“It is impossible for a biography of Wagner to tell us anything about his music, but the story of Wagner’s life is absolutely fascinating and it would be so even if he had never written a note.” — W.H. Auden, quoted by Fintan O’Toole in Auden, Cranky, Cautious, Brilliant, New York Review of Books, October 22
I have pondered it and would say the quote is substantially correct but only on the assumption that only music can tell us anything about music. However, I find this assumption too restrictive. There is a vast literature about music that can tell us quite a lot about music. Even some novelists can, Thomas Mann in Doktor Faustus did.
Wagner’s life was indeed fascinating. Hitler’s favorite composer – he claimed to have heard Tristan und Isolde thirty or forty times – was a left-wing revolutionary in 1848–1849, together with his friend the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.
Wagner began writing the libretto for the Ring cycle at the same time. The first of the four Ring operas, Das Rheingold, was first produced more than twenty years later, in 1869. Wagner worked on it in exile. He interrupted it by composing Tristan and Die Meistersinger.
Wagner’s love life, preferably with married ladies, was colourful and he was in heavy debt all his life, even after his admirer, mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, had paid off some of his debts.
Wagner’s anti-Semitism did not prevent him from accepting the services of Hermann Levi to conduct the first performance in Munich of his last, Christian, opera, Parsifal. Levi never complained of any personal animosity.