A review of Barry Millington’s new book

Millington’s “Sorcerer of Bayreuth”

A few weeks ago we in America celebrated Thanksgiving. Members of the family took turns around the table, saying what they were thankful for.  I bit my tongue to avoid blurting out, “Barry Millington!”

Ever since the 80s, when Millington and Spencer were editing the scholarly magazine for the Wagner Society (London), I have been indebted to him for his knowledge and his accessibility.  His current editorship of the Wagner Journal continues his contributions as one of the most valued Wagner scholars in English.  I read the entire Wagner Compendium in a 24 hour period while stuck on the tarmac during a blizzard in Boston, and his Ring of the Nibelung: A Companion is no less definitive.

His new book, The Sorcerer of Bayreuth, is a mixed bag in places and a triumph overall.  The chapters are stand-alone essays, arranged more or less biographically, with “interruptions” plunked in along the way for comments on each of the major works, and for musings and insight into various aspects of the Meister’s personality and beliefs.

Some of the treatments of the works seem aimed at the very new Wagnerian, summarizing the influence of the piece or its place in the oeuvre in very broad strokes.  Some others are quite eye-opening.  Who thought, for example, to connect the fact that Rheingold begins in E-flat and ends in D-flat, with the entire Ring, which does the same?

The profuse illustrations add immeasurably.  Some books on music shove in pages of pictures to fluff up thin content.  Millington, on the other hand, includes several pictures previously unfamiliar, and also production shots of very recent vintage, including the 2012 Met Ring, the 2011 Glyndebourne Meistersinger, and the 2010 Bayreuth Tannhäuser.

The book is suitable both for those seeking an intelligent introduction and those seeking further insights into the work — and there are few books that can claim both uses.  That said, several “detours” seemed either too broad or simply inappropriate.  Devoting a chapter to Wagner’s underwear evidences a want of balance.  The section on “Wagner’s Personality” was necessarily shallow and perhaps better omitted.  And Millington’s observations on Wagner’s antisemitism, and its purported influence on both Meistersinger and Parsifal are, I suggest with humility, plain wrong-headed.  A subsequent post will address that topic.

But no hesitation:  Go buy it, put the mobile phone on vibrate, and settle in for several hours of pleasure.

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