Two months after Richard Wagner died of heart failure in a rented palazzo in Venice in 1883, a touring production of his Ring cycle came to the city. A fleet of gondolas, led by the Venetian State Gondola (which carried the company's entire orchestra), made its way to the palazzo. To the rapture of a large crowd of people (the men among whom removed their hats in awed silence), the band struck up Siegfried's funeral march from Gotterdammerung. Joachim Kohler suggests, at the end of this impressive study of the composer, that Wagner himself would have 'cracked a joke' at the spectacle. After reading the epic of self-regard, self-obsession, self-indulgence and self-centredness that Kohler has constructed as his view of Wagner's life (perhaps without realising how unflattering it is to his subject), we cannot be sure that the deceased would have found the ceremony so funny. Having been encouraged by his domineering and quite possibly mad wife Cosima to see himself as a god, he would presumably have felt that such a traffic stopping performance was the least he was due.
Köhler has written a thoughtful and insightful life, though one suspects a little may have been lost in the faithful and intelligent translation by the Wagner scholar Stewart Spencer, for the prose is at times plodding and earnest. His research has been scholarly and wide-ranging, giving this new account of