The Life of Richard Wagner. Vol. Iv

Ernest Neuman
KNOPE, $7.50
ERNEST NEWMAN completed the first volume of his Life of Richard Wagner in 1932. The fourth and last is now published, and its author may well sit back after his prodigious labors and preen himself on having accomplished a task which has long cried to be done and which no man these many years has cared to take in hand.
In each volume Wagner’s English biographer tracks down with true German thoroughness a welter of misstatements, born equally of adulation and of slander. His immense research is leavened with human understanding— and it must be added, sometimes with human fallibility. In the heat of the pursuit and the indictment he less resembles a judge than a combined detective and prosecuting attorney. In this last volume he goes deeply into the cases of King Ludwig II, of Nietzsche, of Büllow and Cosima. Ludwig, many times the savior of the “ Meister,” is seen as loyal, forbearing, and fundamentally wise in his relations with Wagner. He could not have held to that patient loyalty, in spite of some shabby and disingenuous treatment by Wagner, without the superromantic, overriding faith in Wagner’s works which his , letters show again and again.
These letters betray no flaw of mental unsoundness in the “mad” king of Bavaria, who, as Mr. Newman demonstrates, was far from mad. The Bülow-Wagner-Cosima triangle is convincingly handled, particularly in regard to how much Bülow found out about the other two, and when. Cosima. as Wagner’s partner and widow, was far from the wily schemer she has been called. Granted her assumption that Wagner’s world was the only one and its master infallible, she stands a remarkable woman, heroic as adorer and protector. Mr. Newman’s attack on Nietzsche and his sister, on the other hand, seems unnecessarily ill-natured, and he convicts neither of any towering deceit.
More judicial in his treatment of Wagner himself, he gives an over-all picture which is the true and inevitable one. Wagner the artist is a figure of pertinacity beyond belief; the man, his friends knew, could be calculating, even contemptible, in the furtherance of his nobler plans. Mr. Newman takes the man as he comes, neither flaunting dirty linen nor hastily covering it over.
The fourth volume depicts the most intense part of Wagner’s battle to build a tradition of production for his strange new dramatic structures in an uncomprehending theatrical world. Even seeing them through into performance was not enough. His ambitions never ceased to expand, and at last aimed at the artistic regeneration of a sluggish German people. The first struggle he won at the cost of exhaustion. The second was doomed to a disheartening failure. Crowds came flocking to Bayreuth, but only a few idolaters remained to accept without reservation his longueurs, his exactions upon the deep understanding of his performers and of his listeners. He was bitterly disillusioned. His most serious mistake was his insistence upon a more complete devotion from the performing and listening worlds at large than those worlds, having other concerns, will ever give to him.
Mr. Newman’s documentation and indexing are impeccable. As a manifestation of his corrective and disentangling process, the four volumes are by far his greatest achievement.