Wagner in brief

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

‘Wagner’, by Robert L Jacobs
(London: JM Dent & Sons, Ltd) Price 4s 6d.

This new life and study of Wagner is one of the books issued in the Master Musicians series since Eric Blom became editor. It is well written and is even remarkable for the successful way in which the changing events of Wagner’s life are told in a hundred pages: nothing essential seems to have been omitted. But even more has been accomplished, for room has been made for a discussion on the personality of Wagner and his music.

Reading this book is like a postgraduate course in a subject that absorbed us in our youth and continues to interest us. From whatever side we look at Wagner, we find him different from other men, by whose standards he will never be adequately measured. His sufferings and successes were alike abnormal: and always when he seems about to be engulfed, something happens to save him. From his early days Wagner, sure of himself, had the courage and the adventurous mind of an explorer. We recall the day he left Pillau, at the age of twenty-six, accompanied by his wife and a Newfoundland dog: there on board a small merchant boat, manned by seven sailors, we see him sailing into the unknown: wherever he went, there was danger ahead.

He seemed to care little that he was liable to arrest for leaving Pillau without having first settled with his creditors, or that for that reason his passport was impounded at Riga, or that in consequence he would only be able to cross the frontier by the aid of corrupt officers. Similar difficulties seemed always to beset him. The psychology of the man presents a curious problem: a spirit always restrained, yet soaring free of mundane things; a charmed life, ignoring all conventions.

Wagner’s career is without parallel in what may be called the game of chance, for there was always a controlling lever working in his favour. Had he never met Meyerbeer, Liszt, the Wesendoncks and Ludwig II of Bavaria, what would have happened to him? His spirit never quailed, and he is said to have laughed when all around him was misery. Had this not been so, he could never have accepted a commission from a Paris music publisher to produce a tutor for the cornet à pistons from five tutors already published. This was hack-work for him, but it enabled him to live for a while and to get on with other work nearer his heart. Similarly, when he arrived from Zurich, a political refugee from Dresden, he is seen renting a small room and beginning to write his books and the trilogy [sic] of the Ring.

No man was more dauntless than Wagner: nor more remorseless in his dealings with men and women. But he achieved his object: indeed, he did more, for he could not have foreseen the extent of his influence nor have dreamed of his music becoming a rallying point for German culture.

Musical opinion, December 1935, p. 218