The music of time – on Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen

Vivianne Holmberg, Johanna Rudström and Susann Végh as the Rhinemaidens and Johan Edholm as Alberich © Markus Gårder/Kungliga Operan

Richard Wagner
Stockholm Royal Opera
& Opera North / BBC iPlayer

Roger Scruton
The wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung
400pp. Allen Lane. £25.

Simon Callow
The triumph of the will
232pp. William Collins. £14.99.

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, June 2

Wagner’s heroes have something of a drink problem. What great deeds would Siegfried have gone on to if he hadn’t accepted Gutrune’s potion of forgetting in Götterdämmerung? What would have happened to Tristan and Isolde if Brangäne had simply brought them a glass of water before they reached Cornwall? Would Isolde have quietly consented to marry King Mark, Tristan eager to serve them both? Or if Brangäne had brought the death draught as requested? Would we have had a searing but refreshingly brief single act opera on our hands?

Then again, perhaps it is not Wagner’s characters who have a drink problem so much as their audiences. I’ve rarely been to a performance where I wasn’t asked about or didn’t overhear someone questioning Wagner’s wisdom in turning to drink– in this case, magic potions. Nor do the charges tend merely to be concerned with the aesthetics of verisimilitude; they are serious because they go to the heart of what each opera is about, amid suspicions that Wagner isn’t just cheating the dramatic action but also himself. Siegfried, after all, is intended by his creators – Wotan, no less than Wagner – to mark the advent of human freedom in the world, a state in which we act not as we are forced to but as we choose to, and take responsibility accordingly. Tristan and Isolde are, on the other hand, lovers whose passion for each other is so intense that they would rather die than be apart, not because of the shame of their illicit affair but because the world no longer has any meaning for them. Surely such a love should have its origins in something greater than a phial of dubious-smelling liquid?

These questions are, in fact, easily answered by a simple injunction to listen to the music. By which I don’t mean that one should ignore the clumsy stage action and enjoy the music for itself (though this is precisely what is meant by many cynics), but that the stage action can’t be understood without following the music and tuning in to its altered temporality. For the time of both the Ring and Tristan, and indeed all of Wagner’s mature operas, is mythic time. The events represented on stage are not supposed to have happened once upon a time, but to take place in the eternal present. And the primary representation of agency lies in the music, which does not accompany or illustrate the drama so much as endow it with its form and content. The rate at which events unfold on stage is thus underpinned by the demands implicit in the musical material. If Wagner’s magic potions are a cheat in this respect, it isn’t that they force events to take place so as to allow the story to continue, but that they force us to recognize that what would happen anyway is happening now: we experience them as disturbing blips in our consciousness of time, nudging the events back into step with the music.

Thus the moment at which Tristan and Isolde fall in love is not brought about by the potion. The potion acts more on us as a reminder to listen and to remember that the lovers’ awakening is what the music has been driving at since the first bar of the Prelude. In Götterdämmerung, too, when Siegfried accepts the potion of forgetting from his hostess, the transformation which takes place in his mind is something the music has been exploring – the hero’s fatal mutability is the same mutability that was originally unleashed on the world by the forging of the Ring and Tarnhelm. Indeed the motif of the Tarnhelm, whose music is not merely a mutation of another motif but also acts to transform the other musical objects with which it comes into contact, so thoroughly dominates the thematic texture at this point in the opera that Gutrune’s drink seems almost superfluous. But if we listen, as the drink suggests we do, we realize that our disappointment in Siegfried taking the first opportunity to get drunk and seduce the first woman he sets eyes on, answers to a part of his character which is no less fundamental than his fearless slaying of Fafner or shattering of Wotan’s spear. For the freedom to act also entails the freedom to forget the constraining history of our previous actions. Indeed, it is in forgetfulness that the greater if less noble part of freedom consists.

The handling of time in Staffan Valdemar Holm’s production of the Ring cycle for Stockholm’s Kungliga Operan is among the most subtle I have come across. First staged a decade ago, and now revived for the first time since then, the production is as firmly rooted in Swedish culture as Wagner’s drama is in the nascent German national consciousness of the mid-nineteenth century. It is easy to see why Scandinavians feel as attached to the work as Germans. Not only do the days of the week progress from onsdag (Odin’s day), through torsdag (Thor’s day) to fredag (Freja’s day), but the expansion of Stockholm in the second half of the nineteenth century is similarly presided over by the ancient gods, with the avenues of Odengatan, Torsgatan and Frejgatan all a stone’s throw from Odenplan, and a leisurely stroll from the boulevard of Vallhalla­vägen. Though gods and heroes are more or less banned in secular, egalitarian modern Sweden, the contractual nature of Swedish public discourse, in which the oft-expressed sentiment “rätt ska vara rätt” (right is right) exerts an often bullying presence on subjective opinion, feels like a hand-me-down from the legalistic world of the Icelandic sagas.

All these streets, completed in the same year of 1885, date from a time when Sweden, like many other European countries, was actively seeking to put folk mythology into the service of bolstering national identity in the tacit realization that the ideals of Enlightenment and rational governance alone had not fostered unity of purpose. It is instructive, then, that Holm has set the drama not in the prehistory of folk legend but at the time when modern societies again felt the need to resuscitate them. The Rhinemaidens swim around the stage, but do so in folkloric dresses. The Rhine’s gold which they carelessly curate is the prize exhibit in a national museum, populated with the emblems and totems of the drama yet to unfold. And we see these objects, not merely as they are deployed by the characters in fulfilment of the legend, but again at the end, during Brünn­hilde’s summation scene, being respectfully handled by white-gloved staff and carried back to the museum which we are shown projected on a cinema screen. The final object to be put back in place, the Ring, is thrown by Brünnhilde from the stage to the Rhinemaidens on the screen, so we are left with the overwhelming sense, over the course of four long evenings, that everything has happened as well as nothing.

The time of the cycle is distributed roughly in the decades which separate the age of the museum from the age of cinema, which final stage represents a new kind of relation with myth. The Gods of Valhalla are dressed as 1890s aristocracy, in grey morning dress and armed with the top hats that George Bernard Shaw famously identified as the Tarnhelm, the power of capitalism to hide its designs behind its illusory products. The great hall of Valhalla is Wotan’s billiard room, its panels filled with allegorical mythological paintings. The Valkyrie are dressed as ladies of the hunt, from around 1910, while the action of Götterdämmerung takes us to the 1920s. Hidden in the transitions between each sphere of action, then, is the passing of one world into another and during the time of the cycle we witness the birth of modernity as well as its rebirth through the catastrophic fire of the First World War. As with Wagner’s magic potions, we do not see these transitions happening directly on stage, but rather see their effects and realize that it is in the music that the changes are driven and where their tragic dimension registers most deeply.

The most profound of these changes is the transition to the age of cinema, which solves a practical dramaturgical problem as well as a philosophical one. The practical problem is that it allows Holm and his designer, Bente Lykke Møller, to overcome the limitations of Stockholm opera’s weary stage technology by using video projections. The Norns are shown spinning their last threads on a rocky outcrop, while Siegfried’s journey up the Rhine is made against a backdrop of silvery shots of the glittering river, its ruined castles and wooded slopes impeccably rendered in the idiom of early German cinema. More importantly, though, this allows the staging to represent the relation between narration and action, so crucial to Wagner’s conception of opera. Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s histories, leading up to their embrace at the conclusion of the third opera, are screened on a loop during their farewell scene in Götterdämmerung’s first act, echoing the music with a fluidity unachievable in pure stage action. The projection freezes on their embrace, showing Brünnhilde left in a cinema, alone with the mythology of herself. Nor is the Rhine museum the final cinema shot of the opera, but the sight of a world consumed by flames retreats to a close-up of Wotan’s face, one eye closed, the other shedding, at last, a single, eternal tear. It may not be intended as a reference as such, but it brings to mind the cinematography of Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, where the parallel motifs of fire, redemption and the cleansing of tears are both too obvious and astute to need spelling out.

Musically, the production represents a significant triumph for Stockholm’s tech­nically and economically challenged opera house. Nina Stemme is in a class of her own as Brünn­hilde, her vocal resources carefully managed to last out the long transformation of the character. At the end, especially in this relatively small house, her voice is every bit as overwhelming in its discharge of compassion as Wagner could have hoped. Opposite her, Lars Cleveman makes a fine, unusually sympathetic Siegfried. Almost all the rest of the enormous cast is drawn from in-house forces. John Lundgren’s Wotan grows apace with the character, while Katarina Dalayman’s Fricka and Katarina Leoson’s Erda both make a tremendous impact. The real discovery of the series, however, is the Sieglinde of Cornelia Beskow, a very young singer whose sensitive acting and tremendous vocal power made her supremely important character remain, as it should, in the mind throughout the two final operas.

Marko Letonja’s musical direction is impossible to fault, sensitively paced throughout so that the arcs in which Wagner’s spatio-temporal landscape is laid out in the music emerge with singular clarity. So too does the transformational flow that constantly works through the musical material from its very first bars, brimming with nascent possibility, giving the lie to Nietzsche’s criticism, taken up by Adorno, that the work is essentially a patchwork of miniatures stitched together with seams that all too easily come apart. They do come apart, but only in the sense that the patchwork of human consciousness tears itself apart in order to try and find balance between its objects of perception and memory. Indeed, it is the clarity with which Wagner’s leitmotifs fasten themselves momentarily on objects of the staging before absorbing them into their own dynamic flow which makes Wagner’s musical idiom such a perfect analogue of our conscious and unconscious creation and recreation of the world around us.

Like Wagner’s Norns, the Stockholm Ring does have its loose ends, of course. The swimming and riding gestures of the Rhinemaidens and Valkyries sit oddly, and the power of the gods is sometimes difficult to discern from the uppity interventions of Donner and Froh. Holm’s setting for Fafner’s lair takes the form of a chapel filled by a silent congregation of the non-denominational kind that flourished in Sweden towards the end of the century and still leaves its mark on Swedish society today. The clue here comes from Paul Heise’s interpretation of the Ring (published online at, which tells us that Fafner the dragon represents the priest of reified religion which sits on the world’s wisdom and its riches and does nothing with them, inciting the masses to a state of blank passivity. Holm’s silent congregation does indeed answer to this description, even though it creates problems of its own through the presence on stage of characters who seem to have no dramatic purpose other than reflecting their own ineffectual nature.

I learned about Heise’s intriguing analysis of the Ring from reading Roger Scruton’s book, The Ring of Truth. This is a labour of love, both in the sense that it examines the Ring through a conception, arguably indistinguishable from Wagner’s own, of the centrality of erotic love and the compassion which ideally motivates it to human individuality, intrinsic value and moral freedom, and also in the sense that Scruton evidently loved writing it. For although the book is weighty – it runs to 400 closely argued pages, including some 180 musical examples – it reads as if dictated in a single, gloriously clear-minded afternoon.

Scruton’s book is motivated by three main concerns. The first of them is that if the Ring cycle expresses truth about the human condition, this truth cannot be understood without the music and that we fail miserably to determine the scope and structure of the operas if we just look at the text and the action on stage. The drama’s real meaning, Scruton argues, is manifest in the way in which Wagner’s leitmotifs function as metaphors, absorbing the elements of the stage action and submitting them to their own logic. Hearing the way, then, in which each motif is related to another through processes of development, diminution, fragmentation and recapitulation – all quite fundamental parts of compositional logic – we can understand the logical dependence of, for example, the Ring on the world of nature from which it is violently wrested. It is only, similarly, by following the chain of leitmotifs connected with love that we understand the crucial function of compassion in the story. The book’s long central chapter on “the story” (don’t mistake it for a programme synopsis) brilliantly integrates the explication of the action with the musical argument. The pace of the discussion becomes rather breathless at times, Scruton taking a geeky delight in showing that this depends on that, and this follows from that, and that allows one to understand this, so that all the strands of the music, story, and its philosophical convictions, are laid out with the matchless clarity of, well, a spider’s web.

The second motivation is to disabuse those who set too much store by the young Wagner’s Feuerbachian revolutionary principles, egged on by stories of his dalliance with Mikhail Bakunin and circumstantial but sincere engagement in the Dresden Uprising of 1849. These, Scruton shows, only go halfway to explaining the action of the Ring, and fail completely to engage with the ending as Wagner eventually rewrote it. But as Scruton shows, the action of the Ring, its retelling of the legend of the fall of man and the emergence of consciousness from the order of nature, is irreducibly cosmic. The dominion of the Ring, the instrumentalizing power it represents and the price that power exacts in terms of human love and freedom, is not something a mere revolution can bring to an end, especially one driven, as Scruton writes of Marx (of whom he is in many ways a sympathetic reader), by the subjectivity-crushing spirit of resentment. Rather, the Ring’s bipolar cycles of sacrilege and sacrifice, of power and redemption, are cosmic events which at the same time grace the moral minutiae of lived life. That ultimately, Scruton argues, is what the Ring is about, in that it lays out the conditions and paradoxes which make human life and its institutions possible.

The third motivation is perhaps the least important but the most problematic. It concerns the psychologizing tendency in Wagnerian scholarship and interpretation. Scruton is right, in many respects, that we do the operas a signal disservice when we mine them for expressions of Wagner’s perhaps rather fluid sexuality, or his deceitful relations with his friends, lovers and patrons, his delight in silk knickers and his discomfort with his own face and body. We misconstrue them, too, when we bring Freud and Jung into the explanatory picture, as so many have, partly because Wagner’s own treatment in the Ring of the role of myth in the psychology of modern human beings was different from, and in some senses clearer than, the psychoanalytic theories it pre-empts. All such concerns, which seek to explain Wagner’s operas through structures that the operas themselves do not provide, are to be cast out as irrelevant. And this includes, for Scruton, Wagner’s anti-Semitism.

Is this right? Unlooked-for help in this respect comes from Simon Callow’s book, Being Wagner, which presents itself as a way into the workings of Wagner’s mind. What it achieves, in fact, is a lightly glossed version of the story Wagner himself presented in Mein Leben, his famously unreliable autobiography. Callow’s book is hampered by an at times toe-curlingly familiar style which, as it rips along at breakneck speed, manages to represent the main events in Wagner’s life as a series of inconsequential delinquencies.

Yet Callow does bring features of Wagner’s biography to light which in themselves give much food for thought in relation to the operas. And these are precisely the features, or some of them, which Scruton seeks to suppress. For example, Callow gleefully illustrates the many instances where Wagner’s conduct fell woefully short of the ideal of compassionate love and self-sacrifice presented in the operas. It reminds us of Wagner’s success as a mimic in his musical career, and as a purveyor of histrionic, faked up emotions in his romantic and economic entanglements. Yet it was the prevalence of precisely such emotions, and such shallow individuality, though Callow doesn’t put it this way, which prompted him to examine human life in all its fullness in the Ring; and which also prompted him, in a fit of overblown resentment he remained bound to for the rest of his life, to write his chilling anti-Semitic polemic, Das Judenthum in der Musik.

We ignore these faultlines in Wagner’s character at some cost. Thus Scruton, in his otherwise brilliant analysis of Alberich’s brother, Mime, as someone whose fear has transformed all his other emotions into shallow, instrumental imitations of themselves, and who thus invariably treats others as means to his own end, remains blind to the fact the portrayal is so precise partly because it is, in many respects, an unwilling self-portrait, a portrait of everything Wagner most hated about himself and which he attacked in his anti-Semitic rant. It is a mistake to see the operas as expressing or inciting anti-Semitism. But to ignore entirely, as Scruton does, the thematic connections between the dehumanizing power of the Ring and Wagner’s anti-Semitic fury is a much graver error, to my mind.

Scruton also makes no mention of any stagings of the operas, apart from Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez’s initially scandalous and now legendary 1976 Bayreuth centenary production, which for many mapped out the territory in which Wagner’s sacred myths could intersect with the secular realities of the late twentieth century. But as Scruton rightly points out, the need for the sacred to survive, in the guise of great art, in the realm of the secular is already one of the main themes of the opera, and to present it as a problem to be solved in staging blinds us to the fuller and more reflective treatment given in the opera itself. He chastizes both Chéreau and Boulez for their suffocating narrow-mindedness.

Perhaps Scruton doesn’t mention others because he has yet to see one that he likes. His knowledge of the score and the world it brings to light is so deep and far-reaching that only a production which succeeded in following every stage direction as faithfully as it follows every note in the score would satisfy his requirements. I don’t know, however, if while writing the book he managed to see the semi-staged performances mounted by Opera North, initially over the course of several seasons and then, last year, as a complete cycle (filmed by the BBC, on whose iPlayer it is generously still available for online streaming, which is, rather regrettably, how I saw it). But the production is excellent in many respects, not the least of which is that it presents the orchestra, contrary to Wagner’s wishes (but then Wagner didn’t wish for a semi-staged performance), centre-stage, as the sustaining life of the drama. Richard Farnes, who before stepping down as Opera North’s music director after the final cycle last year, did significantly more than George Osborne to substantiate ideas of a “Northern powerhouse” in his work with the Leeds-based company, presides over a truly masterly series of performances. The singers work from the front of stage, with three video screens placed at the rear on which are projected atmospheric sequences, synopses and the surtitles. All the singing is good, though the roles of Wotan and Siegfried (one of whom is Lars Cleveman) are split across different evenings. Kelly Cae Hogan’s Brünnhilde and Lee Bisset’s Sieglinde are both outstanding.

I find Scruton’s quite magnificent book hard to review for two reasons. The first is that it expresses my own view of Wagner’s work, but with such a thoroughgoing knowledge of the score and its philosophical implications, that I find it hard to take much away from it other than better-shaped versions of the notions I already hold. The second reason is that Scruton’s analysis of the Ring and the truth it undoubtedly bears, no less urgently for our own age than Wagner’s own, is so firmly wedded to his political and cultural conservatism that I found myself struggling vainly to grasp onto any liberal tidebreaks and hold myself against the flow of conclusions drawn about the political necessity of family life, the sacredness of property and the cultural importance of the hunt. At each point, whether in relation to Shavian interpretations of the Ring’s conception of society, or in passing as the work’s philosophical underbelly is minutely exposed, the sacred cows of the liberal Left are slaughtered and their carcasses left to rot, with subdued glee, for Wotan’s ravens to pick at.

It is telling that Scruton’s book makes scant mention of Gunther and Gutrune. In the Stockholm Ring they are presented as crippled inhabitants of a world of depraved social relations and political machination, dominated by Alberich’s resentment (personified in his son Hagen). Their intentions are not evil in themselves so much as shallow, dominated by desire for mere shadows of the things which really matter in the Ring. And yet, it is these characters and their shadows who survive the conflagration of both gods and heroes. And to that extent, they are us, left only with the memory of the music of Sieglinde’s blessing to remind them how their increasingly hollow political and cultural existence moves further and further from the music’s redeeming power.

In this sense, Scruton’s volume offers an excellent companion for anyone who wishes to penetrate deeper into a work which, for all its celebrated length in performance, is positively telescopic when it concerns the meanings and mysteries it dramatizes. But it is perhaps most perfectly suited to the individual who, on returning home from the gods’ twilight, can rise at dawn to ride out to hounds, safe in the knowledge that the sacrilegious dirt of modernity can, a vote in the House of Commons permitting, be washed clean away in the blood of an unfortunate fox. For the rest of us, whether we are Gunthers and Gutrunes, Vassals, or the alienated labourers of desktop Niebelheim, the message is more complicated, more depressing, and more in need of prosaic political solutions. But perhaps it doesn’t matter. Having lived out our lives – blessed, if we’re lucky, by a moment or two of genuine self-determination in self-sacrificial love – in the end we’re all damned anyway. Ye gods, I need a drink.

Popular Posts