Interpretations of Richard Wagner's Music Drama in English-Language Poetry and Poetics (1848-1924)
Richard Wagner is a pre-eminent figure in musical history, but little is known about the influence of his librettos and poetic style in English-speaking contexts. This PhD dissertation corrects this situation. Its main argument engages nineteenth-century poetry, revealing how Wagner affected nineteenth-century verse-writing practices: how his alliterating librettos gave new resources to Medievalist, decadent and socialist poets. It identifies a peculiar Wagnerian style in poetry and prose, arising from early translations of his writings. It shows how this style invigorated discussions about alliteration and German purism. The early listeners engaged in this study recognised in Wagner an uncanny old-yet-newness: a complex temporality which brokered innovation via archaism. They realised his promise in translations, verse-performances and novel dramatic forms. Their literary responses to Wagner reinvented the music drama for the anglophone sphere.
This study also contributes to wider debates in cultural history and philosophy. It shows how Wagner Societies offered education in germanophone literature before universities did; how Wagner intervened in evolutionary debating about art; and how his music dramas urged discussion about racism in poetry and music. Alain Badiou, David Trippett and Alex Ross have lately renewed interest in historical Wagnerism. But much anglophone writing about Wagner has been dismissed simply because it is poorly understood.
This dissertation’s first chapter is about early translations of Wagner’s poetry and London’s literary societies. Wagner’s librettos were translated not merely as companions for the real deal of operatic performance. Early translators sought to demonstrate their literary power independently of his music. The librettos were performed as dramatic verse for society audiences. These society links suggest why Wagner came to be associated with social and sexual radicalism. Central to this chapter is a close-reading of Alfred Forman’s 1877 translation of Der Ring des Nibelungen. The first scholarly consideration of Forman, chapter one reveals an ambitious and humorous translator who sought to enlist the poets A. C. Swinburne and William Morris. A parallel discussion of William Ashton Ellis, translator of Wagner’s prose, reveals the disturbing reaction to Forman’s project.
The second chapter reviews polemical claims about Wagner’s social potential. Alain Badiou identifies ‘philosophical debating’ about Wagner as a distinct ‘genre’ of social polemic. But from Nietzsche to Žižek, the genre has struggled to formulate an alternative to Wagner’s cult-like institutionalism. The Victorian evolutionist Edmund Gurney argued that Wagner achieved popularity to the detriment of music’s cognitive pleasures. In The Power of Sound (1880), Gurney showed that Wagner’s spectacle – massive orchestration, grand inscenation – was essentially commercial. Gurney preferred an East End Orchestra of working-class musicians, a truer realisation of Wagner’s revolutionary thinking. These proposals were influential. Vernon Lee, declaring herself a ‘disciple’ of Gurney, constructed a typography of Wagnerian responses in Music and its Lovers (1932). Meanwhile G. B. Shaw, having reviewed Gurney’s writings in the 1880s, composed The Perfect Wagnerite (1898) – a socialist interpretation of Wagner’s Ring. These writings may help to solve the problems posed by Badiou’s ‘genre’.
The third chapter turns from Wagnerian reform to the problem of Wagner’s racialised aesthetics. It takes up W. E. B. Du Bois’s attempt to configure Wagner as a model for Black art in the USA. Du Bois admired Shaw and shared a platform with London Wagnerians at the 1911 London Universal Races Congress. He shared their interest in Wagner’s social potential. But where earlier writers hushed up Wagner’s racialism, Du Bois renovated it. Chapter three recalls the thinking of the Indianist Movement: especially Arthur Farwell and Natalie Curtis Burlin. These ethnomusicologists claimed that Wagner could help reveal a distinctive North American folk culture. They compared the screams of Wagner’s music dramas with Navajo chants. They claimed that Wagner’s chromaticism was paralleled in popular Black music – claims that Du Bois probed during visits to Germany and as editor of The Crisis. In Du Bois’s short story ‘Of the Coming of John’ and the pageant The Star of Ethiopia (1913), he mixed Wagner with anti-racist declarations to outline a mythology of ‘Black Folk’. Expanding our understanding of Black Wagnerism, this chapter is a timely intervention in discussions about Wagner’s legacy.
The dissertation concludes with a coda about comedy and bathos in Wagner’s music dramas. It articulates how this study’s critical revision of literary Wagnerism opens new vistas for interdisciplinary thinking about Wagner.