Professor John Derry review

I have greatly enjoyed reading The Wagner Experience. It is in every way remarkable, and I am convinced that it communicates essential truths and modes of understanding Wagner and his creative achievements much more effectively and much more perceptively than many other recent publications. Consequently I intend to recommend the book to all enquirers.

Its author seems to strike an admirable balance between what needs to be set out about Wagner the man and the relationship between the man and his compositions. He conveys the dazzling scale of his intellect, the astonishing intensity of his insights, and his unique capacity to integrate the dramatic and the philosophical aspects of his genius in a comprehensive art work which enfolds and inspires the listener in a breathtaking experience of unequalled intensity.

Impressive though the author’s enthusiasm is, it never betrays him into excess or lack of aesthetic balance. I especially appreciate the discussion of Parsifal which does full justice to the Christian elements in the work while recognising the presence of other influences, all of which make a coherent whole, given the astonishing control exercised by Wagner’s powerful intellect. I too cannot understand how anyone could deny that Parsifal is a religious work and I fear that many commentators, like too many modern producers, impose their own often obtuse interpretation on Wagner’s text. Dawson-Bowling’s discussion of the influence of Schopenhauer on Tristan and Meistersinger is a model of balance and perception, and he has presented Tannhäuser to me in a new light. Dawson-Bowling’s criticism of the familiar contrast between sacred and profane love is beautifully expressed and the claim that Wagner was arguing for balance and responsibility in human relationships, with due recognition for the ‘erotic’ and the ‘altruistic’ is thoroughly convincing. I am in absolute agreement with his forceful and well argued rejection of the current tendency to see “anti-Semitism” as the central theme in Wagner’s creations and with his dismissal of the notion that Beckmesser is meant to be a Jewish caricature. I particularly savoured the comment that the portrayal of the town clerk is really a satire on certain German characteristics.

I also welcomed the quotation from Tolkien about the ‘ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler’ which was new to me. Like many Wagnerites, I am thoroughly weary of the popular association of Wagner with Hitler: the question is not whether Hitler enthused over Wagner’s operas but whether or not he properly understood his message. The late Deryck Cooke was right to summarise The Ring as the struggle between the love of power and the power of love, and the reference to Hitler telling Goebbels that religion should be banished from Parsifal reveals how far he was from truly understanding Wagner: compassion seems to me a recurrent theme in Wagner’s output even though it is given its most intense expression in Parsifal. In fact Hitler intended to have a new libretto written for Parsifal to bring the work into line with Nazi ideology.

The great Congregationalist theologian, P.T. Forsyth, whose theology anticipates that of Karl Barth in some ways, was present (through the generosity of affluent friend) at one of the performances of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1882, and rather like Newman in 1951, regarded it as one of the greatest spiritual experiences of his life; his daughter claimed that he thought there was something ‘sacramental’ about the work. Forsyth wrote two interesting essays relating to Wagner; one was about the philosophy of pessimism which he regarded as one of the most impressive attempts to understand life from a non-Christian perspective; the other was on Parsifal, in which he discussed the Christian elements in the work. I liked the reference to the young Felix Weingartner at Bayreuth in 1882. His memoirs include a reference to his meeting with Wagner, who jokingly said to Weingartner, “Young man, at your age, you will be chiefly interested in the flower maidens!” Like Queen Victoria, Weingartner noted that the idea had a strong Saxon accent, and how important it is to remember that Wagner was a Saxon and not a Prussian or a Bavarian.

I enjoyed the selection of illustrations: the box cover and the dust jacket displays what has long been my favourite portrait of Wagner (it graced the cover of the festival booklet when I first visited Bayreuth in 1962), and I have always liked Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for The Ring. The scenes from the Karajan Salzburg productions of Lohengrin and Tristan and Isolde are breathtakingly beautiful as are those I have seen from his Salzburg Meistersinger. One or two of the Leeke illustrations were familiar to me from the old publications but I have never seen the ‘Liebig’s Fleisch Extract’ illustrations before. In their way I find them charming as well as being a reminder that in earlier eras an awareness of high culture was much more widespread throughout society than it is today.

This book is a wonderful culmination to a lifetime of devotion, and deserves to be widely read and bough in large numbers. Any one reading the book will have a well-informed, sympathetic, perceptive understanding of Wagner without any neglect of the more difficult aspects of his personality – the egocentricity, the mood swings, the anti-Semitic prejudice. There is however one inaccurate reference to which I must draw your attention: the famous cry of the crowd, “His blood be on us and on our children” is from St Matthew’s Gospel, not St John’s Gospel. This is significant, given that St Matthew’s Gospel is often seen as the most Jewish of the Gospels.

A last point: I like the dust jacket photograph of the author and Wolfgang Wagner: Wolfgang has been bitterly attacked particularly in recent years, but he did so much to keep Bayreuth going – yet was criticised by many for being too conservative and too radical. So much praise has been heaped on Wieland that Wolfgang has never been given due recognition – and as for Winifred, that’s another story.