“The Teutonic reputation for brutality is well-founded. Their operas last three or four days. And they have no word for ‘fluffy’.” – Blackadder
A cursed magic ring; the forging of a broken sword; giants, dwarves, dragons, and Valkyries; and the downfall of the gods in a fiery cataclysm – combined with German philosophy, radical politics, and Greek tragedy.
This is the big one: Wagner’s epic cycle of music dramas, drawing on Icelandic and German sagas – the 10th century Icelandic Poetic Edda, and the 13th century Nibleungenlied. It consists of four operas, composed over thirty years:
- Das Rheingold (1869)
- Die Walküre (1870)
- Siegfried (1876)
- Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) (1876)
Wagner’s admirers make grand claims for the Ring. “It is one of the supreme achievements of the human spirit,” writes Paul Dawson-Bowling (The Wagner Experience: and its meaning to us, 2013). “In its scope and its reach, in its grandeur of conception and abundance of episode, in its universal relevance and its richness of suggestion, and above all in its music, it has no near rival anywhere in art.”
Wagner originally intended only one opera, dealing with the legend of Siegfried, whom he envisaged as a perfect human being. He sketched out Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death) in 1848, when he was involved with revolutionary politics. This version was inspired by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (the first anarchist) and Ludwig Feuerbach (German philosopher who influenced Marx), and depicts a new political order, free from religion, capitalism, and tyranny.
A year later, Wagner took part in the failed Dresden Uprising of May 1849, and became a political exile.
He worked on the opera over the next quarter-century. He realized that he needed to tell the events leading up to the tragedy, and wrote three more libretti in reverse order, from last to first. Siegfrieds Tod itself became Götterdämmerung. The poems were complete by 1852.
- 1853–54: composes Rheingold
- 1854–56: composes Walküre
- 1856: starts Siegfried, but puts it aside.
Writes Tristan und Isolde (composed 1857–59, performed 1865), and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (composed 1861–67, performed 1868).
- 1864–71: finishes Siegfried
- 1869: first performance of Das Rheingold, Munich
- 1870: first performance of Die Walküre, Munich
- 1871–74: completes Götterdämmerung
- 1876: first complete performance of the Ring Cycle, at Wagner’s own theatre, Bayreuth
Wagner also read the philosopher Schopenhauer, a gloomy bird who believed that existence was pain and suffering, that bringing children into such a miserable existence was morally wrong, and that one must Will one’s own oblivion. In its final form, the Ring is a Schopenhauerian mystical work.
Wagner, in a letter to August Röckel (1854), declared that the opera “shows the necessity of accepting and giving way to the changeability, the diversity, the multiplicity, the eternal newness of reality and life.”
We must learn to die, in fact to die in the most absolute sense of the word. Fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness, and it arises only where love itself has already faded. How did it come about that mankind so lost touch with this bringer of the highest happiness to everything living that in the end everything they did, everything they undertook and established, was done solely out of fear of the end?
My poem shows how. It shows nature in its undistorted truth, with all its opposites intact, which in their manifold and endless permutations also contain elements which are mutually exclusive and self-repelling…
Wotan rises to the tragic height of willing his own downfall. This is everything that we have to learn from the history of mankind: to will the inevitable and to carry it out oneself. The product of this highest, self-destructive will is the fearless, ever-loving man, who is finally created: Siegfried. That is all.
(quoted in Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Richard Wagner, 1990)
George Bernard Shaw saw it as a critique of industrial society and the evils of capitalism. Others believe it is an ecological parable about man’s relationship with nature. Some critics adopt a psychological approach; Dawson-Bowling, in a Jungian reading, calls it “a compelling allegory of human existence”. Roger Scruton (The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung) says it “tells the story of civilization, beginning at the beginning and ending at the end”. For Thomas Mann, it was “a work of art which turns to the idea of a world brotherhood, free from the illusion of power, or the domination of wealth, whose foundations are justice and love”. Probably not the reasons it appealed to Adolf Hitler, who worshipped Wagner’s operas, and co-opted them as Nazi propaganda.
Wagner developed a new approach to opera for the Ring cycle. He detested conventional opera. It was entertainment, not art; “an institution which … aims almost exclusively at providing diversion and amusement for a population which loves pleasure because it is bored”. Italian opera (Rossini, Donizetti, and their ilk) was a vehicle for displaying singers’ vocal dexterity, while French grand opéra (Meyerbeer) was meretricious and crowd-pleasing. (He also thought Mendelssohn was rubbish because he was a Jew, and dismissed Mozart’s symphonies as noisy dinner-music.)
Opera could, however, be the greatest of all art-forms. Its debased stature was a symptom of the general decline of European civilization. Wagner’s answer was to resurrect Greek tragedy. The Ring Cycle was to be a modern Oresteia, telling the history of human civilization through the sufferings of one family. And, like Greek tragedy, it would speak to the whole community. The original tragedies were not mere entertainment; they were performed at a religious festival, the Dionysia, the yearly Athenian festival in honour of Dionysus. The plays performed there were both religious and political; they were spiritually uplifting, and created empathy through pity and terror, but also debated issues concerning the polis through dramatizations of myths and legends. So important were they to Athenian democracy that the state made it compulsory for all citizens to attend.
Wagner proposed a new sort of opera, the “music drama”.
- It would be based on myth, “the ideal subject-matter for the poet”. Myth, he believed, was universal, and true for all time. “The legend, to whatever time or nation it may belong, has this advantage, that it assumes nothing of such a time and such a nation but what is purely human, and renders this in a form, peculiar to itself, of great pregnancy, and therefore at once perfectly intelligible.” In this, he anticipated Jung’s archetypes and collective unconscious.
- It would be a Gesamtkunstwerk, a unified artwork. In Greek tragedy, the arts – dance, music, and poetry – had been united; now, they had become untied. Wagner’s music drama would once again unite all the arts. (Conveniently overlooking the fact that contemporary critics had praised Meyerbeer’s operas for bringing together music, theatre, dance, and the visual arts.)
- No more arias, duets, ensembles, which got in the way of the drama, and let singers show off.
- Instead, infinite melody – in the same way that in Beethoven’s symphonies, “the extension of the melody by the rich development of all its component motives into a large, long-sustained piece of music, which is nothing but a single strictly coherent melody.”
- A greater role for the orchestra. In Italian opera, the orchestra was “little more than a monstrous guitar for the accompaniment of arias”. Wagner’s orchestra would act as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action and depicting the characters’ emotions. “The orchestra of the modern symphonist, on the contrary, will be so intimately joined to the motives of the action, that, on the one hand, as embodied harmony it renders the distinct expression of melody possible, whilst, on the other hand, it keeps the melody in the necessary uninterrupted flow, and thus always displays the motives of the dramatic action with most convincing impressiveness to our feelings.”
(See Wagner’s essays Art and Revolution; The Art Work of the Future; Opera and Drama; The Music of the Future.)
Wagner expected his Musikdrama to replace both opera and spoken theatre.
Wagner also developed a series of themes; he called them Leitfaden (“guiding threads”), but they became known as Leitmotifs. The Leitmotif is “an intelligible and emotionally charged musical idea, memorable in itself and replete with musical possibilities” (Scruton, The Ring of Truth). It can represent an abstract idea (Nature), a person (Siegfried), a place (Valhalla), an emotion (Siegfried’s Anger), or an object (the sword Nothung). Over the course of the drama, Wagner modifies the Leitmotifs, or combines them with other motifs to form new ones.
Wagner, as has been often pointed out, and as he himself admitted, did not invent the Leitmotif. Grétry used the recurring theme in his Richard Cœur-de-lion; Méhul, Catel, Meyerbeer, and Halévy regularly used recurring motifs or “master-ideas” in their operas. Few composers, however, used them so systematically – or, one might feel, excessively – as Wagner.
Wagnerites tend to see the Ring as the culmination of Western music (if not civilization), and rewrite musical history around Wagner, in the same way the early Christians made Jesus the focal point of history. Wagner is the Messiah who redeems opera (from the Italians and French) and turns it into music drama. His admirers include – besides Shaw and Mann – James Joyce, Baudelaire, and W.H. Auden.
Others were not convinced. “Wagner is clearly mad,” wrote Berlioz, and abominated his doctrines. Tchaikovsky was bored stiff by the Ring, and thought Wagner’s later operas were untruthful, inartistic, and written on a false theory. Ravel considered Wagner’s influence “pernicious”. Stravinsky thought Wagner undermined and debased musical culture. Nietzsche, once Wagner’s admirer, found Wagner decadent, and preferred Bizet and Offenbach.
Offenbach, for his part, lampooned the music of the future. (Wagner took umbrage; when a fire broke out during a performance of an Offenbach opera, killing many in the audience, he thought it served them right for watching such trash, and joked that all the Jews in Germany should be burnt alive during a performance of Lessing’s play Nathan der Weise.)
Tolstoy claimed the Ring was immoral, while D.H. Lawrence cursed Wagner: “I love Italian opera – it’s so reckless. Damn Wagner, and his bellowings at Fate and death… I like the Italians who run all on impulse, and don’t care about their ultimate souls, and don’t worry about the ultimate.”
- Wotan (bass-baritone): August Kindermann
- Donner (baritone): Karl Samuel Heinrich
- Froh (tenor): Franz Nachbaur
- Loge (tenor): Heinrich Vogl
- Fricka (mezzo-soprano): Sophie Stehle
- Freia (soprano): Henriette Müller
- Erda (contralto): Emma Seehofer
- Alberich (baritone): Karl Fischer
- Mime (tenor): Max Schlosser
- Fasolt (bass-baritone or bass): Toni Petzer
- Fafner (bass): Kaspar Bausewein
- Woglinde (soprano): Anna Kaufmann
- Wellgunde (soprano or mezzo-soprano): Therese Vogl
- Flosshilde (mezzo-soprano): Wilhelmine Ritter
PLACE OF THE ACTION
- At the bottom of the Rhine
- An open space on mountain heights near the Rhine
- The subterranean caves of Nibelheim
The Rhinegold will give ultimate power to whoever possesses it, provided they reject love. Alberich, a dwarf (Nibelung), tries to make love to the Rhinemaidens, the river’s three daughters, who guard the gold. Disgusted by his ugliness, they spurn him. He curses love, and steals the Rhinegold.
The gods are also having problems. The giants Fafner and Fasolt have built Valhalla, a celestial palace, for the gods. Wotan (=Odin), the chief god, has agreed to pay them Freja, goddess of love – but he tries to go back on his bargain. The giants kidnap Freja. Without her magic apples, the gods grow old. (Wagner’s conflated Freya with Iduna.) The giants will give her back in return for the Nibelung’s treasure. Wotan and Loge (=Loki), god of fire, abduct Alberich, and force him to hand over his treasure and the Ring. The dwarf curses the Ring: until it is back in his hands, death will come to its owner. The curse soon comes true; Fafner kills Fasolt for the Ring. The gods enter Valhalla, followed by the reproachful cries of the Rhinemaidens.
Siegmund (tenor): Heinrich Vogl
Hunding (bass): Kaspar Bausewein
Wotan (bass-baritone): August Kindermann
Sieglinde (soprano): Therese Vogl
Brünnhilde (soprano): Sophie Stehle
Fricka (soprano): Anna Kaufmann
- Gerhilde (soprano): Karoline Lenoff
- Ortlinde (soprano): Henriette Müller
- Waltraute (mezzo-soprano): Hemauer
- Schwertleite (contralto): Emma Seehofer
- Helmwige (soprano): Anna Possart-Deinet
- Siegrune (mezzo-soprano): Anna Eichheim
- Grimgerde (mezzo-soprano): Wilhelmine Ritter
- Rossweise (mezzo-soprano): Juliane Tyroler
The Valkyrie is Brünnhilde, one of nine daughters the earth goddess Erda bore Wotan; the maidens bring back warriors’ corpses to Vallhalla, and turn them into an army. As part of his scheme, Wotan has also sired two children by a mortal woman: a son, Siegmund, and a daughter, Sieglinde.
Siegmund calls himself “Woeful” for a reason; ill luck dogs him. At the start of the opera, he’s on the run; he has killed a woman’s abductors, and their relatives are gunning for him. The house where he comes looking for sanctuary belongs to Hunding, a member of the enemy clan. Hundnig will put him up for the night – and kill him in the morning. Where, Siegmund asks desperately, is the sword his father promised him?
Siegmund discovers that Hunding’s wife is his twin sister Sieglinde; they seize the magic sword Nothung that Wotan stuck in the tree that grows through the middle of Hunding’s home, become lovers, and run off together.
Wild, rocky mountains.
Incest and adultery don’t go down well with Wotan’s wife Fricka, goddess of marriage. She persuades Wotan not to protect Siegmund in his fight against Hunding, but to break the sword. Brünnhilde tries to disobey Wotan, believing she is carrying out his will. Wotan makes the sword shatter, so Hunding kills Siegmund. Wotan then kills Hunding. Brünnhilde helps Sieglinde to flee to safety; she will bear a son: Siegfried.
On top of a rocky mountain (des “Brünnhildensteines”)
Wotan pursues Brünnhilde to a wild mountain. He puts her to sleep in a circle of magic fire; only the greatest hero will be able to cross the barrier and rescue her.
Siegfried (tenor): Georg Unger
Mime (tenor): Max Schlosser
Der Wanderer (bass): Franz Betz
Alberich (bass): Karl Hill
Fafner (bass): Franz von Reichenberg
Woodbird (soprano): Marie Haupt
Erda (contralto): Luise Jaide
Brünnhilde (soprano): Amalie Materna
A cave in the woods
- Mime, Siegfried
- Mime, Wanderer
- Mime, Siegfried
Sieglinde died in childbirth, and entrusted her son to Alberich’s brother Mime. The dwarf has brought Siegfried up in the middle of a forest, and wants to use him to get the Ring, guarded by Fafner (now a dragon). Siegfried forges Nothung, the sword that was broken anew.
- Alberich, Wanderer (Fafner’s Voice)
- Siegfried, Mime (Fafner)
- Mime & Alberich, Siegfried
He slays Fafner and takes the Ring, then kills Mime, who was plotting to murder him. Able to understand birdsong, thanks to the dragon’s blood, Siegfried learns of Brünnhilde, and sets out to rescue her from her mountaintop.
Wild area at the foot of a rocky mountain, then: on the summit of “Brünnhildenstein”
- Wanderer, Erda
- Wanderer, Siegfried
- Siegfried, Brünnhilde
Wotan (calling himself the Wanderer) blocks his path, so Siegfried smashes his spear with his sword. (Ooh, Freud!) His power broken, Wotan vanishes. Siegfried discovers Brünnhilde (“That’s not a man!”) and wakes her up with a kiss. The pair become lovers.
Siegfried (tenor): Georg Unger
Brünnhilde (soprano): Amalie Materna
Gunther (baritone): Eugen Gura
Gutrune (soprano): Mathilde Weckerlin
Hagen (bass): Gustav Siehr
Alberich (baritone): Karl Hill
Waltraute (mezzo-soprano): Luise Jaide
First Norn (contralto): Johanna Jachmann-Wagner
Second Norn (mezzo-soprano): Josephine Schefsky
Third Norn (soprano): Friederike Grün
Woglinde (soprano): Lilli Lehmann
Wellgunde (soprano): Marie Lehmann
Flosshilde (mezzo-soprano): Minna Lammert
On the Valkyries’ rock
Night falls on the gods. Brünnhilde sends Siegfried into the world to do mighty deeds. The first thing he does is to get himself drugged, forget her, and fall in love with another woman.
Gunther’s ancestral Hall on the Rhine.
- Hagen. Gudrun.
- The same.
This is all part of the plan of the loathsome Hagen, Alberich’s son by a mortal woman, and brother to the Gibichungs: Gunther, king of the Rhine, and his sister Gutrune. Gutrune gives Siegfried a magic potion that makes him go crazy for her. He swears an oath of blood-brotherhood with Gunther, and the two down a Bloody Mary Gibichung style, with the emphasis on the blood.
The Valkyries’ rock.
- Brünnhilde. Siegfried.
Siegfried, disguised as Gunther, captures Brünnhilde, and brings her back as his wife.
Before Gunther’s Hall
- Siegfried. Gutrune.
- The Vassals.
- Brünnhilde. Siegfried. Gutrune. Hagen. Vassals, men and women.
- Brünnhilde. Hagen.
At the wedding, Brünnhilde accuses Siegfried of lying. She, Gunther, and Hagen agree to kill him.
Wooded district by the Rhine
- The three Rhinemaidens.
- Hagen. Gunther. Vassals.
Hagen gives Siegfried another potion, which restores his memory, then skewers him through the middle of the back with a spear.
- Hagen. Gunther. Vassals and women. Brünnhilde.
Brünnhilde orders a funeral pyre to be built for the hero, then throws herself on it. Hagen kills Gunther, then the Rhinemaidens drown him as he tries to get the Ring. And Valhalla goes up in flames.
Wagner suffered from chronic constipation. That explains why going through his Ring is slow, painful, and takes 15 hours. Passages of extraordinary power or imagination brighten execrable longueurs – de beaux moments, mais de mauvaises quatre heures, as Rossini so nearly said.
Wagner was, as Tchaikovsky pointed out, a symphonist at heart. That’s why the best parts of the Ring are often orchestral passages, which Wagner handles with genius. (And why the 90-minute Ring ohne Worte is better than the 15 hours of the cycle.) The famous E flat major triad chord that swells into the River Rhine; the Magic Fire Music; the Forest Murmurs, which Wagner turned into the charming (rare word to use of Wagner!) Siegfried’s Idyll; Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, and the Funeral March are all the work of a great composer. Then, too, the preludes to the acts: the storm at the start of Walküre; or the menacing, rumbling prelude to Act II of Siegfried, which describes the dragon coiled over his treasure.
But, as an opera composer, he’s a damn fine symphonist.
The problem is that his approach is wrong-headed. It’s based on a false premise: that conventional opera, with its arias and ensembles, is awful, and that music drama is great. It’s easily disproved. 1) Listen to Rossini, Meyerbeer, Verdi, Mozart, or Berlioz. 2) Listen to Wagner.
Dear God, he’s talky! The vocal line is heightened recit, nearly always one note to a syllable – and as dull as the old secco recit at its worst. (Is Wagner’s arioso, and emphasis on mythological spectacle a throwback to Lully?) He calls for singers with loud, powerful voices who can make themselves heard over a gigantic orchestra, rarely for agility or beauty. (The Rhinemaidens and the Woodbird are the notable exception.)
Wagner’s reliance on Leitmotifs seems excessive. Rather than writing new tunes, or developing a melody, he can combine old ones, like sticking together Lego bricks. It’s a triumph of technical skill – but it’s boring. Any Italian hack (a Cagnoni or a Pedrotti, say) could write a two-hour opera with lots of tunes, rather than using the same fragments of melody over again. But, of course, Wagner wrote books convincing the public that his approach was the best way.
Nor, for a music drama, is there much of either.
Das Rheingold – the last libretto to be written, but the first opera to be composed – is The Silmarillion to Wagner’s Lord of the Rings: a tedious slab of mythology.
It starts and finishes superbly, let it be said. The Rhine music and the procession of the gods into Walhall (modelled on Rossini’s Guillaume Tell) are both impressive.
Otherwise, it’s staggeringly boring. Not an aria, not a duet, not a chorus: a wasteland. There’s almost no singing, except for the Rhinemaidens. All the musical interest (such as it is) lies in the orchestra. There’s the odd interesting Leitmotif: the majestic Valhalla theme, the heavy footfall of the giants, or the clinking of the anvils in Niebelheim (inspired, like the opening of Meistersinger, by Halévy’s Juive). I can also hear Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (the procession of the nuns) when Alberich summons the Nibelungs. For the rest, nothing.
The story moves as slowly as a Scandinavian glacier. Scene II is one of the dullest things in all opera: an hour of marital bickering and discussions about real estate. Eduard Hanslick called it
an abyss of boredom… This utterly tuneless, plodding narrative, in a slow tempo, engulfs us like an inconsolable broad sea from which only the meagre crumbs of a few leitmotifs come floating to us out of the orchestra. Scenes like this recall the mediaeval torture of waking a sleeping prisoner by stabbing him with a needle at every nod.
Wagner’s gods, giants, and dwarves bear little resemblance to living beings, whether real or fantastical. The Wagnerophiles, of course, think they’re the bees knees. “It is only in Shakespeare and Wagner’s own Die Meistersinger,” writes Dawson-Bowling, “that we encounter a gallery of characters modelled so rapidly, so distinctively and with such understanding.” Off the top of my head: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, Meyerbeer’s Huguenots, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and Verdi’s Don Carlos.
Félix Clément hit the nail on the head, with his customary French objectivity: “The music of the first scene is charming almost from start to finish ; the fourth scene has pages full of grandeur and of a superb breath. But, like in all Wagner’s operas, the whole is remarkable for its terrible longueurs, its unnecessary repetition, its lack of measure and proportion. Which doesn’t prevent, by the way, the beautiful pages from shining with an incomparable brilliance.”
Die Walküre introduces human beings. The first act is warmly lyrical; here we find Sieglinde’s description of the mysterious old man (Wotan) at the feast; Siegmund’s desperate appeal to his father as he searches for the promised sword; and the passionate, springtime love of the twin Volsungs.
The rest, though, is dull beyond belief: a bloated, tuneless, pompous, portentous, sententious nullity. More interminable stuff with the gods. All recit, plus a recap of Rheingold. Is it actually music?
Wagner was also notorious for monopolizing conversations. One can tell. Characters declaim for minutes without interruption, and they all sound like Wagner. It’s not just that Wagner needed editing; Wagner, it’s apparent, had little sense of pacing, or of what worked onstage.
And yet there are moments of musical genius. The Ride of Valkyries is famous, of course, but Sieglinde has a lovely melody in Act III, which lasts less than a minute; then Wagner goes back to declamation. It returns at the very end of the cycle, as a radiant symbol of love. Wotan’s Farewell is tender and tragic, and the flickering, dancing Magic Fire Music is as brilliantly orchestrated as Rimsky-Korsakov.
Arrigo Boito attended the first performance of the opera at La Scala, Milan. In a letter to Verdi (31 December 1893), he wrote:
The Milanese press has hurled abuse at Mascheroni, as though on a rabid dog, calling him responsible for the infinite tedium the opera caused. That is unfair. The prime cause for the opera’s unpopularity must be sought in the opera itself and Wagner’s system of composition. Another cause is the vastness of the stage, which makes the drama seem wretchedly small. Then there is the insipid action which moves more slowly than a passenger train stopping at every station, and the interminable sequence of duets during which the stage stays miserably empty and the characters stupidly motionless. All this is not calculated to please.
This was the year Falstaff, Verdi’s last opera, premièred. Boito’s libretti for Falstaff and Otello are dramatically fleet, concise, and reveal character through action – everything the Ring isn’t, and doesn’t. Verdi would have got through the whole thing faster, with a tune – and would never have written an hour-long scene for two characters entirely in recit.
Siegfried is Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, told in four and a half hours. It’s also the ancestor of those fantasy novels where a young orphan boy turns out be the heir. He even has a BIG SWORD (which, Wagner helpfully tells us, is stiff and hard).
The opera must have one of the oddest, most unlikeable dramatis personae of any opera. There’s the loutish Teutonic wunderkind Siegfried, who wants to beat up Mime for being ugly even before he’s learnt Mime wants to kill him. Wagner called him “a perfect human being” – which says much about Wagner. Then there are Mime, who sings in an unmusical whine; the megalomaniac Alberich, with his dreams of world domination; and the devious, enigmatic Wotan – plus a bird, a dragon, an Earth goddess, and a warrior maid asleep on a rock.
Did Wagner have any grasp on storytelling? Act I is dramatically feeble, and the whole Mime/Wanderer scene should have been cut; it recaps Rheingold and Walküre. It’s also dramatically preposterous; hello, my host, want to wager for my head? At least the Forging Song is exciting.
I was obviously suffering from Stockholm syndrome [*]; I enjoyed Act II. (Well, except for yet more tedious bickering, this time between Alberich and Mime.) The Forest Murmurs are lovely. And – oh, look! – there’s even a joke, as Siegfried tries to imitate the bird on his reed pipe, and invents jazz. (It’s about the only bit of comic relief in the whole 15 hours.) And Siegfried fights a DRAGON! (An exciting bit in the Ring, nearly 10 hours in.)
[*] Not to be confused with Stockhausen syndrome, which is when midway through a 29-hour opera cycle, usually on a Wednesday, you find yourself worshipping a composer who comes from another planet, like Jesus. Stockhausen is the sort of guy who makes Wagner look eminently sane.
Brünnhilde’s Awakening in Act III is a radiant piece of music. Then comes a long, long scene which ends with what Wagner intended to be a love duet. The pair sing abstract phrases at each other: “Laughing, let us perish! … Dusk of the gods, let your darkness descend! Night of annihilation, let your mist fall! … Radiant love, laughing death!” The Huguenots or Troyens it’s not; it lacks either tenderness or passion. Still, the opera’s not excruciating, so it’s better than Rheingold or Walküre.
Götterdämmerung is easily the best part of the Ring. Wagner is telling a story about people, and it has some dramatic conflict (rather than petty squabbling, telling the audience what they already saw in last night’s opera, or spewing Schopenhauer over the stage).
True, there are the usual appalling longueurs. The whole Prologue and first Act lasts 2 hours. Wagner needed an editor. It opens with 20 minutes of Norns singing exposition, and the scene for the two Valkyries drags. On the other hand, it does have Siegfried’s Rhine Journey.
Act II, though, is one of the four theatrically engaging acts of the Ring, because it has a dramatic situation. It also has Hagen’s H O I H O ! ! !; the chorus (the first in the Ring); and the electrifying vengeance trio.
And we’re at Act III, the last part of the Ring. (Thank God!) The Rhinemaidens’ trio is lovely, and the scene with Siegfried charming and relaxed. The Funeral March is extraordinary, at once angry, despairing, and triumphant.
The opera ends with Brünnhilde’s famous long scena before she throws herself onto the funeral pyre, à la Norma, and then all goes cataclysmic: floods, fires, and collapsing buildings. We can see the influence of French grand opera: Auber’s Muette de Portici, where Vesuvius erupts as the heroine leaps to her death, and Meyerbeer’s Prophète, where mother and son die in a fiery, purifying apotheosis, their sins redeemed, as the banqueting hall explodes.
So that’s The Ring.
Is it one of the great achievements of mankind? Hardly!
Still, it’s easy to see why Wagner held, and still holds, such an extraordinarily high position. He appealed to bourgeois intellectual snobbery. Wagner flattered his audience. Nobody would willingly sit through all of Wagner if he hadn’t convinced them that his music was deep and meaningful, whereas what they would naturally enjoy (i.e., stuff with tunes in) is “entertainment”. To like Wagner is a sign of culture; to dislike him – or, worse, to prefer opera – is a sign of bad taste. Wagner wrote theories, therefore he’s good; Rossini and Meyerbeer didn’t, therefore they’re not. Of course, as someone (Chesterton?) said, people don’t listen to music because of some theory they have about music; they listen to music because they like it. This offends the snob, who can only like something if it has social cachet. Besides, Rossini and Meyerbeer wrote music that pleases, that (horror!) ordinary people enjoy, so they must be vulgar. Wagner, on the other hand, is spiritually uplifting and morally edifying. It’s the musical equivalent of castor oil. It may taste horrible, but it does you good. It’s the same reason why the literati hailed James Joyce as a great novelist.
There’s nothing wrong, in principle, with the idea of a music drama. Opera, after all, is theatre through music. Verdi himself, Italo Pizzi wrote, “like all discerning people, approved the Wagnerian principle of adapting the music to the drama, but he did not approve the method, because Wagner, and his imitators to an even greater extent, often deliberately overstepped the limits”. Verdi himself, though, had been writing music dramas since the mid-1840s; certainly from Macbeth, Stiffelio, and Luisa Miller, if not as far back as I due Foscari.
Puccini, Massenet, and Richard Strauss – all superior opera-writers – adapted the Wagnerian system to some degree, but without eliminating arias and ensembles; rather, the pieces arise naturally from the action. Whereas Wagner wrote his music with his theory first, they wrote music from the text; Massenet, in particular, like Stephen Sondheim, let content dictate form. They also had the benefit of 1) professional librettists, 2) a sympathy with ordinary mortals, and understanding of human nature, 3) a sense of theatre, 4) a sense of humor, and 5) a sense of proportion.