Location: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

In love. Working on a book.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Wagner and rappers

The book I'm working on is about myths relating to the opera Parsifal. Two of those myths are mostly occult-related. These are, first, Trevor Ravenscroft's Spear of Destiny mythos, and second, the Holy-Blood, Holy Grail, Da Vinci Code stuff. It's an oddity, but both of these hoaxes are in a line of descent from ideas introduced in the opera Parsifal (or not really present in Parsifal but read into it by some slightly eccentric figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries). The third myth is not occult but political: the idea that there is a secret code embedded in Parsifal, which code is about Aryan racial supremacy, and so on.

Part of my point, in writing the book, is to note that there is little difference in the quality of argument applied, or the use of evidence, by the pot-boiling hacks who gave us books like The Spear of Destiny and The Arcadian Cipher, who are not expected to be intellectually respectable, and the academics who wrote things like Wagner, Race and Revolution, Wagner's Hitler: The Prophet and his Disciple, and so on, who are expected to avoid things like doctoring quotes, misreporting source material and so on. But in fact their practices are pretty similar, though one crew is supposed to be low-culture while the other lot are supposedly high-culture. I'll be arguing that this is a fact, and that it is a bit of a worry.

Anyway, this post is about, or around-about, a man called Theodor Reuss, who co-founded the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) in the 1890s, and built into the OTO a lot of ideas and symbols that derived from his interpretation of Parsifal. Reuss claimed that he took part in the first performance of Parsifal, and that he'd been a good terms with Wagner, regularly discussing the ideas in the opera with the old man.

In fact, Theodor Reuss is not listed in the cast for the first performances of Parsifal, and he is never mentioned in Cosima Wagner's Diaries, nor by any of the people who were close to Wagner at the time of the Parsifal premiere, and left memoires: Neumann, Porges, Fricke and so on. Moreover, Reuss later claimed to have been a celebrated Wagner conductor, which he certainly wasn't. So there's no reason to take any of Reuss' claims seriously. I'm inclined to think that he was probably in the chorus of the first Parsifal performances, and that he may therefore have once or twice exchanged greetings with Wagner, and that he built up the rest of his claims from that slender kernel of fact. But giving Reuss even that much credence is an act of charity: there's no need to.

But while I was looking for Theodor Reuss in Parsifal I found Louise Reuss-Belce instead. She was one of the lead Flowermaidens in the first performance, and again in the first few Bayreuth revivals in 1883, 1884 and 1886. (She was plain Louise Belce in 1882; she picked up the Reuss, the hyphen and the husband after that first season.)

She had a daughter, Lisel, who was proposed as a "beard" for Wagner's son Siegfried, who had been involved in one gay scandal too many and needed to get married. Fast. Unfortunately Siegfried picked Winifred Williams-Klindworth to become Mrs Wagner instead. With disastrous results, since Winifred became head of the Wagner family once Siegfried died, and as one of those Hitler-loving Englishwomen like Unity Mitford, Diana Mosley, etc, she drove the Wagner name, which she had not worn for all that long, into short-term degradation and long-term disgrace. Siegfried Wagner was not a Nazi, but Winifred sure was. If Siegfried had had better taste in women, or any taste in women, the Nazis might have had more trouble putting their flags all over the Bayreuth legacy.

Anyway, Louise Reuss-Belce was found dead in a refugee train in March 1945; the train had fled the Dresden bombing. The _Musical Times_ article I'm leaning on here suggests that she had been the last surviving singer to have been personally coached by Wagner.

Sometimes stories like this have some sort of meaning, like the one about Beethoven's hair. Others don't really have any meaning at all, like this one. But for some reason I find Louise Reuss-Belce's anonymous fate vaguely moving. But there's no room for her in the book.

Oh. The "rappers" of the title? I found nothing about Theodor Reuss in any source concerning the first performances of Parsifal. However I did find one amusing reference to the talk going on amongst the Bayreuth crew that might be an indication that he, or someone with similar interests, was around the place:

Cosima's Diary entry for Saturday 5 August 1882: “In the evening, since we are entirely alone, I tell him [Wagner] some stories now circulating in Bayreuth about spirit rapping, and these amuse him."

Note, by the way, that Wagner was "amused" rather than impressed or interested by the spirit rapping. ("Spirit rapping", if you asked, was an early stage in mediumship, where the person giving the show would answer questions by making knocking noises, with their knees or toes, and these noises were supposed to from spirits, who would give "one knock for yes, two knocks for no". Later mediums would do funny voices, and materialise wedding-dress silk coated in luminous paint, and so on. But this particular branch of show-biz started with people making rapping noises while apparently keeping very still.)

I've read claims all over the internet, and sometimes in print, that Wagner was interested in the occult, even "an occult adept". But this and other Diary entries show that Wagner thought that rapping was a complete joke. Occultism too. Doubt if he'd have thought a whole lot of 50 Cent, either.



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