Barry Millington's "The Sorceror of Bayreuth"

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Barry Millington's "The Sorceror of Bayreuth"

Postby alberich00 » Thu Jan 31, 2013 12:29 pm

Dear Discussion Forum members:

I acquired and read Barry Millington's new book "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, His Work and His World" over the holidays, and will post a review here in installments shortly. Let me begin by saying that this is a good general introduction to Wagner's life and work, very well illustrated, which hits on many of the themes from Wagner's life and work which have been the mainstay of past studies and biographies, but also introduces the results of some newer studies. It is a good introduction for the layman and a good refresher for veterans in Wagner scholarship. Barry Millington's honorable quest over many decades to disseminate knowledge and appreciation of Wagner is well known and worthy of our admiration. My only initial objection is an entirely self-serving one: Millington's book could have benefited greatly from familiarity with the studies of Wagner which I have privately disseminated to a variety of Wagner scholars and students since 1981. I could, in other words, have helped to fill in quite a number of gaps in his brief chapters on Wagner's operas from "The Flying Dutchman" to "Parsifal."

But Millington is familiar with at least one of my studies. I say this with reference to "Lohengrin," because I did in fact, in 1992, mail Millington some materials drawn from my demonstration of the importance of the plot of "Lohengrin" for our understanding of Wagner's "Ring," and related materials demonstrating the conceptual unity of Wagner's "Ring" and his other music dramas, and in 8/93 mailed to him (and also to Stewart Spencer) my first version of my paper "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried" (copyrighted on 1/14/94, and a paper in response to which Millington mailed me a one page review), the final revision of which induced Millington's colleague Stewart Spencer's decision (after a thorough vetting by both Spencer and three anonymous scholarly referees) to publish my paper "How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried" in the 5/95 issue of WAGNER, the (now defunct) scholarly journal of The Wagner Society (London). Visitors can find a transcript of my paper published in 5/95 (minus Spencer's wonderful illustrations) right here in the discussion forum in three parts: I will have occasion to quote from it frequently when I compare my former paper to Millington's contributions to the subject, the earliest example known to me being an article entitled "Elsa, Lohengrin and the Tell-Tale Halo," an article which evidently Millington wrote for the Houston Grand Opera's production of "Lohengrin" in October and November of 1992. Since I only possess a photocopy made by Andrew Gray, I cannot say whether this piece published by the Houston Grand Opera is a reprint of this article published perhaps at an earlier date by Millington. By the way, Millington's new periodical The Wagner Journal has effectively replaced WAGNER (in which Spencer published my 5/95 article) as the only journal devoted exclusively to Wagner in the English language, in this respect comparable to Wagner Spectrum, a similar journal devoted to Wagner scholarship in German.

I mention Millington's older article (1992) because I wrote this review of his new chapter on "Lohengrin" in "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," and his 2005 essay "Asking the Right Question, before I discovered this morning while looking over my old correspondence that I wrote the following to Millington in a letter of 8/15/93 enclosed with my first (8/93) version of "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried" (I had simultaneously mailed Spencer the identical article hoping he would consider it for publication in WAGNER): "Not long ago Andrew Gray gave me a paper in which you drew attention to Wagner's praise of Elsa and relegation of Lohengrin to a secondary position, in his A COMMUNICATION TO MY FRIENDS. My paper examines this question in unprecedented detail." Clearly, I was hoping to interest Millington in my paper by virtue of the fact that both mine, and his, begin with the assumption that Elsa's breach of Lohengrin's demand for faith was praiseworthy, and had Wagner's sympathy. I searched through my huge store of Wagner files this morning and found Millington's paper (like looking for a needle in a haystack) entitled "Elsa, Lohengrin and the Tell-Tale Halo," which makes my reviews of Millington's two far more recent pieces somewhat moot because a large proportion of the material I selected from his more recent pieces for discussion appears in almost identical form in this piece published for the Houston Grand Opera in 1992.

That my primary theses regarding "Lohengrin" owe nothing to Millington's paper (and Millington's 1992 paper proves likewise that he owes nothing material to me) is proven by my following remarks to Stewart Spencer in a letter of introduction I wrote to him on 11/22/91, in which I delineated the history and scope of my research on Wagner's operas and music-dramas, and proposed that Spencer select a topic drawn from my research on which I might write an article for WAGNER which would interest its readers. I wrote:

" ... a brief word about the import of my research. The essence of my interpretation of the RING is that it is an allegory about the birth and development of both scientific (Alberich/Hagen) and religious/moral thought (Wotan), i.e., of man's consciousness of "is" and "ought." The RING depicts how religion (Wotan/Fricka) failed in the face of scientific thought (Alberich) to sustain man's illusion of transcendent value (what Wagner calls immortal love, or Freia), and how the artist (Siegfried plus his creative unconscious, Bruennhilde) inherited the role of religion. The artist also failed to sustain man's 'ideal' because he (i.e., Wagner himself, specifically in the RING) betrayed the 'real' source of his inspiration to consciousness (Hagen). I have been able to show how the relations of all of Wagner's mature opera heroes to their heroine-lovers are based on Wotan's relations with Erda. I have also been able to explain how Wagner gained the inspiration for his new conception of the relation of hero to heroine, and thus of the redemption by love, from a reconsideration of Elsa's offer to share with Lohengrin consciousness of his true identity (his Achilles heel). Wagner learned from this that the heroine (in actuality, his own unconscious mind, the creative unconscious) might succeed in redeeming love (feeling) from consciousness (thought/doubt), by not simply sharing this knowledge with the hero, but exclusively holding the hero's knowledge of his true identity for him, so he need not be conscious of it and thus vulnerable.
(...) Please contact me if you feel I could make a worthwhile contribution to your journal."

In fact, I have a copyrighted paper trail going back long before 1992 which contains many of the same insights into "Lohengrin" which I presented in the published version of "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried" (reproduced in this discussion forum), including a copyright from 1991 of papers on "The Flying Dutchman," "Tannhaeuser," and "Lohengrin." At some point it will be an interesting exercise to review my old copyrighted papers to ascertain the earliest date at which I copyrighted certain insights for which I wish tentatively to claim precedence.

Readers of my entire book "The Wound That Will Never Heal," published here at, can see for themselves just how much further I've carried the implications of Elsa's breach of faith as a conceptual basis for Wagner's revolutionary music dramas, than either Millington's work on "Lohengrin," or, as I will demonstrate shortly, Dr. Berthold Hoeckner's brilliant (and also seemingly almost concurrent but entirely independent) work on "Lohengrin" as found in his chapter on "Lohengrin" entitled "Elsa's Scream or The Origin of the Music Drama" from his dissertation (towards his PhD from Cornell Univ.) from 8/94 entitled "Music as a Metaphor of Metaphysics: Tropes of Transcendence in 19th-Century Music from Schumann to Mahler."

However, because I've now unearthed my copy of a transcript of Millington's paper containing Millington's primary theses on "Lohengrin" which dates at least as far back as the Fall of 1992 (and which thus predates my submission to him of the 8/93 copyrighted version of my article, and which contains some of (but not all of) the insights into "Lohengrin" which Barry repeats in the later essays I've cited in my review), I reproduce below verbatim the passages from his 1992 article which correspond with those I cited from his more recent (2012) "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," and his 2005 essay "Asking the Right Question."


"What was it ... that so struck Wagner about this mythic subject?
Wagner must ... have intuitively grasped the potential of the Lohengrin legend for an opera of contemporary significance. The story of the loving wife who cannot resist asking the forbidden question (the name and origin of her husband) is all too easily represented as a misogynist fable in which marital bliss is destroyed by insatiable female curiosity. But this is seriously to misunderstand the whole thrust of Wagner's drama, as well as the historical and philosophical background against which it was written.
It is often assumed that the struggle at the center of 'Lohengrin' [PH note: since my "italics" font isn't working for some reason, I'm compelled to reproduce words and phrases which Millington wrote in italics by employing apostrophes instead] is that between enlightened Christianity (represented by Lohengrin) and benighted paganism (represented by the sorceress Ortrud). This is not the case, however. In his essay 'A Communication to My Friends" (1851) Wagner is at pains to make clear that the Lohengrin myth inspired him not because of its 'leanings towards Christian supernaturalism,' but because it penetrated to the core of human longings. The 1840's was the decade in which young Hegelians ... issued challenges to the tenets of conventional religion, and in which the humanist ethics of Ludwig Feuerbach had enormous influence on German intellectuals of the day. Even though Wagner appears not to have read Feuerbach for himself until the end of the decade, there seems little doubt that he was influenced by some of the ideas prevalent in the radical circles of cities such as Dresden. The figure of Lohengrin appealed to Wagner, therefore, not primarily as some kind of divine protector or savior, but as a 'metaphysical phenomenon' whose contact with human nature could end only in tragedy; the Christian trappings of the legend, as in 'Parsifal,' were of essentially symbolic value to him.
The status of Lohengrin is in fact central to the meaning of the work. In 'A Communication to my Friends,' Wagner tells us that Lohengrin wishes to be loved for his own sake, as a pure human being - not worshiped for his divine qualities. 'That is why he had to conceal his higher nature,' continues Wagner, just as, in classical myth, Zeus concealed his identity from Semele ... . (...) Lohengrin too wanted to be human, not a god. But 'there clings to him the tell-tale halo of his heightened nature': hence Elsa's doubts and the ensuing tragedy.
If Lohengrin's desire to relinquish divinity in favor of humanity seems, at first, a curious one, the explanation is to be found in Wagner's philosophical outlook. Receptive from his earlier years to the scepticism of the Young Hegelians, Wagner enthusiastically embraced the spirit of humanism ascendant in the 1840's. It was expressed most convincingly by Feuerbach in his epoch-making 'The Essence of Christianity' of 1841, and although the text, and probably the music, of 'Lohengrin' were already written by the time he read the book, there can be little doubt of the philosopher's influence on the work. The supercession of the gods by humans was to become a central theme of the 'Ring' cycle, too: Wotan learns voluntarily to relinquish his divine authority in favor of the new order represented by Siegfried and Bruennhilde. Lohengrin's desire to be human may thus be seen as a bid for the free, emancipated humanity aspired to in the "Ring." He seeks, as Wagner put it, the woman who would trust in him and love him as he is, without asking for explanations. She must love him with an unconditional love. He cloaks his 'higher nature' in order to ensure that he is being loved for what he is, rather than being 'humbly worshiped as a being past all understanding.' But the disguise is only partial - the 'tell-tale halo' gives him away - and he has to return to the lonely sphere from whence he came.
In the 'Ring' it is Freia's golden apples that constantly rejuvenate the gods, and Bruennhilde whose feminine wisdom ultimately restores sanity and hope to a strife-ridden world. In the same way, Elsa was regarded by Wagner - at least in 'A Communication to My Friends' - in a wholly positive and praiseworthy light. The essay was written four or five years after the main work on the opera, after Wagner's discovery of Feuerbach, and after the experience of the 1848/9 revolution - all of which may have colored his views to some extent. Yet the stance adopted by Wagner that the inner meaning of his work was only slowly revealed to him has a certain conviction.
It was through Elsa, Wagner claimed, that he first 'learned to understand the purely human element of love.' For the sake of unalloyed, unconditional love, she is driven to ask the question that cannot be avoided. She 'awakes from the thrill of worship into the full reality of love' ... . Elsa, 'this glorious woman,' made Wagner 'a revolutionary at a stroke,' he claimed. Her asking of the question, the necessary question, is not therefore a whim to be scorned, but a heroic act. It is Lohengrin, ensnared and compromised as he is, whose demands initiate the tragedy."

One insight entirely missing from this 1992 paper is one that was central to my 5/95 paper, which is that Elsa's breach of Lohengrin's injunction not to ask him the forbidden question about his identity or origin, is the conceptual basis for Wagner's transition from an author/composer of traditional romantic operas, to the creator of the revolutionary music-drama. He perhaps hints at this in his remark that Lohengrin's wish to be human and not a god corresponds with Wagner's notion that in the "Ring" the god Wotan renounces divinity in favor of the humanity of Siegfried and Bruennhilde, but that doesn't touch on the mechanics of Elsa's offer to help Lohengrin preserve his secret if he will share it with her, so that she can redeem him from the "Noth," or anguish, to which she fears he will be subject if his secret is revealed. Missing this point, Millington also missed the other half of this equation, that Wotan's acquiescence in Bruennhilde's request that he confess to her what ails him (his divine "Noth"), in contrast with Lohengrin's refusal to acquiesce in Elsa's similar request, is the conceptual equivalent to Wagner's metaphor of the love (in music-drama) of music for drama and drama for music, or what is the same thing, the need of the conscious mind for redemption by the unconscious (Elsa being Lohengrin's other half, his unconscious, involuntary mind, and Bruennhilde, Wotan's Will, being similarly his other half, or unconscious mind).

It goes without saying that as you read my review of Millington's chapter on "Lohengrin" from "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," and his similar paper entitled "Asking the Right Question" which was published online by the Seattle Opera in 2005, that in any case where passages from the 1992 paper which I transcribed above correspond with passages from Millington's two more recent pieces on "Lohengrin," readers should defer to this earlier version (except where it is obvious Millington has made signal improvements or expanded his argument in his subsequent essays).

In my more detailed review of Millington's book I will follow the practice I have with my prior reviews on books by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, John Deathridge, and Mark Berry. That is, I will simply touch on any points, in the order in which the author raises them in his book, which I consider worthy of comment, either because I disagree profoundly, or fervently concur and wish to add my two cents.

I place in this review considerable emphasis on Millington's research into "Lohengrin" (evidently carried out independently of my own research into "Lohengrin" which I first made known directly to Millington in 1992 and 8/93; likewise, my paper trail and copyrights prove the independence of my research on "Lohengrin" vis-a-vis Millington's concurrent research), because, on the one hand, there is considerable correspondence between a number of our propositions, but, on the other hand, Millington seems not to have drawn benefit from my paper "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried" to expand and enhance his subsequent essays on "Lohengrin," including his most recent contribution "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth." My point is that his newer versions of his older paper do not indicate that he learned anything new, or worthwhile to cite, in my 1993 paper he reviewed, so I will suggest, by comparing insight for insight my 5/95 article (which was a revision of the 1993 version Millington reviewed) with Millington's contributions on "Lohengrin" from 1992, 2005, and 2012, that he left much out that he might have included to his benefit.

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