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Richard Wagner

A Life in Music

Best known for the challenging four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, Richard Wagner (1813–83) was a conductor, librettist, theater director, and essayist, in addition to being the composer of some of the most enduring operatic works in history, such as The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Tristan and Isolde. Though his influence on the development of European music is indisputable, Wagner was also quite outspoken on the politics and culture of his time. His ideas traveled beyond musical circles into philosophy, literature, theater staging, and the visual arts. To befit such a dynamic figure, acclaimed biographer Martin Geck offers here a Wagner biography unlike any other, one that strikes a unique balance between the technical musical aspects of Wagner’s compositions and his overarching understanding of aesthetics.

Wagner has always inspired passionate admirers as well as numerous detractors, with the result that he has achieved a mythical stature nearly equal to that of the Valkyries and Viking heroes he popularized. There are few, if any, scholars today who know more about Wagner and his legacy than Geck, who builds upon his extensive research and considerable knowledge as one of the editors of the Complete Works to offer a distinctive appraisal of the composer and the operas. Using a wide range of sources, from contemporary scholars to the composer’s own words, Geck explores key ideas in Wagner’s life and works, while always keeping the music in the foreground. Geck discusses not only all the major operas, but also several unfinished operas and even the composer’s early attempts at quasi-Shakespearean drama.

Richard Wagner: A Life in Music is a landmark study of one of music’s most important figures, offering something new to opera enthusiasts, Wagnerians, and anti-Wagnerians alike.

464 pages | 43 halftones, 37 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Biography and Letters

Music: General Music

Philosophy: Aesthetics


“Geck brings to his book on Wagner’s ‘life in music’ a rare combination of profound knowledge of Wagner and his work and an unfailingly intelligent capacity to select and to discriminate, so as to produce a clear account of all the operas and music dramas in the context of Wagner’s life and changing ideas. . . . People who would like to know more about Wagner, and people who have loved his music for years but would like to know more about why they do, will find a great deal in this book to enjoy and to admire.”


“Geck describes a Wagner who is grounded, focused and even cautious, a savvy realist and ironist rather than a flamboyant, flailing ideologue. . . . Suffused with his readings of contemporary productions of the operas, Geck’s musical analyses are succinct and superb, and he is skilled at finding clues to Wagner in the interstices of his career, like the early rarity ‘Rienzi’ or what he calls ‘the revolutionary drafts’ of never-completed works that Wagner envisioned before embarking on the ‘Ring’ cycle.”

New York Times

“As an editor of Wagner’s Complete Works, Geck brings a deep familiarity with the composer to his task. He seems to have read everything Wagner ever wrote and, what is more, a substantial portion of everything that has ever been written about Wagner.  Geck is thus able to document his claims about Wagner’s life and works with apt quotations, often drawn from obscure corners of the composer’s correspondence and recorded conversations. . . . The result is a multifaceted investigation of Wagner’s achievement as the supreme master of music drama.”

Weekly Standard

“Geck adds to the crowded field of literature on Richard Wagner with this intriguing exploration of the composer’s life and thought as exemplified by his music. . . . An excellent biography.”

Library Journal

“Geck, one of the most distinguished contemporary German musicologists, knows an enormous amount about every aspect of Wagner’s life and works, but this book is . . . much more about the works than the life. . . . The book is best read . . . as a fairly loose-knit series of improvisations on themes that Geck has been mulling over for most of his life.”

Literary Review

“Martin Geck’s new biography deftly weaves both familiar and unfamiliar facts about the composer to create a striking, fresh portrait, or rather a tapestry, shot through with insightful remarks on musical matters. The contributions of language, harmony, leitmotif, voices, instrumentation, and stage production to the elusive goal of a ‘total artwork’ are illuminated from the perspective of Wagner’s own life and writings as well as that of many notable contemporaries. Geck engages the politics of Wagner’s legacy honestly and without polemics. A series of brief interchapters on key Jewish figures in the composer’s biography and in his reception offer a novel, constructive approach to the vexed theme of Wagner’s anti-Semitism. The scholarly frame of reference is truly international. Geck succeeds brilliantly in synthesizing the complex phenomenon of Wagner in a thoroughly approachable yet consistently provocative study.”

Thomas S. Grey, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Wagner

“Martin Geck’s major new study of Wagner’s oeuvre moves at a fast but engaging pace. In a remarkably fleet translation by Stewart Spencer, the book is studded with historical insights, not least because Geck capitalizes on little-known diary entries, letters, and documentary evidence that imbue his readings with genuinely fresh perspectives. The author’s erudition is worn lightly, and his provocative forays into the so-called Jewish Question—by treating a succession of Jewish figures in the Wagnerian universe in separate ‘contrapuntal’ chapters—encourages a contextual view of the composer’s work at the same time that it grapples with what we might treasure in Wagner today.”

Laurence Dreyfus, author of Wagner and the Erotic Impulse

"Geck succeeds in what he originally set out to do: to uncover the ways in which Wagner still holds a poignant mirror to the face of our own age and time. A better incentive to commemorate the composer’s 200th birthday can hardly be imagined."

Nexus Institute

“Geck’s biography is commendably self-reflexive. He points to Wagner’s lack of distinction between ‘life’ and ‘art’; he shows awareness of the nature of history as writing, even briefly discussing ‘language games’ and Hayden White’s rapprochement between history and poetry. Such an approach is perfectly possible, indeed desirable, for a dangerous, radical Wagner. . . . Geck’s fine synthesis deserves to be read, especially as beautifully translated by Stewart Spencer.”

History Today

Table of Contents

Introduction: Figuring Out Wagner?
Chapter 1          The Archetypal Theatrical Scene: From Leubald to Die Feen
                        A Word about Felix Mendelssohn
Chapter 2          The Blandishments of Grand Opera: Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi
                        A Word about Giacomo Meyerbeer
Chapter 3          “Deep shock” and “a violent change of direction”: Der fliegende Holländer
                        A Word about Heinrich Heine
Chapter 4          Rituals to Combat Fear and Loneliness: Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg
                        A Word about Josef Rubinstein
Chapter 5          A Bedtime Story with Dire Consequences: Lohengrin
                        A Word about Arnold Schoenberg
Chapter 6          The Revolutionary Drafts: Achilles, Jesus of Nazareth, Siegfried’s Death, and Wieland the Smith
                        A Word about Paul Bekker
Chapter 7          “We have art so as not to be destroyed by the truth”: The Ring as a Nineteenth-Century Myth
                        A Word about Angelo Neumann
Chapter 8          “My music making is in fact magic making, for I just cannot produce music coolly and mechanically”: The Art of the Ring; Seen from the Beginning
                        A Word about George Steiner
Chapter 9          “He resembles us to a tee; he is the sum total of present-day intelligence”: The Art of the Ring; Wotan’s Music
                        A Word about Sergei Eisenstein
Chapter 10        “A mystical pit, giving pleasure to individuals”: Tristan und Isolde
                        A Word about Ernst Bloch
Chapter 11        “A magnificent, overcharged, heavy, late art”: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
                        A Word about Berthold Auerbach
Chapter 12        “They’re hurrying on toward their end, though they think they will last for ever”: The Art of the Ring; Seen from the End
                        A Word about Theodor W. Adorno
Chapter 13        “You will see—diminished sevenths were just not possible!”: Parsifal
                        A Word about Gustav Mahler
Chapter 14        Wagner as the Sleuth of Modernism

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