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Anti-semite, racist, xenophobe and all-round nasty bit of work – if he couldn’t brook Jews or foreigners, could Richard Wagner at least find it in his heart to consider woman the equal of man? In short, was Wagner a proto-feminist? Danish musicologist and singer Nila Parly suggests the composer was ahead of his time in terms of the representation of women in his operas. While some musicologists have bemoaned the fact that the female characters suffer the ignominy of dying just so some man can be redeemed, Parly argues that Wagner’s women take control of their destiny and emerge victorious. (even if they do die.)

From Wagner’s own writings, it would be easy to assume his views chimed with those typical of his day. ‘Woman first gains her full individuality in the moment of surrender,’ he wrote in Opera as Drama. ‘She is the Undine who glides soulless through the waves of her native element, till she receives her soul through love of a man.’ On the surface the female characters in his operas would appear to be similarly passive. ‘Who am I if not your will?’ asks Brünnhilde of Wotan. But by considering orchestration, tonality, melody, text, stage directions and more, Parly has built up a picture of women who consistently forge new material in the operas and bend it to their own ends. Brünnhilde might take motifs sung by men, but she develops them in such a way to secure her liberation. and at the end of the Ring, a work Parly calls ‘a thoroughly feminist tale’, Sieglinde’s tribute to Brünnhilde from Die Walküre effectively silences the other motifs associated with men – proof, says the author, that the female sex might in future save the day.

You have to know your Wagner to get the most out of this book. I would have liked to understand how the male characters’ music compares. More musical examples would have been helpful and there are some odd typos. But in general this is a wide-ranging, detailed analysis that is not afraid to challenge the views of the big names (Dahlhaus, Nattiez, Clément) and question our attitude to this most controversial of composers.

FIONA CLAMPIN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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