Promoted to Glory

Article excerpt

Promoted to glory Richard Wagner: self-promotion and the making of a brand Nicholas Vazsonyi Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2010); xii, 222pp; £55, $95. ISBN 978 o 52t 51996 o.

That Richard Wagner was a self-publicist of the first order is doubted by no one. A composer who consecrates a theatre to his music, publishes a huge autobiography and even edits his own collected writings is a man obsessed with getting his message across. The Good Lord needed Three Persons to do the job at hand; Wagner only one. But while the basic idea behind Vazsonyi 's book is not new- Wagner's self-marketing of Wagner - Vazsonyi digs deeper than those before him. He proves both that Wagner began his 'branding' project far earlier than one might suppose, and that he was even more calculating and consistent in it than one could have suspected.

Vazsonyi begins with Wagner's failed attempt to establish himself in Paris in c.1840. He shows how the composer soon began to turn his failure into a springboard to success, marketing his own 'martyrdom' in the capital city of sinful capital, its ready-made triumvirate of successful German Jews - Meyerbeer, Schlesinger and Rothschild - acting as fodder for Wagner's burgeoning antisemitism. Vazsonyi subjects Wagner's Parisian writings to fascinating analysis in order to show how the composer - really a bad loser riddled with envy - did a remarkably good job at turning the tables. He portrayed himself as an impecunious, honest, healthy German: impecunious precisely because he is German, honest and healthy; honest and healthy because he is impecunious, having refused to sell his artistic soul to the Mephistophelian mob of the Parisian claqueurs as had supposedly one other, faithless fellow national before him - Meyerbeer. As a result, the latter, thus Wagner, no longer deserved to be honoured with the epithet 'German' at all. As Vazsonyi observes, Wagner's 'Autobiographical sketch' of J 842 is constructed as a return of the prodigal from foreign shores who weeps as he crosses the Rhine, swearing 'eternal loyalty' to his 'German fatherland'.

Vazsonyi continues chronologically. He dissects the tale of the return to Dresden of the mortal remains of Carl Maria von Weber, in which Wagner successfully hijacked the publicity around the event. Wagner portrayed himself as the prime mover of it all, with historians following his lead ever since, though in fact this was far from the truth. Then there was the matter of Wagner's Palm Sunday performance of Beethoven's Ninth in Dresden in 1845, for which he constructed a brilliant advertising campaign in what was at the time the closest to a tabloid press that Dresden could boast. There follows one of the best chapters in the book, on the reception of Wagner's theoretical writings of the early 1850s and the manner in which Theodor Uhlig, Franz Liszt and Franz Brendel acted as 'publicity agents' for his music and ideas. Franz Liszt's essay on Lohengrin here at last gets the recognition that it deserves in the history of Wagner reception. In the case of Uhlig, Vazsonyi even identifies examples of probable plagiarism and reciprocity in the construction of the discourse around Wagner's ideas, suggesting that Wagner's Opera and drama was in its turn influenced by Uhlig's review of Lohengrin. …