RICHARD WAGNER: A Biography by Derek Watson


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A relatively short, densely compressed, firmly balanced Wagner biography--the steadiest of the books to emerge since ""The Brown Book"" and Cosima's Diaries became available in their entirety. Watson chiefly sticks to facts--interpreting only with caution, often deferring (wisely) to Ernest Newman's still-awesome biography, omitting opera plot summaries, barely delving into the music itself, steering clear of psychological analysis. He gives unusual emphasis, however, to Wagner's writings--especially their anti-Semitic and irrational aspects (he ""was constitutionally incapable of expressing his conceptions lucidly""). Here, then, is the much-told story, from turbulent childhood (""the mystery of his paternity remains unsolved"") to erratic musical apprenticeships to first marriage (""the most imprudent folly of his life"") to the life-on-the-run of an incorrigible debtor. Still, though recoiling from Wagner-the-borrower and deploring his paranoid behavior with Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, and Berlioz (""the jealousy was almost certainly on Wagner's side""), Watson praises his ""industry in the face of poverty and adversity"" during the Paris period; and he finds him largely in the right during his disastrous Dresden conducting tenure--which led to his iffy involvement (more artistic than political in motive) in the ill-fated 1849 mini-revolution. And when, after the miserable, shoestring, wandering years, King Ludwig comes to the rescue, Watson defends the relationship (""To claim that Wagner manipulated or perverted or weakened the King's character is nonsense"")--though he agrees with George Marek (Cosima Wagner, 1980) that the deception foisted on Ludwig by Wagner and his new mistress Cosima was ""the basest act"" of their lives. For the later years, Watson draws selectively from Cosima's Diaries (""In private his remarks would indicate that he hated his Jewish friends even more than his imagined Jewish enemies""), but he doesn't make use of the many fascinating psychological clues to be found therein. And the final pages are largely devoted to a solid analysis of the Nietzsche/Wagner split, followed by a murky pondering on the question of ""evil"" in Wagner's art, so beloved of Hitler. For the most part, however, Watson packs in the details of friends, colleagues, travels, compositions, and productions--which often makes for rather undramatic, airless reading. Still, if neither engrossing nor illuminating, this tight, comprehensive approach does give the whole life a manageable shape; and Watson's unfussy, literate prose helps to make this the best of the very recent additions to the Wagner shelf.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Schirmer/Macmillan