Wagner's bicentenary in May 2013 is likely to prompt an avalanche of books, cds and dvds: Barry Millington, an acknowledged, if polarising, expert on the composer has presented his offering early.
This is a richly illustrated and visually attractive publication: there are over 250 illustrations, many in colour and unfamiliar. Millington's book is broadly organised in chronological/biographical order, and manages to balance the need for detail without swamping any embryonic enthusiast with too much information. Each of the major works is given a chapter: though there are no synopses, each covers the central interests and background information to give a solid starting point for getting to grips with each work. For the Ring we have subsections covering 'sources ... genesis of the cycle ... theoretical essays ... the influence of Greek drama ... leitmotif ... stabreim ...' and so on.
There are also useful chapters within the broadly chronological 30 which can be read as mini-essays on a particular aspect of Wagner's work, life, context and legacy. So chapter 20 focuses on 'Sources of Inspiration', chapter 26 is 'Perfect and Imperfect Wagnerites: The Spread of the Wagner Cult', chapter 28 looks (inevitably) at 'Swastikas Over Bayreuth: Wagner and the Third Reich'. All are thorough, informative and illuminated by a life-time of research compressed into relatively brief accounts, making the book something to dip into for reference as well as a more straightforward history. There is also a (disappointing in my opinion) chapter on Wagner (whose visual imagination as indicated in his stage directions Millington describes as being 'proto-cinematic') and the cinema: towards its end this becomes little more than a list and fails to rise to the challenge of saying much that is of real interest about various cinematic approaches to biographical and operatic productions, while his treatment of the film maker whose work most seriously relates to Wagner and issues of German culture, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, occupies very little space. Apart from this exception, these chapters are interesting and informative, both for the reader new to Wagner literature and the established enthusiast.
Those who know Millington's approach to his subject will expect (and not be disappointed!) to find a section on Wagner and anti-Semitism in a chapter called 'The Grit in the Oyster'. This is a perfect title (borrowed from Thomas Grey) as it sums up Millington's view that Wagner's prejudice was central not just to the man, which is pretty well undeniable, but to the works which, he argues, have his contempt for and loathing of Jews in the very warp and weft of them, though, rather like the grit in the oyster, this often seems to remain invisible to the naked eye.
All this is very interesting but where the author attempts to tie works like Meistersinger and Parsifal to a much more coherent anti-Semitic agenda, the more he elaborates it the less convincing it becomes. Just as I always feel that those who deny the operas have any relation to anti-Semitism simply protest too much, desperate to ignore a blemish hidden away on a face they love so dearly, so I find Millington's argument becomes reductive and narrow, making demonstrably hugely important and beautiful works far smaller and weaker than our actual experience of them. (Interestingly, Millington praises in the notes Thomas Grey's essay in The Cambridge Companion to Wagner (Cambridge Companions to Music) for his 'judicious treatment of the whole subject': in fact Grey is a scholar whom Michael Tanner quotes to support HIS trenchantly held opposing view that the operas contain nothing that is remotely anti-Semitic! (If my memory serves me correctly, Grey's essay finds a far more moderate approach to this thorny and endlessly divisive topic than either counsel for the defence or prosecution manage to achieve. I personally find both parties absurdly over-emphatic in this area.) And it is interesting to note that, in his chapter on Wagner and cinema, Millington 'deplore[s] the facile linkage of Wagner and Nazism by means of the images they have in common' without really clarifying in what ways his linkage of Wagner and Nazism is essentially different. (p264)
The book also includes a bibliography (which disappointingly ignores Millington's arch-opponent Michael Tanner, whose 'Wagner' and 'Faber Guide to Wagner' are passionate, sometimes intemperate but always very interesting and concise approaches) and a discography, which is not a patch on that in Tanner's later book.
In sum, a very interesting, if pretty stodgily written, book (this is NOT a book to be enjoyed for its prose style!)with much to recommend it both for the curious Wagner novice and the established Wagnerian; there are few aspects of Wagner's work and its legacy which are not touched upon, and often with real insight, and the book's structure facilitates a 'dipping into' which 'The Wagner Companion' edited by Millington also has, but is a more forbidding, unillustrated and very serious tome. A first choice for someone new to the composer? Probably not: it is probably too detailed and academic in tone for a neophyte. For the beginner, I would still recommend Brian Magee's simple and straightforwardAspects of Wagner (Oxford Paperbacks) and Michael Tanner's rather more detailed passionate, occasionally blinkered advocacy in his Faber GuideThe Faber Pocket Guide to Wagner, though no-one would pretend that either of them is attempting to provide the sort of background material to be found in the present volume. Both writers love the work and communicate it in a way that Millington, for all his erudition, does not.
on 14 November 2012
First, the good things. BM is a well-known Wagner scholar and I am confident about both the detail he gives, and its being up to date. The illustrations are superb, and come out extremely clearly and well-printed on good quality paper, itself bound properly in signatures (rather than glued together a la Faber). Even the thick boards are of American opulence.
His judgment, not obviously defective, does give rise to certain doubts. It is quite wrong, for example,to describe Hans Sachs, unqualifiedly, as 'benevolent', when Wagner goes to great lengths to inform us - it is mentioned thrice - that he regularly and viciously beats his apprentice David. He is a little fanatical about ridiculing traditional stagings in favour of 'eurotrash' - the Ring cycle in a disused swimming pool is his sort of thing. Surely both have a place?
The structure of the book in thematic chapters rather than in a chronological narrative is quite a good idea, but here it does not work, as the length of the book ensures that one is unpleasantly aware of repetition too soon after first mention.
The real problem is his complete inability to express himself cogently in English. One can put up with errors of punctuation, even constant cliches and French-inspired circumlocutions (It would not have been a great surprise for us to find that .... It might be possible for us today to offer the view that ..) which are used to pad out the text; but being unable to convey your meaning clearly (because of the haste to produce the coffee table book in time for the centenary?) is inexcusable. Whole passages are found to be meaningless. ('Winifred never denied her friendship with Hitler - nor did she until the end of her days;' Parsifal is an opera illustrating 'compassionate suffering') He starts adducing one argument, only to abandon it suddenly for another, unrelated one, leaving the reader completely at sea. My favourite nonsense is about the grandson of the composer, and what is to happen 'if and when Wolfgang dies'.
Often these faults appear together. Cosima does not 'die'; she 'finally succumbed to fate at the ripe age of 92' (pomposity and two cliches in nine words). Most of these errors are owing to haste, and it is disgraceful that Thames and Hudson did not do a better job of checking the contents.
Let's get one gripe out of the way first - there are a few typographical errors which really should have been picked up, including one mistake with Wagner's year of death which if true would have him dying before he had written his greatest works and before he had built the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth. In addition, Mr Millington seems to rate no-one's opinion other that his own, including damning Robert Donington's excellent book on "The Ring". Also, there is a certain amount of repetition presumably because of his intention to avoid a chronological presentation of his extensive knowledge. Having got that off my chest, I have to admit that I read the complete book in one week, and found many facts of which I was previously unaware. The book is clearly written and very accessible, despite the depth of knowledge on offer. This book could act as "My First Wagner" book, to be followed by others which examine particular elements of Wagner's life - especially the diaries of his wife - Cosima Wagner. Very highly recommended.
on 25 October 2013
Just to confirm what others have said. Beautifully produced with splendid photographs. However, Millington's prose is more journalistic that scholarly. Further his view on Wagner's works is through the lens that the works must be interpreted by what we can reconstruct about Wagner's intentions and the culture he lived in. This means that the book contains very little critical appreciations of the works themselves. Disappointing.
Barry Millington, Editor of The Wagner Journal has set out to produce a book which will appeal to the many rather than the few, and he was done so marvellously. This highly entertaining and richly illustrated volume is sensibly divided into chapters focussing on different aspects of his life and work including an excellent final section on Bayreuth today and in the future.
This is not an academic study more a finely written introduction to the composer and his work, which will appeal many who have an interest in the composer. Published no doubt in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth in 2013, I can heartily recommend this volume for anyone who would like an lively informative book about the composer, but not a deep academic study.
on 28 April 2013
I ordered this book thinking it would be the usual dull hardback - all words and no pictures, but when it arrived I saw that the publisher was Thames & Hudson and realised it was going to be much more than that. And sure enough it's a beautiful book, copiously illustrated - often in colour - with very high production values.
And as for Wagner it's all here: the frilly knickers, the antisemitism, his love of comfort, the mad king, the Nazis, the grandchildren - oh, and some stuff about the operas, too. There's a sort of potted "Life", but frankly if you don't know the details of both his life and his works you may find this a bit confusing, since Millington tends to jump about a bit - better to start with Michael Tanner's excellent short Faber introduction. This would make an excellent adjunct to that book.
It's mostly well written and very up-to-date with all the latest "research" showing that Wagner liked frilly knickers and that he didn't like Jews. Sadly the bits on his antisemitism and the possibility that Wagner uses Jewish stereotypes in his operas involves a great deal of twisted logic to make the point. Previously we were told that these stereotypes were put in by Wagner so that the cognoscenti would get his message. Now it seems that he did this unconsciously - perhaps when he was asleep in his silk-lined rooms?
Nevertheless these abberations aside this is a very good book to look at and certainly to be recommended to anyone interested in Wagner and his works.
Barry Millington is editor of The Wagner Journal and has written extensively on Wagner for many years; so it is a pleasure to read his magnum opus on the old sorcerer, his life and times.
Before discussing the content, I must say that the book is magnificently produced, on thick quality art paper and it is profusely illustrated throughout (285 of them actually, 165 in colour).
Millington's style wears its erudition lightly and is bright and engaging from start to finish. I must admit I do find myself just picking it up and dipping into it very regularly and its style does facilitate this, indeed seems to positively encourage it. One can scarcely open the book at a random page without stumbling upon a wonderful sidelight thrown on an aspect of Wagner, his compositions or the context of the time in which they were fostered.
An example: I had often idly wondered why, in the Ring, Götterdämmerung jars slightly in comparison to the rest of the cycle. By this I mean, it seems closer in conception to more 'conventional' opera, for want of a better word. The huge set pieces such as Hagen's blood-curdling Summoning of the Vassals or the splendid Vengenance Trio in Act II seem at variance with Wagner's avowed distaste for self-contained set pieces, arias, duets and choruses (as set out in his essays of 1849-51). In fact George Bernard Shaw felt that the political allegory built up in the first three operas collapsed at this, the final hurdle. Millington explores the fact that the libretto for Götterdämmerung, though it is the final section of the Ring cycle, actually pre-dated the others, so is chronologically closer to Lohengrin than Rheingold, which goes a long way to explaining the phenomenon. This is a small point but I use it to highlight how Millington, with a wealth of contemporary material and more recent scholarship and research at his fingertips, imparts interesting nuggets throughout this splendid book in a breezy and absorbing manner.
He dissects both Wagner's character and his stage characters and it is, in that old cliché, a difficult book to put down. It is no hagiography, and every aspect of this most controversial of men and composers is studied in enlightening depth from his political persuasions, the charges of anti-semitism, his appalling money mismanagement, his perplexing relationship with the Bavarian King Ludwig and that with the long-suffering Cosima, the genesis of the Bayreuth project, right through to his alarmingly self indulgent cossetting. On this latter point it is fascinating to read of his love for pink quilted silk, satin and fur next to his skin, the velvet brocaded jackets and coats with matching neckties, caps and velvet slippers, his demand for rooms heated to a requisite temperature and lightly scented with rose oils and, when nature eventually called, especially fine English lavatory paper procured for the Master's personal use. Even Nietzsche sought out a fine seamstress in Basel to produce an exquisite silk undergarment for Wagner, about which he ruefully commented "once you've chosen a God, you've got to adorn him"(!)
The book also charts the rise of Bayreuth, the Nazi years, Wieland and Wolfgang's respective reigns and ponders what the future holds for the music festival.
If I had a minor quibble it would be that I would have liked to have seen a good few pages devoted to a critical discography, whereas the one which appears is rather too brief. But that is a minor cavil at best: I am certain that no lover of Wagner's inexhaustibly wonderful music will be disappointed with this book, which is engagingly written, well paced (there are no mauvais quarts d'heure here) and sumptuously produced. A magnificent work, worthy of its endlessly intriguing subject.
on 3 January 2016
This book is beautifully illustrated with photographs and paintings and the author (Millington) has written a reasonably interesting biography of the great German composer. However I was bitterly disappointed by the rather insubstantial interpretations of Wagner's Music-Dramas. I realize that this is a biography and not a work of musico-dramatic criticism; but since the most important thing about Wagner's life is his Music-Dramas I think there should have been a more detailed focus on interpretation of his sublime masterpieces. It is not enough, in my opinion, to make a few generic comments about the plot and some basic ideas about its meaning; I needed something more in-depth. I think Millington wrote less than 1,000 words about Parsifal, perhaps the most complex and profound of all his works, and then moves on. That leaves one feeling frustrated- and, indeed, irritated.
on 25 February 2014
I agree with D&D that this book is recommended, but with reservations - and that it is a bit complicated to read.
It is fantastically illustrated!! A really beautiful book!! But the structure is a bit strange. It is semi-cronological, but with many thematic chapters, which results in numerous repetitions and cross references. And especially the chapters about the operas are quite complex. They go into a lot of details about the music, describing individual sections of the music and the text, but omitting a general description about the story.
The chapter about King Ludvig of Bavaria and his assistance to Wagner is strangely short.
The book would probably have been a lot better if it had been fully cronological, and described the operas at the points in time when they were first performed.
This is a great book about Richard Wagner; released in 2012, a year before The Master's two-hundredth birthday in 2013. Barry Millington is an expert in the field, and has written many books on Wagner as well as editing the Wagner Journal.
This book, which is very readable, with shortish chapters though no skimping on detail (30 chapters at 300 pages), offers an account of Wagner's life, work and times, and what were his driving forces for what became monumental works in Western Art. Some would go further and state that he changed music forever with his opera Tristan und Isolde, and others have stated that Der Ring des Nibelungen IS the greatest work of art.
Having seen and heard all the 'mature' operas on the stage myself many times, and I count myself as knowing quite a bit about the man, I was pleased to read, and to have at my fingertips information that outs the operas in context.
Also impressive, and this is a sign of the times, is the handsome production of the book. The many colour illustrations are stunning. There are 285 illustrations, with 165 in colour, showing many productions from around the world, as well as picture of the locales in which Wagner worked. The great thing is that they're printed on the normal paper of the book, rather than on glossy special paper, which I much prefer, and makes them so much easier on the eye.
Naturally, the book does not shy away from Wagner's dark side: he was a loathsome man, though it's not his fault that he was Hitler's favourite composer.
This is a must for any Wagner fan, or anyone who wants to learn about the man whose influence on theatre today is still prevalent.