Don’t mention the war.
By 1837, Bellini had put northern European Paganism on the stage and given the opera world a Moon Goddess and a sassy High Priestess. One of his biggest fans was the new conductor at the Riga theatre, who just about manage to put on a performance of Norma before he had to flee to Russia to escape his debtors. On the way, the ship ran into a storm and had to shelter in a Norwegian fjord. This gave the conductor an idea for an opera of his own, and by splicing in a Scottish ghost story he came up with a hit. The opera was called The Flying Dutchman, and its composer was Wilhelm Richard Wagner.
To say that Wagner’s reputation today is a little tarnished is to put it mildly and for many he is still the man who provided the theme tune for the Third Reich. Whilst having Hitler as your number one fan would be a handicap to the reputation of any artist, Wagner didn’t exactly help himself either. Not only was he a pioneer of the sort of nationalism that would mutate into the Nazis, but his views on the Jews wouldn’t have been out of place at a Nuremberg rally either.
It is possible to mount a liberal defence of Wagner. Some of his best friends really were Jewish, he worked extensively with Jewish musicians and he refused to sign an anti-Jewish petition to the Reichstag. From a psychoanalytical perspective we can say that his racism was the result of doubts about his own parentage and his own need to feel persecuted. In his own opinion the inflammatory pamphlets that he wrote were a ‘poison’ he had to get out of his system. It may even be that the root of it all was the jealousy of a man unable to hand onto his money towards a group stereotyped as thrifty with theirs.
All this though only goes so far and doesn’t stack up too well against the offensiveness of his racist ravings. Neither can we defend Wagner on the grounds of being a really nice guy in private: he spent his life cheating on his wives, neglecting his children and bullying his friends.
Perhaps the best that can be said of Wagner is that whilst he was a racist, he was one of a rather different calibre to Hitler. Wagner wasn’t bothered about the Jews corrupting the racial purity of Germany, but he did think they were destroying its cultural ‘purity’. Wagner didn’t want to see Jews murdered, but he did want to see them ‘redeemed’ through art.
Providing that art was the task he set himself. Opera would never be the same again after Wagner, and German Jews flocked to see his performances just like everyone else.
Forging the Ring
The young Wagner was a radical socialist who in 1848 was to be found in Dresden making hand-grenades for anti-monarchist rebels. When the revolt failed he had to flee the country once again. His first operas bombed too and his early life was mainly spent gambling, being imprisoned for bankruptcy, divorcing, and hanging around in bars getting ‘Brahms and Liszt’.
The middle aged Wagner was by contrast more than happy to hang around in the court of the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria. This Ludwig was a curious kind of fellow. Never happier than when wandering around the Bavarian countryside talking to peasant, he aided the local economy (and the future German tourist board) by financing a series of fairytale castles form his own pocket. He doesn’t seem to have been interested in girls, but appears to have had a bit of a crush on Wagner. In the homophobic Bavaria of the late nineteenth century, Ludwig was under considerable pressure to get himself a token Queen, but he refused and never gave up hope of getting it together with Wagner. Wagner, very much a ladies man (involved with at least eight that we know about - although he did also spend a suspiciously large amount of money in his local dress shop) was quite happy to string the young King along if it meant he could plunder the royal treasury.
Relatively financially secure, he was now able to let rip on his greatest works, although Wagner and financial security never really went together - the only thing he spent faster than his own money was other people’s. What Wagner was writing now was his ‘new music’ that would transform opera and, he hoped, the people who listened to it.
The Flying Dutchman had showed him the way to go. His first commercial success had a come a few years earlier with Rienzi, but whilst Rienzi was in the style of French Grand Opera, the style of The Flying Dutchman was all Wagner’s own: it was loud, it was supernatural, it was about the redemptive power of love and the heroine died tragically.
He next turned his hand to medieval romance with Tannhauser, about a knightly minstrel who, shagged out after a year in the Otherworld with a mountain full of nymphs, enters an early version of the Eurovision Song contest. Early audiences gave it Nul Points, but after a minor rewrite it eventually became one of his most popular works. The Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley was so moved by a performance that he to turned it into a play - supposedly in a mammoth 67 hour long drug induced writing binge.
Wagner stayed in the Middle Ages for Lohengrin, a tale of a knight of the Holy Grail, an evil sorceress and a Swan-Prince. It features Wagner’s most well known piece of music, The Wedding March, which showed he could do quiet and romantic as well as loud and dramatic. Needless to say though that Lohengrin and his bride do not live happily ever after.
Wagner was now on top form and for his next work he tackled the Matter of Britain with Tristan and Isolde, possibly his finest musical accomplishment. It features some of his most heart-rendingly tragic music, elements of which have since been extensively borrowed by Hollywood. Those violins that play during on screen clinches are generally doing a version of the ‘Tristan cord’. The climax of the opera really is a climax as Isolde, holding the body of her dead departed lover in her arms, manages to sing herself to orgasm - a neat trick if you can do it.
Six Nights at the Opera
However these operas, good though they were, were just a distraction from Wagner’s great work, which he started whilst plotting the revolution in Dresden, and continued to work on for the next 27 years. This was The Ring of the Nibelungs, four linked operas weighing in at 16 hours all told - nearly twice the length of The Lords of the Rings trilogy. These days the last two are normally each played over two nights, so watching the whole thing takes nearly a week.
It was s serious bit of work for a serious purpose. His aim was to combine sound and spectacle, drama and dialogue, to create a work of ‘total art’. this in turn would be the start of a new religion. Wagner, who had little time for a Church he saw as clapped out and past its sell-by date, wanted a new nationalistic religion of art, and for his inspiration for this ‘art of the future’ he looked to the myths of pre-Christian Germany.
In writing The Ring Wagner, rather like George Lucas, started with part four and then wrote three ‘prequels’. He was characteristically modest about the scope of the story ‘it holds the world’s beginning , and its destruction’, he wrote to his friend Liszt. Chronologically The Rhinegold is first, which tells of how Alberich, one of the dwarvish Nibelung race, steals the Rhinegold from the mermaid-like Rhinemaidens, having been warned by them that to do so is to renounce love forever. From this gold he forges the magic Ring.
Meanwhile Wotan, Chief God, has had Fafner and Fasolt, a couple of Giants, in to build his fortress of Valhalla. As is ever the way with builders the bill is somewhat steeper than he expected and the Giants carry off the Goddess Freia as payment. Wotan steals the Ring from Alberich and swaps it, along with a heap of gold, for Freia. The two Giants fall out and Fafner murders his partner and takes all the loot for himself. Part one ends with Wotan in Valhalla, Fafner sitting on his gold, and both of them cursed by the Ring.
Part two, The Valkyrie, is about the brother-sister lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde. Wotan, their Dad, is told by his wife Fricka that this sort of thing shouldn’t be tolerated and so the titular Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, is sent to ensure Siegmund looses the upcoming fight with Siegelinde’s outraged hubbie. Brünnhilde refuses, and so Wotan has to do the dirty work himself, shattering Siegmund’s magic sword with his spear. Brünnhilde, for her disobedience, is imprisoned on a mountain top in a wall of elemental fire.
Next up is Siegfried. Fafner, we learn, has turned into a dragon but nearby is Siegfried, Siegmund and Sieglinde’s son, who has been brought up by Mime, Alberich’s brother. He re-forges his dad’s sword and uses it to kill Fafner and take the Ring. For good measure he does in his foster dad too, and goes in search of Brünnhilde. Wotan tries to stop him, but this time the sword breaks the spear, leaving Wotan powerless. Proving that although he may have a short temper he is not easily enflamed, Siegfried crosses the magic fire and rescues Brünnhilde who, now mortal, falls in love with him.
Finally in the Twilight of the Gods we are back in traditional opera territory with bodies littering the stage. Siegfried gives the Ring to Brünnhilde whilst he goes off adventuring, but he falls in with Alberich’s son Hagen. He is tricked into betraying Brünnhilde, and in return she helps Hagen treacherously murder him. As his body is consumed by the funeral pyre, Brünnhilde throws herself onto the flames. The Rhinemaidens retrieve the Ring, Hagen’s drowns trying to grab it and Valhalla is consumed in flames and the earth by a flood.
Wagner’s source for the story is usually given as the Niebelungenleid, normally by people who’ve never read it. A much stronger case can be made for the Icelandic Völsunga Saga. Whilst the two books have common roots and were written down in the same century, the German book has clearly had a Christian gloss put on it whilst the Icelandic work is still discernibly Pagan. This is particularly evident in the character of Brünnhilde, who in the Niebelungenleid is converted from a Pagan warrior queen to a submissive Christian wife by, basically, being raped on her wedding night. Wagner’s Brünnhilde by contrast is the star of the show and not subservient to anyone, man or God.
Whereas Bellini just used myth and legend as a convenient backdrop on which to hang a conventional romantic tale, Wagner revelled in the allegorical power of myths. The result is a story that exists on many levels. To the socialist George Bernard Shaw, The Ring was a lesson on the evils of capitalism, whilst to the ex-politician Michael Portillo it is about the incompatibility of love and power. There is also the theme of civilisation in conflict with Nature, but that is not the end of it by any means.
Wagner saw the role of the artist as ‘to bring the unconscious part of human nature into consciousness’. Wagner’s tale of Dwarves, Giants and Gods seems to be demanding to be read on a psychological level, whilst the incestuous lovers (as the daughter of Wotan and Erda, the earth Goddess, Brünnhilde is Siegfried’s aunt!) and the final conflagration seem to imply magical change. Wagner was certainly aware of the potency of the symbolism he was working with. The opening scene of The Rhinegold actually came to him in a dream, and he seems to have believed that the themes of The Ring were working through him on a subconscious level.
Working out what exactly these themes are is something of a challenge. What, for example, actually is the Ring’s power and is its ‘curse’ actually a curse at all? Is Alberich a villain or a Promethean hero? Is Wotan aware that he is working towards the destruction of himself and the Gods? Pagans have a rare chance to get one over on the opera-snobs here as this sort of thing is meat and drink to us.
Perhaps the most difficult character in The Ring to explain is Siegfried. Blond, violent and stupid, it’s easy to see why the Nazis admired him, but harder to see why Brünnhilde bothers with him. As an orphaned, inbred, bastards brought up by a dwarf, Siegfried could be forgiven for having a few ‘issues’. In Wagner’s own view he was ‘not even half a man’ and it took Brünnhilde to make him whole; he is an animus in search of an anima.
Ironically, given Hitler’s admiration, the probable inspiration for Siegfried was the lefty anarchist Michael Bakunin, hero of the barricades in Dresden in 1848, and the sort of person who, had he lived a century later, would have found himself in a concentration camp.
The real hero though is Wotan, the flawed God. Literally spell bound by the runes on his spear, which are the bargains he has made for his power, his plan to beget a hero who can bail him out fails spectacularly, and he is forced to spend the last part of the story hiding in Valhalla, powerless to avert his fate. With rebellious offspring and a nagging wife, tied up with red tape and his career heading for the rocks, Wotan’s midlife crisis is the backbone of the story. Tolkien, who was mining the same seam of material as Wagner, took the ‘good’ aspects of Wotan to make Gandalf. Wagner, by contracts, gives us the God warts and all.
But if The Ring’s male heroes are flawed, the women are archetypal., and the men go to pieces when they’re not around. The cerebrally challenged Siegfried is lost without his Brünnhilde, and Wotan has to turn to Erda for advice in times of crisis. Whether she is really helping him, or whether she wishes the fall of Valhalla, is a question left enigmatically open.
Musically a feature of Wagner’s opera’s is what he called ‘infinite melody’. What had impressed Wagner about Norma was how the long flowing arias accompanied the drama rather than interrupting it. Most operas consisted of spoken dialogue interrupted by short songs, after which the cast paused to acknowledge the audience’s applause and adjust their corsets before carrying on with the story. Wagner would have none of this. Instead his operas are long, continuous pieces of music.
Another trademark is the use of leitmotifs, which translates as ‘leading-motives’. These are short musical calling cards that announce the arrival of characters or themes, rather like the way John Barry’s James Bond theme was used to accompany Sean Connery’s appearance on screen. With The Ring though, Wagner takes this idea to another level and combines them like runes, to create a complex subtext to the main score. The final Immolation Scene is made up almost entirely by these leitmotifs, all battling it out with one another, until finally ‘redemption through love’ ends the performance.
Wagner’s reputation as the ‘heavy metal’ of classical music is well deserved. To get the sound he wanted Wagner took an already bloated nineteenth century symphony orchestra and beefed it up with a few extra instruments. Finding singers, especially female singers, who can compete with the resulting noise has always been a bit of a challenge, and as people with large voices often aren’t small themselves, Wagner could well be responsible for the oldest cliché about opera singers.
Fortunately it’s what the performers sound like that is more important than what they look like. From the Rhinemaidens happy frolicking at the start of The Rhinegold, to Siegfried’s magnificent Funeral March and the final transformation scene, The Ring sounds fantastic. It can certainly be loud when the occasion demands, such as the famous Ride of the Valkyries. But The Ring also has its tender moments too, such as the budding romance between Siegmund and Sieglinde in part two, one of the most beautiful acts in all opera, and Forest Murmurs, in Siegfried, where the hero takes some time off from killing things to appreciate the beauty of the trees.
Twilight of the Gods
Having completed his work of ‘total art’ Wagner next needed a theatre big enough to put it on. Not finding one he leant on Ludwig for some money so he could build his own, the festival theatre in Bayreuth. There in 1876 was held the first Bayreuth Festival when the four parts of The Ring were finally performed together.
Compared with the party atmosphere at most operas of the day - the opening night of Norma had been ruined by the childish antics of the aristocratic audience, - opera at Bayreuth was serious stuff. Silence was demanded and late comers were not allowed in. The house lights were dimmed so that only the rectangular stage was visible and then the orchestra, hidden out of sight of the audience, started to play. Not only are all operas now like this, but what Wagner could be said to have invented the modern cinematic experience.
Wagner's influence on cinema music is almost as great as his effect on opera itself. Samuel Goldwyn, commissioning a score, once asked for 'music like Wagner only louder'. The music for the film King Kong has been called a Wagnerian opera with a film attached.
Wagner had one more opera in him before he was carried off to Valhalla, the six hour epic of the Holy Grail Parsifal. Wagner died the next year. His benefactor, Ludwig, followed him shortly afterwards. Stripped of his crown due to his failing mental health, he and his psychiatrist drowned in mysterious circumstances.
Wagner’s family ensured that the festivals would go on although, partly due to the titanic cost of putting on such elaborate shows, not to mention the stamina required by the audience to endure them, Wagner’s music never acquired the mass appeal he wished for. Tolkien brought a modified version of Heathenism to a mass audience, but Wagner is still for the elite.
Modern productions of The Ring generally remove the story from its mythological home and disguise its origin, which is a pity. Wagner has been rescued from the Nazis; perhaps it’s time to reclaim him for the Pagans.
Part Three: Arias in Avalon