Frank Johnson

Religion is never easy, and sometimes it’s hard to be a truly faithful Wagnerite

Religion is never easy, and sometimes it’s hard to be a truly faithful Wagnerite

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Two weeks ago, quite a few of us in London were at a religious occasion. On the face of it, this was unsurprising since it was just before Christmas. But few competing religious occasions would have had this one’s air of reverence. It was the first night of the first part of what will become a new production of Wagner’s Ring at Covent Garden.

Many of us arrived early just so that we could stand around and experience the mass expectation. Over the throng in the bars there was a sense that we were about to be admitted to something sacred. The seats had sold out within hours of going on sale months before. The sense of occasion was all around us. What would the production be like? What would be its ‘concept’?

At least two MPs were in the congregation, as well as conductors, singers and theatre directors, and the usual captains of industry — and captains of idleness. Michael Portillo had a thoughtful article in the programme: ‘The politics of Das Rheingold.’

A newspaper quoted a woman entering the auditorium as saying, ‘I want to be carried away.’ Traditionalist Wagnerites, once a modern production with a ‘concept’ gets under way, usually want to be carried out rather than carried away. But no one would have wanted to shake that woman’s simple faith in advance. After the house lights lowered, there was a pause of 30 seconds in the darkness before the music started. No one dared cough. Had a mobile phone gone off, its owner would have collapsed with shame. We were all preparing our souls for the two and a half hours without an interval.

Most of the critics wrote lukewarmly about the production, although they broadly admired the singing, conducting and orchestral playing. But any hostile criticism was of the priests officiating, not of the religion. No critic would today dare to blaspheme against that. They fear the wrath of Wagnerites: the Sikhs of the situation.

Widespread Wagnerism is now taken for granted. The only journalists who write against Wagner’s operas are those who write against opera itself. People therefore forget how relatively recent this is, and how unforeseen it was. The musical world was once full of critics suggesting that Wagner was finished, and deserved to be. In the late 1940s, for a book of essays which was to mark the 90th birthday of George Bernard Shaw — author of The Perfect Wagnerite and one of the religion’s early apostles — Edward Dent, a historian of opera and translator, remarked as a matter of course that Wagner’s operas did not arouse much interest any more.

The young Earl of Harewood — who is now 81 and the only scion of the royal family to be an opera critic — reviewing the first postwar Covent Garden Ring in 1949, wrote that much of the composer’s past popularity had depended on ‘the physical appeal of the Leitmotifs’ — the repetitive attaching of a musical phrase to a character or idea every time the character or idea comes up. But that had ‘lost its initial force ...too little remains for a public that has not been brought up under the Wagnerian spell ...The dramatic side of the Ring has now lost its appeal, except as throwing light on the more unattractive aspects of the German character: in the same way the purely musical side of the whole affair ...does not now command the respect it once did.’ He preferred the lyrical passages to ‘the great patchwork of motives, endlessly rearranged and endlessly the same, which constitutes Wagner’s musical method for the greater part of the Ring’.

In 1948 a brilliant critic, Cecil Gray, in his autobiography, after writing of his youthful Wagnerism, added: ‘I must have been one of the last of the race of Perfect Wagnerites.... It is a thing of the past never to return: there will be no triumphant revivalist Wagner movement in the future.... Apart from anything else, Wagner is the composer par excellence of adolescence, of immaturity.... To admire Wagner, except for certain aspects of his technical accomplishment, after the age of about 20, is a sure sign of arrested development and unfulfilled sexual experience....’ Other important or readable critics opposed to Wagner included W.J. Turner, and the Americans Virgil Thomson, Paul Rosenfeld and B.H. Haggin.

The reaction against Wagner set in on a broad front just before the first world war and deepened in the 1920s and 1930s; the very age of the greatest generation of Wagner singers. Much of the avant-garde deserted him.

The reason he has returned so triumphantly is partly technological. Long-playing records, and now CDs, made it possible for us to know the music better than we could in the opera house. Passages previously thought tiresome or difficult yield up their interest when one listens at home, perhaps with glass in hand. We may suspect that one of the reasons for the anti-Wagner reaction was the fear that all serious music was going to sound like his. People began to feel stifled. But modern recording’s sheer penetration of every kind of music ensures that we are not stuck with him, or his imitators. We can listen to both him and to the recently rediscovered baroque, which we could not when he first conquered the world.

But some of us Imperfect Wagnerites do not rejoice at his return. The unanimity is unhealthy. Wagner seems to have considered himself the equal of Shakespeare, Dante, Mozart, Beethoven, Michelangelo and art’s few other names beyond dispute. He obviously was not. There is much truth in what the average person thinks about Wagner: his prolixity, kitsch, bombast and pretentiousness. Yet his immunity from adverse criticism encourages the idea that he is of art’s highest, and thus demeans those names who undoubtedly are.

The other problem is the state of modern criticism. Most critics of all the arts today seem to be frightened of adversely criticising the big creators. In criticism, conservatism has had a bad name ever since conservative critics were proved wrong about much of the early modern movement in music, painting and literature. So today’s critics, nearly all liberals to a man or woman, dread being thought conservative, and prone to a future generation lampooning them. Boulez conducts Wagner. Therefore Wagner must be progressive. To be anti-Wagner is now to be conservative just as it was when he was new.

The last important attack on a modernist I can think of in any art was that of the painter and Spectator art critic Michael Ayrton on Picasso in 1945. Even Ayrton’s sympathetic biographer — his step-granddaughter — treats it as a mistake. How odd that Wagner, whom the avant-garde deserted three quarters of a century ago, now enjoys its protection. Wagnerism is getting out of hand again.