Being Wagner: the Triumph of the Will

by Simon Callow, William Collins, £14.99

For those who haven’t experienced Richard Wagner’s musical dramas or know about the composer’s life, this book offers a brief, intoxicating introduction. Given that Wagner deliberately set out to capture his audience in an entirely different way from earlier composers – indeed, to transport them to another world which involved a total “sensual and emotional immersion” – intoxicating seems the appropriate word.

Simon Callow, a self-confessed Wagnerian since early adolescence, has done one-man shows about Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and Wagner. With the exception of Shakespeare, about whom we know little, Callow is clearly drawn to colourful characters of exceptional talent or self-proclaimed genius.

Being Wagner shows the author at his most entertaining but also his most grandiloquent. For instance, referring to The Mastersingers, he writes: “Where was all that lurking inside the difficult, rebarbative, violently prejudiced, myth-forging, subconscious-probing, serially-betraying, Schopenhauer-gorging, Feuerbach-chomping pessimist with his tragic view of life?” One senses that in order not to be overwhelmed by his subject, Callow has to make him safe by mocking him.

That said, Wagner remains an absorbing topic. As Callow comments, “If by any chance he did not find himself the centre of attention, he took swift remedial action”, once letting out an unearthly scream in company when he felt ignored. “I am energy personified,” he remarked on one occasion. On another, he wrote, more significantly, that “Every man has his daemon and mine is a frightful monster … When he is hovering about me a catastrophe is in the air.”

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