Have just finished the Simon Callow book on possibly the most obnoxious composer ever to have lived. Let me first say that Callow is a delight: full of humour and a precise scholarship that is almost belied by his breezily economical style of writing: this man is many-gifted, and he certainly writes brilliantly about Wagner (I also greatly enjoyed his much earlier work, Being An Actor). Callow is just a fabulous person. No wonder he has to beat them -- men and women alike -- off with a stick.
I laughed a few times during my reading, but the funniest lines are these:
A few months later, Cosima [daughter of Franz Liszt] and Wagner married. She was thirty-three, he was fifty-nine. As he had said five years earlier: there was no question about it, she belonged to him. They made an odd couple to look at: she was Amazonianly tall, with severe, beaky features; he was uncommonly short, with a somewhat simian lope. But it was a perfect match. They were of one mind: his.
As a matter of fact, I think this description is sparing of Cosima: it would be hard to find in the whole of history a more manly-looking woman, and indeed she could have cross-dressed whenever she liked, young or old, and fooled everybody.
There are quibbles, of course. Let's take Nietzsche. Callow echoes the writer Bryan Magee in claiming that one can write about Wagner without mentioning Nietzsche but the reverse is not the case: I disagree. I would say that, au contraire, each man is famously present in the other's biography, and Nietzsche is always discussed in Wagner's life story, even if Wagner didn't write works with the philosopher's name in the title (as N. wrote works about W.). This book is case in point: Nietzsche features prominently. I also dispute the idea that Nietzsche's cause of dementia (and ultimately, death) was syphilis: and I am not alone in that, even if that has been 'consensus' opinion for decades in some circles. The fact is that some people can't imagine a chaste life. As one that lives it myself, and has done so for the vast bulk of my adulthood, I certainly can imagine it. Nietzsche was as likely to contract syphilis in his lifetime as I was to contract AIDS in mine: enough said.*
Callow has written a wonderful book. Anyone, even without much musical knowledge, can enjoy and learn from it. But I wonder if the author is being wholly honest in saying at the start that he is not a musician. It may be so. But someone as attuned to all the arts as he may well sing his own songs in the shower.
NB: The 2018 paperback edition goes by another subtitle: 'The Story Of The Most Provocative Composer Who Ever Lived'.
*This was my opinion upon finishing the book. Then, after a casual Internet search, I found this interesting article.