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Wagner and Venice.

Wagner and Venice. By John W. Barker. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2008. [xvii, 404 pp. ISBN 978-1-58046-288-4. $65.00]

Prof. Barker's volume grows out of a quarter of a century of engagement with both Wagner's music and the city of Venice, beginning with a conference paper presented at a colloquium in 1983, on the occasion of the centenary of the composer's death. Venice was a destination for Wagner on nine different occasions over a period of more than thirty years. It was the city where he was, in 1858, to compose much of Tristan and Isolde's second act, and where, decades later, he was to die.

The author is not a musician, but trained as a medieval historian. For this volume, he has mined much primary source material: Cosima Wagner's diaries, contemporary accounts of Wagner by Henriette Perl's Wagner in Venedig (1883), Giuseppe Norlenghi's Ricordo Wagneriano (1886), Angelo Neumann's Erinnerungen an Richard Wagner (1886), and three of the most important contemporary newspapers: La Gazzetta di Venezia, La Venezia, and Il Gazzettino.

It is Barker's extraordinarily thorough attention to Venetian newspapers, along with Neumann's reminiscence, that informs the narrative at the center of Barker's volume. Chapters 9 through 14 provide a fascinating account of Venice's coming to terms with Wagner's music. Neumann enters Wagner's biography as the director of Das Wanderden Wagner-Theater, a touring troupe which presented Wagner's Ring cycle in major cities throughout Europe, beginning in London in 1882. Discussions of performances in Venice begin in early 1883, although as Neumann noted, "... the Master ... had very earnestly warned us against Venice and Italy." But following the composer's death in February of 1883, Neumann proceeded with his plans for performances in Venice, and thus it was that Venice obtained the first Ring cycle in Italy.

As Barker notes, this was not the logical choice--Bologna had up until then been the Italian city most sympathetic to Wagner's work, and there were certainly logistical difficulties in Venice--for example, moving all of the scenic apparatus from the train station by boat to the Fenice Theatre. Barker deftly describes all of the preparations for, and critical responses to, the premiere, allowing substantial quotations from Neumann and the Venetian papers to aid his narrative.

Another aspect of Venice's reception of Wagner might have escaped many musical chroniclers: the outdoor band concerts that were a prominent feature of Venice's musical life. The most important organization was the Banda Cittadina, financially supported by the city's budget. Jacopo Calascione conducted this organization for a number of years, and had some personal contacts with Wagner. He arranged not only the Overture to Rienzi for his ensemble, but also pot-pourris of music from Lohengrin and Tannhauser, which came to be featured regularly on Banda Cittadina's concerts. By 1891, eight years after the composer's death, Calascione had instituted an annual all-Wagner concert on February 13, the anniversary of the composer's death. Barker follows this tradition, along with other Wagner commemorations, through to the 1990s, and the founding of the Associazione Richard Wagner di Venezia, with the purpose of sponsoring conferences and cultural events relating to Wagner studies.

The book's opening chapters offer multiple accounts of Wagner's visits to Venice, or, as Barker describes it in his Preface, "We see how Wagner saw Venice, and ... how Venice saw Wagner." Central to the latter are two chapters which summarize the contents of the volumes by Perl and Norlenghi noted above. Henriette Perl (writing as "Henry Perl") was born in the Polish-Ukrainian city of Lvov, trained as an opera singer, and eventually became a writer of romance novels and travelogues. She settled in Venice in the late 1870s, and moved in expatriate circles there. Although never a part of the Wagner family's inner circle, she seems to have befriended the Wagners' family doctor, Dr. Friedrich Keppler, and possibly other members of the household staff as well. Her modest volume of "mosaic images," as she describes it, was published a mere two months after the composer's death. Although demonstrating a "... propensity for exaggeration, if not downright fabrication ...", her descriptions of daily life in the Wagner household, and of the events the day of, and immediately following Wagner's death, are of interest, and quoted at considerable length by Barker.

Norlenghi's volume was not published until 1884. Norlenghi's aim was broader than Perl's, and his volume of greater interest, as he not only wrote anecdotally about Wagner, the man, but also entered into the culture wars Italy was undergoing at the time, firmly in support of Wagnerian opera reform. There are more musical discussions than in Perl, and his accounts of Wagner's discussions about tempi with the band director Calascione are fascinating. Norlenghi notes that Wagner "... was most strict on this issue of tempo, and he always spoke of it ... as of a matter of the very highest significance." Again Barker quotes extensively from the original.

Over forty photographs are included, in addition to an extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources and a general index. Over 15% of Barker's text is given over to a variety of Addenda, fifteen of them devoted to brief discussions of topics such as "Wagner's Last Words," "What Made Wagner Laugh?," or "Luigi Trevisan." (Trevisan was Wagner's chief gondolier, and most likely contributed to both Perl's and Norlenghi's accounts of Wagner's last stay in Venice). These are of varying degrees of interest, and contribute to the overall sense of this volume as being meticulously researched, well-written, and yet rather unfocused. In his Preface, Barker admits that he made no attempt "... to assemble all of these topics into the larger, overarching story of how the identity of a great cultural figure came to fuse with the identity of a remarkable city." Rather, he expects that his volume will "... add some interesting details for Wagnerian biography, while illuminating neglected areas of Venice's modern cultural history." At that, he has succeeded admirably.

John Schuster-Craig

Grand Valley State University

Allendale, Michigan
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Author:Schuster-Craig, John
Publication:Fontes Artis Musicae
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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