What ‘R.’ Wrought

The Diary of Richard Wagner The Brown Book: 1865-1882

presented and annotated by Joachim Bergfeld, translated by George Bird
Cambridge University Press, 218 pp., $15.95

Cosima Wagner's Diaries Vol. II: 1878-1883 additional notes by

edited and annotated by Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack, translated, with an introduction, postscript, and Geoffrey Skelton
A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1,200 pp., $35.00

Cosima Wagner

by George R. Marek
Harper and Row, 291 pp., $16.95

In Search of Wagner

by Theodore Adorno, translated by Rodney Livingstone
NLB (distributed by Schocken Books), 160 pp., $14.50

The Dream of Self-Destruction: Wagner's "Ring" and the Modern World

by L.J. Rather
Louisiana State University Press, 256 pp., $17.50

Bayreuth: The Early Years

compiled, edited, and introduced by Robert Hartford
Cambridge University Press, 284 pp., $19.95

Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner; drawing by David Levine

The phenomenon of Richard Wagner has been recounted, analyzed, and discussed in such abundance that it would seem as if the end must be somewhere in sight. Instead, the publication of Cosima Wagner’s Diaries during the centenary (1976) of the first performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen has provoked an entirely new interest in the man, though perhaps more from historians than from musicians. Books such as Dr. L.J. Rather’s The Dream of Self-Destruction: Wagner’s “Ring” and the Modern World radically readjust the emphasis, to the extent of describing many of Wagner’s prose writings as “works of art” and referring to his “greatness as a theoretician in the realm of the sociology of knowledge.” Cosima’s Diaries, however, and in lesser, because shorter, measure, The Diary of Richard Wagner: The Brown Book, have claimed the attention of the world and therefore demand prior examination.

To consider Wagner’s own book first, the sixty or so entries date from August 1865 to the spring of 1882. Before a separation from Wagner, Cosima gave him a calfskin notebook that he might record material which she could read later. About a third of the poems, essays, pensées, reminiscences, sketches for dramatic works that make up the “diary” are now published for the first time. But these heretofore unknown items are disappointing. Wagner equates the non-equatable:

Beeth. = Schopenhauer: his music, translated into concepts, would produce that philosophy.

The megalomania, moreover, would seem to warrant psychiatric attention:

I shall set up full court…. I shall no longer concern myself with anything directly…. Then things shall proceed as at Versailles under Louis XIV…. The world I cannot shape I must merely forget.

(Many of his remarks in Cosima’s Diaries begin with the phrase “If I were emperor….”)

For this reader, the most interesting sections in The Brown Book are the “Annals,” embryonic fragments, written not in grammatical form but as if in free association, of the autobiography intended for Wagner’s benefactor, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The finished product, unlike the “Annals,” had to be doubly tailored, first for Cosima, to whom Wagner dictated the text, second for the ingenuous and deeply illusioned young monarch. In these preliminary jottings, Wagner’s belief in astrology is evident—he attributes his inability to write for two months to a “bite from Leo”—and his love of animals, as when he remembers a farewell scene on a Rhine bridge by the presence of “a tired donkey.” (He once risked his life to save his dog.) He was fond of lepidoptera, too, and purchased a collection in Naples.

As for the processes of memory, he recalls events and their chronology in connection with the weather, with menus, and with his health and moods. These stream-of-consciousness “Annals” also show how thoroughly pragmatic was the great spinner of fantasies. But though he notes the dates of important dreams, he does not spell out…

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