by Malcolm Hayes

Yet another introduction to Wagner? Yes, but there have been very few as good as this one. For all the punter friendly format, the quality and insight of Stephen Johnson’s writing also offers much food for thought to experienced Wagner buffs. Here’s one example: he points out that in Tristan und Isolde, the loosening of the traditional ties of classical rhythm is at least as radical and significant as the music’s much-heralded loosening of tonality. Exactly so. Rightly, Johnson in o way glosses over Wagner’s unsavoury side – the egomaniac opportunism, the anti-Semitism. Just as rightly, he presents these qualities within the wider fact of the composer’s wondrous musical achievement.

His outline of Wagner’s life is a model of how to present so much information clearly and readably. And writing about the music itself, he knows how to keep things simple, while coming up with one memorable phrase after another, like this one: ‘Part of the magic of Die Meistersinger is the sense it communicates of being posed between solid… reality an the realm of the imagination, from which music and poetry can come to us like the scent of lilac, drifting in the air on a midsummer’s eve’. Again: exactly so.