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The Perfect Wagnerite by George Bernard Shaw

The Perfect Wagnerite

by George Bernard Shaw

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Excellent survey of the Ring Cycle. Shaw's Marxist approach is by no means controlling. Very useful as a guide. ( )
  annbury | Jun 15, 2012 |
George Bernard Shaw

The Perfect Wagnerite
A Commentary on the Niblung's Ring

Dover, Paperback, 1967.

8vo. xxi+136 pp. Reprint of the Fourth Edition (1923). Prefaces by Shaw to the Fourth [vii-xii, 1922], Third [xiii-xv, 1913], Second [xvii-xviii, 1901] and First [xix-xx, 1898] edition.

First published, 1898.
Second edition, 1901.
Third edition, revised*, 1913.
Fourth edition, 1923
Dover edition**, 1967.


Preface to the First Edition
Preface to the Second Edition
Preface to the Third Edition
Preface to the Fourth Edition

Preliminary Encouragements
The Niblung’s Ring
The Rhine Gold
- First Scene
- Second Scene
- Third Scene
- Fourth Scene
Wagner as Revolutionist
The Valkyrie
- The First Act
- The Second Act
- The Third Act
- The First Act
- The Second Act
- The Third Act
- Back to Opera Again
Siegfried as Protestant
- Panacea Quackery, Otherwise Idealism
- Dramatic Origin of Wotan
- The Love Panacea
- Not Love, But Life
- Anarchism No Panacea
- Siegfried Concluded
Night Falls on the Gods
- Prologue
- The First Act
- The Second Act
- A Wagnerian Newspaper Controversy
- The Third Act
- Collapse of the Allegory
Why He Changed His Mind
Wagner's Own Explanation
- The Pessimist as Amorist
The Music of the Ring
- The Representative Themes
- The Characterization
The Old and the New Music
The Nineteenth Century
The Music of the Future
- Bayreuth in England
- Wagnerian Singers
- Wagnerism with Wagner Left Out

* As stated by Shaw himself in the preface, the revision consists entirely of the addition of one entirely new chapter - Why he changed his mind - which was written in 1907 for the First German edition of the book.

** The Dover edition, unfortunately, does not contain the completely fascinating Preface to the First German Edition (1907).


I have delayed reading this book for quite some time convinced that it is some sort of socialistic nonsense - just another example that one must not form opinions of books one has never read. For The Perfect Wagnerite by George Bernard Shaw turned out to be not only hugely entertaining, but also extremely stimulating and thought-provoking read. Now I finally understand why this little book (or booklet, as Shaw himself once called it) is taken seriously by serious Wagnerian scholars even more than 100 years after it was first published. I venture to claim that every Wagnerian neophyte really should read it. The only drawback of this wonderful Dover paperback edition is that it does not reprint the Preface to the First German Edition (1907) which contains some true gems about Bernard Shaw and his German socialist colleagues who are inclined to ask inconvenient questions:

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.

This must be Bernard Shaw at his best!

He is probably the most conceited, condescending, opinionated, dogmatic, didactic and pugnacious writer I have ever read. He is certainly the only one known to me who regularly insults his readers' intelligence. All the same, Bernard Shaw is a real riot to read. The first and most obvious reason for that is his style: elegant, charming, witty, wicked, amusing, malicious and delicious. It is true that sometimes Shaw is apt to produce words for their own sake and sometimes he gets a bit carried away with the exquisite structure of his sentences, but neither seems to matter when one reads him slowly and at leisure. No matter how brutally he treats his readers - bluntly telling them that they are incapable of grasping the grandeur of Wagner's tetralogy and that's why he, The Perfect Wagnerite, will guide them with this little book - one simply can't be angry with him; at least I certainly cannot do such a thing. Apart from the graceful elegance of his inimitable style and, considering that, his remarkable lucidity that almost never fails him, I think what most fascinates me about Bernard Shaw is his astonishing honesty. Whatever he is, however strong and unsound his opinions might sometimes look like, he surely is no humbug. Nor is he a poser who tries cheap tricks to catch your attention. His candour, indeed, is equally applied to his readers and to great composers as to himself. Now, that is not something one finds very often, and it is a truly compelling phenomenon.

But style and candour, captivating as they are, mean nothing if an author has nothing interesting to say. Here is the bottom line: Bernard Shaw has tons of fascinating points and subtle insights to offer. His socialistic interpretation of Wagner's works, Das Rheingold in particular, has often been dismissed with an ironic smile, mostly by conceited fools who never actually read the book - like myself in not too distant a past. As it turned out, Shaw's socialistic concept is far from some naive ranting; indeed, if anything, it is very well constructed and even better provided with thought-provoking reflections. What is more, Bernard Shaw does not limit himself to one concept at all. He goes far deeper into the dark Wagnerian waters fearing neither sharks, nor drowning. Behind his hilarious re-telling of the synopses of the four music dramas that can well make one rolling with laughter, there is a powerful mind that offers a point of view characterized with stunning originality and remarkable completeness. Even about the music and the characterization in The Ring, or its place in the history, matters to which a very limited space is dedicated, Shaw often has something fascinating to say that is not to be dismissed lightly. As a kind of additional bonus, he writes more or less as contemporary of Wagner and is not influenced by any classical status of the composer, much less goofy adulation that more often than not was then, and still is today, characteristic feature of non-perfect Wagnerites. Or to put it in Shaw's blunt way:

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.

Whether one agrees or not with Bernard Shaw's opinions is of no consequence whatsoever. One simply cannot ignore them - nor him. I doubt anybody who cares about Wagner's works could do such a thing - or wanted to. I suppose that is one of the surest signs of genius there is.

Though being a genius beyond any reasonable doubt, Bernard Shaw is by far not immune to writing nonsense. Strangely, it doesn't seem to matter a bit. On the one hand, seldom does he do so, and on the other hand, it makes a pleasant contrast with all that profoundness around it. Certainly the least defensible part of The Perfect Wagnerite is Bernard Shaw's criticism of Götterdämmerung (today translated as ''Twilight of the Gods'', but Shaw uses different translation: ''Night Falls On The Gods''). His describing the final part of The Ring as ''thorough grand opera'' is very wide of the mark indeed. His only argument seems to be that there is a chorus in it, and such thing should not be there according to the theoretical concepts of the music drama formulated by Wagner himself. Of course there is a chorus in Götterdämmerung, but it is only one, male, perfectly incorporated into the action and, last but not least, the whole scene is dominated not by the chorus but by the dark bass of Hagen. Having crossed the nonsense border, Shaw goes even further to surpass himself by making comparisons with choruses from Donizetti's operas.

Another caveat about Bernard Shaw's writing is that he is sometimes inclined to criticise great composers from the nineteenth century in a way that is just a little short of blatant and odious. I surmise the ardent admirers of Johannes Brahms are in for an unpleasant surprise; so, for that matter, are the Wagnerites lost in adulation of their music idol. Yet, even in his most absurd or most brutal passages not only is Shaw no less amusing or charming, but he continues to stimulate quite a hurricane in the minds of those who read him. (It should perhaps be added that even about Götterdämmerung Shaw was not entirely in the realms of fantasy after all, for the last part of The Ring is surely the most operatic one, the one farthest from the stringency of the music drama and, perhaps, the weakest one in terms of philosophical depth.)

In conclusion, one little piece of advice to the future readers of The Perfect Wagnerite: make yourselves familiar with the dramatis personae and the story of the four music dramas that comprise The Ring before start the book. Of course it is supposed to be an introduction for beginners in the field, and it probably is, but not for perfect beginners. Should you know nothing of Wagner's plots and characters, it is still possible to understand every word by Shaw of course; but a solid, if far from deep, knowledge of the matter will surely increase a great deal the enjoyment of the book. Indeed, if you have no idea what The Ring is, you may well find a good many pages to be something very much like perfect nonsense. But if you have a good background and have listened to the Wagner's works in question, you may well be astonished how even the most far-fetched, at first glance, of Shaw's reflections actually make a perfect sense and stimulate unheard-of thoughts in your own head. As for readers who think that their technical ignorance of music would be of any harm, no one ever said it better that Shaw himself:

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.

Frankly, I do envy all those people who are going to read The Perfect Wagnerite by George Bernard Shaw for the very first time. It is quite an adventure.


Afterthoughts, January 2011.

Having just sampled heavily Bernard Shaw's music criticism on various composers and works, I thought I might re-read The Perfect Wagnerite for the sheer pleasure of it. I have found it exactly as I had the first time I read it: fresh, entertaining and enlightening. What follow are few desultory remarks on the prefaces and one particular chapter which I consider worth mentioning.

The most interesting among the prefaces is the one to the Third edition, because it is the only one that deals with a significant change in the original text, namely the addition of the chapter ''Why he changed his mind'' which was written as early as 1907 for the First German edition of the book. The first paragraph (but not the others, alas) of the preface for the Third edition is very similar to the one in the preface written especially for the First German edition indeed, and it is certainly worth quoting for nobody explains Shaw better that he explains himself:

In 1907 The Pefect Wagnerite was translated into German by my friend Siegfried Trebitsch. On reading through his version in manuscript I was struck by the inadequacy of the merely negative explanation given by me of the irrelevance of Night Falls on the Gods (Die Götterdämmerung) to the general philosophic scheme of The Ring. That explanation was correct as far as it went; but, put as I had put it, it seemed 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 The Ring and its completion. Now it is clear that in whatever other ways Wagner may have changed, he never became careless and never became indifferent. I therefore inserted in the first German edition a new section in which I shewed how the revolutionary history of Western Europe from the Liberal explosion of 1848 to the confused attempt at a popular and quasi Socialist military and municipal administration by the Commune of Paris in 1871 (that is to say, from the literary beginning of The Niblung's Ring by Wagner to the long delayed musical completion of Night Falls on the Gods) had demonstrated practically that the passing away of the present capitalistic order was going to be a much more complicated business than it appears in Wagner's dramatization.

I think Bernard Shaw is completely missing the point as regards the last part The Ring, but as usual he is doing so spectacularly well. In his additional chapter - ''Why he changed his mind'' - he makes a compelling case how Wagner might have been compelled by the political history of Europe to make a radical change in his initial plans. The explanation is thoroughly convincing and quite plausible, not to say terribly amusing as well: Siegfried never came, but Bismarck did; Alberich, on the other hand, had been accepted into the best families of Walhalla, etc. The fault in Shaw's argument, I submit, lies in the very assumption that Wagner ever had any intention of making political allegory out of The Ring; so far as I know, the only proof that exists about such notion of his in Shaw's strong conviction. But I think that Wagner never really took politics very seriously, and even if he did he must have been greatly disillusioned after the violent events of May 1849 and his ignominious exile that followed immediately afterwards. Shaw was well aware that the complete text of The Ring was privately printed by 1853 but, interestingly, he seemed never to have attached any importance to the singular fact that nearly four years passed between Wagner's failure as revolutionary and his completion of the text (not to mention that the crucial final scene of the last part was rewritten several times later). I am rather more inclined to believe that Wagner had from the very beginning a much bigger fish to fry with The Ring than mere political allegory, even if this was not entirely out of his mind which I honestly doubt. This ''bigger fish'' has been extensively discussed by many Wagnerian commentators such as Barry Millington, Bryan Magee and, most perceptively, Deryck Cooke. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Mar 2, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0486217078, Paperback)

The famous playwright's enlightening and provocative criticism surveys the four Wagner operas known as The Ring. Shaw explores the works' philosophic and social ideology as well as Wagner's life, music drama versus grand opera, the role of the Leitmotif in unifying the cycle, Siegfried's character, and many other fascinating subjects.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:19 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

This pamphlet was written as a philosophical commentary on Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Shaw believed that most people could not understand the drama, and wanted to bring them the knowledge of the adepts who see in the operas the “whole tragedy of human history and the whole horror of the dilemmas from which the world is shrinking today.… (more)

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