A brief life of the composer who “got under people’s skin.”
Actor, writer, and musician Callow (Orson Welles: One-Man Band, 2016, etc.) takes a break from his ongoing, multivolume biography of Welles to pen this compact and witty biography of the idiosyncratic German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Its genesis began in 2012 when Callow performed his one-man show, Inside Wagner’s Head, for the composer’s bicentenary. He now “aims to give a sense of what it was like to be near that demanding, tempestuous, haughty, playful, prodigiously productive figure.” The “lazy and willful” young Wagner was a “bit of a problem child” and a terrible student. A talented musician, at 17 he took on the “monumental task of making a piano transcription of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.” He would conduct the piece some 17 years later. At 28, he had written four operas, but he had no prospects nor money. He finally got some of his work produced, and he was appointed Royal Conductor in Dresden. Wagner felt The Flying Dutchman (“nobody understood it”) was his first piece of “real music” that he had written from his “unconscious mind.” Tannhäuser and Lohengrin “were the end of a road,” and he set out to write the artwork “of the future.” In 1850 he wrote a pamphlet, Judaism in Music. Callow argues that it shows him moving from his “casual anti-Semitism typical of the time into a fixed intellectual position…Germanness,” which made him Hitler’s favorite composer. He became more involved in a revolutionary politics and read Schopenhauer as he began work on Tristan and Isolde and The Ring of the Nibelung, which was performed in 1876, along with Parsifal in 1882, in the theater Wagner had built in Bayreuth, Germany.
“Dangerous and dynamic,” Callow’s Wagner is a “musical genius,” but he “cannot bring comfort. Which is why people fight over him.” An infectiously readable biography.