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Muir, Theresa

Wagner in England: Four Writers before Shaw

Ph.D. City University of New York, 1997

This project examines Wagner's critical reception in 19th-century England, through a study of four writers: James W. Davison, Joseph Bennett, Francis Hueffer, and William Ashton Ellis. These four represent the full range of Wagner reception in England during the composer's lifetime.

James W. Davison (1813-1885) was the music critic of the Times (London) from 1846 to 1878. Davison was long Wagner's primary adversary in the English press. In 1876, he attended the first Ring in Bayreuth, and had a remarkable conversion. For the next several years, he supported Wagner's works, then mysteriously resumed a stance of robust ridicule.

Joseph Bennett (1831-1911) was the music critic of the Daily Telegraph. Bennett defended Wagner from uninformed attacks, yet in his own writings, he seems not to have enjoyed or approved of much he actually heard.

Francis Hueffer (1843-88), who succeeded Davison at the Times, was the first writer for a major newspaper who promoted Wagner to an educated English public. A medieval scholar with connections to progressive artistic and literary circles (he was the son-in-law of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, and also related by marriage to the Rossettis; the writer Ford Madox Ford was his son), he responded to the rich complexity of Wagner's works, and was well-equipped to explicate them.

William Ashton Ellis (1852?-1919) abandoned a medical career for the study of Wagner. He devoted most of his life to translating Wagner's prose writings into English, and to a massive English language Wagner biography (one much criticized, but much drawn upon by Ernest Newman). He also founded and edited The Meister, the journal of the London Wagner society, which became a kind of handbook of English Wagnerism.

These four critics' writings about Wagner show not only that the composer was the talk of the English musical and artistic scene for forty years before Shaw's The Perfect Wagnerite (1898), but also reveal an evolution of artistic values in nineteenth-century England.