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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.
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