The Ring of the Nibelung, Wagner’s great cycle of operas exploring the origin of consciousness and the birth of the human world begins in the depths of the river Rhine, and also in the depths of the unconscious, hearing the voice of the natural order from which human kind departed in the long distant past. Wagner’s story of gods and heroes, of giants and dwarfs, is not a fairy tale. It is addressed to modern people, who have lost the ways of enchantment, and for whom the path to heroism is overgrown. It is a story in which law and love, power and property are all caught up in a life and death struggle between the forces that govern the human soul.
Wagner’s great work is controversial. Even today, when The Ring is so popular that the London performance by Opera North has been sold out in a day, the drama is often dismissed as romantic nonsense and the music as bombast. Part of the problem has been Wagner himself, whose hectic and domineering personality continues to make enemies long after his death. Nor do his anti-Semitic diatribes help his reputation. So embarrassed are the Germans by The Ring, indeed, that their producers regularly choose to satirize the most noble moments in the drama while putting scare quotes around the rest.
I have loved The Ring and learned from it for over fifty years, and, for me, it is quite simply the truth about our world—but the truth expressed in artistic form, by means of music of unquestionable authority and supreme melodic and harmonic power. It is also the nearest an artist has yet come to showing what religion means for those who have lost their faith in the ancestral gods.
The story derives from the collection of Old Norse myths, as recounted in the Icelandic Eddas. These tell of the Viking gods, whose king, Odin, builds the fortress of Valholl in order to fend off the day of Rognarök, when the gods will be destroyed in their final battle. Rognarök means the “doom” or “twilight” of the gods, and its advent is inevitable; yet Odin struggles unceasingly to evade it. He therefore wanders on the face of the earth, seeking knowledge that might boost his bid for immortality. That story belongs to a religion that has vanished completely, as religions do; and the society reflected in it seems raw, merciless, and irrecoverably distant from our modern interests. Nevertheless, Wagner, in a stroke of sublime inspiration that has no parallel, took the surviving fragments and threaded them onto a narrative of his own. The result is a story of the gods for people who have no gods to believe in.
Wagner began work on The Ring in 1848, the year before revolution broke out in Dresden, where he was court Kapellmeister. Wagner was, at the time, a passionate socialist, and joined the revolutionary party, being forced as a result to flee into exile in Switzerland and France. The story of The Ring is marked by those events and by the composer’s early socialist enthusiasm. And it contains an evocation of industrial capitalism every bit as disturbing as those of Dickens and Zola.
However, during the twenty years that it took to complete the work, Wagner ceased to believe in the possibility of a political solution to the conflicts of his time. He ceased to believe that human beings have a clear choice between a society built on power and one built on love. Certainly love and power are in tension with each other, as is symbolized by the Ring itself, which was forged by the dwarf Alberich from the gold of the Rhine only when he had cursed the love that he could not obtain from its guardians, the Rhine-daughters. But Alberich’s divine counterpart, Wotan, king of the gods, enjoys both love and power, having perceived that power is meaningless until constrained by law, and that a world governed by law makes possible all that we most intimately value—personality, freedom, respect, and domestic affection.
However, the rule of law is not self-sustaining. Wotan must pay the price of his sovereignty, and only one character in the Ring can supply that price, namely Alberich, the great industrial producer, whose enslaved workforce has created a hoard of treasure sufficient to pay for the Castle of Valhalla. By a trick Wotan obtains the treasure, Ring included; but the dwarf curses the Ring with so powerful a curse that all love and law thereafter become precarious. This curse will be lifted only when the Ring is returned to the Rhine, by the free being who has no interest in using it. The ingenious plot of the cycle consists in the search for that free being, who will release the gods from their chains.
Love without power will not endure, and power without law will always erode the claims of love. We live this paradox, and without the gods to maintain the moral order the burden of it falls entirely on our shoulders. The Ring shows how gods come into existence, conjured from our need for them. It also abounds in moments of religious awe: Brünnhilde’s announcement to Siegmund of his impending death; Sieglinde’s blessing of Brünnhilde; Siegfried’s soliloquy in the forest and Wotan’s farewell to his Valkyrie daughter. Virtually all the turning points of human life are represented, and elaborated by the sublime music. This, to me, is the most extraordinary aspect of Wagner’s achievement. He was able to show the indispensible need of modern people for sacred moments, in which freedom and consciousness are nevertheless revealed as purely human burdens.
But a peculiar Wagnerian twist is given to these moments. While the sacred has in the past been interpreted as man’s avenue to God, for Wagner it is God’s avenue to man. It is the gods, not mankind, that need redemption, since it is their bid for sovereignty that has disturbed the natural order. Redemption can come through love. But love, for Wagner, is complete only between mortals—it is a relation between dying things, who embrace their own death as they yield to it. This Brünnhilde recognizes during her great dialogue with Siegmund, resolving in her heart, but as yet not fully conscious that this is what she is doing, to relinquish her immortality for the sake of a human love.
But what, on this view, are the gods? Mere figments, as Wagner’s mentor, the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, had argued? Or are they more deeply implanted in the scheme of things, symbols of forces that precede and survive us? Wagner’s answer is not easily explained in words, since it is expressed in music. And it is an answer that makes him supremely relevant to us. For, despite our attempts to live without formal religion, we are no more free than people ever have been or ever will be from the religious need. Wagner accepted Feuerbach’s view of the gods as human creations. Gods come and go; but they last as long as we make room for them, and we make room for them through sacrifice. The gods come about because we idealize our passions, and it is by accepting the need for sacrifice on behalf of another that our lives acquire a meaning. Seeing things that way we recognize that we are not condemned to mortality but consecrated to it. Such, in the end, was Wagner’s message. Yes, the gods must die, and we ourselves must assume their burdens. But we inherit their aspirations too: freedom, personality, love, and law. There is no way in which we can achieve those great goods through politics, which, if we put too much faith in it, will inevitably degenerate into the kind of totalitarian power enjoyed by the dwarf Alberich. But we can create these things in ourselves, and we do this when we recognize the sacred character of our joys and sufferings, and resolve to be true to them.
Hence when the action of The Ring has come to its inevitable conclusion, with the death of the free hero Siegfried and his beloved Brünnhilde, with the burning of Valhalla and the destruction of the gods—when all conflicts have run their course, when death is triumphant and the gold returned to the Rhine, the music recalls the most sublime event in the drama, when a mortal woman who had lost everything save love, gave her blessing to the goddess who had rescued her. This, one of the supreme moments of Western music, is also the greatest statement in modern drama of what life is really about.
Republished with gracious permission from The Future Symphony Institute (Summer 2016).
This essay originally appeared in The Imaginative Conservative in August 2016.
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The featured image is “Die Rheintöchter (The Rhinemaidens), characters in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen,” by Arthur Rackamin. It is in the public domain, and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.