No musical life has been told more often than Wagner’s. Biographies have wafted incense around him, or been incensed by him. Their authors have seen him as lofty philosopher or opportunist, as seer or dungheap of prejudices, as wide-eyed revolutionary or dark patron of fascism–as, in any event, a colossus in the world, a figure of immense power and authority, for good or ill. Standing on so high a column of books, he almost has to be viewed as a monument, whether to be revered or decried.
The subtitle of Joachim Köhler’s Wagner biography, The Last of the Titans, suggests nothing less. The reference is to the title of the composer’s early opera Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes, about the rise and fall of a political leader in fourteenth-century Rome, and also to a comment made by Marie von Wittgenstein, who knew Wagner through her stepfather Franz Liszt: “He cursed humanity for refusing to see that he was a Titan and that Titans should not be measured by ordinary standards.”
Titans who have to protest their Titanship, however, are Titans of a poor sort. And though Köhler sees his subject as “one of those people who do not adapt to reality but force reality to adapt to them,” the image he evokes is that of a man who spent his life trying again and again to restage his early childhood. While holding a clear view of the composer’s importance, and of the manifoldness of that importance, Köhler pursues his thorough research with a fresh outlook and gives us a new Wagner: little Richard.
The one reality Wagner could not force was the memory of his childhood. He was born in Leipzig in 1813, into a family from the lower end of the bourgeoisie and only semi-respectable. His mother, Johanna Rosine, had been a prince’s mistress in her teens and then married a civil servant, Friedrich Wagner. By the time of Richard’s birth she had eight older children to neglect. Friedrich died when the future composer was 6 months old, and Johanna Rosine married Ludwig Geyer, a theater man of multiple minor talents as actor, painter and playwright, with whom she had been conducting an affair, and who may have been, as Wagner suspected, his true father. Parent or stepparent, Geyer was a man to resent. He could be blamed for consuming Johanna Rosine’s attention, and though he died when the boy Wagner was 8, the damage was done. Nor was it reversed. Partly for the reason of his schooling, Wagner was farmed out to his uncles. The one source of light and love in his young life, Köhler suggests, was his sister Rosalie, ten years older and already a professional actress by the time of Geyer’s death. In the theater of the young Wagner’s imagination, Geyer was the demon king, Johanna Rosine the lost and longed-for mother, and Rosalie the fair, consoling princess.
Rosalie died while giving birth, when Wagner was in his mid-20s. He construed her death as a sacrifice, made, in Köhler’s odd phrase, “to restore him to the straight and narrow.” It did more than that. It gave him his central subject, that of the woman whose loving death brings redemption to the hero. So, four years after Rosalie, Senta would die for the doomed central character of Wagner’s first mature opera, The Flying Dutchman. So Elisabeth, already dead, would redeem Tannhäuser. So Isolde, singing over her dead Tristan, would transcend death in dying. So Brünnhilde, similarly unleashing what is both love song and elegy for Siegfried, would bring about the end of a flawed universe.