Ring of faith in Wag­ner’s epic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Craven Wag­ner’s Ring Cy­cle,

As Mel­bourne stages Neil Arm­field’s pro­duc­tion of the most epic of all op­er­atic sagas, Richard Wag­ner’s The Ring of the Ni­belung, it’s fas­ci­nat­ing that the English philoso­pher and moraliser Roger Scru­ton has writ­ten a rich ac­count of the great work of art.

We all know about The Ring, whether we re­alise it or not. We know too that Wag­ner was among Adolf Hitler’s en­thu­si­asms (though there’s lots of ev­i­dence the Fuhrer was more at home with the The Merry Widow).

It’s not hard to see how the soar­ing bru­tal­ism of Siegfrieds Trauer­marsch, his fu­neral march, or the fi­nal con­fla­gra­tion at the end of Got­ter­dammerung when Brunnhilde rides into the flames, might make the aes­theti­ci­sa­tion of an­ni­hi­la­tion seem con­so­nant with the glam­our of evil seen in swastikas and SS uni­forms.

But The Ring is one of the supreme works of the hu­man imag­i­na­tion and the fact that Wag­ner had his lapses into anti-Semitism do not make him a Nazi. Ac­tu­ally the evil dwarf Al­berich, who de­nounces and re­pu­di­ates love in the pre­lude opera Das Rhein­gold, is likely to seem to us a supremely Hit­le­rian fig­ure, not least when we hear the screams of his Ni­belung slaves.

And the idea that Wag­ner may have used Jewish el­e­ments in his char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of Mime, the hate­ful, syco­phan­tic dwarf who brings up the hero Siegfried (and is ul­ti­mately killed by him), is nei­ther here nor there be­cause the Ger­man com­poser’s artistry tran­scends the el­e­ments of which it made.

Scru­ton can, in a smaller way, in­spire the kind of rage that Wag­ner did. This book, The Ring of Truth, is full of a sense of how drama is mod­u­lated by ideas and how the essence of Wag­ner’s work is in his mu­sic, which con­stantly deep­ens and sub­tilises the overt mean­ing of his sto­ry­line.

The Ring com­pre­hends the ro­man­tic re­ca­pit­u­la­tion of me­dieval­ism (and the dark and vast abyss of myth out of which that me­dieval dream­ing came) just as it looks for­ward to and in­flu­ences the last phase of so-called clas­si­cal mu­sic: the sym­phonies of Mahler, the tone po­ems and op­eras of Richard Strauss and, be­yond the Ger­man tra­di­tion, the tra­di­tion­al­ism and icon­o­clasm of Shostakovich in Rus­sia.

Wag­ner is the com­poser who steals the soul of the lit­er­ary per­son and per­haps also the per­son who sees mu­sic as the purest in­stan­ti­a­tion of ideas. He’s steeped in lit­er­ary nuance like Schu­bert; surg­ingly, lim­it­lessly sym­phonic like Beethoven; and he also looks for­ward — in a way that can seem weirdly Shake­spearean — to the sense of the to­tal work of art. It can feel like an an­tic­i­pa­tion of film in its most sweep­ing and com­po­si­tional mo­ments of il­lu­sion­ism — an ir­re­sistible dream of re­al­ity.

In­deed Theodor Adorno, one of Wag­ner’s sharpest crit­ics — and one who in­voked the Holo­caust to ren­der ver­boten all forms of rhetoric in­clud­ing po­etry — loathed how he saw Wag­ner as an­tic­i­pat­ing Hol­ly­wood film mu­sic. Still, there would be no Also Sprach Zarathus­tra at the open­ing of Stan­ley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with­out Wag­ner, nor would John Williams have writ­ten the Star Wars theme.

But you can’t blame Wag­ner for his Darth Vaderism. As Cana­dian lit­er­ary critic Northrop Frye said of Wag­ner, you can­not deny the power of his cri­tique of evil — which is not to deny that some wicked peo­ple may find him ir­re­sistible.

Scru­ton is nobody’s idea of a wicked per­son, though many peo­ple find his va­ri­ety of cul­tural to­ry­ism ex­as­per­at­ing be­cause of how he can seem to cling to a re­li­gious dis­pen­sa­tion with­out any touch­stone of faith. He is in­tel­lec­tu­ally for­mi­da­ble while hav­ing a love of the tra­di­tional that verges on the re­ac­tionary.

There is a mo­ment in The Ring of Truth — and, yes, it’s an aw­ful pun of a ti­tle — where Scru­ton has doubts about the Ride of the Valkyries as be­ing a bit like “the rau­cous cries of up­per­class school­girls on the ram­page”. This is an odd in­vo­ca­tion of St Trinian’s, even though it’s fol­lowed by this vi­able enough crit­i­cal com­ment: Prop­erly con­ducted, how­ever, with the rhyth­mic fig­ures stand­ing clear of the melodic line, this mu­sic is every bit as ex­cit­ing as the scene de­picted, cap­tur­ing both the ex­hil­a­ra­tion and the blood­thirsty sav­agery of those an­cient com­bats with sword and spear.

How­ever, Scru­ton fol­lows it with this bizarre re­mark about his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of what Os­car Wilde called “the un­speak­able in pur­suit of the ined­i­ble”: “Any­body who has spent time in the hunt­ing field in Eng­land will know this kind of con­ver­sa­tion, which is both pro­foundly fem­i­nine and also full of ag­gres­sion of a kind that is shock­ing to men, since they are, obliquely, the tar­get.”

Even so, it’s hard to deny that a large part of Scru­ton’s heart and soul is in this im­pas­sioned in­ter­pre­ta­tive ap­pre­ci­a­tion of The Ring. He cer­tainly does his best not only to place Wag­ner in terms of the thinkers who in­flu­enced him — Hegel, Feuer­bach and Schopen­hauer, among oth­ers — but to come to grips with a for­mi­da­bly com­pressed ac­count of what hap­pens in The Ring at the lit­eral level of the drama and how this is com­pli­cated and en­riched, trans­fig­ured and deep­ened by the power of the mu­sic.

Any­one who has ever strug­gled with lead­ing Wag­ne­r­ian mu­sic crit­ics such as Ernest New­man and Deryck Cooke will be grate­ful to Scru­ton for how he in­te­grates his sense of the mu­sic as the medium for the drama and the lu­cid­ity with which he can show the ac­tion and the score as one.

He says of Wag­ner’s fa­mous leit­mo­tivs: “the leitf­mo­tif, the short preg­nant phrase that would arise out of the drama, gath­er­ing to it­self the emo­tion as­so­ci­ated with some event, idea or char­ac­ter, and there­after wo­ven into the mu­si­cal fab­ric, so as to carry the mem­ory of its orig­i­nal ap­pear­ance … is a mu­si­cal idea with a mem­ory. It brings to mind ob­jects, events and peo­ple that are ab­sent from the stage — which per­haps had never been en­tirely present there.”

And he gives a thou­sand ex­am­ples of how the leit­mo­tiv ac­quires a dense rich­ness of con­no­ta­tion as it ac­cu­mu­lates and grows. How Wotan’s spear will trans­mute into Siegfried’s suf­fer­ing; how Mime’s fren­zied, fever­ish in­vo­ca­tion of the idea of fear when he ex­plains it to Siegfried will re­mem­ber as­pects of Wotan’s Feier­abend, the great fire mu­sic with which he shields the dor­mant Brunnhilde, whom he pun­ishes and loves.

In a bril­liant and ac­cu­rate for­mu­la­tion, Scru­ton says “it is as though the dra­matic emo­tion from which the leit­mo­tiv first emerges is then en­trusted to it and car­ried by it through a purely mu­si­cal de­vel­op­ment, to be re­turned in trans­fig­ured form to the ac­tion on the stage”.

Scru­ton is a co­gent guide to the sym­phonic na­ture of Wag­ner’s dra­matic pat­tern­ing and be­yond this to how the design al­lows the high­est claims to be made for this weird tetral­ogy of an op­er­atic cy­cle that can seem at the edge of co­her­ence but is also so con­sis­tently and ex­hil­a­rat­ingly sub­lime.

Any Wag­ner tragic will tell you how much the com­poser seems to pen­e­trate to a hin­ter­land of life and art where all bets are off, where magic can roam like the wildest beast yet love in every as­pect from the mo­ment of soar­ing sex­ual desire (as in Siegfried and Brunnhilde’s first glimpse of each other) through to the depth of The Ring the bond of fa­ther and daugh­ter (the tragic long­ing of Brunnhilde and Wotan) al­lows for the high­est par­al­lels that can be made.

Scru­ton does this him­self apro­pos his oneeyed god and his beloved Valkyrie when he in­vokes the Shake­speare of The Tem­pest and The Win­ter’s Tale. All of this is per­ti­nent to Scru­ton mak­ing ex­plicit in re­la­tion to The Ring his own com­mit­ment to the af­ter­glow of a re­li­gious vi­sion: “Wag­ner is re­cu­per­at­ing what re­li­gion means in a world with­out re­li­gion.”

He ar­tic­u­lates this with elo­quence and con­cep­tual con­sis­tency and in the process ad­dresses him­self to some of the most fa­mous ac­counts of Wag­ner: Shaw’s run­down of the hel­met trans­form­ing it­self into the top hat with which the gen­tle­man, the great cap­i­tal­ist, arms him­self hyp­o­crit­i­cally against the injustice of the world; Ni­et­zsche’s con­tin­ued haunt­ing by Wag­ner long after his for­mal re­jec­tion of him, his sense of the gap­ing poignancy of the wound the mu­sic de­picted.

The philoso­pher-critic takes time out to em­pha­sise that the an­ar­chist Mikhail Bakunin could not be a Siegfried fig­ure and that Wag­ner saw in him what Dos­to­evsky had seen in the sin­is­ter heroes of The Pos­sessed: in Wag­ner’s words, “the de­struc­tion of all that is ‘in some­one’ who in­sisted solely on de­struc­tion and ever more de­struc­tion”.

Scru­ton asks him­self what it all amounts to, ac­knowl­edg­ing the par­tial truth of Ni­et­zsche’s claim that “that the Wag­ne­r­ian char­ac­ters do not al­ways live up to the me­ta­phys­i­cal and moral bur­dens that the com­poser places on them”. He con­tin­ues, “Ni­et­zche’s ques­tion to Wag­ner could be put thus: am I sur­ren­der­ing some­thing of my­self that I should be with­hold­ing … can I through this mu­sic achieve the peace and qui­es­cence that the Greeks sought through tragedy and which we mod­erns must seek through a new form of art — the ‘art­work of the fu­ture’ that will re­place re­li­gion not by re­fut­ing it, but by do­ing its work, and do­ing it bet­ter?”

This is what Wag­ner rep­re­sents to Scru­ton, the high­est form of art, the high­est sym­bolic form of truth. He sees The Ring as epic art, as heroic art, hence his epi­gram­matic for­mu­la­tion: “And in the fi­nal im­mo­la­tion the gods them­selves are burned on the al­tars that we raise to them.”

As an epi­gram that has its lus­tre, but I’m not sure about Scru­ton’s as­ser­tion that Greek tragedy cap­tured what was once the pre­rog­a­tive of re­li­gion. “It pre­sented a pu­ri­fy­ing rit­ual, in which life was re­made as a vehicle of the ideal.”

This has an affinity with Ge­orge Steiner’s for­mu­la­tion — his rather dodgy for­mu­la­tion — that any ap­pre­hen­sion of art im­plic­itly rests on some form of re­li­gious faith, that every act of cre­ation is a form of tran­sub­stan­ti­a­tion.

The trou­ble with this is that its lure is so much rhetoric and its truth is the truth of fic­tion, a fig­ure of speech. But Scru­ton’s high eval­u­a­tion of The Ring, his lust to present its for­mu­la­tion of the “deep truth” par­al­leled by “no other work in mod­ern times”, has its own gleam and glam­our. is a cul­tural critic. di­rected by Neil Arm­field and con­ducted by Pi­etari Ink­i­nen, will be per­formed at Arts Cen­tre Mel­bourne un­til De­cem­ber 16.

Neil Arm­field­Arm­field’ss stag­ing off

Philoso­pher Roger Scru­ton

Com­poser Richard Wag­ner

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