by Tim Pfaff
It's surprising how many rabid Wagner opera fans know next to nothing about Wagner, particularly since there is so much to know, hardly any of it is dull, and a good deal of it is spine-tingling. London music critic Barry Millington, author of seven previous books as well as numerous articles on Wagner, goes a very great distance toward setting that right in his juicily titled The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, His Work and His World (Oxford).
It's hard to imagine a better book to kick off the Wagner bicentennial in 2013, during which all manner of balderdash is sure to be bantered about. The book communicates Millington's immense knowledge of the composer in chapters, organized by topic, that both satisfy and leave you wanting more. Chapters on the life are chronological, interspersed with chapters on the individual works presented as chronologically as possible given Wagner's penchant for overlapping work on the operas.
Topics include Wagner's cross-dressing and love of lavish (and usually pink) silks and satins, his perennial problems with money, his womanizing ("The tally of his serious and casual affairs taken together barely exceeds a dozen"), the explosion of Wagnerism after the composer's death in Venice, and, perhaps most difficult, his trenchant and altogether sincere anti-Semitism. Incorporating the latest scholarship, some of it his own, Millington provides some of the most satisfactory explorations of these potentially sensational topics to date, placing them in the largest possible context as they relate to the work of one of music's great geniuses without once using that genius as Wagner's get-out-of-jail-free card. As my most Wagner-admiring friend likes to say, "You'll eat it, lady."
I don't recall ever having read a scholarly book faster, a tribute both to Millington's energetic prose and to Oxford's lavish pictorial illustration of the text, which they bring in at a tidy 300 pages. You can easily name lots of other things that could have been included, particularly in the chapters on the works. But Millington gets directly to things you want and need to know about those, and specific things to look and listen for in them – and how all the pieces fit into the enormous canvas that is the picture of Wagner the creator (and not just composer).
Anyway, anything more you want to know can usually be found in another Millington book or in countless others to which Millington generously points. A reader who had never been to a Wagner opera could read this book without undue difficulty.
Tellingly, Millington's chapter on Wagner's cross-dressing (particularly while composing), and swaddling himself and his rooms in bolts of pink silks and satins and asphyxiating amounts of attar of rose, comes immediately after the one about how the composer's drive for extravagances of luxury left him with "never enough" money and fleeing creditors more than half his life. He provides more detail about the soft-fabric fetish than even Lawrence Dreyfus in his Wagner and the Erotic Impulse (though far less than Dreyfus does on Wagner's intimate if non-sexual relationships with gay friends, including Nietzsche and of course King Ludwig).
"In the final analysis," Millington writes, Wagner's fetishes are "not an embarrassment to be swept under one of his deep-pile Smyrna carpets. On the contrary, these tendencies provide a key to the music. It is entirely appropriate that such a man should take his leave of the world in a pink satin dressing gown."
His discussion of Wagner's anti-Semitism, including some very recent research about it, is one of the most penetrating now available. While making it clear enough that the prejudice was very much a part of the intellectual air Wagner breathed, Millington never excuses it, and accounts for its particulars in scathing detail. "As Barry Emslie's important new study makes clear, Wagner anathematized the Jews as incapable of both genuine creativity and love," he writes in his chapter on Die Meistersinger. Controversially, he points out how anti-Semitism surfaces in the operas, claiming that "if we are to penetrate to the essence of Parsifal ," Wagner's late "concepts of racial purity and regeneration" must be factored in.
Millington's discussion of Wagner's music, how it works and how it develops, is a model of concision and clarity, and regularly sends you back to the music itself. Even the pictorial illustrations, mostly apposite, carefully selected, and beautifully presented, are often literally revelatory, such as the ones showing Joseph Hoffmann's design concepts for the first Ring as they appear in a succession of recently rediscovered paintings and sketches.
Millington perhaps goes farthest out on a limb in his appreciation of artistic merits of Bayreuth productions under the new family regime. But considering his deft handling of Bayreuth post-Wagner, and particularly its connection with Hitler, there's context for his viewing what goes on at Bayreuth today as comparatively small potatoes.