Being Wagner by Simon Callow

COMPOSERS: Richard Wagner
LABELS: William Collins
ALBUM TITLE: Being Wagner
PERFORMER: Simon Callow
CATALOGUE NO: ISBN 978-0-00-810569-3


Simon Callow hardly needs introducing, whether as actor, director, biographer, contributor to music magazines and creator of one-man shows – including Inside Wagner’s Head, from which this book sprang. He played Mozart in the original stage production of Amadeus, but coming to grips with this most unfathomable, paradoxical and often wildly unpleasant of great composers presents a still greater imaginative challenge.

Callow meets it in racy and conversational style, avoiding elementary pitfalls some others don’t. Unlike many academic critics he doesn’t pin down Wagner like a specimen to be deconstructed into endless publication fodder; nor, unlike the late Robert Gutman, does he distort him into a blank-eyed psychopath. Refreshingly he refrains from finger-wagging at Wagner’s sex life or his disastrous way with money. He stresses Wagner’s mercurial, theatrical nature, the restless, pacing awareness of his own potential, but also his often neglected charm, humour, liberalism and occasional startling humility.

Callow confronts the chamber pachyderm of Wagner’s anti-semitism with restraint and balance, neither caricaturing him as proto-Nazi, nor assuming it governed his entire life and work (as many of his source books do). He neatly highlights the infuriating paradox of a man who ranted against remote, far-off Jews while equally respecting, liking and even loving those around him. He stresses the explosive, uncontrolled quality of Wagner’s nasty outbursts, suggesting they might have resulted from something like Asperger syndrome – original, and entirely possible.

Callow is slapdash factually even for a popular biography, sometimes taken in by Wagner’s self-mythologising, but has one overwhelming advantage over every other biographer I know of. He has had not merely to study the man Wagner, but to inhabit him – to make him understandable and interesting for an audience.
Stephen Johnson’s worthy Naxos biography is more informative, especially musically, but Callow brings Wagner to effervescent, elemental life.


Michael Scott-Rohan