The Parrot Press

Great Wagner Conductors:
a listener's companion

Jonathan Brown

820 pp. • cloth • ISBN 9780987155603 • $55

Published 13 February 2012 (out of print).

Ebook edition available from Google Play.

Book cover - Great Wagner Conductors

About the book

This book is a pioneering study of the great historical Wagner conductors. It opens with a chapter on Wagner, tracing his record as a conductor of his own works, and setting out what he expected of orchestras and their music directors. Thousands of reviews of performances from many countries – Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, France, England, Argentina, and the United States – have been distilled to bring us as close as we can to knowing what the conductors were really like. We learn what they had to say about Wagner, how they learnt their craft, and how they conducted his operas. Above all, it is left to those who were there to tell the stories.

Twenty-three conductors are dealt with in detail: Richard Wagner, Hans von Bülow, Hans Richter, Anton Seidl, Hermann Levi, Felix Mottl, Karl Muck, Artur Nikisch, Albert Coates, Gustav Mahler, Felix Weingartner, Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, Artur Bodanzky, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Fritz Busch, Erich Kleiber, Hans Knappertsbusch, Clemens Krauss, Karl Böhm, Richard Strauss, Otto Klemperer, and Fritz Reiner.

There is a comprehensive discography for each conductor, including Wagner. Rare recordings are documented: shellac and vinyl that have never made it to compact disc, "pirate" and commercial recordings, and inauthentic recordings designed to fool the public. There is comment on or excerpts from reviews of all the major recordings, and on many of the more obscure. A section on timings of actual and recorded performances, from Wagner onwards, reveals how widely practice has varied. There are over 700 illustrations, many showing the conductors at work. Some are rare, some are in colour.

The book is an essential source for opera lovers, Wagner enthusiasts, students of historical performance, conductors and their pupils, cultural historians, and buyers and collectors of recordings.


Winner of a 2013 ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research.

What the reviews say

"Jonathan Brown has produced a fascinating study and approaches his task with enthusiasm, care and thoroughness. … This reviewer was particularly pleased to see the inclusion of Albert Coates, underrated for too long as a conductor… There are other happy revelations; Artur Bodanzky and Fritz Busch for example. … Why not a sequel entitled Great Wagner Conductors of the Twentieth Century? Solti, Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Goodall, Kempe, Levine and Barenboim would do for starters." Christopher Fifield, Music Web International, January 2014.

"For anyone interested in Wagner in this centenary year, and especially for those interested in recordings of Wagner's operas, this weighty tome will be welcome." Alan Swanson, Fanfare, Issue 37, January/February 2014.

"This book is a large one, and in several ways marks an extremely welcome and valuable addition to the still small group of studies focusing on Wagner's works in performance. … the amount of useful documentary detail… is staggering, and the quoted reviews are often illuminated by the glow of great experiences. Whatever its limitations of scope, perspective and scholarly temperament, Great Wagner Conductors constitutes a central work on its subject." David Breckbill, The Wagner Journal, Vol. 7, No. 2 (July 2013).

"This weighty doorstop … is a physical product of the kind we rarely get in 'hard copy' books nowadays, printed on quality paper with a goodly number of well-produced (and often rare) photos and drawings …. [The] discography on its own is a Herculean labour in a minefield made increasingly treacherous by the amount of 'reissuing' (aka pirating) of the same off-the-air material that has taken place in our digital age, let alone downloads (into which area Brown does not yet venture). … Brown's strength lies more in his rounding up of information than in analysing it. Nonetheless, there is so much of value here under one roof that the book - in itself a most handsome addition to a shelf - can be recommended as an essential vademecum of early complete Wagner recordings. If some of the analysis needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, the discographical and biographical material is both essential and useful." Mike Ashman, Opera, July 2013.

"[Great Wagner Conductors is] a large volume containing an impressive amount of information about the conductors, along with significant coverage of their recordings … the book's value is confirmed by the substantial discography, which follows the order of the chapters, with entries for each conductor, even those whose careers occurred around the birth of recording technology." James L. Zychowicz, Notes, the quarterly journal of the Music Library Association, June 2013.

"Brown's research has been nothing short of exhaustive, with meticulous documentation along the way. … Great Wagner Conductors is a major contribution to the literature on this subject, and belongs in the library of every serious Wagner enthusiast." Gary A. Galo, ARSC Journal, Vol. 44:1 (May 2013).

"The level of detail achieved is quite breathtaking. It extends to a vast arsenal of footnotes … as a resource they will be amazingly useful in a vast range of different contexts. … The book is extremely well produced, with many pages of often very revealing photographs of each subject. For anyone interested in conducting from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, and in particular the performance of Wagner, this book will be an essential acquisition. Its strength lies in the collection of so many different and varied contemporary reports of Wagner in performance from approximately 1850 to 1960. If this is where your interest lies, it will provide much fascinating reading." David Patmore, Classical Recordings Quarterly, Winter 2012.

"For once, a publicity blurb seems to be thoroughly justified. … The text is, for the average enthusiast, mercifully free of scholastic terminology and musical examples, though doubtless musicologists will regret that omission … Having said that,the book is thoroughly to be recommended as an indispensable addition to the library of any self-respecting lover of Wagner's music dramas." Chris Argent, Wagner News, newsletter of the Wagner Society of England, January 2013.

"This beautifully produced book is conceived on an aptly Wagnerian scale - running to almost 800 pages - and its appeal is enhanced by the quality (and quantity) of the reproductions of photographs and other illustrative material. … Brown gives as thorough an account of the Wagner performances of his chosen conductors as anyone could reasonably wish for and the tenacity and care with which he has unearthed (and documented) his sources is praiseworthy. He has been selective, certainly, but space must have been a consideration and Brown deals impressively with the conductors who are included. Lavishly presented, carefully prepared and intelligently argued, this is a book that any Wagnerite is likely to find absorbing." Nigel Simeone, International Record Review, January 2013.

"It is in some respects the virtually perfect book: moderate and fair in its critical comment, always lucidly written, and with the entire overall picture clearly if unobtrusively in mind. … In sum, Jonathan Brown's book must just about fall into the category of 'everything you wanted to know about Richard Wagner in performance but were afraid to ask'! His demonstrated knowledge of recordings, for instance, is prodigious, as is his historical sweep; for he has the rare talent of familiarising us with the detail while simultaneously keeping the larger picture in mind and relatively visible: his, obviously, but ours too. … This is a splendid book, warmly to be recommended." Emeritus Professor Brian Coghlan, Newsletter of the Richard Wagner Society of South Australia, December 2012.

"This book is highly recommendable." Bill Russell, The Record Collector, December 2012.

"It is a work of grand proportion, encyclopaedic in its reach and ambition, but sparing us the dryness of mere facts by quoting contemporary critics and distilling thousands of others … [The author] opens a rich field to Wagnerians interested in this aspect of their passion." Richard Rosenman, Wagner News, newsletter of the Toronto Wagner Society, December 2012.

"Jonathan Brown… has produced a mighty book. Mighty in its scope, depth, detail and presenting his considerable research in a manner which is accessible to the general reader. … I applaud the dedication and research that [he] has undertaken to result in this fine book." Dr. Richard Reed, Wagner News, newsletter of the Richard Wagner Society of Victoria, November 2012.

"Australian Jonathan Brown - sometime diplomat, lawyer, philosopher and academic - serves notice in his introduction that "this book has been written by someone who is neither a conductor, a musician, a musicologist, or a critic." Nonetheless, he emerges as a serious music-lover and a tenacious researcher. It's fortunate that his writing avoids pedantry, maintaining his enthusiasm over the long quest. To avoid being misled by the book's title, readers need to know that Brown limits himself to those conductors born in the Master's own nineteenth century. ("Wagner's music was in their very blood.") … The man in charge is the focus of Brown's exhaustive study, supplemented by an equally generous 193-page discography section, catnip for scholars and deeply committed record collectors. Whether the general music-lover needs to be overwhelmed to this extent is a question each must answer for himself. Like the Ring, this book is a giant's handful." John W. Freeman, Opera News, October 2012.

"In this monumental book on the conducting of Wagner's operas in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, Jonathan Brown examines the performances of 23 of the most famous and successful conductors… this is a useful reference book for Wagnerians…." Kurt Moses, American Record Guide, September/October 2012.

"Engaging study of the maestros who made Wagner great," proclaimed Limelight, Australia's Classical Music & Arts Magazine, in August 2012. "'If an audience is bored with Wagner,' declared Richard Strauss, 'it is the conductors who are to blame.' With this sharp quote from the first page of his remarkable book, Australian author Jonathan Brown charges off into the great world of Wagner and his interpreters. … The book includes all their discographies, making it a real treasure for audiophiles and music librarians. … [It] is full of anecdotes, many humorous. … [and] is beautifully printed with copious footnotes and illustrations." James McCarthy. Read the full review. writes: "Great Wagner Conductors took five years to research and write, and the result is very impressive indeed. Jonathan Brown examines the work of twenty-three great Wagner conductors, and includes extensive discographies and timings. The book is meticulously researched and very well written - a must for all Wagnerians interested in performance history." Per-Erik Skramstad. Read the full review.

The book was reviewed by Graham Bruce, vice-president of the Wagner Society in Queensland in August 2012:

“The book is a handsome publication, not least because of the numerous photographs which deck its pages, including a number of sequences of stills from films. The photographs and the many fine caricatures, often very funny, are possibly the reason for the choice of photographic paper on which the book is printed, making for a literally heavy volume.

“The work reflects an impressive amount of research which is footnoted meticulously; indeed most pages have a large area of space taken up by this documentation. Equally meticulous are the extensive discographies for each conductor in an Appendix, followed by another Appendix listing the quite fascinating divergences in the timings of the conductors’ performances in the major Wagner operas.…

“Brown’s method within the chapters is to spend an initial section describing the musician’s life, then to move on to a consideration of the conducting style as revealed by the extant recordings, live, or studio produced. The emphasis, however, is on the live performances. The biographic and performance details that Brown accrues are often revealing. …

“It is impossible not to be impressed by the breadth of research which has given rise to this book. … The best way to approach this work is possibly to locate one of the conductors one personally admires and absorb the detailed and loving treatment of his extant recordings.” Access the full review here.

A "splendidly illustrated tome" … a "painstakingly researched and fastidiously footnoted study," Robert Gibson, Australian Book Review, June 2012.

The Wagner Society of New South Wales published two reviews of the book in its June 2012 Newsletter, at pp. 6-8:

“The book is a treasure chest for listeners who love delving into discographies of great Wagner maestros. As a matter of course there will be re-releases, restorations and transfers. The author must be commended for his incredible attention to detail and command of the breadth of recordings from the formative years of sound technology. The required research skills in different languages are daunting. The results the author achieved in his dealings with a variety of institutions, libraries and individuals are a major communication triumph. … [Of performances] the author has done a remarkable, painstaking job in assessing reviews in three Continents (Europe, South and North America). … This book is a major achievement, drawing our attention to a wealth of great Wagner conductors and their recorded legacy. It is no surprise that international sales have been brisk. The author’s research energy has been prodigious.” - Colin Baskerville

“The choice of conductors is mostly even-handed and intelligent…. Curiously, Brown includes two conductors who have, despite their stature in twentieth-century music, not been remembered for their Wagner, Arturo Toscanini and (composer) Richard Strauss. … [T]he individual chapters are not simple biographical profiles. Each chapter is structured so that it unfolds Wagner opera by Wagner opera rather than describing the conductor’s career year by year. There are detailed listings of the conductor’s performances of Wagner (which opera, which house, when), and woven through these listings is extensive discussion of the conductor’s stylistic characteristics and tendencies and what unique approach he brought to Wagner’s music. It is a sophisticated approach that, to this reviewer’s knowledge, has not been attempted before…. a comprehensive discography of [historical recordings] is provided – the most fascinating part of the book.” - Louis Garrick

Buy the book

The book is now out of print. However, copies may still be found in a number of specialist shops. Have a look in

The Ebook, which includes all the illustrations in the print edition as well as a number of corrections, is available from Google Play.

About the author

Jonathan Brown studied history, philosophy and law at the Australian National University and the University of Cambridge. He is the author of two critical discographies: Parsifal on Record (Greenwood, 1992), and Tristan und Isolde on Record (Greenwood, 2000). The latter won an Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research in 2001 for Best Research in Recorded Classical Music. He is a former Australian diplomat and international lawyer, and lives in Canberra.

The author interviewed