Reading Wagner gives me the opportunity to read around Wagner. For example, George Bernard Shaw’s little 1898 book The Perfect Wagnerite, in which Shaw soothes the anxieties of Londoners worried that the current vogue for Wagner will go over their heads.
I offer it to those enthusiastic admirers of Wagner who are unable to follow his ideas, and do not in the least understand the dilemma of Wotan, though they are filled with indignation at the irreverence of the Philistines who frankly avow that they find the remarks of the god too often tedious and nonsensical. (ix)
If that sounds insulting, yes, The Perfect Wagnerite is full of insults. On page 135 Shaw insults the Eiffel tower and Handel festivals.
If our enthusiasm for Handel can support Handel Festivals, laughably dull, stupid and anti-Handelian as these choral monstrosities are, as well as annual provincial festivals on the same model, there is no likelihood of a Wagner Festival failing. (135)
An English Wagner Festival would be no worse than Bayreuth, where
[s]ome of the singers are mere animated beer casks, too lazy and conceited to practise the self-control and physical training that is expected as a matter of course form an acrobat, a jockey or a pugilist. The women’s dresses are prudish and absurd… The ideal of womanly beauty aimed at reminds Englishmen of the barmaids of the seventies, when the craze for golden hair was at its worst. (136)
Etc., etc. Has anyone, by the way, come across a novel, of the time of historical, which mentions the 1870s craze for golden hair? It was news to me. More to the point, does this kind of rhetoric convince anyone, ever? No wonder Shaw did not get his English Wagner Festival.
This sort of thing is a lot of fun, and Shaw is a music critic of such depth that he can get away with it.
Abominably as the Germans sing, it is astonishing how they thrive physically on his leading parts. His secret is the Handelian secret. (138)
Meaning that Wagner writes as if the singers and what they are singing is meant to be heard and understood, as if he is a dramatic artist as well as a composer, rather than performed like an athletic feat. “A presentable performance of The Ring is a big undertaking only in the sense in which the construction of a railway is a big undertaking…” (139)
To understand Shaw’s criticisms of Wagnerian singers I have to set aside the great changes in opera singing, performance and recording in the last century. I have to ignore the interpretive subtlety of Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau as Wotan. After all, I know that Shaw is right, that singers as unprepossessing as Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny can credibly sing Wagner:
The truth is, there is nothing wrong with England except the wealth which attracts teachers of singing to her shores in sufficient numbers to extinguish the voices of all natives who have any talent as singers. Our salvation must come from the class that is too poor to have lessons. (140)
Now that is a Shavian ending. If I were describing The Perfect Wagnerite in the proper order, the ending would circle back to Shaw’s interpretation of Wagner, the first seventy percent of the book. I skipped it in order to enjoy the insults more freely, and to save it for its own post.