Friday, May 10, 2013

Wagner's Character: The problem of biography (with selected, annotated bibiliography)

Summary and links to the series of Wagner character posts: 

I believe that Richard Wagner has been the victim of character assassination, which was started in his era but has come to full fruition in our own. While certainly Wagner does have character flaws, he is accused—casually, ubiquitously, and with no or little supporting evidence—of a whole host of faults, most of them exaggerated, and rarely counterbalanced with any sense of his goodness beyond musical genius. The result is that his true personality and character have been buried under an avalanche of mud. My introduction to that topic is here. I give a short introduction to his personality and character so that you can better understand the various charges here. I cover these traits: megalomania here; sexist, womanizer and wife-stealer – part 1 here, part 2 here; his problems with money and, consequently, friendship is here; the issue of his morality, hypocrisy and lying here; the issue of anti-Semitism is here. The first part of how his reputation got into the mess it is can be found here and the second here. This concludes this series.

In my introduction to this section, I argued that the real Richard Wagner has been lost to history due to a one-sided attack against him without any presentation of any counterbalancing traits or any historical context. He is all caricature, a myth, and an ugly one that that.

The trouble in seeking any short biographical information about Wagner is that it is very hard to find anything but completely negative character profiles; they pile up on each other, making this tendency more pronounced as time goes on.  The Wikipedia entry on Wagner has generally sidestepped this problem, but their article, long on facts, is very short of charm.  Deadly dull, in fact.

I think biography is tough.  How do you reduce a life to a book, much less a short internet-sized bio? I read with interest this recent critique of Bob Woodward’s biography of John Belushi by another Belushi biographer, Tanner Colby. His method was unique: “Over the course of a year, page by page, source by source, I re-reported and rewrote one of Bob Woodward’s books.”

His conclusion regarding Woodward’s original biography: “There’s no question that he frequently ferrets out information that other reporters don’t. But getting the scoop is only part of the equation. Once you have the facts, you have to present those facts in context and in proportion to other facts in order to accurately reflect reality. It’s here that Woodward fails.”

I suspect that is where all biographers fail, and this is certainly true of the vast majority of Wagner’s biographers.  I think the problem might stem, in part, because there are so many facts and so much information about him. There are his 10,000—many long—letters, his autobiography, his diaries, Cosima’s diaries, his prose writings, the reminisces of those who knew him, thousands of letters to him, et al.

I think the temptation is great, too great, to find the most outlandish stories, the worst traits and the most titillating details, and make those the story, even though they reflect just some of his life.  Yes, he was bigger than life, excessive in most things, so there is a greater share of those type of stories than in a “normal” life.  But when those stories become the overwhelming focus, the man disappears.

Also, there is the problem that both his “friends” and “enemies” have not tried to reflect reality but, instead, tried to create a myth – a hero or a villain.  As Stewart Spencer put it in his first line of Wagner Remembered, “The demonization of Wagner started as the first calls for his canonization were being considered.” And each book published tends—often blatantly—towards one side or the other.  I am clearly on the pro-Wagner side, but I am trying as hard is possible to let you know where I am getting my facts and—to requote from above—to put them “in context and in proportion to other facts in order to accurately reflect reality.”

I write this all as a preamble on the following selected, annotated bibliography.  I am writing this now, I admit, as a convenience for myself.  I will refer to it, no doubt, throughout the rest of this blog, and my life, for that matter. As well, I plan to edit it as I read—or remember—other important sources.

I do think  it will be of help to anyone who wants to delve into the “case of Wagner”.  And certainly, it gives any reader a clear view of my biases, influences and beliefs.

I start with a premise, perfectly articulated in this Amazon review by a blogger and writer who I frequently find myself in agreement with named Laon“Wagner may be the historical figure of whom secondary sources are most unreliable. With Wagner it ALWAYS pays to read the original source and NEVER to trust the commentator, some of whom should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.”

Best Starting Book

I think the best, most fun starting point is Wagner Remembered edited by the knowledgeable and fair-minded Stewart Spencer. It is all from primary sources, helpfully annotated so the reader knows the context of the selection and when it was written.  As I have mentioned earlier, this is the best single source to get a true sense of his personality, his strengths and weakness. It is the one indispensable book.

Best book to actually understand Wagner, his life and ideas

A much more dense book, but fascinating reading, is Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, edited by Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington. It was through reading this book, not the various biographies I will list below, that I felt I understood him, what made him tick. He comes off as what he was: very dedicated to his art, complex, contradictory, emotional, turbulent and prescient. Unlike his prose, the letters are usually fairly easy to understand.  Most likely, this relates to the excellent translations by the editors as well as “a spontaneity of expression conspicuous by its absence from the majority of his prose writings,” as Stewart Spencer put it the Wagner Compendium1. After Spencer’s book, I think this is the most important one to read to really understand the man.


The problem of Wagner biographies is there isn’t a good single-volume one out there, at least that I have read.  I am a big fan of the 4-volume Newman biography, Life of Wagner, completed in 1947, but I am sure that has limited appeal due to length.  But he did an excellent job of balancing the facts and giving a sense of the real Wagner. He wrote an earlier, and good, short biography, Wagner as Man and Artist, though he later said that he thought he was too hard on Wagner in that book, which is comical considering what was to come.  These are all considered outdated, as much has come to light since they were written.  But they remain the class of the English biographies.

Of modern biographies, the only one I think gets it right—who describes the guy that I have come to know through concentrating on primary sources—is Richard Wagner and the JewsBecause of the title, I thought it was going to be something other than a biography when I purchased it.  But a biography it is; it just spends more time on this one issue than most biographies.  He doesn’t shy away from the bad in Wagner, but also clearly shows the good.

I really can’t recommend any other biography, though.  There might be another good one out there, and I am trying to find it, but I haven’t yet.  I am going to write more about this topic at a later point, so stay tuned.

To avoid: The Man, His Mind, and His Music by Robert Gutman. A good critique of that book is here.  Also, if you are considering it, read the reviews on the Amazon page as well.


Mein Leben by Wagner (as told to Cosima for King Ludwig; it covers his life to age 50, when he met Ludwig). Ok, I admit it; I haven’t read it.  I’m gonna!  But lots of people think it is actually very interesting about the period and it gives a good sense of the man, even if given to hyperbole and avoidance of some subjects. I will report back someday when I actually read the thing.  But it is here and here, free.

Wagner’s prose writings

You can download them here. The problem, as I have mentioned in more depth in footnote three here, is that Wagner is a turgid writer and, his translator, William Ashton Ellison, stinks.  Let me give you an example of his translations, supplied by Laon in this review of Judasim in Music: The German word Erdball means world. It takes a weird translator to want to render it into English as Earthball.

This creates a real problem for the English reader, who doesn’t know German, and it gives a great opportunity to Wagner’s enemies.  They use this state of affairs to misinterpret his writings, often egregiously.  I am sure many people just assume these misinterpretations are correct, but it is often not so.  More on this reality later, but I wanted to give the link here.

For an analysis of Wagner’s controversial writings—and the difficulties of the English translation—there are several interesting posts at this blog such as this one on Judaism in Music.

Cosima Wagner’s Diaries 

They are fascinating, covering the period from 1869-1883. Cosima wrote a detailed account of what they did most days, therefore it is a gold mine to biographers. That said, it has been used much too cavalierly by many.  Things she paraphrased that he allegedly said have been rendered as quotes of his, which is a total biographical no-no in my book. To say her diaries are quoted selectively—they run over 2000 pages of very small type—is a vast understatement. Beware quotes from her book: there will certainly be much to contradict anything quoted.  Here is a good piece about the Diaries, written by the historian Joachim Fest. 

General books about Wagner

The Tristan Chord and Aspects of Wagner by Bryan Magee are very fun, interesting and enlightening reads.  He is, I believe, the best writer on Wagner.  His books don’t have footnotes, though, and that is a crime.

Wagner by Michael Tanner is really thought provoking and interesting.  I have reread it more than any Wagner book except the above.  It’s a little dense sometimes, and not as clear as Magee.  And it, too, doesn’t have footnotes.  Can you tell that I really want to check sources?

Wagner and anti-Semitism

The Darker Side of Genius by Jacob Katz is the principal work on the subject, though I disagree with much of his analysis and interpretation of the primacy sources.

The Tristan Chord, Appendix 343-380 and Aspects of Wagner, pages 19-28 give Magee's views on the subject; he says much that I agree with in the former.

The Cambridge Companion to Wagner, ed. by Thomas Grey with an article by him on pages 203-218; again, I disagree with much of his view.

Richard Wagner and the Jews — see in biography above; he emphasizes the large gap between Wagner's hostility to Jews as a stereotypical entity in contrast to his continual kindness and friendship with many different Jews throughout his life and tries to make sense of this conundrum.

The Wagner Handbook, edited by Muller and Wapnewski; read the article "The Question of Anti-Semitism" by Dieter Borchmeyer; his interpretations are much closer to mine those of Grey, Millington and Katz, who all generally pitch the same line and make the same misinterpretations, in my view.

The Wagner Compendium, edited by Millington with an article by him on pages 161-164.

The Sorcerer of Bayreuth, a 2012 book by Millington is the best thing to read by someone who does believe Wagner's works were infused by anti-Semitism.  The reason is that his are better than the ones I put in the "Avoid" group below is because he doesn't exhibit the animus of the other writers, doesn't quote things about of context, and is even-handed in analyzing the information.

If you read German, I have read Dieter David Scholz's Richard Wagners Antiseitismus. is good, and given articles I have read in English by him, I am sure that is true.

On the Israeli boycott of Wagner, the book to read is Ring of Myths by Naomi by Sheffi. She knows much less about Wagner than about Israel and the boycott, but her contribution is invaluable on the principal subject.

To avoid: the complete rubbish of Paul Lawrence Rose, Marc Weiner, Joachim Köher.
A critique of Köhler here; A critique of Wiener is here (read reviews); a critique of Rose can be found in Magee, 373-380.  

Also interesting is this debate in the comment section of an article.


Aspects of Wagner by Magee, chapters 3 "Wagnerolatry" and  chapter 4 "The Influence of Wagner" is the best place to start as it is an easy, fun read.

Wagernism in European Culture and Politics, edited by David Large and William Weber, is the best general survey, covering his multifarious—and highly contradictory—influence in some detail for Germany, France, Italy, Russia, England and, despite the title, America. There is a good introduction and conclusion by the editors that pulls it all together. 

Aubrey Beardsley and British Wagnerism in the 1890s, by Emma Sutton.  A very good review of the "Decadents" and their relationship to Wagnerism.  

Wagner Nights, an American History by Joseph Horowitz is focused on American Wagnerism.  Most American Wagnerians were women; Horowitz explores this phenomenon. 

The Cambridge Companion to Wagner and The Wagner Compendium both have good sections on Wagnerism in both music and the arts.

Good compilations

The Wagner Compendium, edited by Barry Millington is an excellent resource.  It meets its stated aim: “to provide a compendium of information on every significant aspect of Wagner and his music.”

The Wagner Handbook edited by Muller and Wapnewski. It has a series of interesting articles on various topics about Wagner. 

The Cambridge Companion to Wagner, edited by Grey, also has some interesting articles.

The Wagner Family

The Wagner Clan by Jonathan Carr is a fairly even-handed book and a good starting point for what happened after Wagner’s death in 1883.

Film Biography

There has only been one major film representation of Wagner, and it was a very unfortunate depiction indeed.  Richard Burton plays Wagner in a BBC nine-hour miniseries.  Though there was much that was good in this film, the problem was that the guy Burton played didn’t have a personality anything like Wagner.  He played him as either totally bombastic or very dour. One negative review in Amazon makes the point for me. 
The portrayal of Wagner as a spendthrift, vain, self important, emotionally cold, nasty bully is so relentless, that it quickly gets tiring. There is no contrast, no light and darkness. He treats everyone with scorn and contempt. So much so it's hard to imagine anyone loving him, or any woman wanting to have an affair with him. Whatever his faults, I find the portrayal hard to believe. 
The film consistently twists his biography in ways that leave only partial truth. For just one example, they show an episode in which Wagner reads a libretto to an assembled group.  It was depicted as if Wagner forced unsuspecting folks to listen, and that they were not into it and totally bored.  The point of the scene was clearly to show that he was am insensitive megalomaniac. However, the fact is that people who actually got the privilege of hearing him read his librettos uniformly said Wagner was mesmerizing, a born actor, and it was thrilling when he did this. (See, for instances, page 77, 79-80, 88, 97,113, 119, 134-5, 188, 219, 258 of Wagner Remembered)

In the movie, he wasn’t charismatic in the least; he seemed like a total jerk.  As I wrote in my personality profile, Wagner was a very lively, fun-loving guy.  From all descriptions, he had a lot in common with Robin Williams (and only someone with that sort of frenetic quality could possibly play him.) The cast, the production values, the music were all first rate.  But this was not Wagner, nor was it his biography.

However, if you glance through the reviews of the movie, no one seems to know that!  Everybody has bought into this unfair biographical view, and so only the one guy I quoted above—who doesn't even know much about Wagner—seems to get that there is something wrong with the portrayal.

Der Ring des Nibelungen

I am a big fan of John Culshaw,  who was the engineer for the celebrated Solti Ring (considered by many—like here—the best classical recording of all time).  He wrote two books, The Ring Resounding about that amazing recording venture. He concludes that book with  an extremely prescient article about the future of music and opera.  The video about the project is here.   His Reflections on Wagner's Ring is wonderful, which is taken from his 1975 talks on the ring for the Met.  The actual talks can be downloaded here (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Derek Cooke’analysis of the Ring on CD is pretty cool. 

End Notes

1 Millington, Wagner Compendium, 193


  1. As a fellow Wagnerian who recently came across this blog by chance, I wanted to offer you encouragement and comment on how excellent it is: very thorough and intelligent. In fact I am a little shocked on how many of your views seem to mirror the conclusions I've come to after years of listening to and reading about Wagner. It's relieving to know I'm not alone in my convictions. And I hope that people continue to come across your blog and find it as delightful and refreshing a read as I have. Though I must admit, I admire the task you have set before yourself, but do not envy it. I know from my experience defending Wagner against all sorts of uninformed and hateful criticism that changing the cultural image and reputation of him as an all around "bad guy" is an uphill battle. It is an assumption that is so deeply engrained in our society that it is hardly ever questioned. And when it is, those defending him are invariably accused of being Wagner apologists or of blind idolatry, like you yourself have noted. Either that or it often falls on deaf ears, because people prefer when subjects can be easily defined and categorized. Understanding the complexities and contradictions in Wagner is too much work, its easier to make him out as a villain. I think a lot of people involved with classical music even savor it to an extent, the controversy and portrayal of him as the baddie of classical music stirs up interest. But if even one person comes to a greater understanding of Wagner and develops an appreciation for his transcendent artwork through this blog then it is well worth it. So keep up the good work.

    As regards this particular entry, you did a wonderful job listing many of the best books on Wagner, and most of your favorites are favorites of mine too. I wanted to mention The Wagner Companion by Peter Burbidge and Richard Sutton as well, as it contains Michael Tanner's excellent essay "The Total Work of Art“ and other thoughtful articles. Oh and Deryck Cooke's unfinished study of the Ring is quite informative.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and encouragement. I am planning on working on the bibliography more in the future. I do have the Burbidge/Sutton collection, and admired Tanner's article. It is hard to get which is one reason I didn't put it down, but I will add it. As for Cooke, I am sure it is great—as is is CD analysis—but I haven't read it. I only put things for which I had first-hand knowledge. I will try to get ahold of a copy.

  2. You can find what I think is a very intelligent one-hour introduction to The Ring here: