The Perfect Wagnerite - Bernard Shaw - E-Book

The Perfect Wagnerite E-Book

Bernard Shaw

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G. B. Shaw (1856-1950) wrote "The Perfect Wagnerite" as a philosophical examination of Richard Wagner's epic four-opera cycle, "Der Ring des Nibelungen" ("The Ring of the Nibelung"). A tremendously accomplished dramatist himself, Shaw seemed perfectly poised to turn his critical eye on Wagner's 19th century masterpiece. Wagner completed "The Ring" in 1853, after decades of effort. A work of such ambition takes much unpacking, and so Shaw offers us his critique. In his preface, Shaw writes, "All I pretend to do in this book is to impart the ideas which are most likely to be lacking in the conventional Englishman's equipment… I venture to add my commentary to what has already been written by musicians who are no revolutionists, and revolutionists who are no musicians".

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Bernard Shaw













Preface to the First German Edition


In reading through this German version of my book in the Manuscript of my friend Siegfried Trebitsch, I was struck by the inadequacy of the merely negative explanation given by me of the irrelevance of Night Falls On The Gods to the general philosophic scheme of The Ring. That explanation is correct as far as it goes; but, put as I put it, it now seems to me to suggest that the operatic character of Night Falls On The Gods was the result of indifference or forgetfulness produced by the lapse of twenty-five years between the first projection of the work and its completion. Now it is clear that in whatever other ways Wagner may have changed, he never became careless and he never became indifferent. I have therefore inserted a new section in which I show how the revolutionary history of Western Europe from the Liberal explosion of 1848 to the confused attempt at a socialist, military, and municipal administration in Paris in 1871 (that is to say, from the beginning of The Niblung's Ring by Wagner to the long-delayed completion of Night Falls On The Gods), demonstrated practically that the passing away of the present order was going to be a much more complicated business than it appears in Wagner's Siegfried. I have therefore interpolated a new chapter which will perhaps induce some readers of the original English text to read the book again in German.


For some time to come, indeed, I shall have to refer English readers to this German edition as the most complete in existence.


My obligation to Herr Trebitsch for making me a living German author instead of merely a translated English one is so great that I am bound to point out that he is not responsible for my views or Wagner's, and that it is as an artist and a man of letters, and not as a propagandist, that he is conveying to the German speaking peoples political criticisms which occasionally reflect on contemporary authorities with a European reputation for sensitiveness. And as the very sympathy which makes his translations so excellent may be regarded with suspicion, let me hasten to declare I am bound to Germany by the ties that hold my nature most strongly. Not that I like the average German: nobody does, even in his own country. But then the average man is not popular anywhere; and as no German considers himself an average one, each reader will, as an exceptional man, sympathize with my dislike of the common herd. And if I cannot love the typical modern German, I can at least pity and understand him. His worst fault is that he cannot see that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Being convinced that duty, industry, education, loyalty, patriotism and respectability are good things (and I am magnanimous enough to admit that they are not altogether bad things when taken in strict moderation at the right time and in the right place), he indulges in them on all occasions shamelessly and excessively. He commits hideous crimes when crime is presented to him as part of his duty; his craze for work is more ruinous than the craze for drink; when he can afford secondary education for his sons you find three out of every five of them with their minds lamed for life by examinations which only a thoroughly wooden head could go through with impunity; and if a king is patriotic and respectable (few kings are) he puts up statues to him and exalts him above Charlemagne and Henry the Fowler. And when he meets a man of genius, he instinctively insults him, starves him, and, if possible, imprisons and kills him.


Now I do not pretend to be perfect myself. Heaven knows I have to struggle hard enough every day with what the Germans call my higher impulses. I know too well the temptation to be moral, to be self-sacrificing, to be loyal and patriotic, to be respectable and well-spoken of. But I wrestle with it and—as far as human fraility will allow—conquer it, whereas the German abandons himself to it without scruple or reflection, and is actually proud of his pious intemperance and self-indulgence. Nothing will cure him of this mania. It may end in starvation, crushing taxation, suppression of all freedom to try new social experiments and reform obsolete institutions, in snobbery, jobbery, idolatry, and an omnipresent tyranny in which his doctor and his schoolmaster, his lawyer and his priest, coerce him worse than any official or drill sergeant: no matter: it is respectable, says the German, therefore it must be good, and cannot be carried too far; and everybody who rebels against it must be a rascal. Even the Social-Democrats in Germany differ from the rest only in carrying academic orthodoxy beyond human endurance—beyond even German endurance. I am a Socialist and a Democrat myself, the hero of a hundred platforms, one of the leaders of the most notable Socialist organizations in England. I am as conspicuous in English Socialism as Bebel is in German Socialism; but do you suppose that the German Social-Democrats tolerate me? Not a bit of it. I have begged again and again to be taken to the bosom of my German comrades. I have pleaded that the Super-Proletarians of all lands should unite. I have pointed out that the German Social-Democratic party has done nothing at its Congresses for the last ten years except the things I told them to do ten years before, and that its path is white with the bones of the Socialist superstitions I and my fellow Fabians have slain. Useless. They do not care a rap whether I am a Socialist or not. All they want to know is; Am I orthodox? Am I correct in my revolutionary views? Am I reverent to the revolutionary authorities? Because I am a genuine free-thinker they look at me as a policeman looks at a midnight prowler or as a Berlin bourgeois looks at a suspicious foreigner. They ask "Do you believe that Marx was omniscient and infallible; that Engels was his prophet; that Bebel and Singer are his inspired apostles; and that Das Kapital is the Bible?" Hastening in my innocence to clear myself of what I regard as an accusation of credulity and ignorance, I assure them earnestly that I know ten times as much of economics and a hundred times as much of practical administration as Marx did; that I knew Engels personally and rather liked him as a witty and amiable old 1848 veteran who despised modern Socialism; that I regard Bebel and Singer as men of like passions with myself, but considerably less advanced; and that I read Das Kapital in the year 1882 or thereabouts, and still consider it one of the most important books of the nineteenth century because of its power of changing the minds of those who read it, in spite of its unsound capitalist economics, its parade of quotations from books which the author had either not read or not understood, its affectation of algebraic formulas, and its general attempt to disguise a masterpiece of propagandist journalism and prophetic invective as a drily scientific treatise of the sort that used to impose on people in 1860, when any book that pretended to be scientific was accepted as a Bible. In those days Darwin and Helmholtz were the real fathers of the Church; and nobody would listen to religion, poetry or rhetoric; so that even Socialism had to call itself "scientific," and predict the date of the revolution, as if it were a comet, by calculations founded on "historic laws."


To my amazement these reasonable remarks were received as hideous blasphemies; none of the party papers were allowed to print any word of mine; the very Revisionists themselves found that the scandal of my heresy damaged them more than my support aided them; and I found myself an outcast from German Social-Democracy at the moment when, thanks to Trebitsch, the German bourgeoisie and nobility began to smile on me, seduced by the pleasure of playing with fire, and perhaps by Agnes Sorma's acting as Candida.


Thus you may see that when a German, by becoming a Social-Democrat, throws off all the bonds of convention, and stands free from all allegiance to established religion, law, order, patriotism, and learning, he promptly uses his freedom to put on a headier set of chains; expels anti-militarists with the blood-thirstiest martial anti-foreign ardor; and gives the Kaiser reason to thank heaven that he was born in the comparative freedom and Laodicean tolerance of Kingship, and not in the Calvinistic bigotry and pedantry of Marxism.


Why, then, you may ask, do I say that I am bound to Germany by the ties that hold my nature most strongly? Very simply because I should have perished of despair in my youth but for the world created for me by that great German dynasty which began with Bach and will perhaps not end with Richard Strauss. Do not suppose for a moment that I learnt my art from English men of letters. True, they showed me how to handle English words; but if I had known no more than that, my works would never have crossed the Channel. My masters were the masters of a universal language: they were, to go from summit to summit, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. Had the Germans understood any of these men, they would have hanged them. Fortunately they did not understand them, and therefore only neglected them until they were dead, after which they learnt to dance to their tunes with an easy conscience. For their sakes Germany stands consecrated as the Holy Land of the capitalist age, just as Italy, for its painters' sakes, is the Holy Land of the early unvulgarized Renascence; France, for its builders' sakes, of the age of Christian chivalry and faith; and Greece, for its sculptors' sakes, of the Periclean age.


These Holy Lands are my fatherlands: in them alone am I truly at home: all my work is but to bring the whole world under this sanctification.


And so, O worthy, respectable, dutiful, patriotic, brave, industrious German reader, you who used to fear only God and your own conscience, and now fear nothing at all, here is my book for you; and—in all sincerity—much good may it do you!


London, 23rd. October 1907.








The preparation of a Second Edition of this booklet is quite the most unexpected literary task that has ever been set me. When it first appeared I was ungrateful enough to remonstrate with its publisher for printing, as I thought, more copies than the most sanguine Wagnerite could ever hope to sell. But the result proved that exactly one person buys a copy on every day in the year, including Sundays; and so, in the process of the suns, a reprint has become necessary.


Save a few verbal slips of no importance, I have found nothing to alter in this edition. As usual, the only protests the book has elicited are protests, not against the opinions it expresses, but against the facts it records. There are people who cannot bear to be told that their hero was associated with a famous Anarchist in a rebellion; that he was proclaimed as "wanted" by the police; that he wrote revolutionary pamphlets; and that his picture of Niblunghome under the reign of Alberic is a poetic vision of unregulated industrial capitalism as it was made known in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century by Engels's Condition of the Laboring classes in England. They frantically deny these facts, and then declare that I have connected them with Wagner in a paroxysm of senseless perversity. I am sorry I have hurt them; and I appeal to charitable publishers to bring out a new life of Wagner, which shall describe him as a court musician of unquestioned fashion and orthodoxy, and a pillar of the most exclusive Dresden circles. Such a work, would, I believe, have a large sale, and be read with satisfaction and reassurance by many lovers of Wagner's music.


As to my much demurred-to relegation of Night Falls On The Gods to the category of grand opera, I have nothing to add or withdraw. Such a classification is to me as much a matter of fact as the Dresden rising or the police proclamation; but I shall not pretend that it is a matter of such fact as everybody's judgment can grapple with. People who prefer grand opera to serious music-drama naturally resent my placing a very grand opera below a very serious music-drama. The ordinary lover of Shakespeare would equally demur to my placing his popular catchpenny plays, of which As You Like It is an avowed type, below true Shakespearean plays like Measure for Measure. I cannot help that. Popular dramas and operas may have overwhelming merits as enchanting make-believes; but a poet's sincerest vision of the world must always take precedence of his prettiest fool's paradise.


As many English Wagnerites seem to be still under the impression that Wagner composed Rienzi in his youth, Tannhauser and Lohengrin in his middle age, and The Ring in his later years, may I again remind them that The Ring was the result of a political convulsion which occurred when Wagner was only thirty-six, and that the poem was completed when he was forty, with thirty more years of work before him? It is as much a first essay in political philosophy as Die Feen is a first essay in romantic opera. The attempt to recover its spirit twenty years later, when the music of Night Falls On The Gods was added, was an attempt to revive the barricades of Dresden in the Temple of the Grail. Only those who have never had any political enthusiasms to survive can believe that such an attempt could succeed. G. B. S.


London, 1901






Preface to the First Edition


This book is a commentary on The Ring of the Niblungs, Wagner's chief work. 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. Now to be devoted to Wagner merely as a dog is devoted to his master, sharing a few elementary ideas, appetites and emotions with him, and, for the rest, reverencing his superiority without understanding it, is no true Wagnerism. Yet nothing better is possible without a stock of ideas common to master and disciple. Unfortunately, the ideas of the revolutionary Wagner of 1848 are taught neither by the education nor the experience of English and American gentlemen-amateurs, who are almost always political mugwumps, and hardly ever associate with revolutionists. The earlier attempts to translate his numerous pamphlets and essays into English, resulted in ludicrous mixtures of pure nonsense with the absurdest distorsions of his ideas into the ideas of the translators. We now have a translation which is a masterpiece of interpretation and an eminent addition to our literature; but that is not because its author, Mr. Ashton Ellis, knows the German dictionary better than his predecessors. He is simply in possession of Wagner's ideas, which were to them inconceivable.


All I pretend to do in this book is to impart the ideas which are most likely to be lacking in the conventional Englishman's equipment. I came by them myself much as Wagner did, having learnt more about music than about anything else in my youth, and sown my political wild oats subsequently in the revolutionary school. This combination is not common in England; and as I seem, so far, to be the only publicly articulate result of it, I venture to add my commentary to what has already been written by musicians who are no revolutionists, and revolutionists who are no musicians. G. B. S.


Preliminary Encouragements

The Ring of the Niblungs

The Rhine Gold

Wagner as Revolutionist

The Valkyries


Siegfried as Protestant

Night Falls On The Gods

Why He Changed His Mind

Wagner's Own Explanation

The Music of The Ring

The Old and the New Music

The Nineteenth Century

The Music of the Future















A few of these will be welcome to the ordinary citizen visiting the theatre to satisfy his curiosity, or his desire to be in the fashion, by witnessing a representation of Richard Wagner's famous Ring of the Niblungs.


First, The Ring, with all its gods and giants and dwarfs, its water-maidens and Valkyries, its wishing-cap, magic ring, enchanted sword, and miraculous treasure, is a drama of today, and not of a remote and fabulous antiquity. It could not have been written before the second half of the nineteenth century, because it deals with events which were only then consummating themselves. Unless the spectator recognizes in it an image of the life he is himself fighting his way through, it must needs appear to him a monstrous development of the Christmas pantomimes, spun out here and there into intolerable lengths of dull conversation by the principal baritone. Fortunately, even from this point of view, The Ring is full of extraordinarily attractive episodes, both orchestral and dramatic. The nature music alone—music of river and rainbow, fire and forest—is enough to bribe people with any love of the country in them to endure the passages of political philosophy in the sure hope of a prettier page to come. Everybody, too, can enjoy the love music, the hammer and anvil music, the clumping of the giants, the tune of the young woodsman's horn, the trilling of the bird, the dragon music and nightmare music and thunder and lightning music, the profusion of simple melody, the sensuous charm of the orchestration: in short, the vast extent of common ground between The Ring and the ordinary music we use for play and pleasure. Hence it is that the four separate music-plays of which it is built have become popular throughout Europe as operas. We shall presently see that one of them, Night Falls On The Gods, actually is an opera.


It is generally understood, however, that there is an inner ring of superior persons to whom the whole work has a most urgent and searching philosophic and social significance. I profess to be such a superior person; and I write this pamphlet for the assistance of those who wish to be introduced to the work on equal terms with that inner circle of adepts.


My second encouragement is addressed to modest citizens who may suppose themselves to be disqualified from enjoying The Ring by their technical ignorance of music. They may dismiss all such misgivings speedily and confidently. If the sound of music has any power to move them, they will find that Wagner exacts nothing further. There is not a single bar of "classical music" in The Ring—not a note in it that has any other point than the single direct point of giving musical expression to the drama. In classical music there are, as the analytical programs tell us, first subjects and second subjects, free fantasias, recapitulations, and codas; there are fugues, with counter-subjects, strettos, and pedal points; there are passacaglias on ground basses, canons ad hypodiapente, and other ingenuities, which have, after all, stood or fallen by their prettiness as much as the simplest folk-tune. Wagner is never driving at anything of this sort any more than Shakespeare in his plays is driving at such ingenuities of verse-making as sonnets, triolets, and the like. And this is why he is so easy for the natural musician who has had no academic teaching. The professors, when Wagner's music is played to them, exclaim at once "What is this? Is it aria, or recitative? Is there no cabaletta to it—not even a full close? Why was that discord not prepared; and why does he not resolve it correctly? How dare he indulge in those scandalous and illicit transitions into a key that has not one note in common with the key he has just left? Listen to those false relations! What does he want with six drums and eight horns when Mozart worked miracles with two of each? The man is no musician." The layman neither knows nor cares about any of these things. If Wagner were to turn aside from his straightforward dramatic purpose to propitiate the professors with correct exercises in sonata form, his music would at once become unintelligible to the unsophisticated spectator, upon whom the familiar and dreaded "classical" sensation would descend like the influenza. Nothing of the kind need be dreaded. The unskilled, untaught musician may approach Wagner boldly; for there is no possibility of a misunderstanding between them: The Ring music is perfectly single and simple. It is the adept musician of the old school who has everything to unlearn: and him I leave, unpitied, to his fate.