Simon Callow Being Wagner

being_wagnerI’ve just devoured a new book, Simon Callow’s Being Wagner.   The University of Toronto’s excellent music library just acquired it, a new book with a 2017 copyright.

The cover shows the sub-title “Triumph of the Will” which is likely apt, although to be honest I was much more taken by the first part of the title. When I title this “Simon Callow Being Wagner” it describes the event: perfectly. The book is the aftermath of a 2013 project undertaken on the bicentennial of the composer’s birth, with the Royal Opera House in London. Kasper Holten, ROH’s artistic director in 2012, approached Callow to create a show to commemorate Wagner.

And so what I read, what you could read, is in effect, Simon Callow being Wagner, Simon Callow as Wagner.

In the Foreward we discover that Wagner is not like Mozart, that other fellow that he portrayed.  Where Peter Shaffer’s play made a great deal of the (supposed) contradiction between Mozart the man & his art, but Wagner, Callow points out, is not like that, oh no. The man and the art are one.

And of course Shaffer is a natural segue. In that 1984 film Amadeus (from Shaffer’s play) Callow is Schickaneder, but you may know that not so long before that he had originated the title role at the National Theatre in 1979, an actor with a strong voice & presence.

And so it was perhaps a natural to think of Callow (or type-cast him?) as a composer.  But here in this video that’s him all in green playing Papageno (the role created for librettist Schikaneder).

You may know Callow from 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, perhaps the film that has brought him the greatest fame.

What I didn’t expect was to discover a kindred spirit, a self-confessed Wagnerian who devoured and digested the literature, identifying so perfectly with the accounts of the composer’s  life as to then erupt with something verging on autobiography.  The 2013 show was called Inside Wagner’s Head. I wish I’d seen it.   After reading the new book I’m certain anyone with an interest in the composer would find it absorbing, although I can only speculate after the fact and from afar.  The new book is likely almost a therapeutic exercise after having brought the personality of Wagner to life onstage, but might represent the chance to perfect and revise what had been staged.

I don’t think I spoil anything if I quote a few passages, for the sheer fun of it.

These huge shifts in his inner life did not help him to write Tannhäuser as he now called it; it was not coming easily. And they sat uncomfortably with his new respectability.  Minna was thrilled to be the wife of the Royal Conductor, and busily set about furnishing their splendid new apartments appropriately: everything Wagner noted scornfully, was good and substantial, as was only right, he noted with dread, for a man of thirty who was settling down at least for the rest of his life.
You can feel the rising panic, the claustrophobia as he describes his newfound stability.


“I am of the opinion that [Rienzi] is the finest thing achieved in grand opera in the last twelve years,’ wrote the young critic Eduard Hanslick…” These opinions were useful to Wagner, but he did not share them. He found the success of Rienzi pretty funny, in fact.  To him it was passé, dead, history.  He had moved on.

While Being Wagner is written in the third person, it sweeps along with unmistakable confidence and identification  until a moment that I should have anticipated.  Callow’s romance with Wagner has one colossal fly in the ointment. The soup curdles suddenly with the pamphlet Judaism in Music. This doesn’t make the book any less authoritative, but increasingly we encounter the composer’s actions and choices framed with Callow’s reactions. To his credit he is able to explain the motivation, even if we discover some distance between the author and his subject. And this is the first time I really think I understand Wagner’s anti-semitism.  I’m not saying I excuse it, but for once it fits into the portrait, rather than standing out as an inexplicable anomaly.  Where the first 50-100 pages contain so much wit that I found myself laughing out loud on almost every page, the subject matter darkens as we approach the mature operas & the period of Wagner’s fame.

I read Being Wagner almost like the aftermath of the stage portrayal, perhaps the morning after a very vivid dream or nightmare, as Callow, exploring who Wagner was, revisited who Callow himself had become during his Wagnerian stage excursion.  The intensity of the experience verges on possession, the all-encompassing passion of the composer’s life.  It’s a very poignant language that Callow finds, sometimes funny but always penetrating to the core of Wagner’s sensibility.

But I’m not sure if it reads as well for the neophyte as for a committed Wagnerian like myself.  The nerds who think they know the composer inside out –and I think we all do this, don’t we?—will inevitably have moments when their jaw drops with recognition, pages that explain the composer’s psychology, and yes his operas, better than anything we’ve seen before, and I say this as someone who has read more books about Wagner than any other composer. And the witty passages are much funnier if you know the trajectory of this life. Make no mistake, if you are a Wagner fanatic you must read this book, you must! Ha, I think I’m sounding a bit Wagnerian in saying that, but it’s simply testimony to what I experienced reading.  The first part of the book is especially illuminating.  I think Callow really gets Wagner, as in thoroughly understanding his motivation and personality.  The book flows effortlessly, partly because this is a life full of incident & drama, but mainly because the prose is as simple & direct as a cinematic treatment.  Reading this I regret not having been able to see the live presentation, at least to allow me to see Callow inhabiting the composer.

For Wagnerians especially, I recommend Callow’s book, the most enjoyable and straight-forward account of Wagner’s life & work that I have yet encountered.

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