In Discussion with Barry Millington: "A kind of Damascus experience on the road to Southend pier"

Written By The Wagnerian on Monday, 26 November 2012 | 4:01:00 am

We recently had the opportunity to spend some time with one of Britain's – and perhaps the English speaking worlds - most well known Wagner scholars: Barry Millington. During that time we discussed his highly recommended new book "Wagner: the Sorcerer of Bayreuth", what started a life long interest in Wagner, The Wagner Journal – which he founded and edits – and next years London based Wagner 200. 

TW: Barry, first let me thank you for taking the time to talk to us out of what I know is a very busy schedule at the moment.  Before discussing your new book could you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

BM: Well, I earn my crust as a journalist, writing about Classical music and opera for the Evening Standard. I've been with them for about ten years and before that I was with The Times for over twenty years.

But Wagner’s always been a particular interest: there always seem to be new angles to explore.

TW: When did you first “discover” Wagner?

BM: I was brought up in Southend-on-Sea, within easy commuting distance of London, and I used to come up to Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells on a regular basis. It didn’t cost an arm and a leg in those days. At a fairly early stage Wagner stood out as something special and I started listening to recordings and reading books. By the time I went to university – I read Music at Cambridge – I was pretty immersed in the literature and remember surprising my director of studies that I was already familiar with Donington.

Unlike many people, I don’t recall any particular epiphany with regard to Wagner. I’d like to say there was some kind of Damascus experience on the road to Southend pier, but there wasn't really. I've always been rather amused by those hyper-sensitive young French composers – Chabrier and the others – who would sob and swoon at performances of Tristan. I used to think it would be rather impressive to faint at a performance of Tristan, but I've never quite managed it.


TW: You and I both. Although his work does have a rather “odd” effect I have not found elsewhere, but thankfully not as “extreme” as found among some or those you mention. Perhaps neither of us are “swooners”?

Nevertheless, you have dedicated a large part of your career and life to Wagner. What is it about his work that has led to this?

BM: As I've already suggested, I’m slightly averse to the idea of ‘dedication’ in this context, but it’s true I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time listening to and working on Wagner over the years.

The music certainly is incomparable: the more I listen to it, the more I marvel at it. But I think it’s also the heady brew of ideological and philosophical issues that’s attractive to me, and of course its unique psychological penetration. I’m hardly the first to point out that Wagner seems to connect with very fundamental human feelings and instincts. His mythical world provides a terrain on to which deep psycho-sexual desires can be mapped.

TW: Absolutely.. What made you decide to start the Wagner Journal? 

BM: I've always been interested in presenting scholarship in a way that’s intelligible to an intelligent lay audience, and it seemed to me that there was scope for a publication that did just that. I had also become very frustrated at the ever-decreasing amount of space made available to the arts in newspapers and the corresponding lack of seriousness in much of the coverage. I wanted to provide a forum where specialists could discuss the issues of Wagner in performance – conducting, singing and stage production – at a length that allowed them to make well-informed and properly nuanced judgments, rather than in the sound-bites that my colleagues and I are forced to resort to these days in the daily press. And when I read the contributions of some of our contributors – David Breckbill’s supremely authoritative CD reviews come to mind – I feel that we’re providing something that simply isn't obtained anywhere else on that level.

TW: I would agree – I am an avid reader. Have you encountered any obstacles in its production? 

BM: There have been no obstacles; in fact, I’m astonished by the constant flow of messages from readers, saying how important it is to them and to keep up the good work. We have high production standards and it’s important to me that the journal is an aesthetically pleasing object to look at and read. We also have an unusual business model, in that the journal is published independently, that is by a small company called The Wagner Journal. We raise just enough money in revenue from sales (both subscriptions and a handful of retail outlets, including Covent Garden and the Met) and a few advertisements – plus the occasional generous donation – to cover our costs. It’s an ideal situation not being beholden to publishers, commissioning editors, trendy designers and the industry in general. I’d recommend it to anybody wanting to publish serious work.

TW: Your latest Wagner book may be the most thorough book written about Wagner and “Wagnerism” to date. Could you tell us how the idea first came to you 

BM: Over the last 20 years or more there’s been some very interesting scholarship done on various aspects of Wagner and I thought it might be helpful if I were to try to transmit the fruits of that scholarship to a wider audience. I’ve also long felt that certain received opinions about Wagner were wide of the mark: they’re rather lazy, stereotypical views that seem to get endlessly recycled. The bicentenary was imminent and it seemed a ideal opportunity to attempt a reappraisal of the man and his work based on the best scholarship of recent times.

TW: It is not a biography in the style of Ernest Newman or Derek Watson, etc. Instead it is more a series of interlinked "essays" roughly in chronological order of Wagner's life. While I am glad that you did (I enjoy the format) why did you style it in this fashion and how did you select the topics for inclusion?

BM: I knew from the start that I didn't want a straightforward biography; nor would it be primarily a commentary on the music. My original idea was to present it as a series of rooms through which one walked, rather like in an exhibition, each devoted to a particular aspect of the subject. But the publishers felt that the book industry would be confused by such a format and maybe they were right. So what I did instead was to retain the thematic organization but to present the material as more conventional chapters. Thames & Hudson have always specialized in beautifully illustrated books and since I have at my disposal a large archive of illustrations, much of which has been built up over the years since I started the journal, we were all very keen for the pictures to tell their own story. Many of the pictures will be unfamiliar to most readers and I think they really do throw fascinating light on what one is trying to say. Then there are the documents – such as the police reports on his revolutionary activity, or the description of his drastic hydrotherapy treatment, or the simply breathtaking descriptions of his silk wardrobe and furnishings – which are also vital for providing context. I tried to select documents that were lively, poignant or humorous in some way, and the chapter on silks and satins is a good example: there’s a hilarious account of Nietzsche on a shopping expedition in Basel looking for a pair of silk underpants for Wagner. But I also tackle the question of the relationship between Wagner’s silk fetishism and penchant for cross-dressing and his music.

TW: You dedicate very little time to Wagner’s first stay in Paris - which I consider of long term relevance and influence to his future life and work. Can I ask why you made this decision? I would have been more than keen to hear of your knowledgeable thoughts on this period. Or do you perhaps feel it is not as important?

BM: I don’t disagree that the Paris period was important for his artistic – and also psychological – development. But I’m not sure that it would have warranted a whole chapter of its own. I felt that it was important to do justice to the Dresden years and then to the Zurich period, when so much was taking shape in his creative imagination. Then of course there’s the Bayreuth project, so inevitably not everything could be treated at the same length.

TW: Was it for similar reasons that you do not provide as much attention to Wagner's early works as you do to his later work? I was looking forward to seeing how your thoughts on Die Feen, etc had developed – if at all. And I feel your usual detailed analysis would have benefited those new to Wagner. 

BM: To be honest, I haven’t done much work on the early operas in recent years, so I’m not sure I would have much new to say. There’s a fair bit about the music of the later works, but it’s not primarily that kind of book. One critic wondered why it didn’t have plot summaries, but I thought that would be a terrible waste of space when you can get those so easily elsewhere these days.

TW: I would have to agree with your decision not to include plot summaries. They would have taken valuable time away from other areas you so elegantly investigate. And in the age of the internet are incredibly easy to find.

Your analysis of Wagner’s latter work  tends to follow the trend started , at least in academic Wagner literature , by Adorno; wherein Wagner’s work is perceived to be populated to some degree, by anti-Semitic caricatures - Mime and Klingsor come readily to mind. You then appear to continue your analysis of Parsifal with thoughts very close to those of Gutman. With this in mind, how important do you believe it is to find anti-Semitism in Wagner’s works and have your views changed over the years? 

BM: There’s no doubt in my mind that Wagner’s anti-semitism is woven into the fabric of his works, into the text and music. Since I first wrote a paper on the subject, with regard to Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, twenty years ago, I've seen no reason to change my mind. On the contrary, the thesis has been confirmed, as far as I’m concerned, by a succession of scholarly books and articles. I think it’s true to say that there’s something of a consensus on the subject now, though there are still dissenting voices – in one or two cases belonging to people for whom I have a lot of respect. But I think it’s become possible to see things in a broader perspective now. I wouldn't want to insist, for example – and in fact I never have – that Wagner’s works are exclusively or even predominantly defined by antisemitism. They’re far richer and more interesting than that.

TW: I would agree with your thoughts on their richness of ideas and sources, although, and trust me I am not closed minded to the issue, I have always found Wagner's, elsewhere highly evident antisemitism conspicuous by its absence in his dramas – but perhaps I have simply not looked hard enough? Personally, apart from Schopenhauer, Buddhism and the “other usual suspects” I have always found Wagner's interest in what Cosima calls in her diaries “heretical Christianity” and the German Christian mystics far more in evidence yet sadly less discussed – especially in Parsifal. 

But yes, I agree that we should not define his work by Wagner's antisemitism any more than we should define Bach's work by its far more evident textual antisemitism in Johannes-Passion, as one example – but neither should we ignore it if it exists. And for those that have not read your book yet I would have to point out that you are clear to make this point in your book. Unlike much “lazy” writing on Wagner you point out this is only one of a large number of influences on his work

However, and while not wishing to linger to long on this one facet of Wagner’s character (which is only a small part of your book I must add), this does bring me to a related thought: we are both aware of Wagner’s equal “distaste” for French culture (only Wagner could have written and found funny “Eine Kapitulation“), the Jesuits and to some degree Russians.

Do you feel that his thoughts on these subjects (and related negative racial/cultural caricatures) can also be found within his work? And why do you think this has not also been analyzed - and helped “inform” Wagner productions - as his “association” with the Nazis has? Or do you think his work will always carry the taint of his family members, undeniable, association with - and support of - Hitler?


BM: Yes, it’s true that Wagner was equally antipathetic towards the French, to Jesuits, to critics and others. All that could be, and sometimes is, legitimately projected in productions too. I’m sure you’re right that the taint of Hitler and the Holocaust bears much of the responsibility for the way Wagner is perceived by many people. It’s another of those stereotypical, one-dimensional views I mentioned. I’m more interested in trying to understand how Wagner’s antisemitic prejudice became a vital ingredient in his works: the grit in the oyster. Without that streak they would not be the works they are. But we don’t need to be defensive about that. It’s better to have an honest debate about it and try to understand how the ideology informs the art. It makes the works all the richer and more fascinating in my view.

TW: The book is beautifully illustrated. I have said the best illustrated book on Wagner that I have come across - and it deserves to be on everyone’s shelves for this alone. Could you tell us a little about the process that went into compiling these images? 

BM: I’m glad you have appreciated the pictures, because a lot of care went into their selection. First, as I have said, I have a growing archive of Wagner images which I have been compiling from various sources. Second, Thames & Hudson allocated a brilliant freelance picture researcher, Imogen Graham, to the project and she tracked down for me the pictures I did not have. Illustrations should never be simply decorative: they should be there for a purpose, because they can tell us things that can’t be described in words – rather like the music in the operas. But they can also give aesthetic pleasure and the publishers have enhanced that pleasure by printing them on quite sumptuous, creamy paper. It’s the same paper they used for the very successful book Romantic Moderns by Alexandra Harris and for Martin Gayford’s interviews with David Hockney and Lucian Freud. It makes the book a pleasing aesthetic object in its own right, which I think would have appealed to the hedonist in Wagner!

TW:  Finally, you are organizing Wagner 200 next year . What can you tell us about this? 

BM: Wagner 200 is a London-based celebration of the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth co-ordinated and co-directed by myself and Mark Eynon. The programme of events is an ambitious one running from the birthday on 22 May through to December. The launch will be a high-profile event at the Royal Festival Hall: a Wagner concert including the whole of Act 3 of Die Walküre with Susan Bullock and James Rutherford, plus the Philharmonia Orchestra under Andrew Davis, and a starry cast of Valkyries. But that's just the start. Our festival also includes screenings of Wagner operas (we hope free of charge, because they’re aimed at a new audience for Wagner), a curated Wagner film season at the Barbican, a series of concerts at Kings Place, symposia on Wagner in Performance and Wagner the Writer, lectures, exhibitions, masterclasses, a reading of the Ring (in English) and more besides. Many of these events are partnerships with flagship organisations such as Covent Garden, ENO, the Barbican, the Philharmonia and the British Library, but the Kings Place events are our own promotion.

We’ll be announcing all this formally in due course, but anyone wanting to be kept posted should go to http://www.wagner200.co.uk where they can join the mailing list.


Barry Millington's new book: "Wagner: the Sorcerer of Bayreuth", is available now 
More Information about the Wagner Journal can be found at the following Website: The Wagner Journal
(Images from: Wagner: The Sorcerer Of Bayreuth (2012) Barry Millington)