My History Hero: Richard Wagner (1813–83)

"My grandmother, a singer, had lots of old classical records; the first Wagner I ever heard was the overture to Tannhäuser. I was only about eight at the time but I fell in love", Simon Callow tells York Membery...

Portrait of Richard Wagner, 1883. (Photo By DEA/A Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

Advertisement

Richard Wagner was a German composer. Born in Leipzig, Germany, from boyhood he was interested in combining music and drama. This led to him writing operas such as Tannhäuser (1845), Tristan and Isolde (1857–59) and his famous four-part cycle The Ring of the Nibelung (completed in 1874). In 1872 he settled in Bayreuth, where he created a theatre to perform his own works. Wagner’s music is banned to this day in Israel, as a result of his anti-Semitism and his music’s appropriation by the Nazis.

When did you first hear about Wagner?

My grandmother, a singer, had lots of old 78rpm classical records, and the first Wagner record I ever heard was the overture to Tannhäuser. I was only about eight years old at the time but I fell in love with it, particularly because it was her favourite piece of music. By the time that I was 13, I had become addicted to classical music, and by my late teens had listened to all of Wagner’s orchestral and vocal music. By then I was completely hooked, a hopeless addict.

What kind of person was Wagner?

He was extraordinary: impossible, inspiring, disgraceful but in some ways admirable – the story of his life is real Boy’s Own Magazine stuff. He was involved in all sorts of escapades over the course of his life: as a young man he took part in riots and uprisings – he actually manned the barricades – and he was always in trouble with debtors but insisted on wearing silk underwear! He was an inveterate scrounger, abominably rude to a lot of people, exploited his friends and stole a number of his patrons’ wives. An impossible man in so many ways, he was the ultimate flawed genius.

What made him a hero?

His extraordinary gifts as a composer and dramatist, and the fact that he stood by his art through thick and thin, in incredibly difficult circumstances, very often brought about by himself. He never sold out, insisting on his compositions being performed in the right circumstances, the result being that some of his work lay unperformed for years. But for all his faults as a person, nearly 150 years after his death, his operas still stand at the centre of classical culture and his music has never been more popular.

What was Wagner’s finest hour?

In a way his finest hour was the opening in 1876 of his festival theatre in Bayreuth, northern Bavaria. It was built to his own specifications and was a revolutionary theatre, designed to accommodate the unique demands of The Ring of the Nibelung: four massive operas with a vast cast, encompassing giants and dwarves, and the river Rhine.

Is there anything you don’t admire about him?

Where to start? He insisted on the right to be pampered and genuinely believed that the world owed him a living. He was beastly to a lot of people. And his anti-Semitism was extreme, and persisted right through to the end of his life. It was deeply offensive and set a very bad example, given that he was by far the most admired contemporary composer of the day. Paradoxically though, a lot of his closest associates were Jewish and were apparently unfazed by his extreme views.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

I hope not, other than, of course, our shared love of music and passion for theatre. He always saw himself first and foremost as a dramatist rather than a composer, and thought the text was by far the more important part of his operas. By all accounts, he was also the most marvellous actor himself and a superb director.

If you could meet Wagner, what would you ask him?

Two things. Firstly, why he never finished his play about Jesus. And secondly, I’d love to know what he planned to write after his last opera, Parsifal, had he lived. He talked vaguely about writing symphonies: what a wonderful prospect.

Advertisement

Simon Callow shot to fame in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and most recently starred in a one-man version of A Christmas Carol on the London stage. His latest book, Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will (William Collins, 2017), is out now. Visit simoncallow.com