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This is an excellent book, designed, I think, for readers who know a little about Wagner and his works but would like to find out more, but not too much more. It is lavishly illustrated, with photographs and portraits of the leading participants in Wagner’s astounding life. There are many pictures of stage productions, from Wagner’s day to the present, cartoons, even shots from movies about him.

Millington divides up his text into thirty chapters, each about ten pages long. He tends to give a biographical account of each period, such as Wagner’s years as conductor in Dresden and revolutionary activities, goes on to discuss an aspect of his character and relationships, then provides a brief account of the operas Wagner was writing at the time. He assumes a basic knowledge of the plots, but no more. This mode of proceeding works very well, and the liveliness and dry humour of the style add to the attractiveness. Millington is anxious to give a balanced picture of Wagner, and goes to some lengths to counter the traditional, one could say obligatory demonisation of his character as a wife-stealing megalomaniacal crook.

Where I find this ‘life and works’ approach objectionable is, for instance, in the chapter on Wagner’s fetish for silks, softfabrics and voluptuous decorations. Millington writes ‘there is an element in his fetishism that is of profound significance in the understanding of his music’. I don’t for a moment deny the fetishism, only that it has the least bearing on understanding the music. Does Millington mean that if one didn’t know about the fetishism one would fail to grasp the music? That seems clearly absurd. And how is the biographical knowledge a help?

Millington does, too, tend only to cite authors with whom he is in agreement, and his bibliography is hardly designed for the same audience as the main body of the text – with such a vast number of books on Wagner, some guide to what is worthwhile and what isn’t would have been very helpful. That apart, this book should be on every budding Wagnerian’s shelves.

Michael Tanner Read the full review on Agora Classica

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