I am reluctant to write about Richard Wagner, because anything I type will reveal my abysmal ignorance. Admittedly, that has never stopped me before in over four years of blogging, so perhaps the reluctance in fact stems from the likelihood that anything I can come up with will have been said (and rather better) many times before. But we are about to reissue a number of books about the Master which come with a bit of a health warning, so I thought I would write a quick overview of our output of other people’s writings about Wagner.
The first serious Wagner critic writing in English was Francis Hueffer (1843-1889), music critic for The Times from 1878 to 1889, and writer and lecturer on the contemporary music scene as well as an authority on Provençal troubadours. We have reissued his influential Richard Wagner and the Music of the Future (1874), his monographic Richard Wagner (1881), and his two-volume edition of the Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt (1888).
In the next generation, the long-lived critic Ernest Newman (1868–1959), produced A Study of Wagner (1899) and Wagner as Man and Artist (1914), leading the way to his magisterial four-volume The Life of Richard Wagner (1933–46). Newman set his cards on the table in 1914, intending ‘a complete and impartial psychological estimate’ of a complex and frequently misinterpreted genius. He is clear-sighted about the strengths of Wagner the artist, not least his need to be ‘the central sun of his universe’, which of course led to Wagner the man behaving pettily, selfishly and frequently as a tyrant. He also warns against a naïve reading of Wagner’s works, by people ‘who combine the maximum of good intentions with the minimum of critical insight’.
One of the ‘good intentions’ brigade whom Newman had in mind was probably William Ashton Ellis (1852–1919), who almost completely abandoned a medical career in order to devote himself to all things Wagnerian. He has been widely criticised for his inadequate knowledge of German and inaccurate and idiosyncratic translation style. Almost everything he published (including eight volumes of Wagner’s Prose Works) has been translated more recently and more accurately, and to some Wagner scholars he seems no better that a joke. (An insightful long piece by David Cormack on Ellis can be found here.)
We are about to reissue Ellis’s translation of the letters (originally edited in German by Hans von Wolzogen) sent by Richard Wagner to his first wife Minna between 1842 and 1863. His language is gushing (to put it mildly): I have no way of knowing how close it is to that of the Master, and the handling of German diminutives and other colloquialisms, which date the work badly, would be a problem in any case. (See more on translation issues, especially in the case of Wagner’s political writings, here.)
(Quite irrelevantly, Ellis’s use of the word ‘wifie’ transported me back to my childhood, and the inherited family copy of Everything Within (1911 edition), a sort of encyclopaedia with added etiquette: as well as tables of weights and measures, you could use its pattern letters, for applying to the vicar for a referral to the cottage hospital, as well indeed as proposing to your young lady. ‘I call you Kiddie now, which nobody else does. May I hope one day to call you Wifie, which nobody else ever will?’)
The letters are hardly annotated at all (which would not presumably be a problem for the Complete Wagnerite), but what really puts my back up is the extraordinarily tendentious ‘Translator’s Preface’, in which we are instructed to view Minna (whose voice we never hear) as a terrible, nagging, suspicious burden on the creativity and genius of her loving and above all pure and innocent husband: ‘even the blameless episode with Madame Wesendonck might have shown poor peevish Minna what a treasure of love she had spurned at her feet’, etc. etc.
You would not know from this rendering that the talented actress Minna supported her penniless genius of a husband for many years, and was dragged around Europe in his wake after his expulsion from Dresden in 1849. The letters themselves are those of an energetic egomaniac, and make interesting if exhausting reading. The last is dated 8 November 1863. Three weeks later, Wagner and Cosima von Bülow took the famous cab ride in Berlin during which they pledged eternal devotion to each other. If there were later letters to Minna (she died of heart disease in 1866), apparently not even Ellis had the nerve to publish them.
So read the letters, but try to keep Ellis’s views at arm’s length: he had clearly drunk deep of the Wahnfried love potion. We will also soon be reissuing more works from the enchanted circle:
Letters to Wesendonck et al., also translated by Ellis
Family Letters of Richard Wagner (ditto)
Richard Wagner’s Letters to His Dresden Friends (tr. Shedlock)
Wagner and his Isolde, by Gustav Kobbé
Wagner as I Knew Him, by Ferdinand Praeger (loathed by the Wahnfried circle), and
Wagner at Home (tr. Masssie), by the French author Judith Gautier, who apparently wanted to be much, much more than a mere member of the circle but was put firmly in her place by the redoubtable Cosima.
Alternatively, you could forget the writings and just listen to Meistersinger, Act 3 scene 4…