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on 31 March 2000
Tanner writes well, simply, unpretentiously, helpfully. For someone who is only starting to engage with Wagner's operas, Tanner would be an ideal mentor, showing the reader how to think seriously about these great works while sensitively experiencing them. He also offers much to people who know Wagner's works well. Having listened to Wagner and thought about him for over forty years, I have found my relationship to those great works refreshed and deepened by insights in Tanner's Wagner. I was introduced to Wagner by Tanner in about 1960, when we were colleagues in Cambridge. In the past thirty years, when we have lived on different continents, my life has gone on being enriched by what I learned from him through the 1960s. His book could do something of that for others: a reader could carry away from it not merely its immediate content but also guides to ways of thinking and feeling that would be valid and valuable for years to come. It is an astonishing book. Some of the early English reviewers were hostile: bitten perhaps by Tanner's sharp tone with those who have clambered onto the current bandwagon proclaiming that Wagner's operas - as distinct from the man himself - are anti-semitic. Other reviewers regard it as a classic. Roger Scruton, in the Times Literary Supplement, treated the book as an answer to Nietzsche's case against Wagner, and remarked that this is the first time that Nietzsche has been opposed on this topic by someone who is intellectually fit to argue with him. Tanner's many insights into Wagner's work are offered simply, modestly, with no grinding of scholarly gears or flashy post-modern prose.
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on 11 May 2013
It is evident from the first page that this book has been excellent researched and explores both Wagner the man and it examines his work in detail and reflects on the depth of meaning that can be found in Wagner's operas and sacred dramas. I appreciate that we are dealing with complex ideas here but some of the sentences are fairly indigestible because they are so long and occasionally the author appears to become somewhat overheated in his opinions. Nevertheless, this is a profound study of Wagner that cannot be missed.
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VINE VOICEon 6 January 2010
This is one of the best books on Wagner I've ever read - and I have read a lot. It's not engaged with the specifics of the music in the sense of loading the text up with staves, but it does pinpoint and discuss in detail the way the music actually works, without much recourse to a terminology of diminished 9ths that would defeat the layman. What's most heartening is Tanner's trenchant tone. Following up his excellent essay in the Faber Wagner Compaion, he dissents sharply and convincingly from the runaway lunatics of the Blame Wagner school of criticism, which pin just about every possible social, psychological and moral problem to the operas, to disguise their own inability to understand what Wagner's works are really doing. Returning to Tanner, I was particularly impressed by the chapter on Tristan, which is difficult to write about once you've tried to get beyond phwoarh coo lor I feel wrung out. It almost does justice to the immaculate terror of the work itself, which is saying a LOT. Tanner must be Britain's Bravest Don; working on Wagner AND Nietzsche, both so misunderstood. Maybe he should take Milton under his wing too? I say this because Wagner has lucked out with a defender like this, who writes so well, so persuasively, so passionately. Bravo!
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on 17 May 2013
"A quiet, subtle, modest masterpiece", another reviewer writes. Hmmm. . . I first contributed to this thread two or three years ago when I was about to buy the book, and I've just returned to it a second time, to see whether my first reactions stood up. Firstly, and to get this out of the way, Giles Penfold is right to say that Tanner's prose is appalling. Don't they have editors at Harper Collins? I would have sent it back and said "Probably very interesting: have another go at making it comprehensible, and I may be able to tell". Now, I hate the cult of the three word sentence -- Hemingway has a lot ot answer for -- and I'm prefectly at home with long unfolding sentences a la Walter Pater and also with academic discourse, but what I do not expect to be required to do is hunt round for a main verb, or listen to faint grinding noises as Tanner slowly gets round to another rhetorical question or condescending put-down. For in many ways this book is less about Wagner than about the author demonstrating his superiority to all other commentators, mostly by suggesting either that they haven't done their homework, or are in his word "inane", or that they are prejudiced. And it looks to me as though there's a lot of gratuitous Left-bashing going on here. Recommending quotes are shown in the blurb from such reactionary figures as Simon Heffer and Anthony O'Hear, and one always smells a rodent when writers quote approvingly from the preposterous Roger Scruton. There is a great deal of looking down the Tanner nose at any arguments he doesn't happen to accept, e.g. "That is the level of sophistication at which these arguments operate", and "A few recent examples, to show the level to which one has to descend if one is not to be felt to be just condescending". This is snotty stuff. And far from being "quiet", and "subtle", it's a pretty shrill polemic, whose chief method is to refute any criticism of Wagner as man or artist. But however much Tanner may wish otherwise, there *is* a problem with Wagner, which won't go away. Even leaving aside the anti-Semitic stuff, which comes freighted with a lot of particular historical and social context, it simply is not possible to represent Wagner as Jesus reincarnated, or to argue that his works, which may well be sublime works of art, are progressive, enlightened and humanitarian, while trying to deny that they were created by a man whom another critic succinctly describes as "hypocrite, bigot, opportunist, adulterer". (Tanner baulks at the last: Wagner was apparently only an occasional adulterer.) The defence sometimes touches on the ridiculous: Tanner asks us to remember, and make allowances for the fact, that many of Wagner's works were created when the ludicrously-extravagant (with other people's money) composer was living in poverty! This breathtaking piece of cheek reminds me of the young man hauled up in Court for murdering his parents, and asking for clemency on the grounds of being an orphan. Well, I suppose this is all good knockabout stuff, but while recognising that there is a disjunct between the art and (at least) the perception of the man, Tanner comes nowhere near teasing out just why this is such a problem when we would all like to be able to experience the work wholeheartedly, instead of at best grudgingly and fingers firmly crossed behind the back. He seems to think it's a plot by antisemitism-obsessed leftwingers and intellectual pygmies to besmirch his hero, arguing that no other artist is subjected to such unrealistic expectations of personal perfection. Well, hello. . . could it be because no other artist has ever made such grandiose and bombastic gestures and claims for himself and his art, or acted out megalomania so brazenly? I should in fairness close by saying that on its own terms, Tanner's book is rigorous and its arguments well-shaped, which is not however to say I found them very convincing, though there is certainly plenty of food (albeit often indigestible) for thought. But my overall feeling is that Tanner's worship of Wagner blinds him to the presence in this particular room of several elephants. I've read it closely twice, and I feel I've given it a fair shake: I won't be reading it again.
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on 16 March 2001
I am near to finishing this book for the second time. My gratitude to the author for opening my eyes to so many possibilities. Here is a book for the initiated and not ,as I was the first time around, a newcomer to Wagner and his thought. Tanner has a great way of outlining your options for understanding the works. I have little doubt that I will come back to the book in the future. The review of the irate Londoner does introduce a particular gripe I have with Tanner's style. At times his sentances are longer than the Victoria line and his vocabulary tends to shroud his intentions in unnecessary gobbledigook. For all that this is a very valuable book if you are interested in Wagner and his works.
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on 4 September 2012
Colin Dean is right - I read a dozen pages of this and found the linguistic incompetence so painful that I could not proceed. Much of what he struggles to say looks potentially interesting, but the near-illiterate fumblings were too much.
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