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Germany’s real-life melodrama

None of Richard Wagner’s operas surpass the drama of his actual family story.

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Who was Richard Wagner, really? A brilliant composer who reshaped modern music? A wildly incoherent thinker whose muddled ideas contributed to the Holocaust? Or an insecure eccentric, a celebrity who slobbered over patrons, abused friends, and sometimes screamed if his guests talked to one another instead of to him?

The correct answer may be all of the above and that’s just part of what makes Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan so intriguing a read. The rest of the allure derives from the Wagner family themselves. The book’s subtitle is “The Saga of Germany’s Most Illustrious and Famous Family” and saga is indeed the mot juste.

Take a backdrop of intergenerational intrigue, adultery, and betrayal. Toss in a spoiled orphan, a handful of opportunists, some Nazis, and a glamorous family business and you’ve got the Wagner epic.

But Carr, a British journalist and music biographer (“Mahler: A Biography”) now living in Germany, prevents this story from sinking into the merely sensational. His nuanced account seeks to bring a fair balance to some of the wild charges associated with the Wagner story and at the same time offers a compelling account of Germany itself from the early 1800s on up.

Richard Wagner, was born in Leipzig in 1813. The Europe of that time was a turbulent place and he, it seems, never met a revolution he didn’t like. Between supporting unsuccessful insurgents and racking up debt Wagner was often on the run.

“A scoundrel and a charmer he must have been such as one rarely meets,” wrote American composer Virgil Thomson, and so it would seem. When stability finally arrived in Wagner’s life it came by the grace of two somewhat dubious connections. One was his adulterous relationship with Lizst’s illegitimate daughter Cosima. This (once both had jettisoned their first spouses) turned into a lasting marriage, resulting in three children and Cosima’s lifelong devotion to Wagner’s legacy.

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