Reflections on “The Ring of the Nibelung”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sir Roger’s new book, The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” is available now.

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 50 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.


  1. Illuminating article…. inviting further reflection, as Wagner’s work continues to do, because of the many ambiguities and indirect allusions in the plots which are open to diverse projections and interpretations, and the multifarious complexities of the music, both inspiring and blocking further creation. But it is the music which is more important: if it were not for he music, his narratives would not have attracted so much attention. What would be the meaning of Wagner for the orchestral performance culture, and for classical music in general?

    Wagner created the ‘symphonic opera’, what he called ‘music drama’ in an attempt to distinguish it from the regular ‘opera’ as practiced in his time. ‘Music drama’ is opera where the drama in the narrative is central (instead of the singers’ purely vocal capacities), and where the ‘inside’ of the drama is expressed through symphonic music as developed by Beethoven. Wagner, who found the classical music culture in his time perverted by a sterile academism and a classicism, stilted by bourgeois reverence, wanted before anything else that his audience would be forced to feel, to get emotionally involved in the drama: hence the pulling of all the stops of the orchestral organ, exaggerating the power of the medium, refining its resources, and thereby greatly extending the possibilities of orchestral writing. Instead of arias, dedicated to the singers’ capacities, he devised vocal lines floating on a ‘sea of music’ as produced by the orchestra, mirroring an emotional flow as experienced by his protagonists, unhindered by the boundaries of superficial, artificial structure. The result has produced stretches of superb music, which can also be fully experienced in the concert hall, separated from its theatrical context.

    There are a lot of problems connected with this art. To begin with, hughe orchestras in operatic pits don’t sound as well as in the concert hall: the theatre has a very different context where all attention is focussed on the stage, while the orchestra is positioned in front of the stage, producing a wall of sound over which the singers have to project their part; this creates a serious problem of balance, which did not exist in Mozart’s time because the orchestras were so much smaller then. On top of this, theatrical acoustics are much dryer than the concert hall, and often the sound of the diverse instruments don’t blend well – players sitting far left and far right and not hearing what happens at the other end. With the 18C orchestra, this problem does not arise since the players are sitting much closer to each other. One of these problems, the one of balance, has been admirably solved by Debussy in his ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’, where the orchestra is mostly subdued and the singers’ part mostly understated and as yet, perfectly audible because naturally blending with the refined, diversified sounds from the pit. Wagner solved his orchestral performance problems by having a special theatre built where the orchestra is positioned under the stage, a kind of ‘hole’ with the brass deep-down at the far end, creating new problems of ensemble since the players at the bottom have no idea what the rest of the orchestra is doing – creating an extra burden on the conductor who has to organize the instrumental whole in a manner even stricter than is necessary in the concert hall. Also, with the orchestra deep under the singers’ level, the problem of volume has been admirably solved: the sound moves sideways and creates a ‘cloud’ in the auditorium on which the singers’ lines can easily float. But some of the clarity and ‘bite’ of the orchestral sound is lost, a quality which enhances the orchestral writing of Wagner’s operas when fragments are performed in the concert hall.

    Tchaikovski, who was present – in his quality of music journalist for a Russian magazine – at the premiere of the Ring in the Bayreuth theatre in 1876, complained about the difference in sound with, for instance, the famous Ride of the Valkyries: in the concert hall this excerpt from Walküre had a great effect but under the stage in Bayreuth the sound was muffled and much reduced. This sums-up the main problem of Wagner’s music: it sounds best in the concert hall, but there, it lacks the dramatic presentation for which it was meant. Concert performances of entire Wagner operas are rare, and not every opera is suited, but Parsifal, due to its likeness to an oratorium and completely otherworldly character, works quite well in concert, as Van Zweden’s now famous performance in Amsterdam in 2010 proves:

    1st act:
    2nd act:
    3rd act:

    In Parsifal, orchestral writing is much reduced when compared to the Ring, and if handled with care, the orchestal sound can be ‘folded’ perfectly well around the singers, as is obvious in this admirable performance.

    Wagner’s music is written in extremely well-defined and differentiated textures, which come fully into their own in the concert hall, if the hall has a good acoustic which renders the textures clearly while unifying the overall sonorities. If Wagner had decided to write symphonic works for the concert hall, he would have rivalled Beethoven and the other symphonic masters, like Brahms, Mahler, Strauss. Fortunately, he made many excerpts which work very well in concert performance: apart from the above-mentioned Ride, the sequence from Meistersinger beginning with the ‘Wahn’- music and ending with the exuberant prelude, Wotan’s Farewell from Wallküre with or without Wotan’s voice (an excellent purely-orchestral arrangement made by Stokowski), prelude and conclusion of Parsifal, as well as the purely orchestral Karfreitagszauber, etc.

    After Parsifal, Wagner had the plan to write a couple of symphonies, so: music exclusively for the concert hall, and he discussed this with Liszt, proposing that ‘new symphonies’ could no longer be written like Beethoven’s, with contrasting theme blocks, but organically where themes and motives would gradually arise from the texture and find their solution in continuous variation and development (it seems he got a hint or two from the very successful symphonies of Brahms). Alas, he died before he could realize this fascinating plan.

    A last word upon the purely musical qualities of Wagner’s operas. To my feeling, it is a mountainous oeuvre: lots of sublime peaks and deep valleys where the shadows of dry clumsiness reign. However, the high planes and the peaks have a grandeur and expressive beauty hardly equalled elsewhere, so we sit-out the uninspired bits and endure the heroism where it succumbs to hollow bombast, waiting for it to rise to sublimity again. Because Wagner first wrote his libretti, and was apparently driven by the insecure urge to be as explicit as possible, repeating again and again bits of narratives already set to music many times before, the texts are very long. Writing them, and reading them, goes much quicker than singing them, since the tempo of music is – in a linguistic sense – so much slower. The art of libretto writing is to be short, concise, and finding words which lend themselves well to be sung. Da Ponte’s libretti for Mozart are beautiful examples of perfect texts and definitely helped the composer to create three of the best operas in existence. Wagner, after having published his libretti before he set them to music (a very imprudent action), felt that he had to set ALL the words he had so enthusiastically written-down, with the result that many passages seem much too long where the music had to be stretched beyond its carrying power, as in the long monologue of Wotan in Wallküre. In these moments, obviously the drama took preference over the music, which is suddenly reduced to weak accompanying a faltering text exclaimed much too slowly, as in the first act of Tristan, where, after breathtaking extasies and emotional storms, the situation is suddenly put to a halt in the first confrontation between the unhappy Isolde and clumsy Tristan. But well, we wait patiently until the music picks-up again…

    Technically and musically, Wagner’s music is highly demanding and was criticised in his time for being ‘unprofessional’ because of asking things which were beyond the average abilities of orchestral players, like chromatic quick runs in the strings and extremely long forte tones in the winds, requiring super lungs. But eventually, these difficulties could be overcome, although also nowadays a Wagner performance is quite a challengde for both orchestra and conductor, not to mention the singers… which asks for an entire essay which I will spare the reader.

    I believe that Wagner’s greatest achievement is his orchestral writing and explorations of tonal / expressive possibilities, which justifies concert performances of his operas or fragments from them. His philosophical elaborations have much worthy to say about ‘the modern condition’, as Sir Roger has explored in his many writings on the subject, but they do not contribute very much to Wagner’s musical qualities. The reason that so many Regie-Oper directors treat Wagner’s heroism ironically, is that so many of these expressions of heroism are, to any musically-astute listener, hollow and bombastic rather than truly heroic, as heroism sounds in Beethoven and Brahms. It is both a psychological and a musical problem, and probably closely related. Siegfried is not a psychologically credible opera protagonist, but an idea; his embodiment as ‘hero’ is only fully blossoming in the grand purely orchestral passage ‘Siegfried’s Funeral March’ in Götterdämmerung, proving the point. His best ‘live’ presentation is, to my feeling, in the great prologue of the same opera, in the sublime music of the duet with Brünhilde which is one of the most impressive symphonic depictions of the power of love’s life force in the repertoire.

    Wagner in the concert hall is one of the strongest advocates of the importance and meaning of the classical performance culture imaginable, and it is hoped that it will continue to be presented there. Opera productions of Wagner are mostly sold-out within a short time; if more Wagner would be played in the concert hall, it could greatly contribute to the survival of the orchestra in our troubled, modern times. And what could be learned from this music by contemporary composers – so that also they could further contribute to the art form? Not very much, alas: it is too much bound-up with 19C aesthetics which went into the vulgarity of Hollywood and other commercial music; the musically-meaningful elements, like the thematic/motivic writing and the harmonic freedom, would have to be filtered from this aesthetic, and applied differently. Wagner’s greatest invention: the musical continuum, was picked-up by Strauss, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Scriabine and, most successfully, Debussy. It is probably there, where lessons could be found, steering away from the complicated but impressive mountain landscape which is Wagner.

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