'Faithful, All Too Faithful' by David Cormack (Part 4)



By 1892 Ellis’s supremacy in English Wagnerism was unchallenged. As the Musical Times noted, he became a lecturing authority on the subject. On 23 February and 30 March 1892 he gave lectures on ‘Richard Wagner’s “Art-work of the Future”’ at Trinity College, London. The text of the lecture has not survived, but from the report on it in the Musical Times it seems Ellis managed to work in at least one contemporary reference:

If Wagner had been an Englishman or an American he would probably have set forth his scheme [for the ‘art-work of the future’] as Mr. Bellamy had done in “Looking Back”; but, being a German, and the German mind inclining to the philosophical form, Wagner naturally chose the latter method. It was, however, interesting to notice the great similarity which existed between the theories advanced in “Looking Back” and the art-work of the future; both works were based on the idea of an association of men in which individualism should have free play. [219]

In the discussion following this lecture, reported the Musical Times, ‘Mr. Ashton [sic] said that Wagner had directed that his autobiography should not be published until thirty years after his death, and that therefore his son, Mr. Siegfried Wagner, who was the possessor of the MS., would not publish it for another twenty years.’ Ellis must have had information to this effect from Wahnfried. The autobiography would be released, as he predicted, in 1911. However, its ‘look back’ on the Wagnerian nineteenth century came too late for Ellis who by then had already made his contribution to Wagner’s twentieth century posterity.

A highly partisan review from Würzburg of Cyrill Kistler’s Kunihild in the Musical Times for 1 April 1893, though by-lined ‘from our ‘Special Correspondent’, was signed at the end ‘W. A.-E.’. [220] The convention of unsigned reviews was now generally on the wane, and William Ashton Ellis had begun to put his name to articles in The Meister. The first attributed article was ‘From Fitzball to Wagner’, a lively and entertaining account of his research into the Fitzball melodrama about the Flying Dutchman which Heine may or may not have seen at the Adelphi Theatre in 1827. [221] Another article written with some feeling is his tribute ‘In Honour of Julius Cyriax’, which records visits to Bayreuth (and Wahnfried) with one of the founders of the London Wagner Society. It was Cyriax who had introduced Ellis to the neo-Wagnerian composer Cyrill Kistler (1848-1907). Kistler is the only post-Wagnerian composer for whom Ellis displayed any enthusiasm. Hubert Parry’s fourth symphony (presented by Hans Richter in its original form) gets a paragraph in The Meister in July 1889 (‘it does not fall far short of those by Brahms’), but probably mainly because Parry is Dannreuther’s pupil and a member of the London Wagner Society. The February 1891 issue hopes that the run of Ivanhoe (about to open) ‘may be both long and successful’, even though the editor ‘cannot speak from knowledge of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music’. In July 1891 the journal finds Bruckner’s third symphony to be ‘a work which certainly cannot be fathomed in one hearing’, and the Brahms Deutsches Requiem one which ‘we hope never to be called upon to hear […] again.’ The August 1893 issue is dismissive of Mahler (as a conductor) who ‘by no means great, was yet capable and vigorous’. Grieg is taken to task in the February 1894 issue for daring to defend Schumann against criticism in the Bayreuther Blätter. ‘[T]he young Scotch composer, Hamish M’Cunn’ is mentioned approvingly in the November number, inasmuch as he was the accompanist at the Wagner Society’s dinner-recital to welcome Siegfried Wagner to London. Brahms is cited approvingly in volume IV of the Life of Richard Wagner, but only when he praises Wagner as ‘one of the clearest heads that ever came into the world’. [222] For Richard Strauss one needs to ferret out a small-print square-bracketed parenthesis in volume V of the Life where Ellis invokes Ein Heldenleben as a taunt to J.W. Davison’s conservatism. [223] In contrast to all these, in The Meister of July 1892 Ellis went on record to risk being ‘very much mistaken if Herr Kistler’s genius is not soon recognised as at least equal to that of any living composer.’

‘[T]hough in no sense a “pupil” of Wagner’s,’ Ellis informs us, ‘Kistler had spent some time at Bayreuth on various occasions, and had been there employed, in 1882, upon the correcting of the solo parts of Parsifal.’ The scoring of Kunihild ‘was completed in February 1883, on the very day of Wagner’s death’. Between the first and second Würzburg performances of Kunihild Ellis had been invited to Kistler’s home in Kissingen, and in The Meister for May 1893, he depicts ‘the composer in the bosom of his family’. Noting that Kistler ‘is to a great extent his own publisher now, whereby there hangs a tale of rebellion against the middle-man’, Ellis completes the cosy picture ‘by the return from school of an animated but best-behaved boy of nine years old, who kisses your hand in that pretty fashion which might well be imported into England, to replace our modern schoolboy’s hands-in-pockets and “How d’ do, old chap!” This youngster is christened “Kunibert” after the hero of his father’s “opera” […].’ Ellis makes no gulp here, but goes on serenely to inform us ‘from my own observation and as a contribution to a subject lately broached in London literary circles, that Kistler generally takes an hour or so’s siesta after the midday meal. […].’ In recommending him to ‘Wagnerians, and others too – for I am sure that this music will appeal to an unsectarian spirit’, Ellis concludes: ‘As his catalogue is not yet printed, I hardly know the name or value of more than one or two of [Kistler’s works]; but I personally have a great liking for the “Vorspiel” to Act III. of Kunihild, for his “Trauermusik” (Richard Wagner), his “Trauerklänge” (Franz Witt), - price 1s. 6d. each – as pianoforte solos, and his “Chromatische Walzer” from Eulenspiegel, as pianoforte duet (3s.)’ [224] With such persuasive arguments, and as editor of the programme-books for Alfred Schulz-Curtius’ ‘Grand Wagner Concerts’ at the Queen’s Hall between 22 May 1894 and 16 June 1898, it was perhaps Ellis who induced Henry Wood to include Kistler’s ‘Chromatic Concert Valses from the Opera Eulenspiegel’, the Kunihild Act 3 prelude, and the Festklänge march in the programme of the first Promenade concerts in August and September 1895. [225]

Otherwise Ellis was indeed ‘very much mistaken’ about Kistler. His advocacy failed to secure Kistler’s ‘genius’ a lasting place in post-Wagnerian posterity. Reviewing the Promenade concert The Times remarked that ‘of the numerous imitators of Wagner [Kistler] is considered by some critics as the most competent to wield the bow of Ulysses. The piece performed on Saturday scarcely confirms that opinion. It is cast in the form of a set of waltzes, cleverly scored but containing very little actual originality.’ [226] J.A. Fuller Maitland (1856-1936), trying hard to be fair to Kistler (and to Ellis) at around the same time, had this to say:

Little more than a year after the death of Wagner there was brought out at Sondershausen, on March 20, 1883 [recte 1884], a three-act opera, “Kunihild und der Brautritt auf Kynast,” in which a certain section of the Wagnerian party discerned a worthy successor to the compositions of the master himself. […] So far as Kistler is to be judged by works already brought out, including many pieces of dance-music, no doubt written for the fashionable world of the watering-place, and several musicianly marches (notably one on the death of Wagner, in which the themes of Beethoven’s march in A flat minor, and of Siegfried’s death-march, are combined with good effect), the position claimed for him by a small band of admirers seems hardly justified. […] The composer lives a quiet life, in surroundings excellently adapted to the production of worthy works of art. In person he is described, in a recent number of The Meister (to which the reader may be referred for further information), as about 5ft. 10in. in height, “large-boned, slightly stooping with strongly-marked and regular features, keen dark eyes, rhetorical lips, and a forehead and shock of hair like Beethoven’s.” A portrait prefixed to [Kistler’s third opera] Baldur’s Tod bears this out, though it does not throw much light on the epithet “rhetorical.” [227]

Possibly at Ellis’s urging, Kistler was to publish some of the amateur compositions of Julius Cyriax. Ellis says he first met Cyriax ‘if I remember aright, in 1882, the Parsifal year [...]. Every Festspiel since then has brought us more or less together, especially in latter years, affording food for thought in London […].’ [228] Ellis’s applications for leave from the Western Dispensary (which were almost invariably granted by the Committee of Management), followed by notices in The Meister, give good indication of his actual pilgrimages to Bayreuth. He himself informs us he wasn’t at the Ring festival in 1876. On 19 July 1882 he was granted five weeks leave (the Western Dispensary had to find six guineas to engage a locum), so he could have witnessed the premiere performances of Parsifal – only, if he had been there with Cyriax, he would surely have said so unequivocally (and he had made the same application for leave at exactly the same time the year before). In 1883, as we have seen, he took three weeks leave in April to genuflect at the Palazzo Vendramin, and no further leave was requested or taken for the summer of that year. On 16 July 1884 Ellis was granted three weeks leave and, as said, it was almost certainly at that year’s Festival that he first encountered Mathilde Wesendonck. Ellis took three weeks leave from Friday 22 May 1885 (surely only coincidentally Wagner’s birthday) but his father’s illness and death in July used up a further month’s leave ‘on the usual terms’: in any case there was no Festival in 1885. The next year Ellis was granted a month’s leave from the Dispensary on 20 July, and though there is no corroboration most likely he was in Bayreuth for Parsifal and the new Tristan. Bayreuth had another ‘rest year’ in 1887, but Ellis had already resigned from the Western Dispensary in March to follow theosophical imperatives. In 1888 Ellis may have been one of nearly a thousand Londoners who bought tickets at Chappell’s for Parsifal and Die Meistersinger at that year’s Festival, but the lengthy review in the November issue of The Meister (though it bears some stylistic hallmarks, and was more enthusiastic about Meistersinger than Parsifal) was anonymous. In 1889, as he tells us outright, he was received by Cosima Wagner during the Festival (Parsifal, Tristan, Meistersinger). There was no Festival in 1890; but both The Meister and the Bayreuther Blätter record Ellis’s enthusiasm for Cosima’s 1891 production of Tannhäuser which he saw on 30 July and 2 August. And in the November 1892 issue of The Meister he poignantly described how Cyriax, already ill at what was to be his last Festival, recovered one evening from what was obviously a coronary attack following a reception at Wahnfried. [229]

Julius Cyriax, though, had been at Bayreuth in the historic years 1876 and 1882, and had become personally acquainted with Wagner himself during his conducting visit to London in 1877, when Edward Dannreuther was the celebrity’s host. Wagner’s medical condition had been much on his mind during that time. Dannreuther took him to Critchetts, the opticians, where astigmatism was diagnosed, and noted that Wagner was also troubled with dyspepsia. [230] It’s quite conceivable that Dannreuther would then have referred Wagner to a German-speaking and musically-minded pharmacist for medication, since the composer’s own English was poor. Since 1876 Julius Theodor Friedrich Cyriax (1840-1892) had been a partner in the firm of Burgoyne, Burbidges, Cyriax & Farries, ‘wholesale & export druggists & manufacturing chemists’ of 16 Coleman Street, London E.C. [231] He was naturalised, as Julius Frederick Theodore Cyriax, on 24 November 1884. [232]

The following year Cyriax, with his wife Anna, was welcomed by the Wagners in Bayreuth. Cosima Wagner’s diary entry for 20 June 1878 records that ‘Friend C[yriax] says R. is looking very well, and during our walk [in the woods near Bayreuth] he does indeed behave as if he were the youngest among us.’ Julius is mentioned frequently in Cosima’s diaries as ‘friend Cyriax’, and the rejuvenating effects of his letters and presents were always appreciated in Wahnfried: ‘Herr Cyriax sends all kinds of things; R.: “I like people who make presents to my wife, but who are in fact just going along with my secret intentions!”’ (5 July 1878).

Later in 1878 Cyriax began to make a photographic collection of places, particularly in London, associated with Wagner. On 10 October Cosima notes that ‘friend Cyriax writes to say he has discovered the Horseshoe Tavern! A 70-year-old house, the only one still standing, in the City [of London]!’ Ellis tells us that in fact Cyriax had been collecting a whole series of photographs for a special purpose:

[...] I now learn through Herr Glasenapp that the ‘London friend’ - the late Julius Cyriax, a beloved friend of so many of us till death cut him down in September 1892 - caused the original photographs [of Wagner’s London residences during his visits in 1839, 1855 and 1877] to be taken in the spring of 1879 for a collection destined by Frau Wagner as a birthday-gift to her husband [...]. [233]

A typical entry in Cosima’s diary is that for 17 July 1879, when she records ‘a cheerful meal with our friends Levi and Cyriax, who has just arrived from London. The latter tells us of Richter’s “triumphs” as a conductor in London, and both speak with enthusiasm of the Comédie Fr[ancaise]. Herr Cyriax has brought me a picture of the house in which R. stayed in Boulogne!’ Glasenapp, in an endnote to the first volume of his biography, told the story of how Cyriax’s researches into historical Wagner locations later gained him (Cyriax) a curious memento of Wagner’s birthplace in Leipzig, after its demolition in 1885:

Nur ein einzelner Theil des altehrwürdigen Hauses im Brühl ist noch heute erhalten, aber nicht mehr in Leipzig, sondern in London. Es ist ,die alte, historisch echte Thür, welche aus (Friedrich) Wagners Wohnzimmer in den Alkoven (resp. die Schlafkammer und das Geburtszimmer Richard Wagner’s) führte, und durch die der kleine Richard täglich vielmals gelaufen.’ Sie wurde bei der Abtragung des Hauses durch einen Leipziger angekauft und, mit beigefügtem Authentizitäts-Zeugnis, als ein Geschenk eigenthümlicher Art, einem der hochherzigsten, in Wagners Sache thätigsten Londoner Freunde, dem verewigten Julius Cyriax, zugesandt, der sie einem eigens dazu konstruirten Schrank zur Aufbewahrung seiner Wagnerianischen Heiligthümer in gleicher Funktion (als Thür nämlich!) einverleibte, und bei dessen Nachkommen diese seltsamste Reliquie für alle Zeiten einer pietätvollen Hochhaltung gewiß ist. [234]

Ellis must already have had the tale from Cyriax, for he translates (or, rather, paraphrases) Glasenapp quite prosaically:

The door leading from [Richard Wagner’s father] Friedrich Wagner’s living-room into the bedroom where Richard was born is now in London, having been presented by the Leipzig purchaser to the late Julius Cyriax, the well-beloved Secretary, and thereafter Treasurer, of the London Wagner Society; this precious relic, through which the little Richard must so often have passed, Mr Cyriax had fitted to a cabinet for the preservation of his other Wagner treasures. [235]

Wagner rewarded Cyriax for his friendship, not least by agreeing to become godfather (a relationship to have some significance for Ellis in his own childless life) to Cyriax’s second daughter named after the composer: ‘In the morning’ Cosima recorded on 3 June 1879, ‘he writes to friend Cyriax with a little verse for his small godchild: “that Richardis Cyriax may bloom and wax” was all he told me of it.’ Eva Richardis Cyriax had been born on 21 November 1878. [236]

Though there is no trace of rancour, Ellis must have envied Cyriax’s popularity at Wahnfried during Wagner’s lifetime, something he himself had never enjoyed (nor, be it said, sought). Certainly Wagner had found Cyriax a source of lively humour, a commodity which Cosima and Chamberlain – not themselves renowned for levity - were later unable to detect in Ellis. In part this was because Cyriax was disarmingly modest about great art, preferring to dwell on quite mundane and personal topics. Wagner obviously relished this light relief. Cosima records that he teased Cyriax about his pharmaceutical enterprise during Julius’s visit to Bayreuth on 13 August 1881: ‘In the evening our friend Cyriax; in his cheerful, frank way R. asks him about his income from his business, and thinks it rather small.’ In fact the firm, despite Wagner’s mockery, was quite enterprising, and not only in London. On 5 January 1882, for example, William Copeland, founder of the Spring Valley (now Kirin) Brewery in Yokohama, ordered from it a quantity of salicylic acid as a beer preservative ‘sufficient for 100 Hogsheads’, adding in a postscript, ‘If you have room please also put in ½ Doz. bottles of the best Hair Restorer you know.’ [237] It’s possible that Wagner’s jocular friendship with Cyriax was his way of appreciating something quite personal: I understand from Cyriax’s descendants that the firm supplied preparations for the composer’s haemorrhoids.

Ellis, by contrast with Cyriax, knew he had few capitalist credentials to boast of or to be derided for, even gently. He was not that sort of materialist, and one suspects that Wagner would have found Ellis’s theosophical earnestness rather irksome. It’s impossible to imagine that Ellis could have entertained Wahnfried as when on 16 December 1881 Cosima recorded: ‘A moment of amusement is occasioned by a postcard from Cyriax, from whom I had ordered a new kind of umbrella which had been recommended by the [Illustrierte Zeitung] and which R. thought good; Cyriax tells us it was a joke in a humorous journal, which the Ill.Z. took seriously!’ Only two days before he died, Wagner referred indirectly but jokingly to Julius, as Cosima noted in her diary for 11 February 1883: ‘Around noon [Wagner] came into my room. “I have a letter from Cyriax.” “Is there anything in it?” “You’ll soon see.” When I have dried my hands, I look: it is a scherzo theme, written down on an envelope from Cyriax - he then plays it on his piano.’ The Wagner Werk-Verzeichnis refers to a musical sketch on an envelope from Cyriax postmarked London, 14 March 1879. [238] Cosima’s Diary for 25 March that year records that during one of those occasions when Wagner was wont to lark about there came to him [‘es fallt ihm aber, wie er sagt, allerhand Allotria ein’] among other things ‘a scherzo theme for a symphony’. It would appear that just before his death Wagner rediscovered (rather than had just received) the envelope from Julius Cyriax on which he had sketched the scherzo theme nearly four years before. Ellis could only have envied Cyriax this easy ‘back-of-an-envelope’ personal relationship with Wagner. But Cyriax was doubtless instrumental in depicting vividly for Ellis the human side of the genius. His obituary tribute in The Meister reveals the genuine grief the forty-year-old Ellis felt when Cyriax died suddenly aged only 52.

Though their own relationship was much stiffer than Cyriax’s and Richard Wagner’s, in his own way Ellis might have contributed towards Siegfried Wagner’s reflection in later years on the affinity of medicine and music. Of all the professions represented in the audience at Bayreuth, Siegfried was to note, medicine was foremost. In the course of his profession the physician was necessarily confronted with so much human suffering that ‘without some mediation the psyche of such a person would succumb to pessimism; that mediation is the most redemptive of all arts - music!’ Siegfried’s mind was much expanded in February to June 1892 by travel to the Far East aboard the British ship Wakefield in the company of the young English composer Clement Harris (1871-97). In his published memoirs he wrote that he regarded the English (long before he knew he would marry one) as ‘congenial and full of humour and tact’ on the personal, if not the political, level. He also regarded ‘Hyperwagnerianer’ – ‘people who, from dawn till dusk, deliver quotations from my father’s works’ - as friends more dangerous than enemies. He seems not to have extended this caution, however, to the London Wagner Society whose main energy, he thought, was ‘directed towards the propagation of the Collected Writings of my father’. [239] A few months before he set sail, Siegfried had been introduced to Ellis by Cyriax. [240] They met again in London, when Ellis chaired a London Wagner Society reception for Siegfried on 2 November 1894. [241] In 1896 Ellis wrote to The Times among other things to defend Siegfried against the accusation that he had been selected as one of the conductors of The Ring at Bayreuth that year simply for ‘the gratification of Mme. Wagner’s maternal feelings’:

THE BAYREUTH FESTIVAL. – Mr. W. Ashton Ellis writes to us from Bayreuth, under date August 16, in reply to the letter from Mr. F. Jameson, which appeared in our issue of the 11th inst. Mr. Ellis denies that he “rebuked” our musical critic for his criticism of the stage-business in connexion with Wotan’s sword, and says he merely pointed out that this “innovation,” as it was called, “was made by Richard Wagner himself in 1876,” and has been retained at Bayreuth ever since. Mr. Ellis further complains that Mr. Jameson misrepresented him in saying that he quoted Herr Siegfried Wagner as being among the authorities on the Bayreuth performances of 1876; and points out that Herr Siegfried Wagner’s name was not mentioned by him in the course of his first letter, published on August 1. With reference to Mr. Jameson’s remarks upon Herr Siegfried Wagner as conductor, Mr. Ellis says: - “The general consensus of opinion among the Bayreuth visitors has not only endorsed the action of the management in affording Herr Siegfried an opportunity of convincing the world of his ability, but has greeted the accomplished fact as a warrant of the permanence of the Bayreuth Theatre’s artistic prosperity. Not only were the calls for ‘Siegfried Wagner’ at the close of Die Götterdämmerung both many and prolonged, but a deputation from the orchestra itself waited upon Frau Wagner the next day, begging her to allow him to conduct the next – i.e., the fifth and last, the present cycle – a request with which she, of course, could not comply, as Dr. Richter was returning for the purpose. I have only further to point out that there never was a ‘Patronat Verein’ in authority over the Bayreuth Theatre; that the body of voluntary collectors of funds once styled the ‘Patronat Verein’ has long since ceased to exist; and, finally, that the business affairs of the theatre are conducted by a ‘Verwaltungs[r]ath’, presided over by Herr Adolf von Gross, the Bayreuth banker. To Herr Gross should Mr. Jameson address his animadversions on the ‘honesty’ of a management that offers its performances to the public at something like 25 per cent. below cost price; but it may be as well for me to inform your general readers that the Bayreuth authorities have never adopted the policy of announcing a list of performers, whether chefs d’orchestre or singers, before offering their seats to the public – the announcement that certain works would be performed there has sufficed for the vast majority of applicants.” [242]

After this little more is known of their acquaintance, but in 1898 the authorised English translation for the libretto of Siegfried Wagner’s first and most successful opera Der Bärenhäuter was provided by William Ashton Ellis.


Shaw reported that when he heard Ellis ‘confront’ the Musical Association on 13 December 1892 with that lecture on Wagner’s prose, he (Shaw) had ‘looked round for the old gang (if I may use that convenient political term without offence), and looked in vain. [...] [T]he enemy was chapfallen and speechless - that is, if the enemy was present; but I think he had stayed away. At any rate, Mr Ellis’s party had the discussion all to themselves.’ [243] Mr Ellis, moreover, was engaged in refining his party’s ideology.

The last quarterly number of The Meister for 1891 carried an unattributed notice: ‘By the death of Ferdinand Praeger we have lost a faithful member of the Society, Wagner’s earliest friend in London, and a composer whose modesty debarred his fame.’ [244] Fifteen years later, Ellis owned that he had been the author of that not inelegant epitaph. It had been, however, merely a glib use of the editorial voice: ‘In those days I could only speak of [Praeger] from hearsay, but all my friends in the Society had nothing save kind words to say about the aged man.’ [245] Since at least 1874 Praeger had been retailing his acquaintance with Wagner, as the London Correspondent of the Manchester Guardian reported:

To-night [...] I heard a defence of the composer from one who is not only nominally but really his friend, Herr Ferdinand Praeger, a gentlemen who stated it to be his boast that every time he spends his holidays with Wagner, he always leaves him more and more amazed at the wonderful combination of excellences he displays. Herr Praeger’s lecture was delivered in the rooms of the Society of Arts, before a crowded audience; but, unfortunately, he was only audible to those near to him, and thus, like Herr [Ernst] Pauer, whose lectures are always marred by their delivery, he would have done well to secure the aid of an English reader. He exalts Wagner to the highest place as a musician, poet, and philosopher; and he even goes further, and predicts the complete triumph of his works in England when they become known. [...] But this, I fancy, is an opinion which few musical readers will share. As, however, I have no wish to break a lance with the lecturer, I will simply state his view and give him the credit he highly deserves of being a friend indeed if not a friend in need to the much-discussed composer. As a whole his paper was well received, but one of his countrymen afterwards rose and strongly protested against the undue adulation of Wagner. On Friday night, by the way, Wagner will be as much in the ascendant in the concert-room as he was to-night in the lecture-room, the programme of the Wagner Society’s concert at St. James’s Hall being nearly filled with his music. [246]

Like his friends, Ellis had eagerly awaited Praeger’s published reminiscences of Wagner, even though the old man, strangely, had never availed himself of the opportunity to contribute anything to The Meister. When those reminiscences were unveiled to, as Ellis put it, ‘a questioning world’, they amounted to ‘one of the bitterest disappointments I ever experienced, since the most random dip into the book revealed its worthlessness as history.’ [247] At the time he wrote to Cyriax, not altogether unsympathetically:

Poor Praeger! I wish he had never written that terrible “Wagner as I knew him”. The “candid (& rather short-viewed) friend” is the worst of foes! Also the book wants thorough revising for mistakes of all kinds (proper names are all to pieces! - but that is the least offence. The Wagners, & especially good Madame Wesendonck, whom I know and respect, will be furious! [248]

Praeger had died the previous September, ‘after a long and painful illness’ according to his obituary in The Times of 3 September 1891. The posthumous publication of his Richard Wagner as I knew him came in February 1892. Reference is sometimes made (including in the current entry on Praeger in Grove) to its being first published in 1885. This is unlikely. Though Praeger had dated the dedication of his book to Lord Dysart 15 June 1885, in the spring of 1892 C.A. Barry expressed regret that the author ‘did not live to “see his book through the press”’, and Ellis ‘that Mr Praeger’s work was not published before his own decease […].’ [249] Praeger’s book cheated Ellis on three counts: it could lay claim to personal acquaintance with Richard Wagner; it became the first English-language biography of Wagner; and it reached publication a full year before Ellis’s most substantial public contribution so far, the book edition of the Prose Works I. In fact, during the Festival of 1892 Praeger’s book appeared on the Bayreuth bookstalls in two editions, English and German, whose discrepancy proved to be the key to the flaws of both:

In a conversation on this matter with the editor of the Bayreuther Blätter, Freiherr Hans von Wolzogen (who, of course, had at once noticed it himself), he asked me to write a fairly long review of the German version, for publication in that paper later on. At the same time I made the acquaintance of Mr Houston S. Chamberlain, an English resident in Vienna, who has given the German world some of the best essays yet written on the subject of Richard Wagner. He promised to render into German my forthcoming contribution. To cut a long story short, this culminated in a triple alliance, and from his own, from mine, and from Wolzogen’s notes and criticisms Mr Chamberlain constructed an essay of forty pages, small type, occupying the whole of the July number of the Bayreuther Blätter for 1893. [250]

Few have since disputed that Ellis and Chamberlain put Praeger’s factual errors to right, but the vehemence and obsessiveness of Ellis’s vendetta, though frequently remarked on, has hardly been explained. Ellis himself probably revealed the reason when he recorded how in a ‘superior’ way the Musical News of 29 July 1892 had, in its words, taken ‘leave to express an opinion that Praeger’s account of the doings of Wagner, with whom he had an intimate acquaintance, are much more likely to receive general acceptance, than the opinions of a writer whose knowledge of Wagner is second-hand and posthumous.’ [251]

The sneer ‘second-hand and posthumous’ would have wounded Ellis. Ellis had always been conscious of being a British-born Wagnerite, standing ‘second-hand and posthumous’ to those fortunate others such as Edward Dannreuther and Julius Cyriax, and of course Ferdinard Praeger, whose age and German origins did allow them to have that first-hand ‘intimate acquaintance’ with the composer. Ellis knew that Dannreuther and Cyriax had given Wagnerian christian names to some of their children; but when he refers to Praeger’s bestowing the full name of Richard Wagner Charles Henry Praeger on Wagner’s godson in July 1855, he comments that ‘it was almost tempting Providence’. (Ellis may not have known that in 1871 the Praegers had a daughter christened Brunhilde [sic].) [252] Childless himself, and unrelated personally to Wagner through language, nationhood or family, but bolstered by the theosophical convictions of his youth, Ellis pursued an affinity which for him transcended earth-bound biological connections.

Within four months of Praeger’s (English) book being published, Ellis fired off a public riposte in the form of a 72-page booklet entitled 1849. A Vindication. This curiosity (still to be found on Foyle’s shelves in the early 1970s, re-priced decimally at ‘£0.18’) was the first - and only - of a projected series of ‘Wagner Sketches’ intended to appear when ‘In following up some one particular track in the career of this extraordinary genius, one suddenly comes upon a scene so complex in its features, or so vivid in its colouring, that one cannot resist the impulse to out with brush and pencil and draft a hasty Sketch before the picture fades.’ [253] In the ‘Notes’ for July 1892 the editor of The Meister coyly mentioned that

We have received from Messrs Kegan Paul a small volume entitled “1849. A VINDICATION,” by Wm. Ashton Ellis. We seem to know the author’s name; but he must accept our sincere apologies if we decline to review his work, for personal reasons. We may state, however, that its price is 2s., (bound in cloth 2s.6d.) and that the writer informs us that he may, in time, follow up this triolet of “WAGNER-SKETCHES” by similar doses. He will have to get some one else to criticise them, for we absolutely refuse. [254]

Bernard Shaw accepted the obvious hint. Having reviewed Praeger’s book favourably when it appeared (‘A more vivid and convincing portrait than Praeger’s was never painted in words’), he typically proposed a common-sensible solution when he found he was just as positive about Ellis’s rebuttal of its account of Wagner’s involvement in the Dresden insurrection: The Vindication should, he said, ‘be bound up with every library copy of the late Ferdinand Praeger’s very entertaining Wagner as I knew him.’ [255]

Nonetheless Shaw could not avoid crowning Ellis with the undisputed laurel: English Wagnerians ‘already owe more to [Ellis] than to any other man, except perhaps Mr Dannreuther. And when Mr Ellis’s translation of Wagner’s prose works, which has now reached the 1851 Mittheilung an meine Freunde, is complete, even Mr Dannreuther’s claims must give way to those of the editor of The Meister.’ [256] Recognition did not placate Ellis. The vendetta against the late Ferdinand Praeger continued in The Meister, where Ellis decided ‘to discard for the nonce the editorial “we” and criticise in propria persona’. [257]

In March 1895 Breitkopf und Härtel, the publishers of the German version of Praeger’s book, confirmed their withdrawal of it after Chamberlain produced clear evidence of Praeger’s tamperings. Chamberlain had been on a rare visit to his estranged homeland in October 1893. From his letters to Cosima we know that his visit began at 2 Wellington Road, Eltham, Kent, possibly a suitably anonymous ‘digs’ [258] from which it was a 20 minute rail journey into London, where in one day he says he saw ‘three uncles, two aunts, and various cousins of both sexes’. From London he then travelled north, to the remote and crumbling Castle Duart on the Isle of Mull, where his affluent widowed aunt Anne Arbuthnot Guthrie (née Chamberlain) resided. [259] Returning south, his destination was Buckminster Park, near Grantham, one of Lord Dysart’s two seats. Chamberlain said he had an invitation to Buckminster, where Dysart held his archive, but other accounts have it that he arrived in the earl’s absence. Whether by consent or by stealth, in any event he managed to copy the originals of the Wagner letters in Lord Dysart’s possession which Praeger had ‘reproduced’ in his books.

That Chamberlain had planned this as a near-clandestine mission, parachuting, as it were, into his now alien homeland on Wahnfried’s behalf, is apparent from his words to Cosima from his Eltham address on 4 October 1893: ‘Today I have begun to lay my snare for Lord Dysart, the owner of the Praeger letters; my aunt, Lady Chamberlain, knows his wife.’ [260] By 21 October Chamberlain could report to Cosima from the Isle of Mull that, ‘Next week I will spend 2 or 3 days as his [Lord Dysart’s] guest at his Buckminster castle (in the vicinity of Grantham). Up till now he has refused to show the letters to anyone; but through my aunt Lady Chamberlain I was able to assail the feminine side, to said successful outcome.’ On 26 October from Buckminster itself he reports mission accomplished: ‘Of the 34 letters to Praeger Lord D. owns only 20; these I have copied faithfully from the originals.’ The others, he suggests, might have been stolen, but he would get on their track. Despite all the social niceties at Buckminster, no-one challenged his surreptitious copying activities during the evenings of his stay. ‘Luckily no-one knew what my objective was here, and I said to everyone, [in English] “Oh yes! Oh no! Oh, you don’t say so!” etc, - Whoever doesn’t regard me as an idiot here must be one himself.’ [261] Chamberlain admitted later that he made his copies ‘of necessity in short time and in a state of martyrdom to my nerves’. [262] With his transcripts Chamberlain headed home for Vienna and prepared to disclose Praeger’s misrepresentations and falsifications in the Bayreuther Blätter for January 1894. In the summer of that year his exposé reached a wider readership as Richard Wagner: Echte Briefe an Ferdinard Praeger, and a few weeks later Breitkopf und Härtel withdrew their German edition of Praeger’s book from the shops.

But despite a sustained campaign in the Musical Standard between 24 February and 7 April 1894 Ellis failed to get the English version of Praeger’s book withdrawn. ‘I wrote to Messrs Longmans, Green & Co. the middle of April 1895, informing them of Messrs Breitkopf & Haertel’s withdrawal, and asking them if they did not intend to follow suit. From that day to this I have had no answer from them […]. But surely there ought to be some means at our public reading-rooms – such as the inscription “unreliable: letters disputed” – of preventing the unwary student or budding journalist from being misled by such proved perversions of biography.’ That was how he put it in a lengthy ‘supplemental note’ to the fifth volume of the Life of Richard Wagner, recounting the story a whole decade later (published 1906, some footnotes dated 1905). ‘Until such means be found,’ Ellis concluded grimly, ‘I shall have to continue to expose Praeger’s misstatements in detail whenever they are of sufficient moment to call for notice on my path, however little it may be to the “taste” of a few recidivists.’ [263]

In May 1895, in the antepenultimate number of The Meister Ellis offered, as he then hoped, ‘a final word’ on the Praeger affair, the news of the withdrawal of Praeger’s German edition. However he added the information that the name of the dedicatee of the book had been discreetly asterisked in the Musical Standard’s account, to save that gentleman’s embarrassment. None too subtly, Ellis reminded his readers of The Meister that this hapless individual was ‘the President of the London Wagner Society’, the near-blind and politically inactive Lord Dysart. Immediately following this, but without further comment, was another ‘Note’: ‘The Earl of Dysart on the 17th ult. [April 1895] resigned his Presidency and Membership of the Wagner Society, London; at the ensuing meeting of the Committee, Lord Dysart’s resignation was accepted.’ [264] ‘I regretted that resignation,’ Ellis admitted later, ‘as the gentleman’s own sight was so impaired that he could in no just way be held responsible for this ghastly pair of books’. The New York Musical Courier had ‘without my privity’, as Ellis put it, been following the whole affair. In its number for 17 July 1895 it printed Ellis’s statement that ‘the Wagner Society had nothing whatever to do with the publication, and that our President had “in a private capacity owned the manuscripts etc. of Praeger’s book, and it is purely in a private capacity that he has dealt with them and it from first to last.”’ [265] Nonetheless this, it appears, was the way in which Ellis dealt with ‘recidivists’.

Two more issues of The Meister were to appear. [266] Nearly every item was initialled W.A.E., and the weight of significance attached to Chamberlain and Glasenapp in the last number suggests that Ellis had now decided to continue on his own, seeing himself as Wahnfried’s intellectual ambassador in London. Having shot the prime exhibit, the zookeeper seems to have stalked off. For a time Edward Dannreuther resumed office from Lord Dysart as President of the London Branch of the Wagner Society (‘The Right Hon. The Earl of Dysart’ appears as President of the Wagner Society in an advertisement in the British Library’s bound copy of volume VII of The Meister; the otherwise nearly identical advertisement in volume VIII substitutes Dannreuther’s name). It’s not clear whether Ellis then gave up the editorship, or was removed. With its thirty-second issue, dated 25 November 1895, The Meister ceased publication without any warning or valediction . While continuing to send in the Prose Works translations, Ellis may even have gone back to medical practice between 1895 and 1898 in Herne Hill. [267]


After Dysart’s resignation the London Wagner Society fell into disarray. By the time he completed the Prose Works translations in 1899 Ellis had ceased being its secretary. According to the Court Circular of The Times on 18 May of that year, ‘Dr. Hans Richter will be the guest of the Wagner Society at a banquet at the Café Royal on May 30; Lord Windsor is to take the chair. The hon. secretary is Mr. Charles Dowdeswell, 33, Argyll-mansions, Addison-bridge, W.’ In 1901, a Philip A. Wilkins, styling himself ‘Honorary Secretary, Allgemeiner Richard Wagner-Verein, London Branch’, wrote to the press to appeal for donations to the Bayreuth Stipendiary Fund ‘the present year being the jubilee of the “Bayreuth Idea” and the half-jubilee of its earliest realization.’ [268] The Stipendiary Fund was still being promoted in the 1904 prospectus of ‘the London Branch of the Wagner Society’, with donations to be sent ‘to the Treasurer of the Wagner Society (A. L. Birnstingl), 5 Pembroke Gardens, Kensington, London, W.’ [269]

Like Benjamin Lewis Mosely, Avigdor Lewis Birnstingl (1853-1924) is one of the unsung pioneers of English Wagnerism. Birnstingl had been on the committee of the Wagner Society since at least 1887, and he became its treasurer in 1889 following Julius Cyriax’s resignation as secretary for reasons of health and business. (Charles Dowdeswell took his place as secretary.) [270] Birnstingl’s wife Cordelia whom he married in 1888 apparently suffered poor health too: on 6 March 1892 she lost a ten-week old daughter and on 24 February 1894 another daughter, from scarlet fever, aged nearly five. [271] (A son, Charles Avigdor Birnstingl, was born in 1895 and survived until 26 January 1971.) Cordelia died aged 51 on 30 January 1917 ‘after many years’ illness bravely borne’. [272] In 1891 Birnstingl was listed in the press as a donor to the Anglo-Jewish Society for Relieving the Aged Needy, and in 1907-8 as an annual subscriber to the King Edward’s Hospital Fund for London. He was respected in musical circles, and was one of the guests at the banquet commemorating the Novello centenary at De Keyser’s Hotel on 6 December 1911. The Times of 25 November 1924 recorded that ‘The festival of St. Cecelia fell on Saturday, and yesterday the Worshipful Company of Musicians celebrated their patroness at evensong in St. Paul’s Cathedral. As befitted its purpose, it was a service in which the praise was music, and the music praise. Nor, while it remembered tradition, did it forget more personal memories; for at the conclusion Dr. [Charles] Macpherson played very beautifully on the organ a dirge composed by Sir Edward Elgar for members of the Company who had died within the last year. These were Sir Frederick Bridge (Senior Past Master), Alfred Moul and Avigdor Lewis Birnstingl (livery-men), and Sir Walter Parratt and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (honorary freemen).’ [273]

By the time of Edward Dannreuther’s death in February 1905, the London Branch of the United Wagner Society seems to have folded altogether. Another ‘Wagner Association’ was founded in mid-1910 by Louis N. Parker, twenty-three years earlier a correspondent for La Revue Wagnérienne and one of the original members of the London Branch, now a celebrated playwright and pageant-deviser. The Association’s objects included ‘The special celebration of the centenary of Wagner’s birth’ anticipated for 1913. As The Times reported,

This association, formed during the summer for “the encouragement of friendly criticism and support of the right performance of Wagner’s works in England” and more especially to secure the celebration of the centenary of Wagner’s birth in 1913, held its first annual general meeting on October 3. There are now 223 members, and the president, Mr. Louis N. Parker, announced the election of Dr. Hans Richter and Mr. Ashton Ellis as honorary members. He also drew attention to the fact that the committee have decided to offer a prize to members of the association for the best essay on Lohengrin. The prize will be a complete set of tickets for the performances of The Ring, Meistersinger, and Parsifal at Bayreuth (August 14 to 20, 1911). Particulars of membership and other conditions for the essay may be obtained from Mr. F. A. Richards (hon. assistant secretary), 2c, Bickenhall-mansions, Gloucester-place, W., or from Mr. Sydney Loeb (hon. treasurer), 4, Lancaster-gate, W. [274]

Shaw would have applauded the Association’s ambition to present the first authorised performance outside Bayreuth of Parsifal (even before expiry of the copyright at the end of 1913), in a temporary ‘wooden theatre in Wembley Park, of which the interior - the auditorium and stage - should be an exact replica to scale, in every detail, of the Bayreuth theatre [...]. At the close of the 1912 performances at Bayreuth, the whole company - soloists, chorus, orchestra, conductors and scenery - were to be transferred in a body to Wembley, where they would continue the performances unconscious that their venue had been changed.’ The profits (‘if any’) were to go to the Bayreuth Endowment Fund, and several wealthy German members of the new Wagner society promised support for the project (though not including Hans Richter, who seems to have been rather bemused by it). However, ‘Siegfried Wagner negatived it. His father had specifically ordained that Parsifal should never be played outside Bayreuth; and there, as far as he was concerned, was an end of the matter. So the following year Parsifal was set free and was at once done everywhere by everybody, according to everyone’s idea except Wagner’s.’ This Wagner Association lasted at least until 1912 (1914 according to Parker), and seems to have achieved some reconciliation between older and rising Wagnerians: at any rate its membership managed to include Alice Cleather and Basil Crump, the Earl of Dysart, William Ashton Ellis (honoris causâ), Alfred Forman, David Irvine, Hans Richter (honoris causâ), Robert Mayer, Donald Francis Tovey, and apparently a very young Victor Gollancz. Parker seems to have been unable to recruit Bernard Shaw and Ernest Newman. [275]


Having disposed of the old recidivists, Ellis was to turn his sights on the rising generation. In the cantankerous fifth volume of the Life of Richard Wagner he took sarcastic issue with ‘a writer whose name I spare posterity in mercy to himself; as I trust he still is less than half-way through life’s journey, I will merely style him “Mr Youngman”.’ [276] In coining ‘Mr. Youngman’ Ellis would have been unaware that ‘Ernest Newman’ was already a Bunyanesque cognomen adopted by William Roberts (1868-1959). [277] The substance of the quarrel boiled down to an 1904 article on Berlioz in which Newman had commented in a footnote that in Ellis’s Life of Richard Wagner (‘now in the course of publication’) his editorial practices were such that ‘The British public is apparently to be treated like a child, and told only so much of the truth about Wagner as is thought to be good for it - or at any rate good for Wagner.’ ‘Taken by itself,’ Ellis fumed, ‘that was offensive enough, and the more offensive as coming from an author who in a previous work of more elaborate pretensions had drawn so largely on my own translations of the master’s prose, after my besought and accorded permission.’ [278] The offending essay by Newman had been published in The Speaker for October 1904, though Ellis’s rejoinder went to the length of suppressing that journal’s name to deprive Newman of the publicity. Later that year Ellis also took exception to Newman’s new short study of Wagner in Wakeling Dry’s series ‘The Music of the Masters’. ‘A few enthusiasts’, Newman had written there,

still go on proclaiming that Wagner was a great thinker, but their number diminishes every day; and without any disrespect to them, one may say that their tributes of the excellence of Wagner’s thought would be more convincing were their own reputation as scientific thinkers a little more surely established. [279]

Worse than that, on page 204, as Ellis complained to Bernard Shaw, more than a little ‘disrespect’ was to be found:

Glasenapp’s big biography is being brought out by Mr. Ashton Ellis, who has also done excellent service by translating the ten volumes of Wagner’s prose works. Unfortunately Mr. Ellis, by long association with German prose, has acquired habits of expression that are decidedly Teutonic, and that makes the reading of his translations of Wagner somewhat of a trial to anyone with a literary palate. Some one might now do the student a real service by translating Mr. Ellis into English. [280]

Shaw persuaded Ellis not to retaliate, as it wouldn’t have enhanced his chances of being awarded a Civil List pension. Ellis’s letter to Shaw mentioned in passing that ‘beyond a couple of letters exchanged in 1899’ regarding errors in Newman’s Study of Wagner, ‘no other correspondence has passed between us, nor have I ever met him’. Shaw was keen to keep it that way, and his handwritten note on Ellis’s letter instructed his secretary to ‘burn the letters to & re Newman 13/12/04’. Ellis had enclosed drafts of a private and a public ‘chastisement’ of Newman, saying that ‘a box on the ears of some sort is called for.’ [281] Newman was later to respond to Ellis’s attacks with patrician disdain and a neat pun: ‘Over Mr. Ellis’s mixture of clumsy rudeness and heavy Teutonic facetiousness we need not linger; these things have no novelty for Wagner students who have sojourned long in the Ellisian fields of controversy.’ He closed with the observation that ‘If Wagner is to be whitewashed at all, it must be by a less brittle brush than this.’ [282]

In 1893 Ellis had reviewed the American H.T. Finck’s Wagner and his Works in The Meister. Though he almost admired the impertinence of the transatlantic viewpoint, he was uncomfortable with its brusque treatment of the ‘classic’ Old World sources such as Glasenapp and Georges Noufflard. Finck wrote that ‘Glasenapp having been first in the field, had to do some hard pioneer work, for which he deserves credit. But his treatise exists only in German, and it will probably never be translated’ - here Ellis interpolated one of those combative square-bracketed parentheses, ‘[don’t be too sure!]’ – ‘as it is too verbose, and contains too many dry details of merely local interest.’ [283] Years later Sir William Henry Hadow (1859-1937) would deplore the stylistic and typographic techniques – what Shaw had called ‘the Meisterful method’ – employed by Ellis first against Praeger and then habitually: ‘the language is carefully chosen to suggest disparagement, the pages are clouded with little spiteful parentheses like mosquitoes, the tone is that of a prosecution which would find the prisoner guilty at all costs.’ [284] This particular parenthesis, though perhaps less spiteful, was portentous.

Checking again with Bernard Shaw we find that volume I of the Prose Works was ‘well worth the money’ (always one of Shaw’s highest accolades), and volume II had ‘a sentence or two in which it is clearer than the original’ - though Shaw confessed his ‘stupendous’ ignorance of German. [285] Despite that ignorance, of course, Shaw was prepared to bandy Wagnerian exegesis with ‘My friend Mr. Ashton Ellis’ in the public prints, as in the Daily Chronicle in June 1898, over Brünnhilde’s oath in Götterdämmerung. [286] This was in order to flex a few Shavian muscles for The Perfect Wagnerite, to be published in December of that year. Shaw, though, knew his place as Wagnerite, and in the preface to his book he hailed Ellis’s prose works translation as ‘a masterpiece of interpretation and an eminent addition to our literature; but that is not because its author, Mr. Ashton Ellis, knows the German dictionary better than his predecessors. He is simply in possession of Wagner’s ideas, which were to them inconceivable.’ [287]


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