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Sunday Night Journal — May 20, 2012

Wagner: The State of the Question

(For the benefit of anyone coming across this post in isolation from its predecessors of the past two weeks: I am writing this after having seen a repeat of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2011-12 Live in HD broadcast of its new Ring cycle.)

I suppose I should say “The Ring” instead of “Wagner,” as it’s the only Wagner I’ve heard, not counting the occasional excerpt or overture. But it’s probably not unreasonable or unfair to regard this enormous work as representing the essence of the composer and his work.

It’s fair to say that I have been pretty well won over now. Götterdämmerung is the longest of the four operas in the cycle, running in this production only ten minutes less than five hours. Yet either because it’s more effectively structured as a drama, or because I had by then gotten adjusted to Wagner’s method, it didn’t seem overly long, and I was never bored. In fact I wished that it had been a bit longer, because I wanted it to end with a more lengthy orchestral elegy. I emerged into the baking heat and glaring sun of the parking lot of the theater feeling that I was coming out from under the influence of some drug. I found it difficult to adjust to the abrupt requirement that I get out of the world of The Ring and into the world in which I was required to run an errand at PetSmart on my way home. Hours later the emotions aroused by the work were still swirling around in me, the voices still resounding, and I found myself mentally deserting my immediate surroundings, staring into space, drifting back into that state where nothing existed for me apart from what I was seeing and hearing on that giant screen and from that enormous sound system, hearing the Rhinemaidens or the fire music or the Valhalla motif.

And yet...even as I succumbed to its spell, I had reservations and misgivings:


It seems to be a quirk of my musical sensibility that when I hear a singer with an orchestra my ear attends first and primarily to the orchestra. The result is that I’m often slow to recognize and respond to the singer’s melody. I mention that because I wonder if it accounts partly for the fact that for the most part it was the orchestral music that moved me as music rather than the parts given to the singers. There are no arias, and to my ear it seemed that most of the singing by far was recitativ (the stuff that in most operas and oratorios constitutes the musically uninteresting filler necessary to support the words that move the action along). To be blunt, there is a decided dearth of good tunes here. But it’s very possible that more exposure to the operas would change my view of that.

But the best of the music...well, it’s surely among the best. I found myself almost wishing he had been an orchestral composer, but that’s probably a misplaced wish; he seems to have needed a text.


One could never accuse Wagner of being an irresistible storyteller. Often the dramas of The Ring seem more like a series of tableaux than a narrative. There’s a good deal of exposition, some of it pretty clunky, and of characters announcing and describing their emotions. There are lengthy discussions and arguments which stop the action for fairly long stretches of time. I believe these operas were over-long even in a culture where people probably had longer attention spans than ours tend to be. Verdi was writing around the same time and his works are in the two-to-three-hour range. Wagner wrote his own librettos and was perhaps somewhat indulgent with himself; as dramas without music I doubt very much that they would have seen a second performance.


I am speaking here without any first-hand knowledge of Wagner’s ideas, only what I got from the operas and what little I’ve read about him. But with that in mind:

It isn’t fair, but Nazism casts a shadow over the century or so of German history that preceded it. It isn’t Wagner’s fault, but when you hear characters in a drama shouting “Heil!,” you can’t not think of Hitler. It isn’t Wagner’s fault that Hitler praised him. It isn’t entirely fair that the cult of heroism in The Ring is tainted by the similar Nazi cult. And yet this taint can’t be escaped or dismissed entirely. I suppose Hitler may have liked Brahms, too, but if he did we don’t care. What makes Wagner different is that he reportedly did talk a great deal about ideas which have some continuity with some elements of Nazism. Great evil casts a shadow backward as well as forward, and while Wagner may never have dreamed that his reputed anti-Semitism and nationalism would develop so diabolically, it can't be denied that there is continuity there. 

But it must be said that there is no trace of any of this in The Ring. There is no mention of nation, no mention of race, except in the sense of family. The dramas take place in a mythological realm which is not only timeless but placeless. If Wagner thought all this had something to do with Germany (and apparently he did, at least according to George Bernard Shaw—see this post at All Manner of Thing)—such idea are outside the work itself. 

One might say—and I did say to myself once or twice during The Ring—that Wagner’s world is entirely pagan. But that’s really not true; it is, rather, paganism viewed from a post-Christian distance. It’s often said that we live in a post-Christian society, and that’s largely true. But in many ways it’s been true for some 200 years now. Among other things, the 19th century interest in love as a mystical union owed something to Christianity. Real paganism, at least of the northern European variety, was a pretty hard, cold business; see Sigrid Undset’s Gunnar’s Daughter for a picture which is surely more accurate. What I have seen of the original Scandinavian legends contains love stories, but they are markedly unsentimental and unmystical. Wagner’s reworking of those sources is in many ways far more appealing, and is certainly far more sophisticated.

But there is something morbid in it; there is something morbid in much of Romanticism, in the artistic sensibility of the 19th century, I think, and Wagner brings it out more clearly than most. Where Christianity has love conquering death and bringing life, Wagner seems to make love and death the same thing, a mystical annihilation which may have more in common with some idea of union with the One than with the Christian idea of a personal union with God in which the person still exists. There is no God here; the frequent talk of “holiness” seems to have to do with Romantic ideas about “the holiness of the heart’s affections” (Keats). I'm not prepared to defend this statement, but intuitively it seems to me that the Wagnerian combination of morbid romanticism and hero-worship has as much to do with Nazism as Wagner's explicitly political and social thinking.

By the way, these recordings—at least I think they’re the same ones—are going to be available on DVD this fall. My first thought on reading that announcement at the end of the credits was that I must have them; my second was that the experience I’ve just had is probably unrepeatable and that the attempt to repeat it would probably be a mistake.


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Really interesting, Mac. I think I agree with pretty much everything you've said, especially about the musical and dramatic aspects. Philosophically, I still don't really know what to make of these operas.

You might like to hear "The Ring without Words", an hour-long orchestral suite based on the music of all four operas. It is very well done, and sometimes it can be nice to hear the music without the voices on top.

I would feel a little guilty about listening to that.:-) But yeah, I probably would enjoy it.

I don't (obviously) really know what to make of them philosophically, either. I'm somewhat fascinated by them but doubt if I'll have time to pursue the interest very far, certainly not to the exclusion of interest in other music that I'm not so ambivalent about. I can't shake the feeling of Something Not Quite Right but I don't know if that's just a prejudice.

This is interesting:

I knew this production was controversial but apparently it's more so than I realized. I wondered whether it would be as effective live as on video.

E. Michael Jones can be a bit of a loose cannon, but his book on music, Dionsysius Rising, is pretty interesting and has a lot to say about Wagner. No idea if he's right or not, or if he is, how right, but it's an engaging read nevertheless.

You caused me to look up an earlier post in which Jones and Wagner appear, and it turns out to be very interesting, especially the comments. I'm going to post it with a few remarks a bit later.

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