WAGNER: A Biography, Vols. I & II by Curt von Westarnhagen

WAGNER: A Biography, Vols. I & II

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Despite the two-volume presentation and heroic price-tag, this is a remarkably anemic and superficial biography of the great Richard (""the disciple of the Greeks, the herald of Beethoven, the poet of mythology"")--a dull, thin flow of dates, events, and quotes interrupted now and then by a clump of academic nitpickery. Von Westernhagen refers to Vol. I of Cosima Wagner's just-published Diaries (p. 1124), but he pretty much dismisses them, making not the slightest gesture in the direction of the rounded psychological study that Cosima's revelations might help to inspire. Nor does he take even the most basic biographer stabs at probing Wagner's motivations, moods, or relationships. Instead, nearly everything is viewed through Richard's own words, unselectively quoted and taken at face value. And only two areas of inquiry seem to spark von Westernhagen's interest: old Wagner-scholar this about letters and feuds (the hassles with King Ludwig and Nietzsche especially), which he rehashes; and the writing of the operas themselves, which provokes a few spots of intriguing analysis, along with much dry bombast (""the whole period, as Lorenz has shown, represents a potentiation of Bar-form so that the intensification rests not only on the quality of the sound but above all on a formal, intellectual principle""). Otherwise, it's Wagner inanimate--the outer life flatly detailed, the inner life neglected. Worse still, von Westernhagen offers an irresponsibly incomplete portrait: while Chancellor's lively, outrageous Wagner (p. 980) defended the composer's anti-Semitism, von W. tries to hide it (along with the other Wagner hang-ups), emphasizing the few pro-Jewish remarks and simply leaving out all the rest--a hoax that can be exposed by even the quickest glance at Cosima's diaries. Notwithstanding the often painstaking scholarship, then, von Westernhagen can't be trusted; so this addition to the Wagner shelves is not just finicky and superfluous but downright unreliable.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1978
Publisher: Cambridge Univ. Press