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Ulterior Motives – Themes and ideas beneath the surface of the Ring

Ulterior Motives –
Themes and ideas beneath the surface of the Ring

Peter Bassett

Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen grew out of a single narrative idea: the circumstances leading to and surrounding the death of Siegfried. Its form is allegorical and deliberately so. Unlike Tolkien, who emphatically rejected any such dimension to his Lord of the Rings, declaring “It is neither allegorical nor topical…. I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence,” Wagner embraced the concept enthusiastically. We might reasonably assume that a single allegorical thread runs through the four parts of the Ring. Bernard Shaw – playwright, critic, Perfect Wagnerite and Fabian Socialist – certainly hoped so but was irritated to discover that in fact the Ring embraces not one but two or more quite unrelated allegories. It is to this multi-layering of ideas that we can ascribe much of the work’s richness and complexity and also opportunities for stage directors to offer wildly divergent interpretations.

This multi-layering was undoubtedly an incentive for Wagner’s complex use of Leitmotiven – musical motives or ground-themes associated with characters, objects, events and emotions to convey reminiscences or expectations in the course of the drama. The technique is used simply and directly in the preliminary evening, Das Rheingold, not only because the themes are being introduced there for the first time and need to be unambiguous, but also because the allegory is straightforward at that point. However, by the time we reach tterdämmerung, the issues and references have become so complex that only the most sophisticated handling of the musical material can do it justice. As a result, in this the final part of the Ring, western polyphonic music reached a level of complexity never achieved before and rarely since. In the process, Wagner’s intention of according text and music equal dramatic weight was abandoned as the music, and especially the orchestral music, became the primary vehicle for the drama.     

In Shaw’s opinion, the political allegory recognizable in Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and the first two acts of Siegfried, could not be applied to the final parts of the cycle. He was convinced, rightly I think, that the widespread political unrest in Europe in the 1830s and ‘40s, and especially the failed Dresden uprising of May 1849 in which Wagner had been involved, had been catalysts for the composition of the Ring. With his socialist hat on he also identified Siegfried as an anarchistic hero and destroyer of the power of the Ancien Régime, including the power of religion. He equated Siegfried with the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, a close associate of Wagner in Dresden in the 1840s, and in this he was echoing Friedrich Nietzsche who, in his 1888 essay The Case of Wagner, wrote: “Wagner had believed in the Revolution all his life … So he searched through all the mythic runes and believed that in Siegfried he had found his perfect revolutionary.”

Shaw’s problem with tterdämmerung arose partly because he detected in its text and music an ‘operatic’ quality that seemed to him regressive. More importantly, the death of Siegfried/Bakunin in the final drama, and the pre-eminent, redeeming role given to Brünnhilde were hardly compatible with his notion of the heroic destroyer of the old order and herald of the new. Shaw tried to explain why Wagner had seemingly abandoned Siegfried, but his explanations do not ring true.

No one could doubt Wagner’s revolutionary credentials, demonstrated on several occasions before he began work on the Ring. In 1830 for instance, he had sympathised with the Polish uprising against Imperial Russia and was later inspired to write the overture Polonia, modelled on Beethoven’s Egmont. He began but did not finish two works with themes relating to the French Revolution and its aftermath. He had escaped arrest in 1849 by fleeing to Switzerland, but his involvement in the Dresden revolution had on-going repercussions which continued after 1864 at the Bavarian court of Ludwig II. The young King was besotted with Wagner but his Prime Minister Ludwig von der Pfordten had been a minister in the Saxon government in 1849 and regarded the composer with the greatest suspicion. Pfordten’s fears had some justification. In 1851 Wagner had told his friend Kietz: “I am now giving much thought to America. … My entire politics consists of nothing but the bloodiest hatred for our whole civilisation, contempt for all things deriving from it, and a longing for nature … It all stems from our servile attitude … In all Europe I prefer dogs to those doglike men [of the failed revolution] … Only the most terrific and destructive Revolution could make our civilised beasts ‘human’ again.”

What Pfordten and others did not know was that after the mid-1850s, the composer’s philosophical outlook had undergone a profound change. The effects of this can be seen in his handling of the Ring after 1854 and, particularly, in his approach to the character of Wotan. One practical consequence was the need to recast the ending of the entire work to bring its diverse and sometimes conflicting themes together in a convincing way.

Wagner’s revolutionary inclinations were not confined to the political sphere. The ripples from his most radical work, Tristan und Isolde would be felt in symphonic music as well as opera, and indeed other art forms, half a century after its completion in 1859. Der Ring des Nibelungen, completed in 1874 after decades of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, broke new ground in almost every sphere of operatic practice, and the composer personally supervised the building of an equally revolutionary theatre in which to stage it.

At first glance, the Ring appears to be a mythical story about a golden ring that is made, lost, cursed and coveted by Alberich the Nibelung. However, the work is much more than a mythical tale. It combines allegories of politics and power, of love and vengeance, of humanity’s struggle for a better world, and of the psychological forces that shape our goals and determine our actions. It seems incredible that anyone would attempt to put all of this on stage, let alone set it to music.

It is difficult to separate the origins of the Ring from events in post-Napoleonic Europe when rival forces were attempting, on the one hand, to restore reactionary systems of government (think of them as the gods) and, on the other, to establish new systems of capital ushered in by the industrial revolution (think of them as Alberich and his ilk). The result was a chain of political uprisings and the publication of radical ideas by ‘Utopian Socialists’ like Proudhon, ‘Scientific Socialists’ like Marx and Engles, and ‘Collective Anarchists’ like Bakunin. In modern jargon, we would call the young Wagner a left-wing radical, but one of a rather impractical kind. Bakunin summed it up well when he said: “I immediately recognized Wagner as an impractical dreamer, and although I talked with him about politics…I never committed myself to any joint action with him.”

As a young radical, Wagner argued that the basic goodness of human beings had been subverted by the property-owning classes and the selfish interests of the state. In this he was echoing the ideas of the French philosopher and socialist Proudhon who famously asserted that property is theft. And “what a thief steals you steal from the thief”, advises Loge in scene two of Das Rheingold. But whereas Marx and Engels saw the future of human society in terms of the emancipation of the proletariat, Wagner saw it in terms of the redeeming power of love. This was a view of the world that owed much to the writings of the contemporary German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, to whom Wagner dedicated his important essay of 1849 The Artwork of the Future.

People who knew the young Wagner in his Dresden years were impressed by his lively intellect and high-mindedness. In March 1849, the actor Edward Devrient made the following entry in his diary: “Met Kapellmeister Wagner on the Terrace; another discussion about his theories for changing the world. He still thinks that only by destroying property is it possible to civilize mankind. … He thinks of putting an end to all deficiencies, believes in the absolute and original perfection of the human race – a perfection lost only as a result of the state…. Finally he had to agree with me that only moral amelioration can put an end to our misery and that this would produce the right types of state, based on the law of love.”  

In one sense therefore, the Ring can be understood as an extended love story. Love is the thread that binds the whole work together – not love confined to a single pair of individuals but love as the alternative to hatred and revenge, power and property, greed and envy. The story begins with love’s renunciation and ends with its triumph as the one irreplaceable, transforming ingredient in a new world order. The supremacy of love over the law became Wagner’s motto in his early sketches for the Ring, and he never entirely abandoned it. It provided the rationale for the union of Siegmund and Sieglinde in the first act of Die Walküre and the confrontation between Fricka and Wotan in the scene that follows. Wagner once told Franz Liszt: “The state of lovelessness is the state of suffering for the human race…we recognize the glorious necessity of love…and so, in this way we acquire a strength of which natural man had no inkling, and this strength – increased to embrace the whole of humanity – will one day lay the foundations for a state on earth where no one need yearn for the other world, for they will be happy – to live and to love. For where is the man who yearns to escape from life when he is in love?”

The unprecedented social transformation brought about by the industrial revolution in the mid-nineteenth century had had a Dickensian dark side (Dickens was just a year older than Wagner): the mind-numbing toiling of men and the servitude of women and children in the workhouses, factories and mines. And behind everything stood, as it were, Alberich, who was prepared to renounce love in order to acquire power and wealth. Wagner’s despair at the apparent triumph of the forces of greed, materialism and artistic shallowness caused him to write to Liszt in 1854: “Let us treat the world only with contempt, for it deserves no better; but let no hope be placed in it, so that our hearts be not deluded! It is evil, evil, fundamentally evil… It belongs to Alberich: no one else!! Away with it!”

George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four describes a world founded on hatred, fear and the intoxication of power. He wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1948, exactly a hundred years after Wagner’s first sketch for what became Der Ring des Nibelungen. In the oppressive world of ‘Big Brother’ we recognize the world of Alberich, the Nibelung. A century before Orwell, Wagner was warning of the rise of totalitarianism and the pursuit of power at the expense of love. We know this from several sources, and especially from his essay The Artwork of the Future in which he expressed the view that the earliest societies arose naturally out of humanity’s instinctive need for mutual love and fellowship. But later, he said, authoritarian states arose unnaturally, out of none of humanity’s instinctive needs, being imposed by the few on the many. The authoritarian state was, he said, a crime against human nature, and therefore against nature itself. “A crime against nature” – the starting point for Das Rheingold.

In September 1854 Wagner was introduced to a book that became vastly important to him: The World as Will and Representation by the contemporary German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Up to that time, his philosophical outlook had been what he described as the “cheerful Greek view” of the world, but Schopenhauer’s thesis was that the world as we recognize it is merely a representation – a perception assembled by our senses. To put it another way, we perceive the world as a presentation of objects in the theatre of our own mind. Schopenhauer’s writings made a huge impression on Wagner and they continued to influence his thinking for the rest of his life. In many respects he had been trying, in his own way, to explain quite similar ideas. One can see this in his writings and his music. Now at last he had found a coherent, theoretical explanation of what he had recognized intuitively. Schopenhauer called the essential, metaphysical nature of each thing, its ‘Will’. In the case of human beings, this ‘Will’ manifested itself in our perpetual wanting, striving, and yearning – a process leading inevitably to disappointment because the things that we strive for belong to the world of phenomena and are ephemeral. The only possible remedy for our unhappiness is to cease wanting, to stop desiring; in other words, to renounce the world of phenomena. Wagner noted the relevance of these ideas to his Nibelung dramas and particularly to the character of Wotan. Never before had opera explored such issues. This was no longer opera as entertainment; this was opera as revelation!

In his earliest drafts for Siegfried’s Death, Wagner had intended to make the hero Siegfried the central character of his drama. But as the story evolved it became clear that the central character was really Wotan. All that happens in the Ring can, in a sense, be linked to Wotan’s needs, his ambitions, his weaknesses and, eventually, his willingness to bring about his own end. Wagner described him as embodying “the sum of the intelligence of the present”. Yet, for all his hard-heartedness and suppressed emotion, Wotan undergoes a strange and moving process of self-discovery in the second act of Die Walküre. Trapped in a political and moral quagmire, he begins to accept the inevitability of his demise and the end of the gods. Ultimately, it is only by extinguishing the craving for power and wealth and other worldly desires that humanity can be transformed. But to reach that philosophical point, Wagner had to move a long way from the rather straightforward political allegory of 1848, and he did. It was this shift that Shaw found so difficult to reconcile with his notions of what had motivated Wagner to write the Ring.  

In the third act of Siegfried, Wotan, now merely observing events in the guise of the Wanderer, welcomes the end of the gods and bequeaths the future to the young Siegfried who does not know him but is destined to awaken Brünnhilde. She in turn will save the world. We know what Shaw had made of Siegfried, but what should we make of him in this day and age? Modern opinion is inclined to regard heroic figures with cynicism – a reaction perhaps to the disastrous consequences of political hero-worship in the twentieth century. As a result, many stage directors are inclined to transform such characters into anti-heroes. This is not difficult in the case of Siegfried, given that he is a naïve boy (and later, naïve man) raised in ignorance of other human beings, has no interest in the cursed ring other than as a love token, and is deceived, drugged, betrayed and eventually murdered. 

Wagner’s knowledge of heroes derived from two sources: the myths of ancient Greece, and the sagas and poetry of Northern Europe. In both traditions, heroes exhibited god-like attributes which set them apart from non-heroic mortals and reinforced the view that they were superhuman. They often had gods as parents or grandparents. But Wagner came to the conclusion that the Northern European myths were in advance of the Greek because in them the heroes (whom he described as fully developed human beings) were increasingly displacing the gods. That is why we witness Wotan giving way to Siegfried in the third act of Siegfried, and why the gods play no role at all in tterdämmerung, being merely figments of memory and imagination.

Wagner described Siegfried as “a fearless human being, one who never ceases to love”. This is not how heroes are usually seen, and the description is a long way from the manipulated image of Siegfried as a symbol of national and racial superiority! Again, it reflected Wagner’s attachment to the ideas of Feuerbach who maintained that the gods were the creations of men, not the other way around. If the gods counted for nothing then so too did the god-like attributes of heroes. In a new humanistic world, the quality that would render heroes ‘heroic’ was their humanity

Shaw’s misguided expectation that the Ring can be interpreted from a single perspective left him dissatisfied, as modern stage directors invariably are when they attempt a ‘one idea fits all’ approach. Shaw regretted that Wagner had not clarified his revolutionary inspiration by demanding contemporary costumes and settings: a tall hat for the Tarnhelm, factories for Nibelheim, villas for Valhalla, and so on. His description of the Tarnhelm, the magic helmet of transformation and invisibility is especially memorable: “This helmet is a very common article in our streets” he wrote, “where it generally takes the form of a tall hat. It makes a man invisible as a shareholder, and changes him into various shapes, such as a pious Christian, a subscriber to hospitals, a benefactor of the poor, a model husband and father, a shrewd, practical independent Englishman, and what not, when he is really a pitiful parasite on the commonwealth, consuming a great deal, and producing nothing, feeling nothing, knowing nothing, believing nothing, and doing nothing except what all the rest do, and that only because he is afraid not to do it, or at least pretend to do it.”

When, in 1898, he made his observations about using contemporary costumes and settings, productions of the Ring were still firmly under the thumb of Bayreuth-centred arbiters of taste and design styles. The thought then of putting Wotan in a nineteenth century frock coat or Brünnhilde in a Victorian riding habit would have been preposterous, but a century later such updating had become commonplace. Hagen and Gunther as captains of industry or Wall Street bankers; the giants as factory foremen; Loge as a spiv, are all familiar to modern audiences. It seems though that, as far as staged performances are concerned, we have passed the point where directors invariably think they can make sense of the Ring. As Patrick Carnegy has observed: “Many have since come to think that this is simply no longer possible, and even that it has never been possible, so great is the discrepancy between Wagner’s aim of creating a unified work of art and the fault lines in the completed work itself.” Taken to its logical conclusion, this approach means that, sooner or later, what happens on stage will have no connection at all with what is happening in the music. The Bayreuth Festival may already have reached that point.

With some operas this might not matter too much, but the dilemma for admirers of the Ring is that, like the Woodbird in Siegfried, the orchestra plays an active role in contributing information. How can an audience marry what is heard with what is seen if the content of each bears no relationship to the other? The answer is that we shall then be experiencing something entirely different which might or might not deserve the appellation ‘Wagnerian’. Did Wagner anticipate this, I wonder, when, in a moment of frustration during the first Ring rehearsals, he joked that having invented the invisible orchestra for his new festival theatre, he wished he could now invent the invisible stage? Had he lived long enough to hear high fidelity, stereophonic sound recordings of his work’s supremely expressive score, he might very well think that he had.

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