On Reading Newman’s Wagner Biography

It’s no news to Journal readers that Richard Wagner (1813-83) is, to say the least, both a brilliant composer and an extremely polarizing figure. This being his bicentennial, we're presenting two views of the man and his career, one, here, by a faculty member and Wagner scholar, the other by a student.

Richard Wagner

As Richard Wagner’s bicentennial year (he was born in 1813 and died in 1883) draws to a close, a Juilliard faculty member and a student explored very different aspects of the wildly controversial composer’s legacy.

(Photo by Franz Hanfstaengl)

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My serious involvement with the music of Richard Wagner came during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. Perhaps I should say that is when I received my calling, for I listened to the entire “Ring” cycle (Solti) and Parsifal (Knappertsbusch 1951). Wanting to know more about the life of this composer, I arbitrarily pulled a biography off the shelf of my local library. This led to more and more reading about Wagner, and it soon became clear that the dean of Wagner scholars was Ernest Newman. 

In his long career, Newman (no Jerry Seinfeld inflection, please) wrote a number of books on the composer, but his magnum opus was The Life of Richard Wagner, all four volumes and 2,400 pages of it, published between 1933 and 1947. (Believe it or not, there is an even longer biography in six volumes by Carl Glasenapp.) Over the years, I have dipped into Newman periodically, but this past summer, 43 years after my first encounter with a Wagner biography, I decided to read Newman from cover to cover. Whether I was motivated out of a spirit of bicentennial celebration or penance, I can’t say, but working my way through the biography while listening to the music and preparing lectures for the Bayreuth Festival was an extraordinary experience in total Wagner immersion. Any attempt at a full appraisal of Newman’s accomplishment would overflow the pages of The Journal as surely as the Rhine overflows its banks at the end of the “Ring.” What I offer here are some reactions and observations on my summer’s activity.

Before Newman, much writing on Wagner was quite biased, either positively or negatively. Newman’s job was to examine a great mass of primary and secondary source material, sort through conflicting views, and offer his interpretations. In addition to being a composer, librettist, conductor, writer, and operatic entrepreneur, Wagner was also a major figure of 19th-century culture in general. Therefore, Newman had to have command of the entire artistic and political scene of the time. The Life of Richard Wagner is an extraordinary work of meticulous scholarship; the footnotes alone would fill a small volume. 

As is well known, Wagner was a very flawed human being, and his treatment of people, even close friends, was often quite shabby. Newman doesn’t shrink from portraying the less appealing aspects of the composer, but defends him when warranted. Wagner certainly encountered much hostility towards his artistic goals, but Newman feels he was often his own worst enemy. Wagner’s borrowing of money, from friends and strangers alike, is legendary, and Newman examines his financial history with the zeal of a forensic accountant. Although Newman is rather cautious when treating Wagner’s anti-Semitism, he is not oblivious to the composer’s nationalism. In a series of essays explaining the true nature of the German people, Wagner wrote, “Consequently the German feels no thirst for conquest, and the lust to dominate foreign peoples is un-German.” With classic British understatement, Newman reacts, “This makes very interesting reading in 1940.”

While evenhanded in his treatment of Wagner, Newman is not as fair when dealing with some of Wagner’s contemporaries. He is very harsh toward Liszt and “the charlatan Meyerbeer,” and his dismissal of Nietzsche as a philosopher is simply embarrassing today. Clearly, Wagner’s first wife, Minna, did not understand her husband’s single-minded devotion to his artistic mission, but is it so terrible that she wanted a life free from constant economic worry? 

Newman often presents his findings in a legalistic manner, weighing the arguments as if building a case. Clearly, he wanted to base his work on documentary evidence, but he frequently overstates his case and gets quite repetitive; I found myself writing in the margin “point made!” or “move on!” He provides a virtual day-by-day account of Wagner’s life, with no detail too insignificant. If you want to know where the composer stayed in Vienna in the summer of 1861, you can find it in Newman. (368 Gumpfendorferstrasse, by the way. Newman helpfully points out that the address had since been changed to Gumpfendorferstrasse 88, Webgasse 2.) Given Newman’s very rational assessment of information, it is slightly disconcerting to read how often he ascribes events to “the Fates.”

Newman has a wealth of information on musical life in 19th-century Germany, from the deplorable lack of copyright protection to a brief history of bearded tenors. (Apparently, the decade of the 1880s separates hirsute heroes from clean-shaven ones.) Wagner was involved in every aspect of an opera’s production, from the coaching of the performers to the scenic elements. His concern for the physical appearance of singers and their acting ability is very contemporary. Newman reports, “He was a trifle perturbed about his Venus [in Tannhäuser], whose contours, always ample, were now becoming redundant.” Wagner also expressed concern over the excessive girth of his first Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, although he greatly admired the tenor’s voice and interpretation. (Schnorr’s wife, Malvina, equally large, was his Isolde at the premiere of Tristan in Munich.) Wagner even advised the director of the first “Ring” not to use a circus horse for Grane (Brünnhilde’s horse) because it would start dancing when the music began!

As one would expect, Newman explores Wagner’s relationship with his patron, Ludwig II of Bavaria, in great detail and sheds new light on Wagner’s unscrupulous dealings with the king. While in Munich this summer, I went down into the crypt of St. Michael’s Church, which holds Ludwig’s coffin. I found it very moving to stand next to the mortal remains of this man, so misunderstood by his subjects and so badly abused by the very person he had rescued.

Despite his emphasis on factual material, it would be incorrect to say Newman merely chronicles Wagner’s life. Although not writing from the psychological standpoint that provides a framework for many modern biographers, Newman does offer insights into Wagner’s psyche. For instance, he believes that the composer’s strong identification with the character of Lohengrin reflected his own “sorrowful sense of isolation” and suggests that he was drawn to the introspective and lonely character of Tristan for a similar reason. It is well known that Wagner surrounded himself with every manner of luxurious fabric, from silk to satin, and this indulgence has made him easy game for ridicule. Newman perceptively suggests he needed to insulate himself from a hostile world in order to achieve his goals.

Here and there, Newman turns a nice phrase, some of which refer to Wagner’s propensity for borrowing money. “In music, as Wagner was not unwilling to admit, he had learned much from Beethoven, Weber, Berlioz, and others; but his technique as a borrower was his own creation.” Referring to the possible relationship between Wagner’s love for Mathilde Wesendonk and the music of Tristan und Isolde, Newman writes she “was not the generator of the lightning, but merely the conductor of it.” When discussing Wagner’s need to stay intellectually active even when he was not composing, Newman suggests, “he had to be fructifying even in his fallow seasons.” However, such passages are few and far between; pointing them out is similar to saying there are two jokes in Götterdämmerung. (Honestly, there are.) Newman’s purpose was to provide a well-researched, sober account of Wagner life, filled with supporting detail. It was left for later biographers to use this research as the basis for a more engaging narrative.

My time spent with Newman certainly benefitted my vocabulary. Try working the following words into your next e-mail or conversation: rhodomontade, mulcted, auriferous, enceinte, pullulating, cenacle, ophidian, pasquinade, fuliginous, valetudinarian, and atrabiliar. (This last term was used twice within 100 pages. New rule: only one “atrabiliar” per volume.) Not only will reading Newman improve your knowledge of English, but of Latin as well. How often do you find consecutive chapters of a book titled “Vincere scis, Hannibal” and “Victoria uti nescis”?

One might ask, why spend so much time reading a book that is 70 years old when new studies on Wagner appear every year? It is true that some information in The Life is inaccurate, and much has come to light since Newman’s day, including Cosima’s diaries. Time and time again, however, I would read a passage in Newman and realize how indebted later scholars are to his work. I can’t say that reading Newman radically changed my view of the composer, but it did provide me with a hoard of detail and gave greater depth to my understanding of Wagner. What stood out the most to me was Wagner’s belief in himself and his determination to follow through on the completion the festival theater in Bayreuth, despite the terrible toll the undertaking took on him, physically and emotionally.

I am now in the middle of a busy semester of teaching, with no time for ambitious reading projects. However, I am already looking forward to next summer. What should I tackle? Walker’s three-volume study on Liszt? La Grange’s four volumes on Mahler? As Brünnhilde says to Siegfried, “on to new deeds!”

More by John J. H. Muller

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