Ring of faith in Wagner’s epic
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