“Let us not fall into the old error of intelligent reactionaries, that of ignoring our own debt to revolutions.” —G.K. Chesterton

More words, it is said, have been written about Wagner than about even Shakespeare: indeed, than about anyone else in history except Christ and Napoleon. Notwithstanding—or because of—this plethora, one-volume Wagner biographies seldom do their subject justice. The most stimulating single books on Wagner, at any rate in English, tend to be resolutely non-biographical: guides to Wagner’s aesthetics (Bryan Magee’s Aspects of Wagner and The Tristan Chord), surveys of individual operas (any bearing Deryck Cooke’s or Rudolph Sabor’s name warrants respect), and even reminiscences of Wagner recording sessions (John Culshaw’s Ring Resounding). For more than half a century, the definitive life of Wagner has been the four-volume account (1933-1946) by British musicologist Ernest Newman. Excellently written and brim-full with love for Wagner’s finest creations, Newman’s epic nevertheless suffered from the protracted embargo on the revelatory diaries of the composer’s widow Cosima, an embargo imposed by her eldest daughter and lasting until 1972.


Accordingly, the present publication by an established German scholar arouses hopes as exalted as Valhalla itself, particularly insofar as it promises and often provides a vigorously eclectic approach. Far too much existing Wagner literature suffers from a painful absence of either eclecticism or vigor, being Jungian (and therefore largely worthless), Freudian (and therefore entirely worthless), or Marxist (say no more).

Koehler cultivates, at least through the conduit of his translator, a lucid idiom that on this topic can only be beneficial. His first chapters, devoted to Wagner’s upbringing, are a mesmeric read. Wagner never knew whether his true father had been the colorless Leipzig police registrar Friedrich Wagner, or the flamboyant thespian and painter Ludwig Geyer, whom Friedrich’s widow later married. Enforced and lifelong ignorance of one’s own paternity is a condition apt to demoralize persons far more phlegmatic than the hyperimaginative, nerve-torn Richard. But it needed no taint of possible bastardry to leave the young composer infatuated with the stage, which in fact became his opiate.

Wagner never escaped, and clearly never wanted to escape, the atmosphere of rackety theatrical vagabondage that Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister had taught the German middle classes to love. He possessed that weird combination, so familiar in actors, of shameless attitudinizing and total moment-by-moment sincerity. As in Greek legend Antaeus was doomed whenever his feet left the earth, so in 19th-century German reality Wagner was doomed whenever his feet left the theater. There he thrived. There his conducting talents manifested themselves. There, too, he met his first wife, the actress Minna Planer, who—save for his short-lived sister Rosalie—probably inspired more selfless love from him than did any other creature that was not a tail-wagging quadruped.

He not only made drama his whole life, he made his life a whole drama. “Whatever my passions demand of me,” he once wrote to his eventual father-in-law Liszt, “I become for the time being—musician, poet, director, author, lecturer or anything else.” Thus speaks one who must publicly perform, whatever the sacrifice involved. Like so many other showfolk, he blended entire hopelessness in domestic concerns with astounding shrewdness in manipulating colleagues. Admirers vied for the privilege of lending him money that he never returned; frequently he helped himself with equal nonchalance to these admirers’ cigars and wives. “Wagner must be worshipped like a god,” babbled Cosima’s first husband, conductor-pianist Hans von Bulow. A man can hardly avoid sadism when his associates fall over each other to exhibit their masochism. Wagner’s narcissistic garrulity helped him, as it has helped so many other social-climbing womanizers. (It failed to beguile Schumann, though. Of Wagner, Schumann complained: “He talks without ever stopping.” Of Schumann, Wagner complained: “One cannot converse with anyone who never opens his mouth.”)

The middle of Koehler’s chronicle somewhat drags for a simple reason: Koehler—despite a fleeting reference to “the dreariness of his [Wagner’s] life as a pure thinker”—seems much more interested in Wagner’s theory than in his practice. The more draughts of metaphysical intoxicant Wagner imbibes, the more Koehler likes it. Drunk on Hegel, Fichte, Schopenhauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Friedrich von Schelling—drunk also on the anarchism of Bakunin, whom Wagner in Dresden knew and conspired with personally—Wagner enjoyed abundant leisure, after the collapse of Saxony’s 1849 uprising, to philosophize until hell froze over or he paid off his creditors, whichever came first.

Such leisure did nothing for his expository gifts. From his embittered middle years, many of them spent in despondent Swiss exile, dates most of his worst literary output, including nearly all the material for his novelettish memoir; the diatribe Judaism in Music (at first published anonymously); and Jesus of Nazareth, his wretched libretto for a projected opera, exemplifying the “Mary Magdalen was Christ’s concubine” genre which culminated in our own epoch with The Da Vinci Code. Happily for opera, Wagner’s musical creativity burst forth even as his prose creativity shriveled. This phenomenon Koehler underrates.

Even in the book’s early stages one senses a short-changing of Wagner the musician and more so in its central sections. It is frankly misleading to say of Wagner, as Koehler does, “In itself, music meant nothing to him.” A creator for whom music in itself meant nothing would never have shown Wagner’s youthful proficiency in writing elaborate and thankless counterpoint. Neither would he have honed his skills in construction and orchestration by copying out entire Beethoven scores, as Wagner the novice did with atypical humility. (Since Koehler rightly mentions all this self-imposed studying, we may well wonder why he did not draw from it the obvious conclusion.) Wagner owed—a point numerous commentators have made—less to formal tuition than did any other great composer. With this musical autodidacticism, and assiduous acquisition of non-musical kultur as well, came a lifelong sense of unease. Always he lacked the cheery professional detachment of Rossini and Donizetti, who could toss off an entire opera within weeks, cynically recycling earlier music if punitive deadlines loomed.

The dedication with which young Wagner shed the hypertrophic cliches of his first major opera, Rienzi—major in bulk rather than in value—to arrive at The Flying Dutchman’s astonishing originality is among 19th-century art’s most inexplicable and laudable developments. Yet reading Koehler, one somehow never fully realizes the change’s importance. Koehler’s overview of Lohengrin alternates inspired depiction of Wagner’s instrumental techniques for limning the opera’s villainess Ortrud, with pretentious schoolboy smut. Wagner intended Lohengrin’s prelude as an allusion to the Holy Grail; Koehler, alas, knows better. He calls this prelude “a musical evocation of the miracle of sexuality as so often depicted in the visual arts, not least by Bernini in his Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.” For such poppycock, a 10-page excursus on Judaism in Music’s foolish spite hardly supplies sufficient compensation, any more than do Koehler’s reports upon Wagner’s flatulence and transvestite tendencies.

At times, Koehler’s comments on Wagner’s music are simply false. Wagner’s stylistic debt to Liszt, far from having “always been treated as a taboo,” receives ample mention in readily available surveys of both men’s oeuvres, and Wagner conceded the debt, albeit not in ways which Liszt welcomed. The ambiguous dissonance in Tristan’s second complete bar remains indeed breathtaking—and has generated scholarly literature in oceanic magnitude—but Koehler’s proclamation that this dissonance “rendered its listener deaf to traditional harmonies” is Whig drivel. Koehler maintains with equal implausibility that the Ring cycle’s final episode, Gotterdammerung, “is concerned solely with politics.” (Solely?) Nor does Koehler communicate Wagner’s achievement in substituting for his youthful tendency towards foursquare phrases a remarkable rhythmic suppleness. Several critics, despairing of conveying this suppleness in their own words, have applied to Wagner Coleridge’s description of Shakespeare: “he goes on creating … evolving B out of A, and C out of B, and so on, just as a serpent moves, which makes a fulcrum of its own body, and seems for ever twisting and untwisting its own strength.”

In 1864, Wagner turned 51, impregnated Cosima (both parties being still married to others), and received the first of those kingly benefactions that changed his life. By 1864, with a brace of seemingly superfluous operatic manuscripts under his belt (Vienna’s opera house gave Tristan 77 rehearsals and then abandoned it as unperformable), he had so damaged his career that a brilliant future for him could have been predicted only by a lunatic. Fortunately there emerged just such a lunatic: that besotted deus ex machina Ludwig II. The enthusiasm—not to mention a villa and hard cash—that Ludwig lavished on the composer led to Munich’s malcontents (wrongly) berating Wagner as a regal catamite. Koehler’s narrative quickens when he recounts the sort-of-happy ending to Wagner’s earthly existence (1864-1883), with Cosima as Wagner’s ferocious champion and with Ludwig continuing to underwrite Wagner’s dreams for what became the Bayreuth festival theater.

Koehler repeatedly emphasizes the panic that Cosima inspired in her spouse and goes so far as to blame her for impeding Wagner’s creative powers. Parsifal, admittedly, came after their marriage, but Wagner composed most of Parsifal while in a frenzy of longing for Judith Mendes, daughter of poet Theophile Gautier. (Judith’s inspirational role goads Koehler into another bizarre verdict: “Many writers on Wagner have been unable to grasp that works about love must have been based on the physical experience of love.” Somebody please tell this to Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura.) Cosima inflamed her husband’s anti-Jewish and anti-French rhetoric; outlived him by 47 years; burnt mountains of his correspondence; and waged an impressive blackmailing operation against Ludwig, who dwelt in fear that his homosexual appetites would figure in a court case. Wagner himself leveled similar charges at Nietzsche, charges that in their falsehood reduced their victim to uncontrollable rage, though others will perhaps discern in Nietzsche’s wrath at Nietzschean amoralism a certain piquancy.

Somehow, amid all this strife and much else, Bayreuth came into being. Audiences for the complete Ring’s 1876 premiere included Kaiser Wilhelm I (who with his habitual clumsiness told the composer, “I never thought you’d bring it off”), the faithful Ludwig, and Brazil’s Emperor Pedro II, as well as Liszt, Bruckner, Saint-Saëns, and Tchaikovsky. But should this theatrical shrine have outlived Wagner? To contemplate Bayreuth’s record since 1883 is to conclude that however needful the institution was in Wagner’s lifetime, its survival now harms his cause, just as Stratford-on-Avon’s voguish tourist gallimaufry harms the Bard’s. As early as 1889 Bernard Shaw urged fellow devotees to perform Wagner’s music in England “instead of expensively embalming its corpse in Bavaria.”

Koehler writes with understandable impatience about Bayreuth’s—and its approved historian’s—opportunism, which has for decades resembled less a valid theatrical tradition than a heritage of Mafiosi. (Dare one say, in this context, “the Sopranos”?) During the Third Reich, Bayreuth cluttered the stage with Aryan supermen. Soon after the war, it made “de-Nazified” phallic symbols compulsory. It can now achieve nothing better than its odious recent Parsifal, in which Leninist buffoon Christoph Schlingensief transferred the action to Namibia while junking Wagner’s specified Act III stage directions to make room for film footage of decomposing rabbits. Much more sensible to appreciate Wagner at home or via library headphones through the best complete Wagner recordings from the 1950s and 1960s, long ago transferred to CD. Conducted by the likes of Wilhelm Furtwängler, Rudolf Kempe, Hans Knappertsbusch, and Sir Georg Solti, these productions demonstrate a level of musical—especially vocal—expertise that leaves the rotting-bunny brigade for dead.

How often have we music lovers groaned inwardly at the prospect of hearing Wagner again, only to be swept up anew in his art’s sheer charismatic majesty once the curtain actually rises or the CD actually begins! “A glorious sunset mistaken for dawn,” Debussy said of this art (although his words no longer resemble the reproach that they appeared to be during modernist ideology’s heroic youth). “What a clever rattlesnake!” snickered the apostate Nietzsche, grown incapable of either tolerating Wagner or ignoring him. We can see what both men meant; but Wagner’s most incandescent sonic triumphs evoke, rather, Henry V’s chorus: “a muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention.” 

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R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia.

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