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The logorrhoeic ramblings of the ultimate super-anorak, this weighty tome is as confused as its title. Wagner was German, Verdi was Italian; they came therefore from two very different cultures and histories. One was possessed by a conviction that through his music he could rule the world, rather like a later fellow-countryman; the other, although pragmatic where his career was concerned, was nevertheless inspired by compassion and a desire to aid the unfortunate. All facts falling under what the Blessed Basil would term ‘the bleedin’ obvious’, yet Conrad fills 370 large pages saying it.

The book has a thin index, but no bibliography and no notes – surprising in someone who has taught at Oxford for the best part of 40 years – so that although I found many of his assertions rather suspect, there was no way of checking up on them. Conrad never misses an opportunity to fill yet another page (even managing to tuck Jean Genet in there), whether with a lengthy summary of some novel or film in some way linked to his two subjects, and in one particularly weird passage over two pages, he fantasises with ponderous jocularity on the programme a park band might assemble based on their works.

There is a lot of compare and contrast, ranging from Wagner and Verdi’s love lives, their attitudes to money and their health. Many of these ‘comparisons’ – for example, comparing Don Carlo and Tristan und Isolde re dynastic duties – seem little more than fatuous attempts to show off Conrad’s magpie knowledge.

Chapter 6, ‘Their Second Century’, starts off more promisingly, but soon falls victim to Conrad’s irrepressible urge to indulge in anecdotes, many of which give off the whiff of a random internet search, so that any coherent attempt to say anything cogent is swamped or simply abandoned. Too many have absolutely nothing to do with the subject – eg a Schoenberg/Gershwin exchange on page 307 – but in they go nevertheless. The kindest thing one could say is that the book is a rambling love letter to his two subjects.

But yes, you’re right: I didn’t like it!

DELLA COULING Read the full review on Agora Classica


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