In London last June, walking back from Quaker Meeting at Friends House on Euston Road, a lovely Sunday afternoon was made even lovelier by the discovery of Judd Books, on Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury. There, amid the used and dusty books, I found Wagner: A Case History, by Martin van Amerongen. I not only did not have this 1983 volume in my library; I did not even know of its existence, and at 160 pages it entertained me on the flight back to New York.
The author is Dutch and the translation was prepared by Stewart Spencer and Dominic Cakebread [sic]. It is a casual but insightful analysis of topics including socialism, Cosima, Wieland, Ludwig, Bayreuth the village, Bayreuth the Festival, and Wahnfried. The intellectual delight of the observations, combined with the idiosyncratic views of the author, commend the book.
He asks, for example, after noting the various interpretations to which it has been subjected:
How is it then that, in spite of all this, the Ring is never really exciting?… Who dares to assert that the famous Ring comes to life only intermittently, as in the first act of Die Walküre and the third act of Siegfried, but that the work as a whole include insufficient musical and dramatic material to be able to hold the audience’s attention over a period of sixteen hours?
Again, noting the “masochism on both sides” of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, the author quotes Theodor Herzl to the effect that Wagner’s music had the unique ability to soothe his nerves while writing his visionary book of Zion, The Jewish State, and concludes: “Wagner can this be seen de facto as one of the founders of the same state of Israel which continues to ban his works right up to today.”
He writes a trenchant chapter on the “comedic overkill” of the treatment of Beckmesser, making Die Meistersinger very unfunny indeed. He argues that “Hitler did not come to Bayreuth in order to claim Wagner for the Nazis, but in order to protect Bayreuth from the Nazis.” And van Amerongen’s final verdict on the Third Reich is telling:
There are just two conditions which must be met by a composer working under a totalitarian regime. The first is that his works must not be pessimistic and the second is that they must not be complicated. Measured against these criteria, Wagner was certainly not a totalitarian composer….
This is a fun volume and I commend it to all.