James L. Paulk
Robert W. Gutman, who died on May 13 at the age of 90, was an influential music scholar best known for landmark biographies of two seminal music figures.
When it appeared in 1968, Gutman’s Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music caused something akin to an earthquake in the universe of Wagner fans. Much had been written about the composer at the time, but even the more detailed biographies had paid scant attention to the many unsavory aspects of his life, especially his toxic anti-Semitism.
Gutman was then relatively unknown and lacked some of the usual scholarly credentials — a prestigious academic post in music, an extensive history of papers in music journals, or even a doctorate. But his Wagner book was impossible to ignore, catching fire entirely because of the lucidity of his prose, his skill in organizing and marshaling his material, and the quality of his research.
Prior to Gutman, knowledge of the scale and intensity of Wagner’s polemics had been mostly confined to scholars. Gutman’s accomplishment was not only to document the trove of hateful material, but also to explain how his prejudices informed his work.
Still, Gutman’s book was far from a diatribe. He celebrated Wagner’s astonishing genius and was a lifelong fan, intimately familiar with the scores of each opera, with a remarkable memory for voices and performances over many decades. His book dealt extensively with Wagner’s relationship to his contemporaries, often in a gossipy way that made for great reading while providing context not found elsewhere.
As he researched his biography, Gutman was a welcome figure at Bayreuth, the festival Wagner founded, still run by his heirs. He had access to the archival material there, and he taught at the festival’s Master Classes, which he helped found along with Wagner’s granddaughter Friedelind. After the publication of the book, however, his relationship with most of Wagner’s descendants was irreparably severed, one exception being Friedelind, herself something of an outcast in the family. He never returned to Bayreuth.
Although Gutman’s book was anathema to many of Wagner’s devout fans, critical reception was quite positive. In his review for The New York Times, Herbert Weinstock called it “much the richest and best-accomplished single volume on Wagner in English.” The book became a substantial success, appearing in multiple formats and numerous translations.
Ultimately, Gutman’s biography was the catalyst for sweeping changes in the way Wagner was assessed. Hagiography became rare, and even the most affirmative writers were forced to deal with the unsavory aspects of Wagner’s character. Gutman became a sought-after Wagner authority, providing commentary for events such as the BBC’s live broadcasts of the English-language Ring cycle conducted by Reginald Goodall in the early 1970s. Listeners admired his erudite manner and gentle wit.
Gutman had been trained in piano and music theory by Kurt Adler, a noted conductor of his day. But his “day job” was quite different. Beginning in 1950s, he taught art and design history at the Fashion Institute of Technology, rising to become dean of the school’s graduate division before retiring in the 1980s.
In his retirement, Gutman busied himself with what was to become a colossal second act — Mozart: A Cultural Biography, published in 1999 and funded by a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. Gutman approached his Mozart book with typical industry, treating it as a full-time job for over two decades, including extensive research in Europe. He was the most disciplined of writers, rising long before dawn each day well into his 70s and working steadily despite a busy lecture schedule and healthy social life. “It helps to be an insomniac,” he once told me.
The resulting 839 pages were at once scholarly and accessible, a sensitive and persuasive work that extensively discussed the cultural environment surrounding Mozart, as well as his personal life, especially the relationship with his domineering father.
Gutman did much to dispel the recurring myths regarding Mozart’s final years — poverty, rivalry with the composer Salieri, and a mysterious death — that had been the basis for Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus, and the 1984 movie version.
Gutman was a true Renaissance man. In addition to his powerful music biographies and his academic career in design and art history, he lectured extensively on Shakespeare, another passion. His knowledge of painting was impressive. I remember once on our travels together when we came upon a small museum and stopped in for a visit. Admiring the collection, Robert recognized and explained the provenance of several of the portraits, discussing them with such authority that the docent sent for the director, who was soon taking notes. Elsewhere, on another occasion, he stopped before a portrait labeled as a “Rembrandt,” chuckling as he quietly announced to me that it was clearly “of the school” but lacked the key characteristics of Rembrandt himself.
Going to the opera with Robert was similarly instructive, but it was never a passive experience, the discussion often extending into the night and continuing on the phone the next morning. Informed by a lifetime of study and listening, Robert was passionate about singers, conducting, and acting. He generally preferred traditional productions, and few things animated him more than directors who “took liberties,” especially with Wagner or (as with Peter Sellars) Mozart.
Gutman profoundly changed the way we think about two of the greatest geniuses who ever lived. To spend time with him was to experience the best of another era, gracious and civilized. He eschewed much of modernity and avoided computers. He lived a full life, leaving behind friends who cherished time with him, especially his husband, Steven Walsh.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic who has written regularly for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.