on 2 June 2013
Although I seem to have an unquenchable thirst for books on Wagner whenever a new one is published one has to ask whether we really need it what with the already massive literature about the man and his music. In this case I think we can say yes this book does offer something worth having which isn't otherwise available currently in this form. The main point for me is that not everyone who wants to read about Wagner wants to do so at inordinate length and there is a place for a concise introduction to his life and work.
In this 200 page volume Raymond Furness, a former academic at St Andrews University, has provided a very rewarding review of Wagner's life as a creative artist from the early overtures and symphony in C through to Parsifal. Dr Furness is interested in showing us Wagner's creative mind and in showing us the influences on his life that helped shape that mind. Events, people and ideas that did not have a significant impact on the development of Wagner as an artist are omitted as being outside the scope of this "critical life".
Naturally in addition we get detailed discussion of the works themselves and the meanings that Wagner overtly intended them to have. Here Dr Furness is admirably disciplined. He does not speculate without verifiable evidence in the form of the works themselves or the composer's own writings or recorded comments. The Wagner literature is contaminated by far too many commentators who regard themselves as being entitled to bring their own theorising and obsessions into the discussion. One of the cardinal virtues of this book is that it is free of such slipshod and arguably intellectually dishonest kite flying.
Naturally Dr Furness needs to give us an understanding of the musical and operatic world in which Wagner was operating. So we get consideration of figues like Mendelssohn, Mayerbeer and Lizst. This explanation of the creative environment in which wagner worked is another very good aspect of the book
I should add that the book also considers Wagner's life as a performing artist as Kapellmeister in Dresden, as free-lance conductor and as the stage director of his own works. For instance both the 1855 and 1877 visits to London to conduct are discussed and wagner's role as director of both the 1876 and 1882 Bayreuth Festivals are discussed in detail.
The book concludes with a brief discussion of the main works' performance/production history. I found this less interesting than the main body of the work but I concede that any consideration of the work of a composer of operas/music dramas has to look at the trends in the performance of those works.
There are excellent notes, a select bibliography for further reading and a brief but well considered select discography of recommended recordings.
So if I can sum up. I would warn potential readers that you will not get detailed examination of the more salacious aspects of Wagner's life although their existence is acknowledged (e.g. the Mathilde Wesendonck affair). Other authors will provide that for you. What you do get is a concise informative exploration of Wagner's artistic creativity as a music dramatist. I would suggest that anyone interested in knowing why Wagner is such an important creative artist will have that question answered in these pages.
I purchased the paperback book not the kindle edition. As in my review of the Schopenhauer volume in this series, I have to say it is a beautifully produced little book. It is printed on good quality paper with a nice strong binding. There are 20 or so well chosen black and white illustrations.
As a footnote I must add that there is a lovely rather touching comment made by the author, who is clearly a life long Wagnerian, in his acknowledgements at the end of the book. In thanking those who have assisted him he concludes with the words, "but the greatest debt of all is to my dear wife, who has had the misfortune of sharing our marriage of nearly fifty years with a hectoring and intrusive ghost who does not like taking second place." I'm sure I'm not the only lover of Wagner's music who can relate to that sentiment!