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.

Köhler analyzes each of the operas as another effort to remake the Wagner-Geyer family saga. Works that Wagner saw as restoring the communal celebration of myth known to the Greeks, with poetry, music and theater in a sublime union, are viewed as covert domestic dramas–which in many respects is what they are, too, on the surface, like the Greek plays. Sometimes Köhler’s interpretation is strained, as when any bird–even the swan that Parsifal as a wild boy heedlessly brings down–is seen as an avatar of Geyer by virtue of the homophone Geier (vulture). Much more often, though, and in their essence, these readings are persuasive. They also find some support in Wagner’s own view that “my art comes only from my own unhappiness.”

“Wagner lived,” Köhler concludes–his characteristic eloquence finely rendered as ever in Stewart Spencer’s translation–“in a permanent state of regression, a state that resembled a descent into an abandoned mine, its tunnels extending not only as far as the forgotten legacy of the ‘German folk’ but also to the legacy of his own particular past. The incalculable treasures he had always dreamt about lay ready for him to gather up, for the place where his origins were to be found was also the wellspring of his own creativity.” By viewing his life as a folk tale, he was able to rescue himself from a bleak childhood in terms drawn from the roots of German culture–and, indeed, from the root of what it is to be human, since stories of heroes, tyrants and angels exist in every population. Then, because the past can never permanently be healed, he would have to make the rescue again, for which we may be thankful.

But it cannot be just for his grasp of old stories that Wagner’s personal traumas, and the means he found to resolve them, became so profoundly meaningful to so many people. Köhler predictably finds one source of their power in how they are embedded in nineteenth-century philosophy, though he discounts the debts Wagner was proud to claim to the pessimism of Schopenhauer. Indeed, Siegfried and Brünnhilde do not sound like people passively awaiting the will of the world. They are, rather, Hegelians, made of conflict to live in a world of conflict, and to strive toward a higher state of consciousness for themselves and for humanity. Hegel, Schelling and Fichte, Köhler insists, are the authors Wagner read with most profit.

As for the fellow artists Wagner studied, Köhler again offers a revisionist genealogy that is both plausible and stimulating. It is not Beethoven who is paramount here but Carl Maria von Weber, whose new opera Der Freischütz made such an impression on the 8-year-old Wagner that he put on a performance in the family drawing room, then watched through the window as the composer passed by en route from rehearsals at the opera house. More than half a century later, Bayreuth provided a vastly enlarged sitting room for works whose magic harmonies and tales of battles between human good and supernatural evil were inspired by Weber’s opera. In much the same way, Wagner’s stories of goblins and trickery can be traced not only to personal experience and national culture but also to the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann, of whom his father, Friedrich Wagner, was an acquaintance. To the end of his life, Wagner was remaking his childhood with the means of his childhood.

But not entirely. In 1853, just before beginning work on the score of Das Rheingold, he was visited by Liszt. (This is how it was: The only person Wagner would deign to visit was King Ludwig II of Bavaria.) Liszt played through some of his recent orchestral music and thereby became, Köhler argues, midwife to The Ring, Wagner’s four-opera epic of self-interest inexorably undermining the social fabric, with only love to protest. That may well be, but Wagner had already achieved–in The Flying Dutchman, twelve years before–his music’s unique power to engross, and its unrivaled specificity in making thoughts and emotions into sound.

Köhler is excellent in describing the Wagnerian musical substance. “In itself,” he rather startlingly begins, “music meant nothing to him”: It “had to give expression to a world of living ideas.” Having thus introduced one of the great questions of musical aesthetics–how do notes mean?–Köhler offers a cogent biological metaphor: “The unfolding patterns of nature are reflected in the themes that emerge from each other.” But though this nicely conveys the experience of listening to what Wagner called his “endless melody,” it by no means completes the equation between music and meaning. Nor is rhetoric any help, even without the slippery grammar of sentences like “His musical concepts do not illustrate the intended object in the manner of labels but allow audiences to perceive their very essence.” What is it in the “musical concept” that makes the essence of something nonmusical perceptible? The examples Köhler provides are all too elementary, for anyone can see how music might body forth flickering fire, rocking waves or the hammering of anvils. What we would like to know is how, without words, it can project aspiration, bad faith or the shadow of death.

Köhler also goes too far with his nature image. “The world’s stage opens up to humans,” he says, “whose voices do not obey the rules of the themes.” But though some of the themes are indeed restricted to the orchestra, many can also be sung. Moreover, nearly all of them have a vocal quality, and so conjure up, from within the orchestra, the image of a voice, human if not personal. The contrast Köhler wants to find in the music, between unconscious–therefore unfree–nature and free human beings, is surely present, but not as a distinction between orchestra and voices. Indeed, Wagner’s towering feat was to create orchestral music that suggests not only a voice but a consciousness. Unconscious, elemental nature is present rather in the form of simple harmony, as the pure consonance of the opening of Das Rheingold. Humanity and freedom bring dissonance.

Wagner’s solution to this musical problem, because he lived in the nineteenth century and not the twentieth, had to be a return to consonance at the end, and therefore an extinction or a transcendence of the human–most often an extinction and a transcendence at the same time, the Wagnerian redemptive sacrifice. The principal characters have to die or be redeemed (i.e., lose their unruly consciousnesses) in order to bring the enormous harmonic structure of a Wagner opera to a close. Thus The Ring, for example, is in some respects indeed a ring, returning finally to natural concord, with almost the entire dramatis personae deceased. This might seem to mirror Schopenhauer’s vision of human beings as flotsam and jetsam on the unthinking sea of the universal will, except that Wagner was well aware of composing his operas for three groups of people: the singing characters, the orchestra and the audience. Most of the people on stage may be dead as the world returns to a state of nature, but now human love is established in the orchestra as a part of nature, and those who have watched and listened have been changed by the experience of this happening. This is where Wagner’s Hegelian energy of conflict and supersession went, into working not only on his characters but also, very directly, on his audience. No composer has known better how to stir.

But stir to what end? Köhler’s view of the music’s underlying direction–if not quite its intention–was unmistakable in his earlier book Wagner’s Hitler: The Prophet and His Disciple. Here he is not concerned to make that case again, and points out that The Ring has been used to exalt or excoriate all kinds of utopias, both fascist and socialist. It cannot easily be claimed by any ideology, because its only certainties, on a social level, are in failure.

Yet the gruesome parallel looms, as it must in any consideration of this composer. Wagner is part of the German story not just because he went mining in folklore but also because of the alarming foreshadowings of Nazism in his personal views–most notoriously his anti-Semitism–and in his works. No other German artist from before 1933 is besmirched in this way; something is wrong here, and productions of the operas since 1945 have often tried to find a solution, whether by abstraction (the solution adopted by the composer’s grandson Wieland at Bayreuth in the 1950s and early ’60s) or by staging a confrontation on the ideological plane (as often since Patrice Chéreau’s Ring at Bayreuth in 1976).

What is most worrisome, however, lies not in the librettos, which productions can challenge, but in the music, whose power is hard for performers to restrain or divert. And in the power is the problem, for the music so easily persuades its listeners that its power is theirs. If we leave the theater after Das Rheingold feeling the thrill of the gods’ march into Valhalla, then we have missed the point, for the gods’ momentary victory is founded on chicanery. The point, though, is very easy to miss. The music at such moments rises to burst through the story and claim the audience directly. We have to both acknowledge and resist that claim–and there are lessons in resistance, in subtler understandings of the Wagnerian emotional breaker, all through Wagner’s own works.

If Wagner’s music was robbed of its multiplicity after his death and made an agent of conservatism, Köhler knows whom to blame: the composer’s second wife, Cosima, Liszt’s daughter. “As an artist,” he asserts, “Wagner subscribed to the concept of philosophical truth, a concept that Cosima could counter only with the bombast of pretension.” Bayreuth was her invention. Wagner would have been happy to tear down the theater after the initial Ring production of 1876, and saw it used again only for the 1882 premiere of Parsifal. Within months of his death, Cosima had revived Parsifal, to which she steadily added the other operas in ensuing years, building the Bayreuth canon and the Bayreuth aura as both have survived for more than a century. Works that had been intended to change the world became idols in a great living mausoleum.

Köhler’s effort to liberate Wagner from the Wagnerians is welcome, but overstated. Nobody could have been quite such a queen of Victorian repression, hypocrisy and fawning as Köhler’s Cosima. And though it is true that she had far more effect on the circulation of Wagner’s works than on their content, given that all his operas had been conceived when he was a young man, it is hard, nevertheless, to believe he did not see Parsifal as something special, in line with the special term he invented for it: Bühnenweihfestspiel, or “festival play to consecrate a stage.” The theater was to become holy now that the church no longer was.

As Köhler reveals, Wagner remained throughout his life a child, and both the idiotic ideas he cherished and the tearing power of his music can be ascribed to a small child’s egocentricity, irrationality and volatility. But he was also a child of his time. Like his contemporaries Darwin and Marx, he sought an alternative to religion as a ground for meaning, and he found it in the discoveries and disputes of art. The overgrown boy playing with his toy theater was also shifting figures on the platform of the universe, and he has still not been told not to meddle.