the operas themselves...) which could be heavy-going but aren’t. This is in fact the most readable of books, engagingly presented and beautifully produced – with striking illustrations on good paper that make it a pleasure to turn the pages. And Wagner’s story is in every sense a page-turner.

It’s a fact of history that most composers lead comparatively uneventful lives spent at a desk, composing. Richard Wagner’s life, though, was a roller-coaster progress through extremes of poverty, extravagance, sexual intrigue and political engagement – one minute he was on the run from the police, the next the friend of kings - quite apart from the creative struggle that produced thirteen operas, ten of which rank among the mightiest cultural achievements of all time.

That said, he was (I think) a monster: a conceited egomaniac who exploited his supporters and exemplified the way great artists rarely prove to be great human beings. But he had charisma, otherwise he wouldn’t have attracted quite so many victims. And he had a mind that roamed, renaissance-like, across far more than music. In ten volumes of collected writings he pronounced on everything from politics and science to diet and race.

Some of his thinking was laughably utopian – not least, his theory that the world’s ills could be cured by shifting its populations to warmer climates where they wouldn’t want to eat meat and could embrace compassionate vegetarianism. Some of it was darker, less dismissable. And he will never be forgiven for a fiercely argued anti-semitism that, although it can’t be held responsible for what transpired three-quarters of a century later, lent legitimacy to the anti-semitism of the Third Reich.

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Barry Millington sifts through all this with admirable clarity, conciseness and (above all) balance: neither too devoted nor unduly hostile. He’s particularly good at dealing with the tangled, still ongoing Wagner family issues. And although he’s softer than I’d personally be on Wagner the filanderer and rogue, he’s tougher on the anti-semitism – a charge that certainly belongs on the composer’s indictment sheet, but no more than that of any other mid-19th Century liberal-radical fighting for German unity in times when the regime of separate princeling states was thought to be propped-up by Jewish banking money. Anti-semitism among German liberals was a norm, however paradoxical that may seem now.

My only problem with this book is that I’m not sure what kind of reader it anticipates. Sometimes it lays out material at entry level but at others assumes a knowledge that entry-level readers won’t possess – for example it won’t tell you what the operas are about in terms of plot and action.

To get the most from the book, I guess you should be already blooded in the subject but curious to know more. And if that’s the case, it makes a valuable and handsome vade mecum for the Bicentenary – which ranks among the biggest deals in next year’s international music calendar.