From The Economist http://econ.st/2yaPVJb
<< Wagner’s “Ring” cycle
Getting into Valhalla
How to understand the most daunting opera ever written
The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung.
By Roger Scruton. Allen Lane; 400 pages; £25.
Jun 23rd 2016
It is gargantuan in every way. The “Ring of the Nibelung”, known as the “Ring” cycle, lasts about 15 hours and is performed over four evenings. A new instrument, the “Wagner tuba”, was invented for it; a concert hall, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, constructed for its premiere. Its composer, Richard Wagner (1813-83), began writing the opera in 1848, a year when Europe was torn by nationalist and democratic revolutions, but did not finish it until 26 years later. The finished product is considered the finest piece of musical theatre ever written, a sweeping artistic expression of a period in which the world was swiftly moving towards modernity. Sir Roger Scruton, a newly knighted English philosopher, tries to make sense of it in his latest book, “The Ring of Truth”.
Based on a knitting together of German and Icelandic tales, the opera revolves around a ring, fashioned in gold from the Rhine by Alberich, a dwarf, that grants the power to rule the world. The struggles over the ring lead to love, betrayal and death, as well as the end of the rule of the gods. (Many of these themes are also found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”; Tolkien unconvincingly denied that he had been influenced by Wagner.)
The “Ring” cycle is notable for its 150 or so leitmotifs, musical phrases associated with an idea or character. They do not simply accompany the libretto but also reveal the subconscious feelings of the characters or what will happen later in the story. For instance, the “nature” leitmotif, a rising major arpeggio, opens the opera and is associated with the majesty and life of the rushing river Rhine. But later Wagner flips it on its head—with the notes now moving downwards—to signify its opposite: the inevitable decay and death of the gods.
Rising out of the foment of the mid-19th century, the “Ring” is often seen as a work with strong Marxist overtones. George Bernard Shaw, an Irish playwright and critic, argued that the Tarnhelm, a magic helmet central to the drama, is really the top hat of the capitalist class. Siegfried, a mortal who “knows no fear” and who undermines the system, is said to represent Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian anarchist. Wagner was no fan of industrialisation: his depiction, to the sound of 18 anvils, of Alberich’s enslaved dwarves mining more gold, is terrifying. But it is unclear whether he read Marx. In any case Sir Roger has no time for sweeping theoretical interpretations. “[I]t is a vast diminution of Wagner’s drama to pin such a thin Marxist allegory to its extraordinary and believable characters,” he sniffs.
He is keener on a rich, historical account. Wagner lived at a time of philosophical changes that have had a lasting impact on how we see ourselves. The Enlightenment, a movement which gripped Europe from the 18th century, loosened the hold of the Church in favour of rational thought. The works of Hegel were particularly important ingredients in the “Ring”. “Like the Hegelians, Wagner saw the contest over religion as the decisive episode in the emergence of the modern world,” Sir Roger writes.
On one level, the story is about Siegfried realising his freedom as an individual, in which he breaks from the stifling rule of the gods—an optimistic account associated with the ideas of Ludwig Feuerbach, one of Hegel’s disciples, who heavily influenced Marx. Yet Siegfried struggles in his condition of freedom. “Götterdämmerung” (or “Twilight of the Gods”), the final, five-hour opera, explores the disconcerting idea that without the gods we are left alone. We know that we cannot live up to the perfect standards set by our old masters; and yet all we have to enforce good behaviour is ourselves. To revolutionaries watching the “Ring”, this was a wake-up call: the opera showed that socialist dreams were every bit as illusory as the religion they had set out to replace.
Sir Roger is not always so attuned to historical and philosophical context. Take his discussion of anti-Semitism, which looms large in the popular understanding of Wagner. Scholars enjoy mining the operas for evidence of how anti-Jewish Wagner “really” was (Alberich, the money-grabbing dwarf, is a particularly controversial character). But in Sir Roger’s view, these critics’ single-minded focus on Wagner’s anti-Semitism means that they fail to understand the many other ideas explored in the operas. While this has some truth, in his own analysis he overcompensates, choosing to ignore the anti-Semitism theme almost entirely. It is a bizarre choice, which leaves the discussion incomplete.
The “Ring” cycle may be a European work nearing its 140th birthday, but Sir Roger is surely right to argue that it still has “relevance to the world in which we live”. The existential consequences of throwing off the yoke of religion is debated in many countries. Europe is swept by movements seeking to break free from certain structures of society towards some nebulous alternative. Moreover, Sir Roger successfully shows just how important the “Ring” was to the history of music and philosophy. After reading this book, only the most unadventurous reader would turn down the chance to see Wagner’s masterpiece. >>