Wagner alone is Wagnerian, the most extreme composer in history. The appeal of his music is sensuous and hypnotic. His popularity has never been greater, and productions of The Ring Cycle worldwide are invariably sold out in advance. No other composer has elicited such passionate responses – for and against. His position is secure yet unstable. What is it that makes Wagner so controversial, as if – a century after his death – we still cannot find the right distance from which to view him? Even lovers of Wagner often hate Wagner the man: his megalomania, his addiction to other men’s wives, his overbearingness, his political apostasy from revolutionary to nationalist, his anti-semitism, his perpetual insolvency which assumed the solvency of others – not least the young King Ludwig of Bavaria, whose coffers enabled his vast music dramas.
Impossible to resist, defeating our ordinary judgment, Wagner’s music has palpable designs on us. In the words of Thomas Mann, ‘never have such complex thoughts and emotions been put into singable form’. Wagner intended to reverse the assumptions of traditional opera that music was the end, and drama the means. His music is in the service of something, but what is this something? Is he telling us to change our lives? To makes us feel what it would be like to live with different values? To make us imagine what fulfilment would be like?
In short, we need a guide. In Being Wagner, Simon Callow will plunge headlong into Wagner’s world, evoke the intellectual and artistic climate in which Wagner worked, the extraordinary effect he had on people, the almost superhuman effort required to create his great opus, the demands it makes upon us as listeners.