The ring of authority

Ernest Newman’s towering biography of Wagner helped to shape my own view of the composer

James MacMillan

Richard Wagner, photographed by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1867

One doesn’t fully realise how the art and craft of music criticism have changed (some say shrivelled) in recent years until one reads the compelling and learned objectivity of Ernest Newman (1868-1959). I am revisiting his Life of Richard Wagner, a four-volume tour de force written between 1928 and 1947 which was the first serious book I ever read as a Wagner-obsessed teenager. I didn’t understand it all then, but by the age of 12 Wagner’s music had seeped into my soul and I was determined to know more about this seductive and strange musical life-force.

Newman’s words, phrases and chapters, devoured as a child, are now resurrecting and reshaping themselves in my adult brain. Although many great and insightful books on the composer have been written since, bringing ever more research to the fore, Newman’s colossal study is the best — a magisterial blend of psychological, historical and purely musical analysis. One fascinating aspect of rereading Newman on Wagner is absorbing  an essentially pre-war view of Wagner’s politics and personality defects, shorn of all the bluster about the Nazis and so on. Newman is mercilessly honest about and disgusted by the  composer’s anti-Semitism but predates the time when commentators started blaming him for proto-Nazism and for influencing Hitler.

The composer’s politics as a young man were revolutionary, and therefore proto-leftist, Wagner having got caught up with Dresden’s uprisings of 1848-49. It is thought that the standards of musical performance in the city and country at that time pushed him into revolutionary activity, a curious merging of artistic idealism and disappointment with a wider societal dissatisfaction. His tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen grew out of the impact of the failed revolution, and he saw the cycle as some kind of ritual to mark a new political and cultural order. This gives The Ring a sense of the apocalyptic in its intent, culminating  in a genuine meta-destruction of one world and the hope of a new age growing out of the ashes. You can see why some see a prophetic vision of the 20th century in Wagner’s masterwork.

And Hitler was not the only evil revolutionary who loved the music. Lenin nurtured a particular passion for Wagner too. In his youth Wagner had written several forceful political tracts, such as “Art and Revolution” and “The Art-Work of the Future”, which advocated the abolition of all class-ridden cultural institutions. For a time he was friendly with Mikhail Bakunin, the anarchist. This explains the enthusiasm for The Ring in the early days among the Bolshevists. Siegfried’s funeral music from Götterdämmerung came to be associated with Nazi funerals, but a  band of 500 played it to accompany a cannon salute at Lenin’s funeral in 1924. And then a real orchestra played it again, later at the Bolshoi.

And Wagner was not the only anti-Semite in 19th-century Europe. He wasn’t the only anti-Semitic composer of the era either, Liszt, Chopin and Mussorgsky all having given voice to the ancient prejudice. Newman does not shy away from this, but it is refreshing to read an analysis mercifully free of the baggage of more recent culture wars. Also refreshing is the scientific, forensic objectivity in the way he evaluates a life. His four volumes are the culmination of a lifetime’s reading and writing on his subject. His research was meticulously well-ordered and built up over decades of study. Newman had a background in classical literature and philosophy, and his biographical approach and argument is persuasively shaped by this. One wishes that there was someone of his stature around today, taking the academic’s patience and determination into the music criticism we read in contemporary newspapers and journals.  Only someone like Michael Tanner of the Spectator comes close in that regard. And it was a lifetime in jobbing music journalism that Newman was known to musician and ordinary music lover alike in Britain during the first half of the 20th century. His regular columns in the Birmingham Daily Post, the Observer, the Sunday Times, the Manchester Guardian and the Glasgow Herald brought him fame in the music world, and sometimes a little controversy. He castigated the Hallé audiences in Manchester for their complacency and ignorance, calling them ostriches and vandals, and criticised Hans Richter for his safe and uninspiring programming.

I have been asked to speak at a book festival in Glasgow, Aye Write!, which runs March 15-25, about the books that shaped me. Books on music have had the most impact. I’m still a bit bewildered at how Wagner became my first all-consuming passion, tempered now with wider experience of life and arts. Newman’s cool scholarship ensured that my youthful obsession remained under control. It led in later years to another revelatory book on Wagner, Death-devoted Heart; Sex and the Sacred in Tristan and Isolde by Roger Scruton. More of that anon.

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