Sunday, 19 May 2019

Book Recommendation: Richard Wagner And The English

I have found myself, once again, reading Anne Dzamba Sessa's excellent, 1978  book  "Richard Wagner And The English". This is a book that charts the influence of Wagner, on the intellectual, artistic and social life of Victorian England, and in part beyond.  It's a fascinating read, both well written and researched. It's not perfect, but it gets close

While long out of print (secondhand print copies sell for "silly" prices")  It can be bought as an ebook from google play books. 

Highly recommended. A review is long overdue and will follow shortly.


"Wagner's intentions often seem to parallel those of the PreRaphaelites. The Pre-Raphaelites were poets and painters who despised materialism and the worship of technology so characteristic of their age. Wagner also railed against cultural decline, particularly the commercialization of the arts. The PreRaphaelites reconstructed the Middle Ages to contrast with the modern world; Wagner returned to the Middle Ages for the source of myth and symbol. Many of the Pre-Raphaelites were of "an imprecise religious intention"; to Wagner art was a religion. One of the later Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, sought to change the times through art and medievally inspired socialism."
Anne Dzamba Sessa

"What remains unusual and controversial is that the popularity of Wagner amounted to a "mania" that exceeded the honor due to his musicianship. It is impossible to explain on artistic grounds alone why Wagner was considered worthier than other great composers by so many nineteenth-century Englishmen. Why should there have been Wagnerism but not an ism for Mozart or Beethoven? The fact is that Wagner was a cultural phenomenon; his music dramas seemed to offer philosophic and pyschic inspiration to late Victorians in a changing and challenging era.

In the first place, many persons climbed on the Wagnerian raft in order to cross a sea of religious anxiety. Intellectual developments in the nineteenth century had struck a severe blow against religious orthodoxy. These developments included the Darwinian critique of the teleological notion of God and the impact of historical scholarship upon Bible studies. Thus, men strove to retain their inherited or instinctive beliefs and at the same time to accept the conclusions of natural and social science. Tennyson, as poet laureate, argued poignantly for "believing where we cannot prove." The Metaphysical Society debated for ten years the question of whether or not Christianity was a degrading superstition, and came to no conclusion.

By the end of the 1870s a new philosophic idealism, associated with J. N. Stirling, T. H. Green, F. H. Bradley, and others, was emerging from the academic world. However, this scholarly neo-Hegelianism was not to become the property of the common man or the educated layman. Instead, many turned to less intellectual substitutes, including Wagnerism. Almost all of Wagner's operas exhibit a preoccupation with redemption and a hunger for the infinite. Sometimes redemption comes through sexual love, as in Tristan und Isolde, and sometimes through selfless renunciation, as in Parsifal. The leitmotives, in addition, provide a glossary of moral attitudes and religious symbols to follow in the music. For instance, there are the themes of the Eucharist, the Holy Grail, and faith in Parsifal, and the themes of the curse and love's redemption in the Ring. Furthermore, Wagner sidestepped the knotty issues raised by biblical criticism. By relying on myth, which needs neither historical nor scientific verification, Wagner offered the listener the experience of religious emotion without requiring him to bother about its intellectual authenticity. By flirting with Buddhism and oriental mysticism via Schopenhauer, Wagner again avoided the rigors and dilemmas of Christian theology, while retaining religious concern. English Wagnerians were most grateful. Alfred Forman and John Payne thought that they lived in a world governed by blind will and deplored it. They found solace both in Wagner's music and in his poems. David Irvine acknowledged that the most radical evil of his day was "the lack of a religion to suit the intellectual requirements of the age." He believed that he lived in a world where man was both God and the Devil. In as much as he saw the Devil dwelling primarily in the Establishment, Irvine invoked Wagner to exorcise him. George Bernard Shaw found arwinism unsatisfactory. He then created "a metabiological pentateuch," which, together with the Ring, he believed was an important addition to vitalist art. William Ashton Ellis insisted that Wagner's music dramas were an acceptable alternative to the "custom-dulled rites of the Church," as well as a release from scientific materialism and a liberal education. The various authors represented in the Meister echoed Ellis's sentiments. Progressive-minded Protestant clergymen, Theosophists, and decadents converted to Roman Catholicism, alike, rallied to Wagnerism. Ford Madox Ford even claimed to have heard Wagner mentioned favorably in a sermon at the Wesleyan chapel in D. H. Lawrence's Nottingham. Thus the composer gladdened the hearts of many on a perilous metaphysical passage.

Wagnerism also drew on another deeply experienced need of the late Victorian era—the need for social justice. Victorians lived in an age of unprecedented prosperity. Their enthusiasm for the products of business and industry was bounded only by their perception that not everyone benefited. Herbert Spencer and Samuel Smiles may have explained how God and mammon could be reconciled in a laissez-faire economic system, but their explanations did not always suffice. Wagner in 1848 had participated in a complex European revolution and was for a time thought to be a political as well as an artistic revolutionary. Bernard Shaw seized upon this possibility in Wagner and interpreted the Ring as a socialist allegory that included proletarians, capitalists, and corruption of wealth. Again in Widowers' Houses he connected Wagnerian symbols with social problems. David Irvine, accusing the church of theft and self-interest, attacked it as a social as well as a spiritual despotism. He hoped his new Wagner-Schopenhaurian philosophical synthesis would further democracy. D. H. Lawrence, though far from being a socialist or a democrat, nevertheless produced a searing condemnation of the quality of life in an industrial society. He cast the antihero of Women in Love as a modern Nibelung. George Moore imagined himself the Siegfried of Irish anticlericalism. Lastly, even the skeptical Ernest Newman, for whom the word "redemption" meant a feature of the pawnbroking business, experienced Parsifal as "an artist's dream of an ideally innocent world, purged of the lust, hatred, and cruelty that deface the world we live and groan in."14 Only a few Wagnerians were active political rebels, but many shared a concern for social ethics. Hence, they deplored materialism in its popular as well as its philosophical meaning."

Anne Dzamba Sessa: Richard Wagner And The English