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The Wagnerian Reviews: The Sorcerer of Bayreuth

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday, 28 October 2012 | 4:11:00 am

Recently, regular contributor Daniel Carroll reviewed Barry Millington's new Wagner book: The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, His Work, and His World. This was from an academic perspective and as always made excellent reading. However, we noted at that time that our editor - a noted dilettante - would provide a more general review later. This can be found below but should not be seen to replace Daniel's in anyway.

The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, His Work, and His World
320 pages; over 300 b&w and color illustrations; 6-1/2 x 9-1/4;ISBN13: 978-0-19-993376-1ISBN10: 0-19-993376-6

Barry Millington's new book on the life and legacy of Richard Wagner is a strange work. In many ways it is the book on Wagner studies that we have been waiting for - and is long overdue. This is especially so for those new to Wagner or with a less detailed knowledge of his work and times.  At the same time, it contains a few strange eccentricities  - and even omissions - that simply cause one to scratch one's head. Often I found myself nodding in agreement at Millington's fair mindedness and ability to deal evenly with some of the conflicting thought in recent, and not so recent, Wagner research (as one might expect from the editor of the Wagner Journal). This can go on for chapters and then suddenly, as if from nowhere, I found myself thinking; "Oh come now! This seems as biased as some of Wagner's own writing". And Wagner was a man who, when caught in the moment, often found it hard to see the weaknesses in his own arguments.

More of this later but first, let us look at the positives (of which there are many) and attempt to give you some idea of what sort of book this is:

First, it is not in the strictest sense a chronological "biography, This is no Ernest Newman (but then, what is), Ronald Taylor, Derek Watson, etc, etc. Instead it is more a series of interlinked "essays" roughly in chronological order of Wagner's life.  I thought this might prove rather annoying - and somewhat "lazy. However, especially if your are familiar with Wagner's life and the order in which events occurred, this is not a problem  And I would suspect that it would not be much of an issue to those new to Wagner's life either.  There is a detailed time line at the back of the book to assist the easily "lost". On the plus side, this means that information is "grouped" in chapters and thus easy to find and examine. And as I have said, it is broadly chronological in nature. You can examine this by reviewing the chapter headings here.

It is important to note that it goes far beyond Wagner's death and investigates his legacy in an examination of topics ranging from an  history of  post Wagner Bayreuth to the formation of the Wagner Societies to the influence that Wagner had on film music. This is an excellent addition and I believe, the first time this has really been done in any detail - at least all in one book. Although of course, each have been dealt with in much detail individually.

It is clear that Millington has been reviewing much of the latest (and occasionally not so recent)  research on Wagner - both in the academic literature and especially in the form of the more "popular", and interesting,  new books such as:

The Wagner Clan, The Tristan Chord, Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans (with too much enthusiasm  I might argue but more of that later) Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth, Wagner and the Erotic Impulse, Richard Wagner: Self-Promotion and the Making of a Brand, Wagner Beyond Good and Evil, etc, etc.

He manages to incorporate these ideas seamlessly and must be commended for doing so. Millington has never been, in my opinion, a master of the prose form, and yet this is an immensely readable book - with even the odd sign of humour. Not something I have found in Millingtons previous writing with much frequency,  He may not draw you into Wagner's world in the same way as writers such as John Deathridge, Bryan Magee or Jonathan Carr but this is as "comfortable and as "relaxed" as I have ever found his writing to be.

This may well be the most beautifully illustrated and presented  book on Wagner's work I have ever seen.  Nothing has come close - at least in the form of a biography. While illustrating our writings here we search , often high and low, for photographs, paintings  cartoons  etc, But there is material in Millington's book  that not even we have come across. It is nigh on impossible to describe how well this has been done and I can only recommend that you visit your local book shop and look through a copy - or alternatively click on any of the extracts here which will enlarge them to nearly full screen. If, as I have said, Millington may not always draw you into Wagner;s world as the very best writers do, these illustrations more than make up for it. If you are one of those, and I know you exist, that dislike Millington's views on Wagner (although as I said they are nearly, very fair headed here), then you should buy this book purely for the illustrations alone. 

All of Wagner's mature works receive some detailed examination - starting with the Dutchman. Each getting a chapter to itself . You might not agree with Millingtons knowledgeable analysis but it is at least detailed, interesting. and present.  But where is any analysis of Wagner's early works:  Die Feen. Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi?  Each get little more than a paragraph a piece. Indeed, Wagners now "legendary" play Leubald receives as much attention as Rienzi - if not possibly more. A strange omission. and what seems a wasted opportunity.

Next there is the strange fact  that Wagner's life from birth to appointment at Dresden is covered in only 26, well illustrated pages - in a book of 300 plus pages. His first time in London (admittedly brief) and Paris (not so brief) is summarized in one paragraph!   Admittedly this is a thick book that covers much not examined in one volume previously and thus editorial decisions must have been needed. However,  one wishes for more detail here. It was a fascinating and traumatic time for Wagner, as many of us know, and Millingtons extensive knowledge on the subject would have been appreciated.

This brings me to my first "concern" - or at least point of bewilderment: Millington's obsession with Wagner's knickers. As we have seen, Wagner's time in Paris is covered in only one paragraph but latter Millington spends an entire chapter on Wagner's undergarments. "In the Pink: The Role of Silks and Satins in Wagner's Life" covers Wagners well known (and in his time somewhat "scandalous") preference for surrounding himself in silks, satins and perfumes (all sorts of rationalizations have been given for this - not all of them fully believable). Although these were not always, as suggested here "pink". There is more than a hint of "tabloid journalism" in this chapter, and what seems on occasion "schoolyard snickering". And why this obsession with Wagner's knickers and dressing gowns? Millington eventually tells us that he is not interested out of an "scandalous" interest - of course. Far from it. This part, he reassures us, of Wagner's character may be central in helping us understand Wagner's works - the very key to his musical composition indeed - especially in parts of Tannhauser, Tristan and Parsifal.  It is an intriguing argument and I shall let you read the chapter yourself and decide on the validity of Millington's, not uninteresting, reasoning. Anyway, as he concludes, "It is entirely appropriate that such a man should take his leave of the world in a pink satin dressing gown". Is it me or can I hear Millington and "schoolboys" snickering under their breath up and down the country?

Finally, there is what his publisher describes as "...the anti-Semitism that is undeniably present in the operas". Alas, at this stage I feel - with much reluctance - I must "come out of the closet" about Wagner and anti-semitism. Regular readers will note that it is something we tend not mention with any great frequency. There is a reason for this; we have discussed this with many people for many years and are more than aware that people's views about this subject are "entrenched", and nearly unmovable - no less so than with Barry Millington. Although at times throughout the work, it does feel he has "mellowed a little - but more of this shortly.

What then are my thoughts?  So that this does not  become less about Millington and more about dear old me, I will keep this simple -  and brief: Wagner was a raving anti-semite - of this it is impossible to argue. Even by the standards of his time "Judaism in Music" (for anyone that has forced themselves to read it - and I have) is an embarrassing, nasty, illogical piece of nonsense.  And his anti-semitism was not just confined to this one work - but runs through Cosima's diaries and is often found in his various letters. As Millington points out, this issue seemed central to Wagner's nature and as Wagner told Liszt, "...and this resentment (TW: to this "Jewish business") is as necessary to my nature as gall is to the blood" (1840). However, we need to note certain factors, that are of equal importance (but if course do not excuse him).  First: Wagner's anti semitism was not confined to him but was rampant during his time (and oddly, often present in many social revolutionaries - which Wagner undeniably was) Next, when Wagner didn't like you then Wagner  really didn't like you. Or at least "you" as a group" if not "you" as an individual. He was as illogically cruel, vindictive and right out nasty about other groups he disliked also - and this included the French and Jesuits (his hatred and fear of the Jesuits seemed to overtake his feelings about the Jews later in his life - but now is not the time to discuss this). Indeed, if you are in any doubt that Wagner wrote worse of others then the Jews you might want to seek out his "hilarious" 1871 work "Eine Kapitulation" a "farce" ridiculing starving (non Jewish) Parisians - amongst other things.

Now, with that in mind let us turn to Millingtons thoughts. It should be noted that I highlight them here for only one reason: whereas in many other areas in Wagner research - such as the origin of the opening of Rheingold as an example - Millington is happy to present counter arguments,  in this instance he is not. Instead he does little but dismiss any who counter his argument as "silly". I have a genuine concern that having set-up such rigorous argument elsewhere the unfamiliar reader may not notice this lack of academic rigour in these other sections. Thus, the unwary may only see one side to this highly contentious issue.

Millington opens his chapter "Grit in the Oyster: Anti-Semitism in Wagner's Life and Work " with the brief comment that it is undeniable that Wagner's Anti Semitism lead, ultimately to  Auschwitz.  And his evidence for this? He now goes into a discussion of "Judaism In Music", wanders around  Wagner's early and late writings, somehow manages to introduce Marx's anti-semitic writing and touches on 19th centuary "scientific eugenics" (or at least I think he does) He may also mention Wagner's later thoughts on vegetarianism and "racial purity" here but I may have confused this with his chapter on Parsifal - more of that later) . Does he prove his opening comment anywhere here? Nope. Not once. Even Gutman and Kohler's fantasies pretend to do this, with all sorts of "sleight of hand"  but not Millington. Perhaps he is too honest an academic?  Ultimately you are left a little disappointed by it all. If there was anyone to prove this view correct - and I am not immovable on it - then it should be Millington. But he fails, Indeed, in his defense he points out that Wagner never wanted - as did some of his contemporaries and many of those that surrounded him in Bayreuth in his latter years (Its no wonder he spent so many of his later years outside of Bayreuth!) the "physical eradication" of the Jews - or indeed their separation from the rest of German society. Unlike many, Millington recognises that the very core of Wagner's anti semitism is that he sought full integration of the Jews into German society - to the extent that they "lost" any "Jewishness. This was central to Wagners notion of "saving" the world - only through this integration could both the Jews and Germans be "redeemed". At least for this Millington must be highly commended.

Finally, we come to what  Tanner has called  "the persistent Jew hunting" in Wagner's operas. Millington of course is not to the first to find negative Jewish stereotypes in Wagner operas (that might well have been Mahler) but he did come to prominence in 1991 with his essay "Nuremberg Trial: Is there anti-semitism in Die Meistersinger?" wherein he attempted to "prove" the existence of negative Jewish stereotypes in Meistersinger (I over simplify here in his defense). He continues this here once again. Now, I have no wish to go over this once more except to say I remain unconvinced by his argument. I will leave that for you dear reader to pursue. What does concern me is his dismissal of any counter argument and the evidence he presents to support this dismissal. 

Let us look at pp 188. Here he says "Over the last couple of decades a powerful case for the the prosecution has been made out, centering on the town clerk, Beckmesser, in Meistersinger and the Nibelung brothers in the Ring..." A bold statement and I was more than intrigued to hear who and how many researchers  presented this powerful case. Imagine my slight disappointment then to discover it to consist only of Barry Millington's paper from 1991. Already cited here and contested by a number of researchers and Wagner experts.  Hardly, one might argue, a "powerful case for the the prosecution " Again, it is worth noting that Millington goes onto explain that none of these characters are meant to be Jews but represent, among other things stereotyped, anti semitic  negative Jewish characteristics. One assumes they must also include negative, stereotyped Jesuite and French characteristics - using Millington's reasoning?  We await some future published paper by some intrepid Wagner researcher.

But there is more. Millington's analysis of Parsifal is especially bizarre to my understanding and is a genuine shame considering the thoughtful insights he brings to other Wanger works - especially the Dutchman, Tannhauser and Lohengrin. I really will leave it up to you to decide - and I really do recommend you buy this book. But how does he counter any critics of his argument here. Oddly, in a way that would not be unfamiliar to those that have read Wagner at his worst. Says Millington: "The relevance of all this to the heady concoction of ideas in Parsifal (TW: that it is a work about racial purity) can scarcely be denied (despite the best attempts of some who should know better)" And there we have it, the answer to all critics of his reasoning "you should know better". Wagner would have been proud.

But despite all of this, your reason for reading this, if you stayed with me this long, is "should I buy this book?" And my answer is yes. Despite what I consider its idiosyncrasies, this book is certainly worth your attention - if nothing else than for the illustration alone. But it is much more than this. Whatever your world view - whether similar to mine or very different - you will find much to enjoy here. At the least add it to your "christmas list" - or religious/atheist equivalent.