NEAR THE END of Gabriele D'Annunzio's novel about himself and Eleonora Duse and Venice, II fuoco (1900), the author's alter ago, Stelio Effrena, asks Cosima Wagner to let him and select friends have the honor of carrying her husband's remains from the death-chamber to the waiting gondola: it is February, 1883, and the Master has just passed away in the Palazzo Vendramin. As the pallbearers wait to pick up the "crystal coffin" with the "hero" inside, they are struck dumb, "each overcome by the beating of his own heart." Subsequent Wagnerites have not been affected in the same way--on the contrary; the tide of literature on the Master has been and continues to be overwhelming. Of course, the plenitude of riches will leave the innocent American Wagner-enthusiast horribly confused, even if he or she should be protected from larger temptation by an inability to read German (and/or French). A shelf of Wagner biographies is presently available in English: Ernest Newman's huge old standby in a reissue, Robert Gutman's Richard Wagner, The Man, His Mind and His Music (which paid a good deal of heed to Wagner's nasty racial ruminations and their later employment), Curt von Westernhagen's prim and careful work, Ronald Taylor's account with its fine illustrations, and Robert Anderson's brief "Concert Goer's Companion."

Both Westernhagen and Taylor have the advantage of knowing the giant journals of D'Annunzio's "woman with the face of snow": Cosima's annals about "R.," studded with exclamation points, appeared in Germany in 1976, admirably edited by Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack. It is no wonder that Gregor-Dellin--a prolific novelist of some stature--has put his Wagner knowledge into a biography, the German original of which came out in 1980. (He is also the author of a diarium of Wagner's life and a book of essays about "Richard Wagner--the Revolution as Opera.") A clever man, Gregor-Dellin deals from his own strengths: his genuine scholarship and his ability as a practiced narrator. It must immediately be added that he neither heaps footnote on footnote nor stoops to such novelist's devices as the imaginary conversation: his motto comes from Robbe-Grillet--"In the long run, nothing is more fantastic than accuracy." He tries hard not to over-dramatize or to ironize; these lures must have been particularly hard to resist, considering Wagner's exuberant personality, the manifold peculiarities of the men, women, femmes fatales and ephebes surrounding him, and the very nomenclature of the giant cast. Imagine what Thomas Mann could have done with a hanger-on named Wendelin Weissheimer or a cabinet secretary (of the loony Ludwig II) named Franz Seraph von Pfistermeister! Instead, Gregor-Dellin keeps to a sober yet fascinating objectivity; such familiar disputes as the question of little Richard's paternity (the police official Friedrich Wagner or Friedrich's great and good friend, the actor Ludwig Geyer?) and the true nature of his sunset involvement with the delectable Judith Gautier are examined reasonably, humanely, and with a keen psychological eye. (He concludes that Friedrich was indeed Richard's father, and that there was no ultimate hanky- panky between the by-this-time rather decrepit composer and Th,eophile Gautier's daughter.)

Just so, Gregor-Dellin maintains a very even tone when he describes, at justifiable length, Wagner's passionate involvement with the 1848 revolution and his subsequent swerve into anti-liberal rantings, or his abhorrence of inherited wealth (about which American television audiences have lately learned, thanks to showings of the 1976 Bayreuth Ring) and his insistence upon first-class accomodations for his journey through life. And, happily, Gregor-Dellin does not give Wagner fits for his anti-Semitism; he accepts it as a part of the man, and remarks that it was an anti-Semitism more of thought and word than of deed. One gets a particularly clear sense of a bundle of energy: a compulsive walker (his hikes were prodigious), a compulsive talker ("Wagner has no idea how tiring he is," the composer Peter Cornelius complained), a compulsive writer of letters and essays (where insight and nonsense tangle), a compulsive if superficial reader (he even made a stab at Hegel's Phaenomenologie des Geistes), and a compulsive meddler. (Wagner took it on himself to render an epistolary diagnosis of Nietzsche's intimate health problems, for a Frankfurt physician, and Nietzsche found out about the correspondence.)

There is no attempt, however, to cut genius down to size; full and fair attention is given to his building of a "self-contained system"--here Gregor-Dellin cites a German cultural philosopher of the 1920s, Carl Christian Bry--which assumed the role of a "disguised religion" for Wagner and his followers: "Wagner was a Titan, a rival god who sought to conquer the world." Bravely, Gregor-Dellin addresses the necessary (albeit painful) job of analyzing Wagner's essays on art from 1848-51; they boil down to "a conception of the world (presented in music drama) that proceeded straight from ancient Greece to a suspended dissonance in a classless society to end all societies. Or, to put it another way, from Zeus-Wotan to Richard Wagner himself." Now, Gregor-Dellin does not celebrate the egomania that gave birth to such thoughts, but he does not bother to decry it, either; instead, he shows how the work justified the man. And beyond, he reminds his readers that Wagner--surrounded by cultists, a veritable dictator-- still had a strain of self-mockery, and a wonderfully human side. At the final performance of Parsifal in 1882, conducted by Hermann Levi, he crept into the orchestra pit, took the baton from Levi, and finished the performance. A "joyous tumult" broke loose, but Wagner "remained seated among the musicians, cracking bad jokes," according to Levi's letter to his father, a rabbi. At last, after Levi had called for quiet, Wagner spoke from the conductor's podium--to Levi and the orchestra, then to the singers and the stage-hands, and finally to the audience. It is hard to imagine certain other creators of self-contained systems, from Germany or elsewhere, behaving in quite the same way.

For an American audience, then, there is probably no better introduction to the life, in all its vitality, and the world, in all its variety. (Wagner's acquaintances surely were a mixed bag: for example, from the Swiss author- >juand-democrat, Gottfried Keller, to the French author- and-racial-theorist, Gobineau.) The book falls a little short, perhaps, in one way; Gregor-Dellin accords the music itself only routine attention. His interest in Wagner as an artist really lies with the "multiple gifts" of the musician and the dramatist, whose "highly developed talents were stylistically asynchronous"--a polite way of conceding that, however grand the web of sound and the dramatic dreams and insights, the verses are often bad and the directions for staging worse. He does not take it as his task to dissect harmonic progressions or instrumental colors; finally, he does not attempt to recreate Wagner's music in words. The author of a little tract on Wagner and Thomas Mann (from 1958, when he was plain Martin Gregor), he knows that Mann's Wagner- act is very hard to follow.

Sentimental concert-goers may be disappointed not to find the well-worn story of the Siegfried Idyll's first performance somewhere in Gregor-Dellin's pages. Actually, it is retold, on p. 638 of the German original, but the tale of that Christmas morning is one of the many passages omitted in the translation, where 843 pages of smallish print are reduced to 524 pages with larger letters. Harcourt should have informed its customers that they are not getting the whole of Gregor-Dellin's text. The cuts consist not only of sentences or paragraphs left out, passim, but of two whole chapters (on Wagner's writing of his autobiography and about the dreams that tormented him in his latter days) and three chapter-portions, on "Daily Life in Tribschen," "A Digression on the Occasion of Beethoven," and "Marriage a Dream," about the relationship between admiring Cosima and bossy Richard. The translation, by J. Maxwell Brownjohn, is felicitous, although he occasionally falls asleep: on p. 261 he adds to the original (p. 398), identifying the composer of the Euryanthe Overture as Gluck.

Perhaps it is as well, though, that Gregor-Dellin has been thinned out for an American audience; otherwise-- beset by prima donnas and political idealists and city officials and courtiers and sycophants and German poets major-and-minor and French Teutophils--the would-be Wagnerite might not stay the course. Aware of the crowded stage, the English music-critic Derek Watson has provided a handy "Glossary" of the characters in his neat volume--first published by Macmillan in 1979 and now reissued by McGraw-Hill in its series, "The Best Short Biograpy: Music and Musicians." As a matter of fact, people with cash and the time to read two Wagner- biographies might want to acquire Watson as a complementary bible, since Watson is directly concerned with Wagner's main art, and provides information (sometimes wanting in Gregor-Dellin) about casts and orchestras and performances. Describing the rehearsals for the first Bayreuth Festival, the German concentrates on the Master's jumpiness and irascibilty, the Englishmen talks about coaching. Watson's saga of the transformation of Georg Unger, the first Siegfried, into a valid Heldentenor, thanks to the confidence of Wagner and the patience of the vocal pedagogue, Julius Hey, is a case in point; Gregor-Dellin mentions Unger--a Clark Kent become Superman--only in passing, and Hey not at all.

Charles Osborne is a knowledgeable litt,erateur rather than a Wagner specialist; to many Americans, he may be known as the author of a biography of Auden and the editor of The Bram Stoker Bedside Companion, a collection of opuscula by Dracula's creator. Opera by opera, Osborne offers a pleasantly informal tour of staging practices and staging innovations from the Wagner libretti and the autobiography and, often, with Osborne's personal opinions. He is a great fan of von Karajan's tempered Salzburg productions, and a foe of faddish extremism--of Cassel's "space age Ring" and Gotz Friedrich's "intellectualizing of the aesthetic process." Presumably, Osborne's ideal for Wagner performance is stated in connection with Wolfgang Wagner's 1952 Bayreuth Lohengrin: "a clear and uncluttered staging which allowed the work to present itself without encumbrance. That may sound a modest aim: would that directors often succeeded in it." To Osborne's mind, Die Meistersinger has been spared atrocity most often, because it "is not really susceptible to abstraction or symbolism"; the Metropolitan production of 1962 "proved that a staging based on Wagner's instructions . . . can still be viable, and may even be the only sensible way to present the work." Looking at the aberrations collected by Osborne--the oddly convex shape of Klingsor's Castle in Wieland Wagner's 1951 Parsifal (a more accurate description would be inappropriate to a family newspaper) or Wieland's flying saucer Ring of 1965--one feels a vague yearning for dear old Max Bruckner's lushly romantic representationalism.

Osborne closes withha "biographical dictionary" of major Wagnerian singers, conductors, and impresarios; too bad that his hall of fame excludes such sacrifices on the Wagnerian altar as Pierre Dietsch, the unfortunate soul who directed thes morn riotous Paris Tannhauser of 1861, and Angelo Neumann, who first dared to take the Ring on tour. The portrait-gallery reveals that not quite all the singers have been as beefy as Flagstad and Melchior, of large and blessed memory. In the beauty competition, Gwyneth Jones should certainly receive the palm--but what did the miscreant Gotz Friedrich do to that lovely lady in the 1972 Bayreuth Tannhauser? From the neck down, she is truly a Frau Venus, but above she looks like Frankenstein's monster, badly decayed.

Osborne's book is fun, sometimes gruesome, and always informative; it will persuade serious- minded folk to go on to more systematic studies of the staging history, a vein of Wagner research by no means exhausted. As a first step, they may want to pick up Heinrich Porges' eye-witness account of the preparations for the grand opening at Bayreuth, a little book of 1877 just published in English by the Cambridge University Press; Osborne himself appears not to know the German original.