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Zane Dalal looks at the music, the drama and the pervasive social message of Richard Wagner’s epic music drama, Der Ring des Nibelungen

Much has been written on the life and work of composer Richard Wagner, and even more on his famous tetralogy of operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). There is much scholarship that provides for much to understand and much to recognise. For the purposes of this short edition for ON Stage, I’m putting forward three main areas of interest – in a single thread of enquiry – which I hope will fascinate you.

The Music

When most musicians think of Wagner, they contextualise him in the musical language in which he wrote. It’s unmistakable, and for those involved in performance or singing his music, it’s the only place to start. We know that the English spoken today is not the Middle English of Chaucer, nor the Early Modern English of pre-1850. Similarly, taking Hindi or Marathi as an example, we would find many historical versions that have led over time to current colloquial usage. So it is with music. The musical language known to Handel is different to the one used or adopted by Mozart or Beethoven, who, in turn, through Schubert, Schumann and Brahms deliver a changing musical to Wagner. What makes Wagner remarkable is the manner in which he exploits what is given to his generation – stretching the boundaries of harmony, form and structure.

On listening to Wagner, even the first-time listener is aware of a soundscape that is large, engulfing and, at times, overwhelming to the point of distraction. He takes his listeners on a journey that gives them harmonies and chord progressions that are more adventurous, more lush, more extreme and more iconoclastic than his contemporaries imagined or allowed. He created a following of young disciples who were ready to boo at live performances of Brahms. Similarly, the Brahms camp were present to boo back. Wagner wasn’t one to fit in; he was one to create his own path, and demand that others follow it completely and obediently or abandon it altogether. The result is a musical score that demands much – in skill, in understanding and in sheer stamina and strength. Wagner demands it equally of the orchestral player, the soloist, the chorus member, the conductor – and the entire drama regie as well.

Some would say that Wagner’s musical language is stretched to the point of breaking – or collapsing back on itself. It has the framework of what is known, but constantly suggests the unknown. A literary comparison might be with the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins in his use of the terms ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’. Inscape refers to the unique quality of a thing, a moment or word – its real presence. Instress is the binding force of the inscape and the impulse of its delivery mechanism to the beholder. A romantic religious notion that everything in existence has the stamp of the creator, taking it beyond scientific mass to something more special, permeates the poetry of this period. With Wagner, there is an almost constant experiment with the sound of a note. What it means, what it implies, how it is connected to neighbouring notes and how the whole is perceived by the listener.

For the purposes of this article, suffice it to say, that the musical language of Wagner alone provides no finite explanation and each question it affords is typically answered by another question. When you next listen to his music, you will instantly be aware – if you haven’t noticed it already – that you are listening to two or three directional strands simultaneously: what is actually played, what you actually hear, and what you actually thought you heard. This emotional complication is a necessary part of understanding Wagner, and is fully intentional. Now imagine all those leitmotifs – those small set phrases, sounds or chords that connote particular dramatic themes or objects throughout the Ring Cycle: one for Valhalla, one for the Rhine, one for the Ring, one for the Curse, one for Notung (the sword), and so on. They are no longer just the music, they mean so much more.

The Drama

It is not always healthy or appropriate to have your librettist and composer in the same person. In fact, without a doubt, all the greatest operatic achievements are always a great poet/librettist brought together with a great composer, each knowingly working his expertise to join with the other – two souls combined in one. Whether Mozart and Da Ponte, Verdi and Boito, Puccini and Illica, or Richard Strauss and von Hofmannsthal, there is real pleasure that opera lovers have in seeing great textual drama come alive in music, and conversely, the music exploring a textual point. In the case of Wagner, the end result would have benefitted a great deal from a second source for text and dramatic impulse. Wagner had already embarked upon developing a whole new art form, in which he positioned himself in complete dominion over all that he surveyed. He would deliver to the world, a single masterminded concept of drama in which the drama, action, props, sets, costumes, storyline, orchestra, orchestral instruments, players, singers, chorus, cooks, engineers, workmen and local politicians all marched to the same step. This vision was fully realised in the great Bayreuth opera house; and his great-grandchildren running Bayreuth today suffer from not being able to be as autocratic and dictatorial as their forebears, though not for lack of trying.

I cannot for the purposes of this article summarise the plot of the Ring Cycle because even that would be a longer endeavour than the whole article. I do, however, recommend that our readers read a synopsis of the plot, and then follow by reading George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite. In this short, eminently readable volume, Shaw discusses the origins of what follows here below at length. There is a link between the story of the Ring, its didactic processes, and the changing dynamics of society in Germany. There are many parallels to medieval feudal lordship, hierarchy, perceived power over another being, a sense that everyone is born in a place in society, and that the strong might have dominion over the weak to their own ends. The idea of the gods failing to keep their contract with the giants and getting tricked by an unseemly dwarf, the curse of stolen gold laying waste to characters throughout the plot, the magical powers of the Tarnhelm, a cloak that renders its wearer invisible – may seem childlike in its fairytale impulses. But there is a strong and dark undercurrent. The idea that those at the top of society (the gods), through their military instruments (the Valkyries), might decide who died and who lived. This process – mirrored in the inner workings of The Reich – was to define who was a hero and who was not, and the aim was to ensure that the purity of Valhalla, the last abode of gods and heroes, would remain unsullied. How much of this played out in the real life of the Wagner family, the controlling mandate of the Gestapo and the machinery of concentration camps?

The Social Construct

The autocratic command structure at Bayreuth presents a fascinating inherited legacy, which is still partially in effect today. Everyone is and must be Wagner-obsessed. This is realised in an extraordinary way. The orchestra is made up of Wagner experts, who know the opera back to front and often better than the conductor who stands before them. I remember in Bayreuth in 1989, a singer who forgot his line during a rehearsal was greeted with the sound of 25 voices from the orchestra, singing it for him. Similarly, there is a going rate for singing Brünhilde or Siegfried or a Valkyrie, and those rates and tables don’t really consider if you’re a diva or not.

Everyone is there to serve the common purpose, with a devotion that borders on obsession. I saw it when I was there. I hope that some of it remains uneroded, because it made for the most vital and extraordinary music-making. However, to all this there is a dark side.

Everyone had to be obsessed. While Wagner lived, they had no choice. While his son Siegfried lived, they had no choice – this time fanned by Hitler’s Third Reich. Siegfried’s wife, an Englishwoman named Winifred Williams, was a close personal friend of Hitler, smuggling to him in prison the paper on which he scribbled Mein Kampf. The family and the Reich were intertwined by fate and history. If you go to Bayreuth and listen – as I have done – to the eerie silence of the dense, humid summer air, and look up at the window of the opera house where Hitler appeared to soldiers below, and remind yourself of the photographs you’ve seen of performances of the Ring, of Wehrmacht and SS officers in uniform with red and black swastika armbands, then you will hear the sound of a thousand tramping boots and the echoes of the repeated “Sieg Heil”.

There are a few more obvious comparisons that make one shudder. The SS, Vice-Führer Himmler’s group, modelled themselves, their underground activities, oath-taking and their espoused medieval view of the purity of white Christians entirely upon Wagner’s opera Parsifal. If you take the title ‘Valkyrie’ for the operation that would save Hitler’s Germany if there was a coup, there is an ironic sense of justice that the operation would seek to see who would live or die, and who would be transported to the land of heroes. Darker still, the words used to describe the properties of the Tarnhelm, to allow its wearer to disappear into Nacht und Nebel – the night and the fog – was the secret underpinning of the December 1941 edict of whisking away anti-German instigators in the middle of the night, which culminated, unchecked, in the Holocaust and the Final Solution. That so many Wagnerian phrases, themes, views and beliefs would find themselves ripe for use in the legal underpinnings of communiqués within Hitler’s Germany is a Gordian knot that is better cut than unravelled.

The Ring without Words, adapted by Lorin Maazel, which will be performed by the Symphony Orchestra of India this February allows us to listen to the orchestral scope of this story, without dealing with the drama or a somewhat clunky libretto. However, the music in and of itself is where Wagner is the real master, so we have the best of the Ring. Maazel’s edition, while an epic evening of music-making and listening, from time to time truncates at the wrong place, and often leaves out some portions essential to those who know the operas well and expect the drama to unfold in a certain way. However, this is exactly what Maazel was after, to present an orchestral feast while not being fettered by the direction of plot and drama. To the first-time listener, it will be an extraordinary experience. To a Wagnerian disciple, it will still have enough of the pull of the original score. After immersing yourselves in this Charybdis of music, many of you may seek out the original four operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen, and if you get that far, you will be hooked onto Wagner as only his followers can be.

Our recommendations of the Ring:

A fine and very powerful performance by Fürtwängler and the Orchestra of La Scala, which tempts us into the sounds and tempi that Fürtwängler would have certainly played for Hitler in earlier years. Available as Teatro alla Scala Orchestra. Opera d’Oro 1501 (12 CDs).

A very famous collection of recordings, made for recording (not live performance) by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, along with a documentary film, The Ring Resounding, which explore how powerful music might sound if one could rehearse and play and not be distracted by live opera. The result is absolutely glorious. The international cast assembled, still unparalleled in the history of the repertoire, makes this a must-have, must-own piece of history.

A marvellous and visceral performance by Karl Böhm and the Bayreuther Festspiele Orchester, which is exactly the opposite of the Solti/Vienna, a live dramatic rendition that will make your hair curl. Perhaps, my favourite, and truest to the compelling dramatic line in the music.

The Patrice Chereau Ring at Bayreuth with Pierre Boulez conducting. This is a staging that is worth seeing even if the music, a little restrained and perfectly placed a la Boulez, doesn’t overwhelm the way Wagner perhaps intended. Available as Deutsche Grammophon 000506209 (eight DVDs).

And, lastly, have a look at both the Kupfer/Barenboim Ring – again a fascinating staging, and some wonderful orchestral playing, a personal soft spot, because I was there to see it live (available as Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. Unitel D4755 (11 DVDs), and La Fura dels Baus staging of Zubin Mehta’s Ring with the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana. Mehta has long had a special association with the music of Wagner, taking it to another level as he does with the music of Strauss (available as Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana. Unitel 703808 (eight DVDs).

The Symphony Orchestra of India will perform The Ring Without Words on 11th February at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre.


This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the February 2018 issue of ON Stage – their monthly Arts Magazine.