A Ring of Pilgrims
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A Ring of Pilgrims

In A Ring of Pilgrims Bet Briggs outlines the responses to the Ring of five different people: author Mark Twain, composer Anton Bruckner, German scholar John Robertson and his wife Ethel (novelist Henry Handel Richardson) and an ordinary man called Jim.

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A Ring of Pilgrims — Bet Briggs

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1: Mark Twain

In 1891 American writer Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), better known as Mark Twain, attended the Bayreuth Festival. He recounted his experience in an article for the New York Times 6 December 1891, entitled At The Shrine of St. Wagner. At one point he described the audience of which he was part, witnessing Tristan and Isolde:

I have seen all sorts of audiences — at theaters, operas, concerts, lectures, sermons, funerals — but none which was twin to the Wagner audience of Bayreuth for fixed and reverential attention.

The Wagner audience, he remarked, “dress as they please and sit in the dark and worship in silence”. In contrast New York’s Metropolitan opera-goers “sit in a glare, and wear their showiest harness; they hum airs, they squeak fans, they titter and the gabble all the time”. The Met, he considered, was “a showcase for rich fashionables who are not trained in Wagnerian music and have no reverence for it, but who like to promote art and their clothes”.

In a cascade of sparkling prose he continued his observations:

Can that be an agreeable atmosphere to persons in whom this music produces a sort of divine ecstasy and to whom its creator is a very deity, his stage a temple, the works of his brain and hands consecrated things, and the partaking of them with eye and ear a sacred solemnity? Manifestly, no. Then, perhaps the temporary expatriation, the tedious traversing of seas and continents, the pilgrimage to Bayreuth stands explained. These devotees would worship in an atmosphere of devotion. It is only here that they can find it without fleck of blemish or any worldly pollution. In this remote village there are no sights to see, there is no newspaper to intrude the worries of the distant world, there is nothing going on, it is always Sunday. The pilgrim wends to his temple out of town, sits out his moving service, returns to his bed with his heart and soul and his body exhausted by long hours of tremendous emotion, and he is in no fit condition to do anything but to lie torpid and slowly gather back life and strength for the next service. This opera of Tristan and Isolde last night broke the hearts of all witnesses who were of the faith, and I know of some who have heard of many who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away.

I feel strongly out of place here. Sometimes I feel like the sane person in a community of the mad; sometimes I feel like the one blind man where all the others see; the one groping savage in the college of the learned, and always during service, I feel like a heretic in heaven.

But by no means do I ever overlook or minify the fact that this is one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I have never seen anything like this before. I have never seen anything so great and fine and real as this devotion.

2: Anton Bruckner

By an extraordinary coincidence, before reading Twain’s scintillating account of his Wagner experience, I had been reflecting on the human capacity for being impressed or moved profoundly by some happening. How exhilarating it is, I thought, to be able to isolate an event, one moment of magic, joy or wonder and know it as a defining experience in one’s life, to be able to exclaim with conviction: “It changed my life!”.

Wagner’s contemporary, Austrian composer and organist, Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) knew such a moment when, at the age of 39 he first heard Wagner’s music. Bruckner was a deeply religious man, very modest too, for years doubting his own talent. From childhood he had studied and composed music. In 1861, after tuition with Simon Sechter, he qualified to teach harmony and counterpoint. Deciding he wanted to advance in symphonic form and orchestration he chose to study with a practical musician, a cellist and conductor at Linz Municipal Theatre, Otto Kitzler, whose teaching was based principally on Beethoven, but also on Mendelssohn.

Towards the end of 1862, their first year together, Kitzler arranged to mount the first Linz performance of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. In preparation he and Bruckner studied the score. On February 13 1863 Bruckner attended that performance and was overwhelmed. He heard music that showed him he could break away from the rigid harmonic rules Sechter had taught. From then on his own composition and orchestration were influenced by Wagner.

Bruckner began to correspond with Wagner and eventually met him when he was invited to Munich for the first triumphant performance of Tristan and Isolde in 1865. So lovely did he find this work, that he always kept the score open on his music stand.

To champion the Master’s cause, and with his permission, Bruckner conducted the first performance of the closing section of his new opera The Mastersingers in Linz in 1868 before its première in Munich two months later under the baton of Hans von Bülow.

In 1873 he showed Wagner the scores of his 2nd and 3rd Symphonies. Wagner was so impressed with No. 3, the D Minor, that Bruckner wanted to dedicate it to him and to his delight Wagner accepted.

The relationship between them became closer from the time of Bruckner’s visits to Bayreuth, first in 1876 on August 16 for the première of the Ring Cycle and later in 1882 for that of Parsifal. Bruckner, however, suffered for his devotion. Because he found direction artistically from Wagner’s daring innovations in harmonic progression and orchestration and applied it in his symphonies, he was automatically caught in the controversy that raged at the time over Wagner’s revolutionary music and ideas. The anti-Wagnerites were Bruckner’s enemies, too. One critic, Edward Hanslick, whom Wagner caricatured in the character of Beckmesser, the town clerk in The Mastersingers, was so disparaging of Bruckner that for several years performances of his works in Vienna were failures. The première of his “Wagner Symphony”, as he called it (No. 3 in D Minor), on December 16 1877, four years after its composition, was a fiasco! Bruckner had to conduct, as no other conductor would; the orchestra were unwilling and most of the audience deserted! Though some of his loyal students tried to comfort him, Bruckner was devastated. However, the noted Viennese publisher, Theodor Rattig, was so impressed with the work that he persuaded Bruckner to allow him to publish it.

Bruckner achieved wider success on March 10 1881 when Hans Richter, who had conducted the first Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in 1876, ignored the conductors’ boycott and performed Bruckner’s 4th Symphony in Eb, “The Romantic”.

Between 1881 and 1883, the year of Wagner’s death, Bruckner composed his 7th Symphony in E. He dedicated it to King Ludwig II, Wagner’s patron. But the Adagio was an elegy in homage to Wagner. Completed just before his death, Bruckner said of it: “At one time I came home and was very sad. I thought to myself it is impossible the Master can live long and then the Adagio in C Minor came into my head”.

In both the Adagio and the Finale of the Symphony Bruckner used Wagner tubas, those brass instruments which Wagner had devised to give special tone-colour in the orchestration of the Ring.

The 7th Symphony was performed for the first time in 1884 in Leipzig, conducted by Kappelmeister Arthur Nikisch (1855-1902). This performance, despite some criticism from the usual Wagner-Bruckner opponents, established Bruckner’s world reputation.

Though he was a courageous disciple of Wagner he was no mere imitator. Wagner himself would surely have approved and applauded.

3: John and Ethel

In 1883 when Bruckner completed his elegy to Wagner, his 7th Symphony, just before the Master died on 13 February, a 16-year-old Scotsman, John George Robertson, born in Glasgow in 1867, was in his second year studying arts and science at Glasgow University. Though John intended to become a scientist and teacher, he was developing a passion for European literature and language, especially German, after reading Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus and Goethe’s Faust. Music, too, was an abiding interest.

During six years of study in which he gained an M.A. in 1886 and a B.Sc. in 1889, he continued to read literature and went to the theatre, concerts and opera. He even studied the scores of operas before seeing them in performance.

After graduation he celebrated by learning Norwegian and translating Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and The Lady from the Sea. Finally he told his parents that he preferred literature and language to science and, with their consent and financial support, in autumn 1889 he enrolled in philological studies at Leipzig University.

Leipzig was one of the great cultural centres of Europe and the birthplace of Wagner. For John, already erudite, but young and eager, it was a fine opportunity for further learning. Because of his passion for language and literature and now Wagner and the theatre, he chose as his subject for his doctoral thesis a study of the criticism of dramatist Jacob Ayrer of Nuremberg, analysing its impact on travelling troupes of English actors, and on the Nuremberg cobbler, poet and Mastersinger Hans Sachs (1494-1576). Sachs had been restored to prominence by Goethe’s poem Hans Sachsen Poetische Sendung (1776) and ultimately converted to legend as the champion of the art of song and German culture in Wagner’s The Mastersingers. John, no doubt, was familiar with both the poem and the opera.

Apart from his thesis work, John’s passion for studying the scores of opera now centred on Wagner’s music dramas. But he was hampered by lack of practical musical training to study the scores by himself. But not for long.

In 1890 he met Ethel Florence Lindsey Richardson (1870-1946), a 20-year-old Australian music student who had come to Leipzig in 1888 to further her piano study at the Conservatorium. For Ethel, living and studying in Leipzig was “a full life”, as she recalled years later in her posthumously published autobiography Myself When Young (1948). She described herself as “an indefatigable concert-goer” running “from one performance to another, intent on missing nothing that might be of help to me”. She was rarely able to go to the opera, however, until she met John Robertson.

Their first acquaintance was unremarkable, until John, learning that she was going to Norway for the summer vacation, asked her to try to get a rare copy of Ibsen’s first play, Cataline, for him. He had been collecting Norwegian editions of Ibsen’s plays and had all of them except for it. Ethel tried but was unsuccessful and let John know by note on her return to Leipzig. He, in gratitude for her attempt, invited her to accompany him to the series of Wagner operas at the Neues Theater. Ethel, also a Wagner lover, responded thus:

I jumped at the offer. For it meant not only hearing all the operas, and in the order in which they were written, but from a comfortable reserved seat on the ground-floor! Myself I couldn’t have afforded to go to more than one or two of them, after a fight for a place in the top gallery . . .

Here, then, throughout the autumn, I sat twice weekly at my new friend’s side, drinking in one after another of the great works from Die Feen on. With the exception of Parsifal which Frau Cosima still jealously guarded as Bayreuth’s sole property.

Here, too, it can be said that my musical education really began.

Ethel wrote, too, of John’s earlier attempts at score reading and of their shared discovery of Wagner’s music:

Of opera he had made a special study; even as a lad spending his pocket-money on Boosey’s cheap piano-scores to get some light on its development. These he managed to struggle through, although nothing of a pianist, but Wagner was beyond him, dearly as he would have liked to know more of the works before hearing them. At this I ventured to suggest that I might be of use to him. He hailed the proposal, I lugged the weighty volumes from Klemm’s Lending Library, and, on those evenings when we weren’t at the theatre, we sat together at my piano, poring over Tristan or the Ring, tracking down “motives” and digging out connexions.

This “comradeship”, as she called it, did not end with the Wagner cycle; as she said: “A further bond between us was the discovery that I too loved books”. “Sometimes,” she admitted, she “practised her scales and exercises with a volume of Renan or Tolstoi propped open on the music stand!"

Their mutual love of Wagner and literature did change their lives. For Ethel it was a move from music to literature, something like John’s change from science to literature. John, however, had completed his science degree before moving on to higher academic study in the field he more passionately desired. Ethel abandoned her formal music study even though she had considerable talent in piano performance and in composition. But writing and literature became her life.

John graduated in 1892 at the age of 25, after ten years of university life at home and here in Leipzig. Even with his doctorate he found it difficult at first to find a university post. Until he and Ethel married in 1895, they both earned a meagre living by journalism and translation. Then a year later John got a lectureship at the University of Strasbourg. There he began his book A History of German Literature, still highly regarded as one of the best introductions to the subject.

Ethel, too, in 1897 began her first novel, Maurice Guest. Based on her own student days in Leipzig, it was a study of an aspiring musician who lacks the talent to achieve his ambition, falls victim of an obsessive love and commits suicide. The love theme of Maurice and Louise is told with compassion and irony and is imbued with reference to Wagner’s music, particularly to Tristan and Isolde. That’s not surprising, for of all Wagner’s operas Ethel loved Tristan and Isolde most: she described it through the character Krafft’s comment as “the most emotional music conceived in the human brain”. In truth the spirit of Wagner pervades the novel and her writing is as richly orchestrated as the music drama itself. The critic Dorothy Green says: “Maurice Guest in the last analysis is best understood as a literary variation upon a theme by Wagner in the realistic mode”.

The novel was not completed and published until 1908 under Ethel’s chosen pseudonym Henry Handel Richardson. By then she and John had been living in London for five years. What brought them there was John’s success with his History, published in 1902. It so reflected his scholarship and intellectual breadth that it established his reputation as a scholar. On the strength of it he was offered the new chair of German at the University of London. There he carved a very creative career, writing numerous works on German and other writers and becoming prominent in making London a centre for German studies.

Like Ethel’s, John’s passion for Wagner never waned. A few months before he died in 1933 he gave a series of lectures at London University: Richard Wagner as Poet and Thinker. In these lectures, as Dorothy Green remarks:

. . . he saw Wagner as a dramatic poet who called in the aid of music. He also saw him as a revolutionary, a poet who did not stand aside from the social and political movements of his time; a critic of capital, of “the curse of gold”, which was to find its transfiguration in the curse on the Nibelung’s treasure.

When John died Ethel was working on The Young Cosima. Published finally in 1939, this, her last novel, was about the complex relationship between Wagner, Liszt (Cosima’s father), Cosima and Hans von Bülow whom she marries and later deserts for love of Wagner, and an attempt to understand the motives that sustained their relationship. Ethel, writing as Henry Handel Richardson, said: “It is not a music novel. Only about people whose trade music was . . . and it was the relationship of these people that interested me most . . .”

She also re-examined some of the problems of art and life and genius that pre-occupied her in Maurice Guest. Wagner’s music again underlies the Cosima novel. This time his struggle with the composition of Tristan and Isolde and The Mastersingers from their conception to performance are counterpoint to the human drama and the emotional conflict between the players.

Just like the Wagnerian music drama, the lifelong pilgrimage John and Ethel (Henry) shared was a complex and dramatic journey. Their adventure in discovery on that same philosophical journey was by way of scholarship and art, two different modes ultimately for the same end — to understand the art and genius of Wagner and his music.

4: Jim

The last pilgrim in this small ring was a man called Jim. He was the youngest, his pilgrimage was the shortest, his Wagner experience without controversy or complication.

He shared some similarities with the others. Like Anton Bruckner, Jim was in his thirties when he first saw a Wagner opera. Like John Robertson, Jim was a quiet, reserved, unassuming Scot, born in Glasgow, too, 50 years after the Professor, during the Great War in 1916 and he married an Australian. And as it was for Maurice Guest, Henry Handel Richardson’s creation, Jim’s first experience of Wagner was The Valkyries. There the similarities end.

Jim wasn’t a composer or a professor or a writer. He was a man of the sea and loved it, and for most of his working life he was more exposed to the sea’s moods, its unpredictable changes and discipline than to the sounds of music. But he loved music, too. As a boy he had learned to play the piano, as a youth he discovered dancing, loved that too, and became an excellent dancer. As a young merchant navy seaman — one of the unsung heroes of the Second World War — Jim went dancing whenever he could get home on leave. Glasgow catered well for servicemen: there were dance halls in plenty where he danced to big-band renditions of tunes popular at the time. None of this though prepared him for Wagner. That encounter didn’t and couldn’t come till after the war.

His last tour of duty was bringing Australian troops home and here in Sydney in 1945 Jim, the quiet bachelor of 29 suddenly found love. In a whirlwind romance, literally, he met and married a young 20-year-old Australian and took her home to Scotland.

With the terror of those wartime Atlantic, Mediterranean and Far East voyages behind him, with the love of his new bride and his own love of the sea undiminished, he transferred to cruise ships. In 1948 several months after the birth of his first child, a daughter, Jim was assigned to the newly-built, 40,000-ton Cunard liner, Caronia, for her maiden voyage. He was the youngest man to get his rating as Chief Plumber.

On a cruise in the Mediterranean in the early 1950s the Caronia, with wealthy American tourists aboard, visited the Riviera seaport and resort of Nice at the time of Mardi Gras just before Lent. There on a golden summer day Jim, as expected of a ship’s officer, accompanied a party of passengers ashore. They arrived in time for the procession of flower-decorated floats, and experienced the full colour and ceremony of the flower-throwing contest, “The Battle of the Flowers”. In the evening they attended the Opéra Municipal de Nice and there Jim for the first time saw and heard Wagner’s The Valkyries.

How overwhelming it must have been for the tall, good-looking, quiet man to hear the first tempestuous sounds! For the opera begins with a storm. Then there follows the delicious love music of Sieglinde and Siegmund; in Act II Brünnhilde’s powerful war-cry and the electrifying Ride of the Valkyries which opens the Third Act and all that follows to the final scene of Wotan’s impassioned farewell to Brünnhilde and the Magic Fire Music, where she sleeps within a circle of fire, the music of which brings the drama to a close.

Jim could well have said: “It changed my life”. Certainly on his return home to Southampton where his wife and now two little daughters were living, he declared that his night at the opera was “a magic night”.

Now over 40 years later, recently his widow recalled her impressions of how he felt: “He was completely entranced and was never the same again. For the remainder of his short life he spoke of the magic of that night and hoped so much to see the rest of the Ring, as a whole musical world had opened up for him, however briefly”.

Jim’s hope never was fulfilled. He and his young family came to Australia to live and he had not been settled long before he became seriously ill and he died in 1958. He was only 42.

What Jim’s response to the complete Ring would have been can only be imagined. Perhaps it is presumptuous to speculate — after all, he did have his moment of magic, wholesome and pure, received like a child, without censure and a gift in itself. Yet, if he were living today, just think, he would be 82, perhaps strong and well and eager enough to find himself in Adelaide, sometime between November and December 1998 at the Festival Theatre for one of the three cycles of the complete Ring. On that historic occasion he could be part of an audience of old and new pilgrims, prepared, perhaps, like Twain’s Bayreuth audience “to sit in the dark and worship in silence”, an audience prepared to be open-minded, receptive, to feel able, like the fully open-hearted person with a fine sense of wonder, like the Jims of this world, to be swept up in something bigger than themselves, to carry that joy of discovery and sharing with them into the next millennium.

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