Friday, May 15, 2009

Wagner: A Documentary Study edited by Herbert Barth, Dietrich Mack, Egon Voss

(Book Review)

I'm not still sure whether I'll ever go to grad school in 19th Century European history, or if I'll only just talk about it on this blog. But either way, I'm having fun making a reading project out of the idea.

The nice thing about carving out an area like "19th Century Europe" is it gives you an excuse to explore all of the interesting people within that period. And Wagner seemed to me an interesting person.

For example, Wagner was one of the leading figures in the Dresden 1848 Revolution in which he shared the spotlight with none other than Bakunin.

But of course contrasted with the "liberal-progressive-Wagner" is the "reactionary-Jew-hating-Wagner" who was appropriated by the Nazis.
Which is the real Wagner?

But politics aside, I think most people are primarily interested in Wagner because of his work with German mythology. (Arguable Wagner, along with Tolkien, is responsible for creating the modern fantasy genre).
I've been interested in fantasy and mythology all my life, and the idea of Wagner's "Ring Cycle" fascinates me.

I say, "the idea" fascinates me, because although I'm interested in the concept in general terms, I can't see myself sitting through 15 hours of German opera. A nice summary of the plot and maybe a short description of Wagner's influences will be fine, thank you.

To this end, I've been looking for a nice readable biography of Wagner.
And as far as I can tell, no such thing exists.
I've looked in bookstores here in Japan. I've looked in bookstores back in the US. And I searched Amazon. I can find several books on Wagner's music, and a few polemics about his political views (A) but not a straight forward biography.

If someone out there knows of a good biography, please recommend it to me. In the mean time, this is the best I've found so far. I found it at Oita library during my last trip into Oita City.

This book consists entirely of various documentary evidence about Wagner's life. For example it contains newspaper articles Wagner wrote, letters Wagner wrote to his friends, letters his friends wrote back, letters about Wagner that friends wrote to 3rd parties, and diary entries.

It sounds pretty cool, and I admit there are a few highlights here. The section on the 1848 Revolution contain a reprint of Wagner's newspaper editorial "Revolution" as well as Wagner's own account of what happened during the Dresden uprising, and Bakunin's appraisal of Wagner.

And I did learn interesting bits and pieces about Wagner's life from this book, but it was a poor substitute for a biography. It was just a series of fragments, and the reader had to guess at the gaps.

Moreover, most of Wagner's letters have to do with the techniques of music, which were unappreciated and uninteresting to an unmusical person like me.

I didn't find this book at all enjoyable actually. It was one of those books where I couldn't even get through a single page without my mind wandering off at some point.

I stuck through the entire book simply out of determination. (If I do go back to school someday, I'll probably have to read lots of boring things, so it's probably good to train my mind).

Still, I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone for pleasure reading.
(It was published back in 1975, so you probably won't find it at your local bookstore. But you never know, it might be in your library).

Link of the Day
Zack De La Rocha Interviews Noam Chomsky I linked to an audio file of this ages ago, but youtube has the visual as well.

Also, speaking of wasting time on Youtube, I've really been loving the Mark Steel lecture series. What a funny and entertaining way to learn about historical figures from Beethoven to Oliver Cromwell to Karl Marx.
I love having this on in the background when I'm puttering around the apartment.
Check out some of them on this playlist here. You won't be able to get through all of them in one sitting, but if you listen to it in snippets you won't be sorry.

...Also, remember when I wrote in this post comparing the George Bush administration to "1984"? Newly released information on torture methods reveals I spoke way way too soon.

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