Author Captures Complexity of German Composer's Life

By Walton, David | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 13, 2008 | Go to article overview

Author Captures Complexity of German Composer's Life


Walton, David, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


There are more reasons than a love for opera to recommend "The Wagner Clan," Jonathan Carr's entertaining, well-researched history of the descendants of German composer Richard Wagner.

Carr is just the sort of writer this reviewer (who admits virtually no knowledge of opera) enjoys on any subject: informed, witty and irreverent, with an eye for the telling detail and the matchless quote.

Richard Wagner (1813-83) was one of those towering 19th century giants of the arts whose work and personal life defied all boundaries and restraints.

"A scoundrel and a charmer" composer Virgil Thomson called him. "Perfidious in friendship, ungrateful in love, irresponsible in politics, utterly without principle in his professional life."

Wagner's affair with Cosima von Bulow, Franz Liszt's illegitimate daughter, led her to leave her husband, pianist-conductor Hans von Bulow, and move in with Wagner. They eventually married, and Cosima's two daughters by von Bulow were joined by two more daughters and a son, Siegfried.

Cosima, 24 years younger than Wagner, survived him 47 years, until 1930, guarding his legacy and managing the festival in Bayreuth in northern Bavaria devoted solely to the performance of his operas.

Wagner's family, large and active for more than four generations now, has mirrored the history of Germany during the past century- and-a-half, especially in its tangled relations with the Nazi regime. …

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