I had two major challenges as I prepared my remarks for this evening’s talk: one was figuring out what not to talk about, and the other was figuring out how to keep what I did want to talk about to 30 minutes. At one point I considered simply playing the hilarious (but largely accurate) summary of Wagner’s Ring delivered by the incomparable Anna Russell, who begins her famous routine by railing against the typical pre-concert remarks, “Delivered by great experts, for the edification of other great experts, and is likely to leave the average person more befogged than before, thus discouraging them from going altogether.” Hopefully I will avoid falling into that trap!
But you see, the problem with Wagner is that I’m not sure he could have his morning grapefruit without imposing some deep purpose to the activity, and so it’s hard to talk about him on any level and not get into some STUFF. Unless, of course, I simply give you the synopses of these operas – in which case Anna Russell could give you everything you needed to know, and far more entertainingly.
So I’m going to make an assumption here, in the interests of saying something meaningful in a rather short space of time: I’m going to assume that if you’re coming to an all-Wagner concert, and that you’re willing to come to that concert EARLY to hear someone TALK about Wagner, that you probably have some base knowledge of the man and at least some basic sketchy knowledge of the operas in question. Either that or you’re just a masochist, in which case I can’t help you.
The first thing we should keep in mind is that we have two things going on here tonight: there are orchestral (and vocal) excerpts from Wagner’s works that have become stand-alone works themselves, and then there are the actual operas that spawned those excerpts-turned-works. In the case of the "Prelude and Liebestod" from the opera Tristan und Isolde, the concert piece, which consists of the opera’s famous prelude and the nearly as-famous closing monologue by the opera’s heroine, was sanctioned by Wagner himself, and provides a remarkably satisfying condensation of an enormously sprawling work. In the case of he Ring Without Words, we have a concert piece, put together by the composer and conductor Lorin Maazel, that consists of famous passages from the four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Niebelung. It’s kind of a Ring mash-up, a patchwork quilt of great music designed to more or less tell the story of the entire cycle, only in much-condensed, orchestral form.
And here’s where my dilemma started: do I talk about Tristan, with a prelude that was so new, so innovative in its harmonic structure, that music would never be the same; a prelude that was written in 1859 and in the space of less than five minutes sows the seeds for the complete breakdown of tonal music and the emergence of atonality in the 20th century; a prelude so confounding to theorists that scholars still argue about it to this day. Or do I talk about how the different scenes from The Ring Without Words relate to each other, or perhaps how Maazel went about excising small passages of music from a 14-hour work in hopes of creating a sort of “Readers Digest” version for orchestra? Or perhaps I could explain how the various themes in the Ring relate to each other, how they mostly grow out of a few tiny, elemental building blocks, how that organic unity has profound implications for the meaning of the work itself, and how just a few simple motives combine to create a musical structure more complex than anything that had ever been envisioned before? I could talk about Wagner the political figure, and how he evolved from an anti-monarcical revolutionary sympathizer to quite happily accepting the largess of a Bavarian prince when he needed patronage for his new theatre. Or I could talk about how, between his music, his philosophical views, his irrascable nature, his propensity for stealing other men’s wives, and his completely revolutionary approach to the whole question of what opera is, he polarized the musical world – and trust me: in the latter half of the 19th century you had to be in one camp or the other! You were either with Wagner, or with Verdi; you either loved Wagner, or you loved Brahms. You either thought he was a cad, or you worshiped the ground he walked on. Wagner was supposedly sad to hear of the death of Verdi, but I wouldn’t put any money on that claim.
So much to talk about, and I’ve already spent 5 minutes of my allotted time…
But throughout all these issues there’s one thread that keeps emerging, and it’s the one that I personally find the most interesting: of all the composers of history, and perhaps even all of history’s artists in general, Wagner continues to generate the most controversy years after his death. Why is that? Why are we still fascinated with this figure? We does he continue to generate such vigorous debate today? Yes, he was one of the great geniuses of all time, but so was Leonard Da Vinci and people don’t get into shouting matches about him. There aren’t orchestras in certain countries who refuse to play the music of Mozart because of what he came to represent. There was a riot at the premiere of Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring (my favorite detail of which was fellow composer Maurice Ravel getting hit on the head with an umbrella) but today a Stravinksy ballet can be reasonably expected to be a tranquil affair. (I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing, by the way, but that’s another lecture). So what is it about this man, and his music, that continues to both captivate and impassion those who encounter them?
Well part of that answer lies in the man himself. More than a composer, Wagner was a poet, an essayist, and a philosopher. He loved to hear the sound of his own voice (at least, in written form) and wrote voluminously -- VOLUMINOUSLY -- about controversial subjects. He was no respecter of persons, and would happily decimate anybody whose views he thought were misguided. He happily embraced (and encouraged) the hero-worship of those who sought him out, and then shamelessly exploited those relationships to satisfy his own lusts and whims. His anti-semitism was well-documented, and so he gave voice to the shameful underside of German culture – a voice that could later be twisted around to give artistic cover for no less than Hitler’s ethnic cleansing of the Fatherland.
And while Wagner’s views, and particularly the way those views were later twisted and co-opted by the Third Reich, are of course especially distasteful to us, history is full of great artists who were also jerks, or who voiced opinions that today we find unacceptable. So these issues alone do not really explain our continued fascination with Wagner, our continued troubled relationship with the man and his music.
I think the answer to the question lies partly in the music itself. For out of the mind of this disagreeable, sometimes hateful, man came some of the most glorious music ever penned. And it’s in that contradiction that Wagner begins to function more as a mirror. If we’re really honest, we see a little bit of ourselves in him: capable of great things, and equally capable of falling tragically short.
And this contradiction does not merely exist in the person of Wagner – it’s explored at great depth and dimension in his music. And nowhere is that exploration more far-reaching and profound than in that mammoth 4-opera epic, The Ring of the Niebelung. For the Ring encompasses no less than the world in total, humanity’s place within that world, and indeed the very core nature of the human condition. By exploring the Ring, we begin to understand why this work – and its creator – continue to stir us so deeply, 150 years after it’s writing.
Let’s start with the inception for this work. What started out as a one-opera political allegory inspired by the turbulent events of 1848 quickly became transformed: Wagner kept expanding his text, and in so doing began to realize his epic was in fact a much larger commentary on the nature of humanity as a whole. This was brought into sharp focus when he read Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation…
Uh oh….he’s bringing in the philosophers…. I know, I know. But hang in there with me, okay? I promise I won’t wade in too deep.
So in The World as Will and Representation Schopenhauer argues that our view of reality is in fact an illusion, one that leads to endless, meaningless striving for things that ultimately prove empty. The result is a continuous cycle of striving and suffering, which can only be broken by renouncing our illusion of reality. Wagner saw this cycle of striving and suffering not only in the turmoil of his native Europe, but in the characters of his Ring as well. There's Wotan, a god who is nonetheless flawed with greed, a lust for power & domination, and a tragic lack of self-awareness and introspection. He is the very embodiment of the human dilemma: blessed with the god-like character of consciousness, but unable to avoid the propensity for evil. And, in the words of M. Owen Lee, Wagner’s Ring was “coming to represent not one 19th century moment – industrialized Europe on the brink of political revolution – but the whole history of the world, from beginning to end, a world spun endlessly and meaninglessly.”
The timing of Wagner’s encounter with Schopenhauer is interesting: the text to the Ring was already completed when he first read The World as Will and Representation, and that reading did not cause him to go back and revise any of his text: he had already intuitively anticipated Schopenhauer’s thesis – just as he was also anticipating Jung and Freud in the psychology of his characters; just as the inevitable road towards world-ending transformation we see in the Ring anticipated the calamities of the 20th century that forever changed not just European society but the entire world.
As Owen Lee points out: the cycle both embodies all of external nature – rivers, forests, mountains, rainbows; pure, timeless, primeval source of all life, AND all of internal nature – human nature, conflicted, sundered from the pristine unconscious that gave it birth, endlessly searching for redemption and the reclaiming of lost innocence.
Or, as Thomas Mann so perfectly sums up in his essay on Wagner, the cycle accomplishes what no previous work had managed: to combine psychology and myth.
How did he do this? He could not have accomplished it merely through his libretto. And here we come back to Schopenhauer, because though Wagner’s encounter with the philosopher may not have changed his text, it had profound influence on the music he used to realize it. He began to see that only in the music of the orchestra could he express the deeper and multi-faceted implications of his story; the psychological aspects of his characters that they themselves cannot see; the workings out of fates and schemes and curses and indeed, the very essence of the human condition that Schopenhauer so clearly articulated – things of which the characters could not possibly be aware or even understand, tragically blind as they are to the true nature of the world and, indeed, of themselves.
An excellent example of this is in Act II of Sigfried, in which the forest represents both the innocence of fairytales but also the human subconscious; where Sigfried’s slaying of the dragon is a classic fairytale coming-of-age...but then, buried deep within the orchestra, almost like a rumble that is felt more than heard, we hear Brünnhilde’s theme! What can this be, other than an anticipation of their fateful meeting, a meeting that will bring about his sexual awakening and fulfill the Jungian embracing of the anima – the inner feminine within the male psyche, with all its potential for both creativity & rebirth on the one hand, and destruction on the other – themes that are at the very heart of the entire cycle. According to Jung, the psychologically mature male must conquer the destructive side and embrace the creative element. Is this not also the struggle faced by our young Sigfried? None of this is explicitly stated in the words of the libretto, but in the complex and subtle way that the musical motives are woven together in the orchestra we have a profound and telling commentary. And so, through some of the most beautiful and serene music ever to grace an opera house, we also take a deep and penetrating look into the human psyche.
Okay hoooold on, Jeff, I thought you said you weren’t going to wade in too deep! Just because some clever professor with a pipe and too much time on his hands thinks he sees Jungian psychology in Wagner’s Ring doesn’t make it so. But we know from Wagner’s writings that he did indeed think about these things, and moreover, it’s in the music.
We hear it in the deep, sonorous, chords of the very opening of the Ring, the perfect evocation of primal nature. (And, I’ve always said, the first example of minimalism in music: 160+ bars of E-flat!) This ultimate music stability is suddenly disrupted by the jerky, unsettled and dissonant music of the dwarf Alberich – who is the disrupting catalyst, setting in motion a sequence of events that culminate in the downfall of the world. We see it in the heartbreakingly exquisite closing of Die Walküre, in which Wotan must punish the one person who knows his true desire and has stayed true to it – his daughter Brünnhilde: the music is so tender as he puts her into an enchanted sleep, yet the slowly descending motive is in fact a deconstruction of the musical motive that represents Wotan’s spear – the source of all his power. Music that is outwardly sad and poignant is simultaneously foreshadowing Wotan’s ultimate demise that we witness 9 hours later at the end of Götterdämmerung – and brought about at the hands of this same Brünnhilde.
This kind of musical complexity not only allows The Ring Without Words to be possible – because the vast majority of the musical/structural material is in the orchestra, and not in the voices – it also is the reason why opera was never going to be the same after Wagner. This approach to opera as a dramatic vehicle led to a new musical language… which led to a new, vastly expanded role for the orchestra… which led to a vastly expanded orchestra… which led to the need for a new kind of theater design (including, among other things, a largely hidden pit so as to not drown out the singers)… and a more dramatically intense presentation – which in turn led to developments in stage lighting, the darkening of the house for the performance (Wagner was the first to do this), and ever-deeper delvings into the human psyche that reached their fullest extent in the Expressionist movement of the early 20th century. Wagner was, in other words, the first modernist, living smack-dab in the middle of the 19th century.
But it’s also the reason, I argue, why we cannot let go of this music. Why it keeps getting to us, getting inside us. Wagner’s music – and the Ring in particular – taps into the universal myth of humanity’s break from the natural world, a break that gave us consciousness but also inexorably led to the subsequent ongoing struggle with our flawed nature, our tendency toward evil, and, of course, our never-ending quest for regaining what we lost in the transaction.
Wagner himself said: “I want to bring the unconscious part of human nature into consciousness.” He believed that we needed to explore our primeval roots, that myth and psychology pointed the way, and that music-drama was the only vehicle through which we could bring it all together. He believed that if we could better understand the great contradictions of human existence, we could reveal the truth about ourselves – and perhaps create a better world as a result.
All of this from a man who embodied the best and the worst of the human condition: a complete reflection of collective selves.
Pondering these things helps me understand the recent explosion in Ring productions around the world. It used to be that full productions of the cycle were rare, but now new productions are popping up in major opera houses every few years. While it may be true that we have better technical tools at our disposal to express some of the more fantastical elements of Wagner’s story, mounting the full cycle remains as hopelessly expensive for the company and as physically demanding for the singers as ever. So why now, all of a sudden? I think it’s an expression of our times, times weighted down with the same kind of political and social upheavals Wagner experienced when he began his cycle in 1847. Times characterized a daily life that has become so frenetic, so saturated with outward stimuli, as to make introspection and self-understanding increasingly difficult to grasp. Wagner’s tale calls us away from that world, calls us to contemplate our inner nature – our true selves. He’s shows us the hopelessness of endlessly striving for the power we think matters, and reminds us that such striving will result in the destruction of the world. And then…he gives us hope: a hope that, through destruction also comes transformation, that in the ending of this world there can be the rebirth of a new one – one where innocence and pure love can once again live.
There is one leitmotif in the Ring that is only heard twice in the entire cycle. The first time is in Act III of Die Walküre, sung by Sieglinde. She has been rescued by Brünnhilde, whose selfless act of disobedience of Wotan will result in her losing her status as an immortal Valkyrie, and so in a soaring, expansive outburst of gratitude for Brünnhilde’s sacrifice she sings, “Oh, mightiest of miracles!” The second time this music appears is in the closing bars of the entire cycle, once the world has burned away and the purifying waters of the Rhine have risen and washed everything anew, a primeval baptism, if you will. And then, that soaring music returns. The presence of this music belies Anna Russell’s comedic punch-line – namely, that the cycle ends right back where we started. It doesn’t. For by bringing back this music, representing the “mightiest of miracles,” Wagner’s message is clear: the force to redeem the world, to forever free us from Schopenhauer’s endless and meaningless struggle and bring about our own rebirth; the only force powerful enough to transcend and indeed reshape the very nature of the world, is the most powerful force of all: the force of love. John Lennon said it more succinctly, of course: all you need is love. But the Ring required a much vaster canvass to illustrate the power of ancient myths, the depths of the human psyche, and the great arc of human existence.
After all: it’s Wagner.