Much of this book was written after the end of the twentieth century when, as everyone knows, the world began to change with violent and very public events. It presents, I hope, a different and critical view of Richard Wagner based on new research and the conviction, which is not shared by everyone, that his works still have something to say to us. Against my own skepticism, I have been spurred on by George Bernard Shaw's remark in the preface to the fourth edition of his book The Perfect Wagnerite, in which, after describing with devastating brevity the outcome of the First World War's appalling series of catastrophes, he more or less confessed that he had changed his mind about Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. In the first edition, published at the end of the nineteenth century, he accused Wagner of a disconcerting lurch toward a plump German brand of conservatism in the course of an epic that had begun with the best revolutionary credentials. In the light of what had happened since, he now wrote, “it says much for [Wagner's] grasp of things that his allegory should still be valid and important.”
Shaw's point was that the social implications of the Ring in the 1920s were still intact, despite the rapid aging of some of its technical aspects. Wagner's music dramas are still enjoying full-scale productions, indeed more than ever before, and possibly for similar reasons. Good performances of Der Ring des Nibelungen and Tristan und Isolde—the two pinnacles of Wagner's achievement at the center of this book—still genuinely touch a great many people. Despite my skepticism, I do not know myself exactly why I get carried away. All I can say is that the will to present us with labyrinthine riddles about ourselves and the world we live in through the medium of opera, or rather the peculiar amalgam of allegory and myth that Wagner made from it, obviously has something to do with the abiding allure of these works.
(p.x) I have deliberately excluded discussions of Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which are not among Wagner's works I cherishmost. They are both about singing competitions (in the first deadly serious, in the second intended to be comic, but in fact even more deadly serious than in the first), and they are in my view equally problematic, though for opposite reasons: Tannhäuser because it verges on musical and dramatic in-coherence, as Wagner himself confessed; and Die Meistersinger because it is overly stylized and all too cohesive, features that lend it a smug bürger-lich complacency without a trace of vulnerability on its golden surface, unlike nearly all of Wagner's other works. Why they have not stood the test of time as well as the other works—or, shall we say, why the problem of producing them convincingly seems to be well-nigh unsolvable in the twenty-first century—is a question I want to pursue in a separate study.
In some chapters I touch on Wagner's memories of different histories, from the history of his own life, recorded in his autobiographical writings, to that of the symphony and opera. In between are other histories of greater import, among them that of the “modern” world (as he liked damningly to apostrophize it) and the supposed decline of the human race. Wagner was not a fully paid-up follower of Hegel, perhaps the most influential philosopher of the nineteenth century, who to a degree invented the idea of “the end of history,” which has gained some notoriety in Francis Fukuyama's book The End of History and the Last Man (1992). The “end” here means theachievement of a steady state in which the deepest needs of society have been satisfied and history no longer needs to “progress.” Fukuyama projected this idea problematically onto liberal capitalist thinking of more recent times, as if to say that Hegel's ideal is at last in sight, despite the fact that huge parts of the world are still beset by poverty and violence.
But for Hegel's and Wagner's generation, history had a narrower, more Eurocentric focus that lent the notion of its end, in the above sense, a certain ethical weight. Envisaging a bright future for humanity, Wagner was on the side of the angels, advocating the “end” of the symphony and opera, and many things besides, including the conventional theater and even the layout of its auditorium, which he considered to reflect an outdated social norm. The famous result was the Bayreuth Festival Theatre with its amphitheater and clear lines of sight to the stage for all. And its creator was hardly averse to the idea of the “last” either, choosing Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes as the subject of his first major opera, writing of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as the “last” symphony, and, as I note in this book, even referring to himself as the “last German” and to his final opera, Parsifal, as his “last card.”
(p.xi) As Nietzsche was the first to remark, however, this seemingly humanistic investment in the future of the world existed in Wagner's imagination alongside its opposite: the idea of history driven by the irrational, the blindness of sexual instinct, racial conflict, the mindless ruination of nature, sacred ritual, sacrifice, and superstition. It was not an alternative notion, but one mixed in with the first, regardless of the contradictions. Even before reading the works of Schopenhauer, Hegel's great antipode, Wagner was enamored of the idea of the fundamental chaos of human existence and its endless circle of violence. More ominously, he also came to believe that there is very little we can do about it, that is, except to believe in our redemption through drama and a communal experience of theater, and by extension an imagined purity of life cleansed of all baseness grounded in unalterable racial difference and enmity toward the heroic. Dubious ethics and powerful art: with Wagner it is easy to lose one's head.
Voices like Nietzsche's were already objecting to the glittering attractions of the Wagnerian idea of redemption in the late nineteenth century. Especially after the Hitler era, we can see that their skepticism was justified. But it is far from being the whole story. I am basically suggesting that in order to resituate the idea, even if it means rejecting it in the end, we need to take into account some of the improbable goals Wagner placed in its path—encumbrances in and around his works that perhaps were always more eloquent about the modern world than the moments of its supposed redemption. I nearly called these essays “stumbling blocks on the way to Wagner.” Apart from huge demands on performers, not to mention some famously fantastical scenic directions that could never be realized from the start, I am referring to Wagner's highly idiosyncratic staging of the modern in general. His often abstruse allegorizing, his broad and widely misunderstood inclusion of the sacred, and his penchant for baffling dialectics that also many times found their way into the structure of his music need to be confronted. And so do more notorious aspects, like the thickets of frequently indigestible supporting text in the prose works and the focus on female sacrifice and racial conflict that were already controversial in the nineteenth century. Generally admired features of the project are not so simple either, including the revival of tragedy on a par with the Greeks and the creation of symphonic drama comparable with the most powerful orchestral works of Beethoven. I would even go as far as to say that these most famous of all Wagner's ambitions can just as easily deflect attention from his real and very considerable achievements as usefully define them. In this book, I am interested in the obstacles.
(p.xii) The dedication is to my mother and late father in warm gratitude, and not only for sentimental reasons. They were amateur singers in the Birmingham Midland Music Makers in the United Kingdom. The society's quasi-Elgarian name disguised the fact that under the aegis of its director, Arthur Street, a distinguished metallurgist, it helped to introduce some significant works of international stature to opera enthusiasts in Britain at a time when they were little known. These included Berlioz's Les Troyens in 1948, and a few years later Rossini's Guillaume Tell and Musorgsky's Boris Godunov in its original orchestration, in which Leslie Deathridge sang the roles of Aeneas, Arnold, and Shuysky, respectively. My mother, Iris, took part in this yearly local operatic bonanza in Birmingham too, among other things assuming the role of Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots (with Leslie as Raoul). At the time, it was a brave attempt to recover a lost world in opera, which did not go unnoticed nationally by major critics. I have never forgotten it. Later in my life, the memory of it gave me a real insight into just how much Wagner owed to that world, despite his vehement opposition to it.
I owe a particular debt of gratitude to a number of German musicologists. As well as offering genuine friendship to a British scholar who found himself a bit lost in Munich in the 1970s, they introduced me to a far more rigorous approach to philology in the context of the Wagner Collected Edition, then in its initial stages, than I had ever encountered in Britain. Martin Geck was the first to alert me to the importance of this vast undertaking. Later I worked with Isolde Vetter, and especially with Egon Voss—whose knowledge of Wagner sources is without parallel—on the onerous detail of the sources themselves and, above all, on their implications for a less myth-laden approach to Wagner. It is also impossible to forget the late Carl Dahlhaus in this context, who gave me a job in the offices of the Wagner Collected Edition in Munich when I most needed it. I had some lively conversations with him, and I remain an admirer of his liberal spirit of debate—perhaps another way of saying that we were not always in agreement, especially about Wagner.
Alexander Goehr and the late Bernard Williams tempted me back to Britain in the early 1980s as a teacher at the University of Cambridge. I am indebted to them for many memorable conversations about Wagner's music and genuine encouragement in difficult times for academic life in Britain generally. I then went on to teach at King's College London, where I still find, in the middle of a great metropolis where all kinds of music are promoted to an extent that finds few parallels elsewhere, truly great friendliness and institutional support.
(p.xiii) I would also like to record my special thanks to Patrick Carnegy and Jill Gomez, whose long-standing friendship and generous understanding of things Wagnerian and Epicurean (in about equal measure) I have always warmly appreciated. A special note of gratitude is due as well to a number of colleagues who took the trouble to engage with some of these texts at a detailed level and helped me improve them. In alphabetical order they are: Julie Brown, Majel Connery, Mervyn Cooke, Marion Kant, Thomas Grey, Arthur Groos, David J. Levin, Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Karen Painter, Roger Parker, and Peter Vergo.
Numerous colleagues and many of my former and present students have taken time to discuss Wagner with me. We were not always in agreement, but over the years they still invited me to explain my ideas about him in public broadcasts, lectures, colloquia, and articles, or took the trouble to engage with me personally about this decidedly thorny subject and help me understand it more clearly. I cannot possibly name them all, though I would like to record my special thanks to the following: Carolyn Abbate, Mike Ashman, Nikolaus Bacht, Robert Bailey, Warren Bebbington, George Benjamin, Mark Berry, Harrison Birtwistle, Tim Blanning, Caryl L. Clark, Eoin Coleman, Klaus Döge, Laurence Dreyfus, Lydia Goehr, Simon Goldhill, Robert Gutman, Robin Holloway, Julian Horton, Linda Hutcheon, Brian Hyer, Rena Charnin Mueller, Anna Papaeti, Clive Portbury, Philip Reed, Alex Rehding, Annegret Ritzel, Kriss Rusmanis, Edward Said, Áine Sheil, Stewart Spencer, Reinhard Strohm, Michael Tanner, Marc Weiner, Arnold Whittall, and Slavoj Žizžek.
To Mary Francis, my lively and genial editor, the rest of her team at the University of California Press, in particular Mary Severance and my indefatigable copy editor Sharron Wood, and the publisher's reviewers, I owe many thanks for taking this project forward with great energy and for their keen-eyed criticisms and creative suggestions for improvement. Lastly, I would like to acknowledge the truly stoic patience of my wife Victoria Cooper and our daughter Julia, who generously tolerate my enthusiasm for Wagner without stinting on their invaluable help and warm support.
John Deathridge, King's College London,