Monday, 29 July 2013

Responding to Wagner's 'Ring'

Image for Wagner's Philosophers

It's over a year since I blogged - no time, or nothing to say? A bit of both. However, I've spent the last week, on and off, listening to the arguably the greatest music-drama ever composed: Wagner's 'Ring of the Nibelungen' from the BBC Proms. Whatever you might think about Wagner the man or the musician, there is no doubt that this great tetralogy stands as a monument of human endeavour. Not only did it influence the development of Western music for decades to come, but even the course of human history in the way some of its ideals were hijacked by Hitler for his own wicked purposes.

Though familiar with some of Wagner's music, this was the first time I had listened to to whole 'Ring' as a single event. One runs out of superlatives to describe the performances by Staatskapelle Dresden, under Danial Barenboim, with one of the best cast of singers (in particular Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, and Bryn Terfel as Wotan, in Die Walküre). Listening to the whole Ring is liked being sucked into a giant maelstrom of ideas, both philosophical and musical.

Wagner was a philosopher all his life, greatly influenced by the German Idealists such as Kant and Hegel, and later Feuerbach. The idea of God (or the gods) being simply a projection of man's ideal is a starting point here, though in Wagner's case the gods are actually less worthy than the humans, being seen to be corrupted by the desire for power, and behaving in a selfish and arbitrary way. There is the theme of freedom through struggle ('Mein Kampf'??), but one in which true freedom allows for the possibility of self-sacrifice - Brünnhilde's immolation in the flames along with her beloved Siegfried. There is the theme of the search for one's mother - Siegfried brought up by the evil dwarf Mime desperately wants to know who his mother was. (I wonder if, when he discovers Brünnhilde, he actually has found a mother-substitute with whom he can fall chastely in love? Shades of Oedipus.) Brünnhilde, for her part sees in Siegfried both a hero/lover and son. Freud would have had a field day with this - not to mention the sibling incest between the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, the father and mother of Siegfried.

Casting its shadow over all these murky relationships is the theme of the corruption of power, and, what Marx would later describe as a critique of capitalism. Alberich, the evil dwarf who has renounced love in favour of power, keeps the Nibelungs as virtual slaves in the underworld as they hammer out the Rhine gold to make the all-powerful ring. That ring contains a curse that blights anyone who takes hold of it - powerfully described by one of the many musical leitmotivs of Wagner. Alberich is the archetypal capitalist who steals the wealth produced by the oppressed workers. (Wagner took a leading role in the revolution of 1848, and had to flee to Switzerland for a time under suspicion from the Prussian authorities.)

It's not surprising to see why Wagner's 'Ring' stirs up such powerful feelings among those who persevere in listening to its entirety. I, for one, couldn't sleep for the multitude of leitmotivs buzzing round my head all night: The Ring, The Sword, The Curse, The Rhine, Valhalla, etc. And now I've been driven to find out more about the philosophical context that Wagner was working in because without that the story on its own doesn't really make much sense - there are so many unanswered questions and inconsistencies such as 'Why doesn't the owner of the ring simply use its power to get rid of everyone else who is threatening them?' I suppose that would be too easy, and there would be no story.

Two less-than-serious footnotes: 'Walhall', the abbreviated form of Walhalla often used in the libretto, is only one letter removed from 'Walsall' in the West Midlands. Not exactly the home of the gods reached by a rainbow bridge.  I couldn't help thinking, as I listened to Act 2 of Götterdämmerung, that the men's chorus singing "Heiahei, heiahoi" was not very far from Disney's Seven Dwarfs - "Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go." You need to keep a sense of humour to avoid becoming a Wagner-worshipper and taking his view of life, the universe and everything too seriously. Nevertheless, this Proms Ring Cycle will be a performance to remember for a long time to come.