- Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans
Even in the overcrowded field of Wagner research the arrival of Joachim Köhler's biography has been treated as something of an event. First published in German in 2001, and now superbly translated by Stewart Spencer, Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans has attracted considerable press attention. One possible explanation for this is that, however saturated the Wagner bibliography may be, a new 700-page scholarly biography is bound to be news. A brief perusal of any online bookseller will confirm that popular biographies of Wagner, many rehashing the same tired old legends, roll off the presses with [End Page 128] montonous regularity. Meaty, scholarly biographies, however, are more rare. This is all relative, of course: in relation to other musical and historical figures Wagner may seem well served—too well served. Yet, leaving aside more concise accounts like Michael Tanner's Wagner (Princeton, 1995) or the many studies devoted to specific aspects of Wagner's life and work, the only substantial new scholarly biography of Wagner to have appeared in English in the last decade is Dieter Borchmeyer's Drama and the World of Richard Wagner (trans. Daphne Ellis; Princeton, 2003).
Interest in the book may also stem from the fact that Köhler's reputation precedes him, although perhaps not always for the right reasons. His Wagner's Hitler: The Prophet and his Disciple (Cambridge, 2001) and Nietzsche and Wagner: A Lesson in Subjugation (New Haven, 1998) attracted considerable criticism, not least for their often alarming negotiation of the path between historical research and mere speculation. Controversy and publicity make natural bedfellows, although, to be fair, Köhler's work has managed to generate some healthy debate. The Last of the Titans looks set to follow suit.
Unfortunately, it also follows some of the questionable scholarly practices of the earlier books. While some of Köhler's claims and quotations are carefully referenced, others are left dangling in mid-air. Typical is his quotation of Wagner's friend Peter Cornelius on Cosima's censorship of any mention of Mathilde Wesendonck, an observation for which he provides no source (p. 409). Often, too, Köhler will break away from initially careful attribution to assume the role of an omniscient narrator who gives the impression of having witnessed events in person. This is particularly true of his accounts of Wagner's early life. Like every Wagner biographer, Köhler is dependent here on Cosima's diaries, Glasenapp's biography, and Wagner's own Mein Leben. Yet, having carefully problematized these sources, Köhler proceeds not only to rely on them heavily, but effectively to deproblematize them by failing to acknowledge his indebtedness: he indicates no source, for example, for his intimate portrait of Wagner's relationship with his mother (p. 6). Still, these gaps need to be viewed in the context of what is, on the whole, a meticulously researched and well-documented study. There are already over a thousand references in the book, and Köhler and his editors have perhaps sought to avoid a style that might appear pedantic or distracting.
More problematic from a scholarly point of view is the sensationalist tone that pervades much of the work. Although often fulsome in his praise of Wagner's work, Köhler is relentless in his criticism of the man, who comes across as manipulator, egotist, ham actor, racist, decadent, and hen-pecked husband. These are familiar enough characterizations for anyone acquainted with the literature on Wagner, yet Köhler somehow avoids the familiar. Sparing us yet another retelling of the old chestnuts, he instead lingers over the less familiar. His descriptions of Wagner's furnishings, attire, and personal habits (cross-dressing is one of the book's leitmotivs) are positively virtuosic in their detail. Köhler lingers, for example, over the description of Wagner's Vienna 'boudoirs' by his seamstress Bertha Goldwag, paraphrasing her account in delicious detail: 'the centre of the...