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Published towards the end of last year’s bicentenary celebrations, The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia claims to be the first book of its kind in English.

Committed Wagnerians will already have a trio of essential texts on their shelves – The Wagner Compendium edited by Barry Millington, Ulrich Müller and Peter Wapnewski’s The Wagner Handbook (both now more than 20 years old) and The Cambridge Companion to Wagner (2008) – but none of those claimed to be (or were) encyclopedias.

Even allowing for editor Nicholas Vazsonyi’s caution that the compilation of this new 900-page volume has been ‘an exercise in compromise’ (how could it be otherwise?), the 550-odd detailed entries and 12 appendices offering basic data on the composer’s background and works, recordings, websites and archives make for compulsive reading. Although what results is a remarkable exercise in concision, there’s an obvious commitment to dealing with the subject in depth as well as breadth. Noticeably, and beneficially, absent is a single editorial tone, each of the 80 and more contributors retaining their own authorial voice – an aspect that imbues the impressively wide- ranging reach of what’s here with a lively sense of debate.

Of especial interest is a brilliantly succinct analysis of Wagner’s politics in relation to the Ring cycle and a useful discussion of money (the two subjects profoundly connected in the composer’s mind), the several entries on his prose writings, the discussions of various philosophical influences, the insights into Wagner’s attitude towards other nationalities and cultures (albeit here there’s a tendency to side-step the deeply contested issue of race), and a thorough traversal of the role conductors have played in proselytising the music. There’s much else, of course, in a volume of remarkable erudition that can’t be gleaned on a first reading. Instead, this is a book to keep readily to hand for its astonishing richness. In a word: essential.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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