The Wagner Experience: Review by Dame Gwyneth Jones

Posted on 10, Jun, 2015 in Uncategorized


The perfect gift, the perfect possession

by Dame Gwyneth Jones

Christmas is just around the corner, someone very special is nnhaving an occasion to celebrate, or you just feel like nnspoiling yourself! This set of two wonderful books, nnbeautifully presented, truly makes the ideal gift. But not nnonly that! They are a “must” to have, as a reference to nnWagner’s life and his incredible compositions and are nnideal for placing in the lounge or bedroom for visiting guests nnto browse through, or for refreshing one’s memory of the stories, the sources and the nnlessons of Wagner’s great dramas, before attending the performance. 

We are extremely fortunate to have Paul Dawson-Bowling and his lovely wife nnElizabeth de la Porte, who is a superb harpsichord player and has been teaching at the nnRoyal College of Music for over fifty years, as two loyal and devoted members of our nnWagner Society. Paul is a retired General Practitioner from an era when this meant “family nndoctor”, and he takes us gently by the hand and guides us lovingly through this nnenormous undertaking of relating the tempestuous life of Wagner with great nnenthusiasm, wisdom, humanity and psychological understanding.

His dedication: “To My Wonderful Wife Elizabeth Was je ich ersehnt, ersah nnich in dir”, (Everything I ever longed for, I saw in You), Siegmund: Die Walküre Act nnI, makes it clear to us that this is a man, enriched by the joy of sharing the holy art of nnmusic with his wife and family and also with all of us.

There have been literally hundreds of books written about Wagner; but there is nnno other book quite like this. It is written in a language which is elegant, beautiful, nnand understandable to all. nnOne feels that a very dear friend is guiding you through this journey of nnWagner’s life, with a desire to share his own love and admiration for the composer in nnorder that you may also share his incredible Wagner experience. 

He has done tremendous research and delves into every aspect of Wagner’s life nnand his music dramas. One constantly discovers things that you may somehow have nnmissed in the past, like the fact that Wagner had originally intended the scene in Das nnRheingold between Wotan and Erda to be with the three Norns. Also, his descriptions nnof the wildly intense, sensuous relationship with Minna are a revelation. They met nnwhen he was just 21 years old. She was three years older than him and was an nnextremely beautiful woman and a very talented actress. She went through heaven and nnhell with him on his various escapades, fleeing because of their debts, being shot at by nnborder guards, causing their carriage to overturn resulting in Minna having a nnmiscarriage which was probably the cause of her childlessness afterwards. Also the nnnear shipwreck on the flight from Riga to London, which was the inspiration for Der nnfliegende Holländer. She was so terrified that she begged Richard to lash her to him, nnso that they could drown and perish together. No wonder that she became the source nnand inspiration for all the heroines in Wagner’s dramas! She was his muse and in her nnhe saw his archetype, his ideal, the perfect example for Elisabeth, Venus, Elsa, nnSieglinde, Brünnhilde, Senta, Eva and Gutrune. Mathilde Wesendonck became his nnmuse for Isolde when the love between Wagner and Minna began to fade, but he nncontinued to hope and believe that each new attraction would bring him that same nnheightened state of mind and being which Minna had brought him.

The first Isolde was sung by Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld who, after the nndeath of her husband Ludwig three weeks after singing the première of Tristan, nnbelieved that the ghost of her husband said that she was destined to marry Wagner. nnShe wrote incensed letters to King Ludwig, complaining about Wagner’s liaison with nnCosima after discovering that Cosima was highly pregnant and was banished by both nnWagner and the King. Whilst in Dresden to perform “O Malvina” I went to visit the nnfamily grave of Malvina and Ludwig and discovered to my astonishment that Minna nnis buried directly next to it. 

Richard and Minna were married for over thirty years but were together for nnonly twenty; partly because Mathilde Wesendonck and Cosima entered his life. One nntends to think of these two women as being the main loves of Wagner’s life, but this nnwas because Minna was somewhat banished into oblivion by Cosima, who nnsuccessfully destroyed many of Wagner’s letters and made cuts in others.

The Wagner Experience is unique because not only does it give a brief nnbiography of Richard Wagner, an extensive account of his tumultuous life and nnexcellent, detailed explanations of the sources and lessons of his great dramas, but it nnalso includes an abundant wealth of glorious illustrations which are largely nndetermined by the archetypes inherent in Wagner’s Operas. There are some very nnunusual sets of cards: “Liebig’s Fleisch-Extract”, from a sort of Oxo/Marmite nnCompany which show us how Wagner was popularly presented in Germany 100 years nnago and some beautiful pictures showing the style of Wieland Wagner’s productions, nnwhich were very prominent in the years after the re-opening of the Bayreuth Festival nnafter the War. I was fortunate enough to sing very often in these productions, nnespecially Der fliegender Holländer, Die Walküre and Parsifal. There are eight of the nntwelve incredibly beautiful Richard Wagner illustrations from the original oil nnpaintings by Ferdinand Leeke (1859-1923) which were painted circa 1900-10, a very nninteresting self-portrait as Lohengrin by Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld which nnillustrates to us that he not only sang these heavy Wagner roles in his twenties (he sang Tristan aged 29 and died shortly afterwards from a lung disease, not from the nnstrain of singing the role as is often said) but also inherited his father’s talent for nnpainting. Another surprise picture shows the author’s mother-in-law Betsy de la Porte nnas Waltraute in Die Walküre at Covent Garden in 1935, which conjures up visions of nnHojotohos ringing through the family home and mutual enjoyment sharing Wagner’s nnmusic, and which makes it even clearer why this wonderful book has been written.

However, my favourite pictures are those of Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). nnThey are incredibly beautiful, highly imaginative scenes from the mythology of The nnRing which were my inspiration to all the various roles that I sang in it: Wellgunde a nnRheinmaiden, Ortlinde a Valkyrie, Sieglinde, Gutrune and Brünnhilde. I would have nngiven anything to have been able to perform these roles in these costumes and nnsurroundings and am convinced that many of us would love to see a production in this nnstyle again. I would certainly try to create similar visions with the aid of modern nntechniques if I ever had the chance to produce a Ring myself.

I have become weary of many of today’s opera productions. If I buy a ticket to nnsee Der fliegende Holländer I want to see the sea, ships, sailors and spinning wheels, nnnot an office full of secretaries sitting at their typewriters and I do not want to see nnElisabeth going to the gas chambers in Tannhäuser or any of the other annoyances nnwhich simply ignore the directions in the score, changing the subject of the piece nnentirely and suggesting that the producer is superior to the composer.

The public is insulted and treated like idiots who are incapable of forming their nnown interpretation of the composer and librettist’s work and its effects on their daily nnlives and morals. It is not because I am old fashioned. To the contrary. I am simply nnsick of the disgraceful way that precious works of art are being abused by many of nntoday’s producers who often admit that they have no knowledge of the art of opera nnand are unable to read music. It would seem that their main aim is to create something nnwhich is going to arouse protests and scandal and has nothing whatsoever to do with nnthe contents of the score, which makes them “the talk of the town” and enhances their nncareers.

Many avid opera-goers have given up trying to show their disagreement by nnbooing and are simply not going to such performances any more, which is made clear nnby the empty seats in many opera houses nowadays. In Bayreuth tickets are now easy nnto obtain on the internet and sometimes, even on the day of the première at the box nnoffice. This I find very worrying because if the public is lost, it is not so easy to get nnthem back again!

After decades of placing operas into “our time” with blue jeans, ugliness and nnthe desecration of sex it has become outdated and I feel that it is necessary to return to nnthe truth of the score. This applies, of course, not only to Wagner’s dramas; but to nnopera staging in general. It would also help the new generation to gain knowledge of nnthe various epochs, such as Medieval, Rococo and Biedermeier. One only has to look at the popularity of Lord of the Rings to know that they would also welcome this nntransition.

The Wagner Experience reminds us of the original didactic aspects of the nndramas, which encourage and inspire us to seek our own understanding and morals nnthrough the wise lessons and advice in the text and action, which enables us to have nnlife more abundantly enriched by the enormous power and beauty of the music, which nnoften transports us to heavenly spheres.

I hope that Paul Dawson-Bowling’s The Wagner Experience will reach and nninspire new audiences, as well as reviving the enthusiasm of mature Wagner lovers. nnThis is like having three books in one, because it places Wagner’s life, his work and a nnfabulous array of exquisite illustrations before us in a nutshell. We must be grateful nnthat he has so generously shared his “Wagner Experience” with us and I am sure that nneveryone who reads it will be filled with renewed admiration and understanding for nnthis great composer and his works.
The rrp is £35 but I have established that signed copies are available £5 cheaper and nnpost free in the UK at The book is also available nnfrom Blackwell’s and all good bookshops, everywhere online, and in Kindle edition.

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