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These handsomely bound and copiously, idiosyncratically illustrated volumes are the culmination of a lifetime of dedication to Wagner. Paul Dawson-Bowling must have seen more performances of the composer’s works than almost anyone else alive. He writes as a medical doctor and as a liberal Christian: the Nicene Creed is quoted in full for the benefit of the ignorant.

Dawson-Bowling aims in the first, shorter volume to define the ‘Wagner Experience’, by way of a succinct biography of the composer, followed by chapters on various key aspects of Wagner’s life and character, in the course of which he makes large claims for the pre-eminence of Wagner’s first wife Minna, often treated by biographers as a kind of irritating mouse. ‘The miracle of the music’ is expounded at some length, with quite a few musical examples. The second volume deals with each of the ten canonical music- dramas.

Volume I concludes with a chapter on puzzles and objections to Wagner. Dawson-Bowling copes sensibly with some of the frequent claims about the composer’s appalling character and the harmfulness of his works, and produces a calm consideration of his anti-Semitism. The author also claims that ‘Everyone needs Wagner’, which seems clearly mistaken. Though he is respectful to Nietzsche, the source of all radical objections to Wagner, he doesn’t give enough weight to the claim that Nietzsche is, for many, a substitute for a first-hand experience of Wagner’s works.

Wagner’s art is, for me, valuable because it is probing, disruptive and upsetting. It raises important questions in incomparably vivid terms, and makes clear (albeit involuntarily) why the answers cannot be given in summary. For Dawson-Bowling, Wagner’s art is one of reassurance – the confirmation of decent, leftwing Christian values. He even congratulates Wagner on making it possible for Rabbi Neuberger to claim that ‘what gives women by far the greatest pleasure ... is oral sex, or cunnilingus’. One does get the feeling, sometimes overpoweringly, that D-B is celebrating Wagner for having the right views, instead of examining his works to find that, in an important sense, Wagner is subjecting all views to drastic scrutiny, and remaining deeply ambivalent.

The Wagner Experience … is a book to argue with, sometimes to agree with, sometimes to get angry about. This is what any book on Wagner should be, though very few are.

Michael Tanner Read the full review on Agora Classica


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