Few historical figures have had as much written about them as Richard Wagner. Despite the library shelves groaning with books about the Bayreuth Master, Joachim Köhler has added to the hoard with almost 700 pages of text, splendidly translated by Stewart Spencer.
Wagner receives little sympathy from Köhler, and little attention is paid to the music. Instead, Köhler puts Wagner on the psychoanalyst’s couch and repeats ad nauseam the litany of Wagner’s antisemitism. That Wagner resented and even hated the Jews as a race is hardly news, but Köhler only touches on the many Jews with whom Wagner was friendly and who admired his work.
Wagner’s difficult, even traumatic childhood is well-known. Köhler’s strained efforts to read Wagner’s childhood demons into the operas is not particularly enlightening. While his analysis of the libretti is sometimes insightful, he neglects almost completely any commentary about the music (there are no musical examples).
That is strange because he recognizes that Wagner’s innovative use of the orchestra inevitably puts the singers at a disadvantage. Even at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, with its amphitheater seating, darkened interior, and orchestra pit buried under the stage, the theatrical elements of the operas still often predominate. Köhler sees Parsifal, the scoring of which is as luminous as the libretto is obscure, as an exercise in sexual obsession, a perspective which ignores the explicit Christian references in the text.
Wagner was the musical colossus of his age, and his successors for decades thereafter either counted themselves among his acolytes or struggled to escape his shadow. Probably no other composer, Beethoven perhaps excepted, had a more profound impact on his contemporaries. But Wagner is too often judged by those who, like Köhler, put more emphasis on what Wagner said than on what he did. Wagner profoundly affected the course of 19th Century intellectual life, musical and otherwise. (See Jacques Barzun, Darwin – Marx – Wagner – Critique of a Heritage). But that “titan” of the title of Köhler’s book hardly emerges from this biography.
Köhler does cast some new light on the baleful influence of Wagner’s widow Cosima. She became, late in Wagner’s life, not only his wife, muse, and amanuensis, but also the CEO of “Bayreuth, Inc.” In her eyes and those of her family who succeeded her as keepers of the Bayreuth grail, Wagner’s work was an enterprise that it was her duty to preserve intact.
Wagner was a great artist, but in many ways an appalling human being. Still, for those of us who love his art, his many character flaws are forgotten as soon as we enter the world that he created. (See M. Owen Lee, Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art).
Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans by Joachim Köhler
Translated by Stewart Spencer
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004