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THE PERFECT
WAGNERITE



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THE PERFECT WAGNER-
ITE: A COMMENTARY
ON THE RING OF THE
NIBLUNGS. BY BERNARD
SHAW.



London: Grant Richards, 9
Henrietta St. Covent Garden,
London, W.C. 1898.



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Preface

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 Eng-
lish and American gentleman -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 non-
sense with the absurdest distortions of his ideas into



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vi The Perfect Wagnerite

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 diction-
ary better than his predecessors. He is simply in pos-
session of Wagner's ideas, which were to them incon-
ceivable.

All I pretend to do in this book is to impart the
ideas which are most likely to be lacking in the con-
ventional 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
sowil my political wild oats subsequently in the revolu-
tionary 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.



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Preliminary Encouragements


I


The Ring of the Niblungs .


5


The Rhine Gold


5


Wagner as Revolutionist


27


The Valkyries


35


Siegfried ......


47


Siegfried as Protestant , . . .


64


Night Falls on The Gods .


80


Wagner's own Explanation .


99


The Music of the Ring


, 108


The Old and the New Music


. 118


The Nineteenth Century


. 124


The Music of the Future .


• 131


Bayreuth .....


• 133



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THE PERFECT WAGNERITE

PRELIMINARY ENCOURAGEMENTS

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 repre-
sentation of Richard Wagner's famous Ring of the
Niblungs.

First, The Ring, with all its gods and giants and
dwarfs, its water-maideas 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, be-
cause it deals with events which were only then con-
summating 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 con-
versation by the principal baritone. Fortunately, even
from this point of view. The Ring is full of extra-

B



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2 The Perfect Wagnerite

ordinarily 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 en-
dure 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. The Dusk
of 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



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Preliminary Encouragements 3

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 hypodia-
pente, 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 any-
thing of this sort any more than Shakespear 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 straight-
forward dramatic purpose to propitiate the professors
with correct exercises in sonata form, his music would



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4 The Perfect Wagnerite

at once become unintelligible to the unsophisticated
spectator, upon whom the familiar and dreaded " class-
ical" 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.



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THE RING OF THE NIBLUNGS

The Ring consists of four plays, intended to be per-
formed on four successive evenings, entitled The
Rhine Gold (a prologue to the other three). The
Valkyries, Siegfried, and Night Falls on The Gods ; or,
in the original German, Das Rheingold, Die Walkiire,
Siegfried, and Die G5tterdammerung.

THE RHINE GOLD

Let me assume for a moment that you are a young
and good-looking woman. Try to imagine yourself
in that character at Klondyke five years ago. The
place is teeming with gold. If you are content to
leave the gold alone, as the wise leave flowers with-
out plucking them, enjoying with perfect naivete its
color and glitter and preciousness, no human being
will ever be the worse for your knowledge of it; and
whilst you remain in that fi-ame of mind the golden
age will endure.

Now suppose a man comes along : a man who has
no sense of the golden age, nor any power of living
in the present : a man with common desires, cupid-



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6 The Perfect Wagnerite

ities, ambitions, just like most of the men you know.
Suppose you reveal to that man the fact that if he
will only pluck this gold up, and turn it into money,
millions of men, driven by the invisible whip of
hunger, will toil underground and overground night
and day to pile up more and more gold for him until
he is master of the world ! You will find that the
prospect will not tempt him so much as you might
imagine, because it involves some distasteful trouble
to himself to start with, and because there is some-
thing else within his reach involving no distasteful
toil, which he desires more passionately ; and that is
yourself. So long as he is preoccupied with love of you,
the gold, and all that it implies, will escape him : the
golden age will endure. Not until he forswears love
will he stretch out his hand to the gold, and found
the Plutonic empire for himself. But the choice be-
tween love and gold may not rest altogether with him.
He may be an ugly, ungracious, unamiable person,
whose affections may seem merely ludicrous and de-
spicable to you. In that case, you may repulse him,
and most bitterly humiliate and disappoint him.
What is left to him then but to curse the love he can
never win, and turn remorselesgly to the gold ? With
that, he will make short work of your golden age,
and leave you lamenting its lost thoughtlessness and
sweetness.

In due time the gold of Klondyke will find its way
to the great cities of the world. But the old dilemma
will keep continually reproducing itself. The man who
will turn his back on love, and upon all the fruitful.



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Scene I The Rhine Gold 7

creative, life-pursuing activities into which the loftiest
human energy can develop it, and will set himself
single-heartedly to gather gold in an exultant dream
of wielding its Plutonic powers, will find the treasure
yielding quickly to his touch. But few men will make
this sacrifice voluntarily. Not until the Plutonic power
is so strongly set up that the higher human impulses
are suppressed as rebellious, and even the mere appe-
tites are denied, starved, and insulted when they can-
not purchase their satisfaction with gold, are the ener-
getic spirits driven to build their lives upon riches.
How inevitable that course has become to us is plain
enough to those who have the power of understand-
ing what they see as they look at the plutocratic
societies of our modern capitals.

First Scene

Here, then, is the subject of the first scene of The
Rhine Gold. As you sit waiting for the curtain to
rise, you suddenly catch the booming ground-tone of
a mighty river. It becomes plainer, clearer : you get
nearer to the surface, and catch the green light and
the flights of bubbles. Then the curtain goes up and
you see what you heard — the depths of the Rhine,
with three strange fairy fishes, half water-maidens,
singing and enjoying themselves exuberantly. They
are not singing barcarolles or ballads about the
Lorely and her fated lovers, but simply trolling any
nonsense that comes into their heads in time to the
dancing of the water and the rhythm of their swim-



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8 The Perfect Wagnerite Scene i

ming. It is the golden age ; and the attraction of this
spot for the Rhine maidens is a lump of the Rhine
gold, which they value, in an entirely uncommercial
way, for its bodily beauty and splendor.. Just at present
it is eclipsed, because the sun is not striking down
through the water.

Presently there comes a poor devil of a dwarf
stealing along the slippery rocks of the river bed, a
creature with energy enough to make him strong of
body and fierce of passion, but with a brutish narrow-
ness of intelligence and selfishness of imagination : too
stupid to see that his own welfare can only be com-
passed as part of the welfare of the world, too full of
brute force not to grab vigorously at his own gain.
Such dwarfs are quite common in London. He comes
now with a fruitful impulse in him, in search of what
he lacks in himself, beauty, lightness of heart, im-
agination, music. The Rhine maidens, representing
all these to him, fill him with hope and longing ; and
he never considers that he has nothing to offer that
they could possibly desire, being' by natural limitation
incapable of seeing anything from anyone else's point
of view. With perfect simplicity, he offers himself
as a sweetheart to them. But they are thoughtless,
elemental, only half real things, much like modern
young ladies. That the poor dwarf is repulsive to
their sense of physical beauty and their romantic con-
ception of heroism, that he is ugly and awkward,
greedy and ridiculous, disposes for them of his claim
to live and love. They mock him atrociously, pre-
tending to fall in love with him at first sight, and



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Scene I The Rhine Gold 9

then slipping away and making game of him, heaping
ridicule and disgust on the poor wretch until he is
beside himself with mortification and rage. They for-
get him when the water begins to glitter in the sun,
and the gold to reflect its glory. They break into
ecstatic worship of their treasure ; and though they
know the parable of Klondyke quite well, they have
no fear that the gold will be wrenched away by the
dwarf, since it will yield to no one who has not for-
sworn love for it, and it is in pursuit of love that
he has come to them. They forget that they have
poisoned that desire in him by their mockery and
denial of .it, and that he now knows that life will give
him nothing that he cannot wrest from it by the
Plutonic power. It is just as if some poor, rough,
vulgar, coarse fellow were to offer to take his part in
aristocratic society, and be snubbed into the know-
ledge- that only as a millionaire could he ever hope to
bring that society to his feet and buy himself a
beautiful and refined wife. His choice is forced on
him. He forswears Ibve as thousands of us forswear it
every day ; and in a moment the gold is in his grasp,
and he disappears in the depths, leaving the water-
fairies vainly screaming "Stop thief!" whilst the river
seems to plunge into darkness and sink from us as we
rise to the cloud regions above.

And now, what forces are there in the world to
resist Alberic, our dwarf, in his new character of sworn
plutocrat ? He is soon at work wielding the power of
the gold. For his gain, hordes of his fellow-creatures
are thenceforth condemned to slave miserably, over-



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1



lo The Perfect Wagnerite Scene i

ground and underground, lashed to their work by the
invisible whip of starvation. They never see him, any
more than the victims of our "dangerous trades " ever
see the shareholders whose power is nevertheless every-
where, driving them to destruction. The very wealth
they create with their labor becomes an additional
force to impoverish them ; for as fast as they make
it it slips from their hands into the hands of their
master, and makes him mightier than ever. You can
see the process for yourself in every civilized country
today, where millions of people toil in want and
disease to heap up more wealth for our Alberics, lay-
ing up nothing for themselves, except sometimes
. horrible and agonizing disease and the certainty of
I premature death. All this part of the story is fright-
fully real, frightfully present, frightfully modern; and
its effects on our social life are so ghastly and ruinous
that we no longer know enough of happiness to be
discomposed by it. It is only the poet, with his vision of
what life might be, to whom these things are unen-
durable. If we were a race of poets we would make
an end of them before the end of this miserable
century. Being a race of moral dwarfs instead, we
think them highly respectable, comfortable and proper,
and allow them to breed and multiply their evil in
all directions. If there were no higher power in the
world to work against Alberic, the end of it would
be utter destruction.

Such a force there is, however; and it is called God-
head. The mysterious thing we call life organizes itself
into all living shapes, bird, beast, beetle and fish, rising



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Scene I The Rhine Gold ii

to the human marvel in cunning dwarfs and in labori-
ous muscular giants, capable of great and enduring
toil, willing to buy love and life, not with suicidal curses
and renunciations, but with patient manual drudgery
in the service of higher powers. And these higher
powers are called into existence by the same self-
organization of life still more wonderfully into rare
persons who may by comparison be called gods,
creatures capable of thought, whose aims extend far
beyond the satisfaction of their bodily appetites and
personal affections, since they perceive that it is only
by the establishment of a social order founded on
common bonds of moral faith that the world can rise
from mere savagery. But how is this order to be set
up by Godhead in a world of stupid giants, since
these thoughtless ones pursue only their narrower per-
sonal ends and can by no means understand the aims
of a god ? Godhead, face to face with Stupidity, must
compromise. Unable to enforce on the world the pure
law of thought, it must resort to a mechanical law of
commandments to be enforced by brute punishments
and the destruction of the disobedient. And however
carefully these laws are framed to represent the highest
thoughts of the framers at the moment of their pro-
mulgation, before a day has elapsed that thought has
grown and widened by the ceaseless evolution of
life ; and lo ! yesterday's law already fallen out with
today's thought. Yet if the high givers of that law
themselves set the example of breaking it before it is
a week old, they destroy all its authority with their
subjects, and so break the weapon they have forged to



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12 The Perfect Wagnerite Scene i

rule them for their own good. They must therefore
maintain at all costs the sanctity of the law, even when
it has ceased to represent their thought ; so that at
last they get entangled in a network of ordinances
which they no longer believe in, and yet have made
so sacred by custom and so terrible by punishment,
that they cannot themselves escape from them. Thus
Godhead's resort to law finally costs it half its integrity
— as if a spiritual king, to gain temporal power, had
plucked out one of his eyes — and it finally begins
secretly to long for the advent of some power higher
than itself which will destroy its artificial empire of
law, and establish a true republic of free thought.

This is by no means the only difficulty in the do-
minion of Law. The brute force for its execution must
be purchased ; and the mass of its subjects must be
persuaded to respect the authority which employs this
force. But how is such respect to be implanted in them
if they are unable to comprehend the thought of the
lawgiver ? Clearly, only by associating the legislative
power with such displays of splendor and majesty as
will impress their senses and awe their imaginations.
The god turned lawgiver, in short, must be crowned
Pontiff and King. Since he cannot be known to the
common folk as their superior in wisdom, he must be
known to them as their superior in riches, as the
dweller in castles, the wearer of gold and purple, the
eater of mighty feasts, the commander of armies, and
the wielder of powers of life and death, of salvation
and damnation after death. Something may be done in
this way without corruption whilst the golden age



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Scene II The Rhine Gold 13

still endures. Your gods may not prevail with the
dwarfs ; but they may go to these honest giants who
will give a day's work for a day's pay, and induce
them to build for Godhead a mighty fortress, complete
with hall and chapel, tower and bell, for the sake of
the homesteads that will grow up in security round
that church-castle. This only, however, whilst the
golden age lasts. The moment the Plutonic power is
let loose, and the loveless Alberic comes into the field
with his corrupting millions, the gods are face to face
with destruction; since Alberic, able with invisible
hunger-whip to force the labor of the dwarfs and to
buy the services of the giants, can outshine all the
temporal shows and splendors of the golden age, and
make himself master of the world, unless the gods,
with their bigger brains, can capture his gold. This,
the dilemma of the Church today, is the situation
created by the exploit of Alberic in the depths of the


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