Who Is Richard Wagner? Paul Dawson-Bowling

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 19 December 2014 | 10:24:00 am

The following is the introduction - especially adapted by the author -  to Paul Dawson-Bowling's two volume introduction and analysis of Wagner and his work: The Wagner Experience

The Wagner Experience

This is a book of enthusiasm. It is addressed to everyone with an interest or a potential interest in Richard Wagner. People who take to the Wagner Experience encounter something wonderful, like gazing into a silver mirror which dissolves into a miraculous, self-contained world, glinting with life-changing possibilities. There are others who sense its appeal but find it difficult, and the first aim of this study to provide an Open Sesame for anyone wanting it. The aim is to make things easier for new-comers by presenting Wagner’s works as they stand before us.[1] The book also offers good things to old-timers, scholars and longstanding enthusiasts in virtue of the distinctive disciplines and viewpoints which it applies; but for all those drawn to the Wagner Experience, the key factor is the direct encounter with his ten great stageworks as they are. This accounts for the first main purpose of this study, to describe them in all their immediacy.

This is not to belittle the background, or deny its importance. The man Wagner, his background and his output are so interwoven that an awareness of his circumstances, his influences, his sources, his explanatory prose works, the psychological considerations, the performance history and the reception history – all these things can deepen the Wagner Experience. Adding the right background can be like adding the right lenses during an eye test. As lenses are added, what was blurred takes on new focus and depth, and we see more clearly and better. Even so, trouble arises when anyone turns the background into the foreground in a way that inflates features from the margins and distorts Wagner’s explicit intentions. He created mysterious worlds of knights in shining armour, grottos of enticing eroticism, magic fire and quests for the Holy Grail. Does it add meaning if people are led to think of Das Rheingold as not really about beautiful Rhinemaidens swimming in luminous depths and not about the Rhinegold shining through the waters? How does it help if even in telling the story it is reconsituted in line with some unusual element from the background, if the gold is recast as faeces and Alberich the dwarf is made into a Freudian symbol of a deprived infant, wanting to play with his own excrement?[2] What if the Ring which Alberich forges from the gold becomes a bizarre combination of an anal and vaginal sphincter? This kind of thing may produce interesting glosses, according to taste, but it is not Wagner, and when someone promotes it as the real Wagner, I believe that error is at work, and a reworking of his intentions which is unwarranted. This is a particularly glaring example to make the point, but it is a real one; and a particular drawback is that these reworkings is that they can put off newcomers who are trying out the Wagner Experience. The same happens if Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is set up as a Luddite manifesto attacking industrialisation, on the grounds that Wagner later had a violent argument with a factory owner about factory conditions and because Die Meistersinger’s main characters are manual craftsmen.

The reason for making this point so emphatically is that these things happen so commonly with Wagner, and they are not like better lenses but distorting mirrors. The guiding principle about background is straightforward: anything which heightens the Wagner Experience is worthwhile, but if something from the background results in confusion or disappointment or otherwise gets in the way, then it is a mistake.

This is one reason why this book approaches Wagner largely from the centre, from his masterpieces themselves. They are above all vital, existential dramas. They succeed because of their music, their plots and their narratives, their tensions and their dénouements, and because Wagner populated them with warmly alive individuals who involve us in their destinies. However his aims went beyond drama. He wanted his creations to be instruments of change. His is a didactic art. Its very nature is to instruct, challenge and encourage. Not that this in itself makes it ‘better’. It is rare for anything artistic to be better because of the ideas enfolded in it. The opposite is more likely, with the ideas weighing it down; but Wagner had the genius to avoid this, and in practice his ideas do enhance his dramas and add a distinctive richness and depth of their own. There are ideas philosophical and practical, ideas about personal ideals, relationships, the erotic phenomenon, politics, religion, and many other things that are important to human beings, and they centre on becoming who we want to be, living life better, and creating a better world. Wagner presented his ideas as bold possibilities, compelling schemes and challenging directives.

This brings me to the second main purpose of this study, which is to explain the ideas and the lessons built into his dramas and to draw them out. The decisive importance of what he tells us is another main reason for this book. He frequently set out his guidance and suggestions in the reflections and debates of his stage characters, but just as frequently he enshrined them in the stories themselves. His dramas are like parables or the fables of Aesop, where the meaning and the moral are acted out, and in Wagner the meanings run deep, as relevant today as they have ever been. The one quality that they do not and could not possess is simplicity, and this is my reason for a sizeable book which elaborates the experience after emphasising the importance of a direct approach. The importance of a direct approach remains true, but it is equally true that the better we understand Wagner’s dramas, the more rewarding they will be. Even viewed directly, Wagner’s dramas could never be simple; there is always too much going on in them for that. First, they fill our attention as fascinating stage plays. Then there is the music, mesmerising but dense. Then again, there are the rational propositions and the directives which Wagner moulded into them.

They also operate at another level which is quite different, the realm of myth and the psyche, and the pull of the spirit towards the unknown. For some people their myth-invoking quality registers immediately, without thought or effort, but in general it reveals its secrets more readily to a mind seasoned with insights into myth and psychology of the kind presented by Carl Jung.[3] Along with Sigmund Freud,[4] Jung was one of two commanding figure in the new science of psychology which was acquiring form and prestige in the five decades after Wagner’s death. Their ideas, particularly Jung’s about myth and archetypes are arresting in their own right, but their importance for Wagner is that they deepen our understanding of his dramas. Fashions change, and recently there have been reactions against both Freud and Jung, partly because they barely used the experimental and statistical methods which are the backbone of psychology now. The period of their main activity came before these methods were developed, but unfashionable does not mean untrue, and it does not lessen the truth of their discoveries that they did not corroborate them by the methods of today. Many of the theories of Freud and Jung are indeed corroborated, but by other means than experiment. They hang together, they sit coherently with our general experience, and they work. Just as successful journeys validate the maps used to make them, so too the successful outcomes achieved by applying Jung’s ideas validate those ideas. Jung’s unwitting contribution to the Wagner Experience is particularly enlightening because the revelations in Wagner’s dramas come as much through myth and its effect on the unconscious as through rational exposition. Jung’s ‘unconscious’ was not the ‘unconscious’ of Freud, a dark, disordered repository of repressed desires and inadmissible memories, but a world that is just as vital and real as the world of the intellect, but wider and richer. It is partly to the unconscious and through the unconscious that Wagner’s operas address their revelations. Operas do not generally spell out dictionary definitions or argue their points step by logical step, and they would be pretty stony going if they did.

The Wagner Experience can work on us without being aware of it, but if we understand how it works we can enter into it more fully and make better use of it. The Wagner Experience has the power to touch most aspects of life, not the fine detail but the principles. It will not tell anyone whether the 10.45 train from Paddington is the right one, but it will help with the wider existential questions, what kind of journey is the right one and where it should lead.

One incomparable feature of Wagner’s stage works is the music, and it is largely because of the music that many people find the Wagner Experience ecstatic, overwhelming. It is also the music, his extraordinary music, which summons his imaginary worlds into being. His dramas are not simply set to music but expressed in music. It is through the music that Wagner stages his dramas on the threshold of the mind. Wagner’s worlds and his dramas have been stigmatised from his day to ours as artificial, smoke and mirrors, but although the means may be artificial and consist of play-acting, stage props, and people playing their instruments, the revelations and experiences themselves are supremely real. It is above all because of the music that the dramas work their incomparable effect, their joint appeal to reason and the imagination. It is the music which confers on the dramas their power to rearrange and transform us, working on us almost like action manuals of applied psychology.

At the same time there is something about the dramas and the music, a mix of power and seduction, which stirs up antagonism. This antagonism has some deep causes, first of all in certain emotions and modes of awareness inspired by Wagner which are unfamiliar and disturbing. Wagner can make people feel that they are being confronted by an ancient mariner; that he takes them by the scruff of the neck and overwhelms them, provoking resentment and outrage. His very personality is a chequered spectacle, and in a sense he was a pathological personality, but only in the sense that Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, St Paul, Gandhi and John Milton were pathological. Like these men and many others possessed of towering greatness, he had his share of inconsistencies and unappealing characteristics. There were certainly times ‘when he gratified the pettier feelings that great men have in common with small ones’, as George Bernard Shaw put it.[5] To understand his personality, it is essential to go into his early years and examine his upbringing against the axioms of developmental psychology, or at least its basic principles. This will make it clear how emotionally deprived his upbringing was, and how Wagner’s erratic, frightening childhood was not one to give rise to a well-balanced adult, a confident, rounded human being. He was a man of serious disunities and these gave rise to his distinctive ‘shadow’ and his potent ‘shadow side’. An awareness of these basic principles sets up a better perspective (better lenses) through which to view Wagner, and this in turn allows a better view of his dramas and all that they can tell us.

What is unusual and strange about Wagner’s ‘shadow’, negative features is the reaction they provoke, and the strength of it. He was certainly not a profoundly good man, as his English translator, William Ashton Ellis, and his son-in-law, Houston Chamberlain, have claimed, but nor was he an ogre rampaging up and down Europe, as his American biographer Robert Gutman suggests. The truth is that he was a strange mix of these extremes and of everything in between. This is part of the enigma and fascination of Wagner, and it is not surprising that he stirs mixed feelings. What is surprising is the degree of ill feeling in many of today’s writings on the subject. Perhaps this is partly a matter of his attitude to the Jews and his weird, improbable, posthumous association with Hitler. The claim which I heard in Leipzig (of all places) in 2012, that Wagner was well known regularly to have had breakfast with Hitler was bizarre, but the essential point is that politically Hitler was far to the right, whereas Wagner was at the extreme left, almost a Marxist, and all the evidence shows that he never changed. (When applied to politics, the terms right and left are vague and indeterminate as I realise, but they are still useful shorthands which can save paragraphs of irksome explanation). It is a mistake to believe that he turned into a right-wing nationalist. This was a role foisted onto him posthumously.

The American Robert Gutman or the German Joachim Köhler have tried to find an over-arching unity which entirely embraced the man and his output, in virtue of which both have written groundbreaking accounts of his life and work. The difficulty is that both Wagner’s life and his work changed and mutated. To be sure, each of his dramas possesses a distinctive quality, an unremitting Wagnerian intensity, and this can create the impression of a constancy running through them, but they were like the man, in that the individual dramas consist of warring elements which hold together only under great tension, and the whole series is just as variegated. Wagner’s life was like his dramas; it embraced so much that was dissonant, was so titanic in its range, and evolved so drastically, that there could be no ordinary unity about it. Wagner’s progress through the world was somewhat like that most iconic of rivers, the Rhine, which alters drastically over its long course from Lake Constance to the North Sea. The Rhine Falls and their thunder are as different from the river’s silent, elemental surge past the Lorelei rock as the composer of Der Fliegende Holländer is different from the composer of Tristan und Isolde. In one sense the river is the same, but it has transformed, and Wagner resembled it. He went against the general tendency to keep to the same courses as life progresses and simply broaden them out, because his moral outlook, his cast of mind, his fundamental values, his way of composing, everything about him took flight in new and unimaginable directions. Without intending it consciously, he reconfigured himself repeatedly and radically. Wagner was always Wagner and nobody else could have produced what he did, but his transformations were extraordinary.

The question of translations from the German is an interesting one. Wagner’s prose is difficult, but his is not the only example of a nineteenth-century style, German or English, which seems difficult today. The prose of the past, even that of a great stylist like Thomas Carlyle, can seem inaccessible now because it follows unfamiliar conventions; and even at the time Wagner’s idiosyncratic style created particular challenges. As Francis Hueffer, Wagner’s early advocate, expressed it,

As soon as he comes upon a topic that really interests him, be it music or Buddhism, metaphysics or the iniquities of the Jews, his brain gets on fire, and his pen courses over the paper with the swiftness and recklessness of a racehorse, regardless of the obstacles of style and construction, and sometimes of grammar. His meaning is always deep, but to arrive at that meaning sometimes seems to set human ingenuity at defiance. It would of course have been possible, by disentangling dovetailed sentences, and by giving the approximate meaning where the literal was impossible to turn all this into fairly smooth English. But in such a process, the strength and individual character of the original would inevitably have been lost. [6]

Hueffer chose to ‘to indicate the diction which a man of Wagner’s peculiar turn of mind would have used if he had written in English instead of in German.’ His translation was ‘intended to be an exact facsimile of the German original.’ William Ashton Ellis, author of the classic eight-volume translation of Wagner’s prose works which was published between 1893 and 1899, did not spell out his method so definitely, but in practice he did much the same. It is fashionable nowadays to criticise these translations, and with some justice. Sometimes they stray far from accuracy, and sometimes they go the other way and are all too accurate, but the result is not always English.

Any one trying to do better now, a hundred years later, comes up against another difficulty, that the ideas and thoughts which Wagner expresses are often themselves the kind that people do not commonly think nowadays. Doom, Romantic Love, Redemption, Profane, Evil – it is the ideas themselves which have a quaint museum tinge for many people which they did not have in Ashton Ellis’s time. The attempt to translate them into modern English distorts the ideas, but fidelity to the originals can raise an indulgent or ironic smile. For these many reasons, nobody has so far done better, and Ashton Ellis certainly caught the peculiar flavour of Wagner’s style. I have ended up gratefully taking over his versions but making amendments where he seems misleading or obscure, marking the fact in footnotes. Translations of Wagner’s verse are even more challenging because all the problems are heightened in verse, but Andrew Porter did wonders, translating several of Wagner’s opera texts in a style that was Wagnerian and genuinely singable and yet not old-fashioned. The various verse translations in this book are all provided with attributions, except where they are my own.

Despite the ramified quality of Wagner’s prose, his thinking and ideas were often compelling and original. In this he was like Hegel, that very German philosopher who showed that it was possible to write in a congested, tortuous style, but yet alter outlooks, reshape human thought, and change the history of the world. Francis Hueffer grasped that something like this was equally true of Wagner, that beneath his reckless style, his thought did run deep, something which latter-day experts sometimes deny. ‘Wagner was no philosopher’ said Ernest Newman,[7] and because of Newman’s massive authority, these words are often quoted by modern specialists as a self-sufficient reason for not considering the evidence and not bothering with Wagner as a thinker. ‘Newman is right to reject Wagner as a philosopher,’ said Laurence Dreyfus in his recent book [8] and went on to accuse Wagner of woolly thinking and vagueness on the subject of ‘Love’. Is it not rather that the idea of ‘Love’ itself that is woolly and indeterminate, evading definition? Critics of Wagner as a philosopher should examine Wagner’s credentials and also assess Ernest Newman’s own credentials with more rigour. The fact is that Ernest Newman was not only ‘no philosopher’, but not really competent to judge philosophers because at the time he had little interest or understanding of the subject. He gave the game away when he asked,[9] ‘Who is to decide between rival philosophies or sociologies?’ and answered, ‘Personally, I believe that one philosophy is about as good as another, and worse.’ It is baffling that such a tremendous intellect could not see the simple fact that ‘a choice of a philosophy’ has real consequences, because Philosophy is not about the number of angels that can dance on a pinpoint, but about the values by which we live. Immanuel Kant’s philosophy was strong on values and the reasons why no human individual should simply serve the ends of another. The philosophy of the Nazis was strong on the reasons why the sole purpose and function of the individual was to serve the state. The Nazi view had very real consequences, and the man who could not see that different philosophies were certainly not ‘about as good, one as another’ was not the best man to judge Wagner as a philosopher. This is not to disparage Newman’s Wagner Nights, an incomparable exposition of Wagner’s ten main works, with which this book is not in competition, nor his superlative account of Wagner’s life, one of the great biographies of the English language.

When it comes to the illustrations for this book, my choices may look old-fashioned, but there is a reason. Any Wagner illustrations must both reflect Wagner’s own vision and sit happily with the archetypes inherent in his dramas. An awareness of archetypes, a discovery of Jung, has considerable value towards understanding the mind and genius of Wagner; and to recognise their significance in his creations is a help towards understanding what they signify for us. Archetypes consist largely of collective memories and inborn dispositions. Archetypes generate counterparts in consciousness of the instinctive patterns laid down in the brain, but the archetypes themselves are inaccessible to consciousness. They occupy unconscious regions, and are only knowable through their effects. As Jung expressed it, ‘the stirring of archetypes is generally associated with emotions and feelings of great power’, and the archetypes that pervade Wagner’s works give them part of their power to influence the imagination. Pictures, illustrations, stage sets, and productions of Wagner which are at odds with the archetypes negate their effect, and this in turn damages their power over the imagination and detracts from all that the Wagner Experience can tell us.

There are certain Wagner topics which have been regularly misconstrued over the years, and four in particular deserve a fresh look, the first being Wagner’s childhood, which is routinely described as happy. It was nothing of the kind. The second is Minna Wagner, the composer’s first wife, routinely regarded as slight and unmeritable, whereas Chapter 7 establishes her immense significance for Wagner. The third is Paris and his first long sojourn there, without which he might never have created Der Ring des Nibelungen. The fourth is Parsifal, reappraised as being a very distinctive instrument for change since it promoted superior models of society and better patterns of spiritual wholeness.

Chapter 8 is about how and why the music casts its spell, but my aim is to keep things simple, and not attempt a specialised account of the music. There are others who do it better, and there simply is not room to describe the music even in the moderate detail of Ernest Newman in Wagner Nights. Rudolf Sabor has done this well for The Ring, but only Roger North in his compendious book on Tristan und Isolde[10] has achieved a full account of a music drama by Wagner, albeit in a book which is twice the size of the Tristan score. The plan here is to explain the main musical tendencies, the salient motives and the more important features of the music, but it would need several more books to expound the full complexities of Wagner’s symphonic combinations. For all that, I still discuss certain aspects of the music which deserve more recognition than they have been granted hitherto, and any semi-technical terms employed should be well-known to anyone who has sung in a choir at school or the local church, or played the piano to a modest level. There are some rare occasions when it is necessary to see the orchestral score in full, but the musical examples will generally take the form of single staves or piano reductions.

My own experience plays a role in this study. I concentrate on Wagner’s works as they are, but nobody can present Wagner’s creations without presenting reflections in a mirror and revealing something of themselves. I have tried to avoid reading anything into Wagner which is not there, but my life’s work as a family doctor (General Medical Practice) brings to the book a distinctive angle based on all that my life’s work has taught me. It is rather as Jean Shinoda Bolen said in her book on The Ring,[11] ‘As a psychiatrist and a Jungian analyst, I try to recognise what rings true psychologically.’ I can relate to what she says, because psychiatry was an important part of General Medical Practice until recent years. During my time, between 1978 and 2007, General Practice, then truer to its name, called for a general involvement with patients, and it was all the more rewarding because it frequently went beyond health matters into their lives. Often patients became friends, but friends who might confide anything. It is no small thing to be trusted with the secrets of many hearts, and my professional life provided telling illustrations for sa number of points in this study, until I had to realise that it would breach ‘patient confidentiality’ to describe them. It was obviously then right to discard them, and I was happy to do so, but I lost some telling illustrations about the benefits of the Wagner Experience.

My own life-experience has demonstrated the encouraging fact that nobody needs to devote themselves unduly to Wagner to gain worthwhile things from the experience. Most of us lead complex and busy lives, and any leisure activities come with an opportunity cost, in that time spent on one thing cannot be spent on another. In my case there were all of twenty years when my involvement with Wagner did not and could not amount to more than occasionally enjoying an LP (vinyl disc); nonetheless the Wagner Experience was an old captivity which surreptitiously increased its hold during this Wagner exile.

My experience has resulted in a book which is different from most others on Wagner, because its aims and its emphasis are different. Everyone reading it should gain a fair idea of the plots and music, but the aim is to provide access to the whole Wagner Experience and to all that it can offer. It is a catalyst towards appreciating what the experience is, what it can teach us, and how it enables us to have life more abundantly.

More At: The Wagner Experience


[1] The question how best to refer to Wagner’s works is an interesting one. In form they evolved, with some backsliding, from ‘opera’ to ‘drama’ and ‘music drama’, but the categories are not watertight, and sometimes one term suits better, sometimes another. I tried greater descriptive accuracy in earlier drafts but the result was only a lot of qualifications and exclusions, which added nothing but length and verbiage. It seemed best to use whatever term suited the context.

[2] Artin, Tom, The Wagner Complex: Genesis and meaning in The Ring, [Sparkill, N.Y.,] 2012, p. 83 et seq.

[3] Carl Jung (1875-1961), Swiss co-founder with Freud of modern psychology.

[4] Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Viennese father of modern psychology. Both Freud and Jung will feature in this book.

[5] Shaw, George Bernard, The Perfect Wagnerite, Leipzig, 1913, p. 189.

[6] Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt, tr. Francis Hueffer, New York, 1889, Preface.

[7] Newman, Ernest, Wagner as Man and Artist, London, 1914, rev. 1925, p 275.

[8] Dreyfus, Laurence, Wagner and The Erotic Impulse, Cambridge, Mass., 2010, p 44.

[9] Newman, op. cit., p. 319.

[10] North, Roger, Wagner’s Most Subtle Art, London, 1996.

[11] Bolen, Jean Shinoda, Ring of Power: The Abandoned Child, the Authoritarian Father, and the Disempowered Feminine, New York, 1992.