Newsletter Vol 18 No. 2 April 2014



The April issue of Opera magazine reports interesting — not to say dramatic — news from Dresden and Bayreuth: most importantly for our purposes the announcement that Eva Wagner-Pasquier (great-granddaughter of the composer) will not be renewing her contract as co-director of the Bayreuth Festival after September 2015, evidently leaving her half-sister Katharina Wagner in sole charge. What effect if any this might have on activities in Bayreuth, and on the attitude of the Festival management to the Wagner Societies, remains to be seen.

In March we were treated to a fine analysis by Michael Downes of the conceptual and philosophical basis of Tristan und Isolde, the work of Wagner’s that involved the shortest gestation period of the main canon.  Wagner himself recognized it as exceptional, considering the music and not the drama to be the primary element. This provides a postlude to the thoughts expressed in the January Newsletter, which centred on the drama and its production as paramount in Wagner’s intentions, and evokes further caution in attempting to assess composers’ works from their own descriptions of  them.  Below we print some ancillary notes to the talk, kindly provided by the speaker, and by way of dessert after the main course, Ian Robertson’s reflections on what the protagonists were actually drinking (if anything) in that fateful moment at the end of Act I.

In the following months we look forward to talks by Chris Gray on Wagner as the ‘Father of modern conducting philosophy’, Myra Soutar on the Leitmotiv, and Heath Lees on the music of the Ring as reflecting the human life cycle, all continuing our theme of ‘Wagner in practice’.   [RA]


Parsifal Study Course, Gartmore House, 4–9 September 2014

Anyone still wishing to book for this eagerly anticipated course, run by Derek Watson, should contact Nadine Harrison, Secretary, on 0131 443 1152 or email  Although the main house is fully booked, possible alternative accommodation has become available in the grounds, so a few more residential places are possible.

For Course details click on the STUDY COURSES tab. [NH]


Forthcoming Events

—All events take place at Edinburgh Society of Musicians, 3 Belford Road, EH4 3BL (by Dean Bridge). Admission £7 members, £10 guests.

Sunday 11 May 2014 at 7.30 pm

Wagner, the Father of modern conducting philosophy — Chris Gray

Chris Gray writes:

‘Wagner's 1869 essay 'Über das Dirigieren' made a revolutionary statement about the changing roles and responsibilities of the conductor, moving conductors away from generations of administrative functionality to a future with unquestioned musical control. Wagner's desire to place the conductor at the centre of musical performance started a period of development that led directly to the creation of a language and grammar for modern conductors. My talk will look at the history of conducting, focusing on Wagner's emergence as a master conductor; and at his essay and the period of exploration and discovery that followed. 

‘My interest in Wagner has spanned my entire musical life, having played his works as a young double bass player, experiencing the Meistersinger Overture at the age of 16, and then taking part in the adventures of the Ring Cycle at Scottish Opera and Lohengrin under Runnicles at the BBC SSO some years later. As a conductor I have had the opportunity to explore many of his works with both young amateur and professional orchestras. 

‘I currently split my life between Aberdeen where I am Depute Head of Music at the University of Aberdeen and Glasgow where I am the Director of ‘Connect’, Scottish Opera's Youth Company. In any spare time I manage to find, I am pursuing my doctoral research which focuses on the categorising of conducting as a formal language.’ 


Sunday 8 June 2014 at 7.30 pm

The Leitmotiv in Wagner’s music dramas — Dr Myra Soutar


Myra Soutar will explore Wagner’s use of the Leitmotiv in his music dramas by examining the content, characteristics, manipulation, and purpose of the motives in such works as The Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin, Tristan and Isolde, and The Ring Cycle.

Myra studied musicology at Glasgow, Hamburg, and Vienna Universities, alongside violin and voice studies at RSAMD (Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), culminating in a PhD from Glasgow University on the Austrian composer Anton Webern. She began her academic teaching career at Aberdeen University whilst also working as research editor for the Doblinger ‘Urtext’ edition of the Haydn string quartets. On her return to Glasgow, Myra became a tutor in music history at Douglas Academy Special Music School, and lectured on orchestration, performance practice, analysis, and music history at RSAMD for 20 years. Alongside her academic teaching, Myra has conducted a wide range of orchestral and choral works with a variety of Scottish music societies. She was made an Honorary Fellow of RSAMD in 2008.


Sunday 6 July 2014 at 7.30 pm

The music of Wagner’s Ring and the life cycle of an audience — Prof Heath Lees


Heath Lees is Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.   Born in Edinburgh and raised in Rutherglen, he studied at the University of Glasgow. He has held posts at the Universities of Huddersfield and Stirling, and after moving Down Under, was for fifteen years the founder-president of the New Zealand Wagner Society, with a membership of more than 400 Wagnerian Kiwis.  Nowadays he divides his year equally between Auckland and Paris.   A devotee of French culture, he is also the author of a book (Ashgate, 2007) on the connections between Wagner and the French poet Mallarmé.

 In this presentation, Heath Lees aims to show that the music of Wagner’s Ring nurtures the growth of an audience, from their utterly simple ‘baby’ states (e.g. the 135 bars of the opening Rheingold chord) to the rich, closing memories of aged grandparents (e.g. the panorama of themes during Brünnhilde’s final monologue in Götterdämmerung). 

Between these two poles, Wagner encourages his audience to ‘grow’ by increasing the complexity and effect of his music through ‘adolescence’ in Die Walküre and through a kind of sympathetic parenthood in Siegfried. 

Using piano illustrations and filmed excerpts, Heath will show how resourcefully Wagner composed his music in order to achieve an over-arching, cyclic effect of birth, growth, maturity, and death.

Heath has just completed a four-DVD set of introductory films called ‘Wagner’s Ring:  A Tale Told in Music’.  The sets will be on sale after his lecture, at a cost of £50 (cash or card).


Follow-up on Tristan und Isolde and the imaginary theatre of music (23 March)

— Some additional information from Michael Downes


A video clip of Peter Sellars and Esa-Pekka Salonen talking about the Sellars production of Tristan with video images by Bill Viola is available at


For those interested in the production there is also a film at — which includes conductor Philippe Jordan being interviewed (in French!) and the last few minutes of the opera.


The operas mentioned, in addition to Pelléas et Mélisande, were Fauré's Pénélope and Chausson's Le Roi Arthus. The recordings played were on Erato:  Chausson conducted by Armin Jordan (father of Philippe, coincidentally!) and the Fauré conducted by Charles Dutoit with Jessye Norman and José van Dam. Michael’s DPhil thesis is accessible online at:


Information about St Andrews Opera’s performances in June of Britten’s Albert Herring, to be conducted by Michael Downes, can be found at


The Love Potion in Tristan und Isolde

By J. Ian S. Robertson


Dr Michael Downes’ superb talk on Tristan und Isolde has prompted some reflections on the nature of the love potion in that opera. Several commentators, including Thomas Mann, Ernest Newman, Michael Tanner, and Roger Scruton, have said that as the pair were already in love, that potion, releasing their inhibitions, was purely symbolic, and might just as well have been plain water. However, the effects of the draught, which include Isolde’s loss of consciousness and Tristan’s mental derangement at the end of Act I, and then in Act II (which seems to occur at most a day or so later) their conjoint aversion to light and enhanced nocturnal vision (the former probably causing Tristan’s poor showing in the fight with Melot) are far more than the usual experiences of lovers.

Dr Gunther Weitz has proposed alternatively that the drink contained extracts from plants of the Belladonna (Nightshade) family, and that those extracts were responsible for many of the lovers’ symptoms. In particular, Belladonna’s effects on the eye, notably widening of the pupils leading to intolerance of light and impaired vision, can last for several days and would result in just those features noted in Act II. Belladonna extracts were also widely supposed in former times to be aphrodisiac.

The contents of the drink are not revealed by Wagner, but are explicitly stated in the oratorio Le Vin Herbé of 1941 on the same subject by the Swiss composer Frank Martin. Martin took as his libretto the poem by the French 19th-century writer Joseph Bédier. Bédier states that Isolde’s mother gathered herbs, flowers, and roots, mixed them with wine, and brewed a potent drink. She gave this to Branghien (Brangäne) with strict instructions that it be administered to King Mark and Queen Isolde on their wedding night. That drink, almost certainly containing Belladonna, was intended to stimulate the passions of the ageing King Mark. So I think Weitz was correct. Isolde’s mother would surely not have sent simply a bottle of Irish spring water.

Incidentally, oysters are believed by some to have certain properties akin to Belladonna. One Glasgow fishmonger’s shop (The Fish Plaice in Saltmarket for the benefit of those of our members who may be interested) has outside a notice which claims that the oysters there are superior to Viagra. Presumably Isolde’s mother did not have ready access to oysters.


Wagner Society of Scotland Journals

The Wagner Society of Scotland has published four volumes of our scholarly Journal [ISSN 1741-4105] since 2003. These are richly illustrated, featuring many colour photographs, with largely original material and printed to an exceptionally high standard. In 2013, a shorter Bulletin was published. Summary contents of each publication can be found by clicking the JOURNAL tab.

A limited number of copies of all Journals (except Vol 1) and of the Bulletin remain. If you wish to order copies at £2 each including UK postage, please contact Nadine Harrison, Secretary, 16 Craiglockhart Terrace, Edinburgh EH14 1AJ; 0131 443 1152 or email For overseas rates, enquire at the same address. [NH]



News in Brief


  The Royal Opera House has announced its dates for the revival of Christof Loy’s Tristan und Isolde with Nina Stemme, Stephen Gould/Gary Lehman, Iain Paterson, Sarah Connolly, and John Tomlinson, conducted by Antonio Pappano. These are 5 to 21 December 2014 ...

  ... and the dates announced for the ROH revival of Tim Albery’s Der Fliegende Holländer with Bryn Terfel, Peter Rose, Michael König, and Adrianne Pieczonka, conducted by Andris Nelsons, are 5 to 24 February 2015.

Cinema relays next season include Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from the Metropolitan Opera New York on 13 November 2014 and Der Fliegende Holländer from the Royal Opera House on 24 February (see above).

—The Grand Théâtre de Genève will stage a new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen in May 2014. The first cycle will be on 13th, 14th, 16th, and 18th; the second cycle will be on 20th, 21st, 23rd, and 25th. More information at

Deutsche Oper Berlin is reviving Kasper Holten's controversial Lohengrin (under Donald Runnicles) in December 2014 and April 2015, and Kirsten Harms's Tannhäuser in December 2014 and (again under Runnicles) February 2015.

Our Bayreuth Scholar Paul Livingston (violin) will be giving a recital with Ian Watt (guitar) at Renfield St. Stephen’s Church, 260 Bath Street, Glasgow on 9 May at 7.30. Last year’s Scholar Anush Hovhannisyan is the soprano in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem to be given at the City Halls in Glasgow on 18 May at 7.30.

More information about performances in Scotland can be found at


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