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The Incongruence of the Schopenhauerian Ending in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday 4 November 2012 | 1:02:00 am

Of late, we have been investigating the influence of a range of German philosophers on Wagners thoughts and the development of his dramas  With this in mind, we thought the following might be of interest - especially as it begins to bring many of these strands together. Whether you agree with Locus' thesis is another matter of course , although he makes a compelling case. 

Originally published in Stanford Uni's in house Journal, (the archives of which can be found here: Stanford Undergraduate Research Journal) it seemed to us, to be a shame for it to not reach a wider Wagner audience and we thus reproduce part here. The complete paper can be read by following the link below.

The Incongruence of the Schopenhauerian Ending in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung 
James Locus

In Richard Wagner’s four-part musical drama, The Ring of the Nibelung, the composer experienced great difficulty in completing the final draft of the last piece, the Götterdammerung. Before the music had been composed, the text of the piece – the libretto – remained incomplete for many years. Wagner planned five endings,  yet one is particularly distinct in terms of context and philosophical underpinnings. Musicologists later labeled the unused text as The Schopenhauer Ending to reflect how strongly the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer influenced Wagner during the libretto stage. Focusing on the libretto, Locus explores Wagner’s preoccupation with Schopenhauer’s work and the way in which it inspired an ending, incongruent with both the larger context of The Ring of the Nibelung and the prevailing culture of Wagner’s time.


Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung epitomizes the pinnacle of the romantic Western tradition of music composition.  The musical drama  in a prelude and three episodes recounts the events leading to the fall of the gods and the tragic, interwoven fates of its characters.  Spanning four nights, the sixteen-hour production took twenty six years to complete, resulting in several versions - each offering its own insight into the compositional process 
of its creator.  The final scene of the last work, the Götterdämmerung, is one such example, requiring five significant attempts to arrive at a suitable ending. 

The Ring has a complex narrative.  The plot details how a stolen magical piece of jewelry affects the lives of a lineage of gods across several generations. Early in the narrative, a ring is forged with gold, stolen from the three Rhinemaidens.  It possesses great power, thereby granting its holder the ability to dominate the world - if they so choose.  This incredible potential attracts many power-hungry suitors, leading to a long trail of deceit as each attempts acquisition of the ring.  Wotan, chief of the gods (and male protagonist for much of the story), is among the first to be ensnared by this lust for power.  His flaw, then, proceeds to haunt his descendants as treachery and lies wreak havoc upon his once orderly world.  It is not until Wotan’s daughter, Brunnhilde, returns the ring to its owners and destroys the world of the  gods after the death of her lover that the history of deception ends.  The moral of the story speaks to the redemptive power of love in overcoming the lust for power. 

A close reading of the various endings reveals Wagner’s struggles as he associated himself with and, then, disassociated himself from an increasingly philosophical tone. This shifting is particularly evident in the later revisions of Brunnhilde’s final monologue in the final act of the Gotterdammerung.  Of these, the Schopenhauer Ending  departs strongly from both the Final Published Ending and other rejected endings.  Its change in tone and structure warrant investigation as it indicates a significant shift in the artistic will of the composer. 

The revisions address the libretto and stage directions, which are the focus of the entire drama’s final scene. Brunnhilde, Wotan’s former guardian and daughter (also the leading female protagonist), stands over the body of her slain lover, Siegfried. He has been tricked and killed as a result of the gods’ desire to obtain the power held within the accursed, but mighty ring.  At this moment, Brunnhilde begins a monologue, expressing her emotional response to the events before bringing the drama to a close.  The central difference between the versions lies specifically in her words and actions. The words had to be chosen with extreme care in order to elucidate the composer’s artistic vision.  yet, in these final moments, Wagner appears to struggle with the philosophical implications of the ending rather than with how compatible and well integrated it would be with the work as a whole.   In his penultimate revision, Wagner’s reverses his stance, underscoring the redemptive power of love, in favor of Arthur Schopenhauer’s view, emphasizing love’s meaninglessness and base sexual nature.   
But why does Wagner stray from his central theme, affirming love, and adopt Schopenhauer’s disparate vision?

In this essay, I argue that Wagner’s attraction to Schopenhauer’s philosophy was a misdirection, which caused him to temporarily ignore the dominant element of love, present in the  Ring Cycle. First, I consider the rejected endings and final published ending in overview, emphasizing their salient characteristics. Further, I examine the specific contrasts between the  Schopenhauer Ending and its predecessor, labeled by historians as the 
Feuerbach Ending. Then, I focus on the way in which Schopenhauer’s writing influenced Wagner, compelling him to draft an additional revision to an already completed text. Finally, I contrast Wagner’s Schopenhauerian outlook with his final product to illustrate how 
Wagner finally divorces himself from a view, which devalues love, and returns to his original premise. 

The Five Endings of the Götterdämmerung

In Wagner’s 28 November 1848 Ending,  Brunnhilde is notably more forlorn and agitated as she stands over the slain body of her beloved Siegfried.  Valhalla, the great hall of the gods, still burns in the end; however, her final words have taken a more accusatory tone.  She openly rebukes Siegfried for his refusal to heed her advice not to pursue unnecessary heroism. Nonetheless, she reaffirms her love for him:

"You overwhelming hero, 
how you held me in thrall! 
All my wisdom I had to forgo, 
for all my knowledge I gave to you what you too you did 
not use, 
- in your bold defiance you 
trusted alone
...Let the fire that now 
consumes me cleanse the ring of its curse."

Afterwards, Brunnhilde frees the Nibelungs (the people of the underworld), hands off the accursed ring to the Rhinemaidens, and enters the flames.

By comparison, the 18 December 1848 Ending adopts a decidedly more religious tone:

"Blessed atonement, I saw for the 
holy, sacredly and only gods! 
Rejoice in the freest of heroes! To 
the greeting of his brotherly gods, 
his bride is bringing him now!  
Depart without power whom guilt 
now shuns.  From your guilt has 
sprung the blithest of heroes whose 
unwilled deed has expunged it: 
you’re spared the anxious struggle 
to save your waning power: fade 
away in bliss before man’s deed, 
before the hero whom, alas, you 
create!  In the midst of your anxious 
fear I proclaim to you blessed 

Here, the percolation of divergent theology begins to seep into Wagner’s work.   The Ring was not intended as a direct religious allegory; however, the imposition of phrases such as “[b]lessed atonement” and “holy, sacredly” do correlate with potent themes associated with religion.  Further, the redemption of sin - a key element of Christian doctrine - parallels noticeably with the last words of Christ during the crucifixion.  The notable similarities between the two scenes are striking and provide an interesting counterpoint to the mythology, on which  The Ring is based.

The contrasting  December 1852 Feuerbach Ending derives its name from a comparatively atheistic text.  The name was applied by later musicologists due to Wagner’s interests 
in ludwig Feuerbach - a known critic of religion (particularly Christianity) in his time.  Scholars believe Wagner to have read Feuerbach by the completion of his own article of 1849, “The ArtWork of the Future.”   Both Wagner and Feuerbach issued similar titles 
and arrived at similar conclusions, regarding the future of their respective disciplines.   While Feuerbach believed that philosophy needed a radically new way of thinking to serve the future, Wagner expressed similar sentiments in regards to music.6

This view found its way into the Feuerbach Ending. In the drama’s final moments, Brunnhilde asserts not only that the fate of humanity rests with humans themselves, but moreover decrees the death of the gods. She ends with the message; “love alone can 
be,” underscoring the power of love to shape the future of humanity.  kitcher and Schacht write;7

"Religion for Feuerbach involves a kind of confusion, resulting in the projection of features of our own nature and of genuinely human life into an imaginary realm beyond this life and this world."

Feuerbach’s view of religion, then, becomes an assignment of human characteristics to deities and other supernatural forces.  Brunnhilde’s emotional decree that humans rise to 
assume the place of the fallen gods reflects Feuerbach’s view of sustainable belief, emphasizing human attributes over religious mysticism.

Wagner’s  December 1852, Final Published Ending8  emphasizes the power of love and its importance in the coming world of the humans.  Angered by the perpetual deceit, Brunnhilde burns down Valhalla, the hall of the gods, before immolating herself and her steed, Grane:

"Feel how the flames burn in my 
breast, effulgent fires seize hold 
of my heart: to clasp him to me 
while held in my arms and in 
mightiest love to be wedded to 
him! - Heiayoho! Grane! Greet 
your master! Siegfried! Siegfried! 
See! In your bliss, your wife bids 
you welcome!"

The weight of the passage emphasizes fire, which suggests both the emotional fire of her love for Siegfried and the physical fire of the funeral pyre.  Love conquers lust for power as Brunnhilde casts the ring back to its original owners, the Rhinemaidens, in order to ignite the passions of her heart.  

In stark contrast to these other endings, including that finally published, the May 1856 Schopenhauer Ending departs markedly in tone and perspective. While writing  The Ring, 
Wagner became immersed in the writings of a popular philosopher of the time, Arthur Schopenhauer.  One of Schopenhauer’s major contributions to philosophy is his work The World as Will and Representation, which is believed to have influenced Wagner in 
his creation of the last revision of the final scene.  For his part, Schopenhauer 
was greatly influenced by Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, where suffering brings about enlightenment and, further, abnegation of life and will is one’s ultimate goal.9    Greatly 
simplified, Schopenhauer writes from a pessimistic view of the world as a place, filled with unavoidable suffering and where the most pertinent course of action lies in the seeking to obtain non-suffering or non-existence.10   As the following excerpt reflects, Wagner 
incorporates this viewpoint into his final revision of last scene:

"I close behind me now: to the 
holiest chosen land, free from 
desire and delusion, the goal of
the world’s migration, redeemed 
from reincarnation, the enlightened 
woman now goes.  The blessed end 
of all things eternal, do you know 
how I attained it?  Grieving love’s 
profoundest suffering opened my 
eyes for me: I saw the world end".
In essence, Wagner seems to bring contradictory philosophical and religious ideas to bear on the central idea of the affirmation of life through love, which he has already established 
throughout his cycle and ending.11 Researchers associate this shift to his exposure to Schopenhauer toward the end of the libretto writing.12 

The Schopenhauer Ending was completed after the plot and significant themes within  The Ring had already been defined.  Kitcher and Schacht write; “Wagner finished the entire Ring poem in December of 1852, nearly two years before he discovered Schopenhauer 
(in the fall of 1854).” Thus, Wagner was effectively adding new theories, incongruous to the work’s original conception.  Using Schopenhauer’s view, love (the redemptive force in the 
narrative) becomes a source of suffering to be overcome.  This emphatically contradicts not only The Valkyrie Act II Sc 4, in which Brunnhilde awakens to the power of love during her conversation with Siegmund, but also the  Final Published Ending  Gotterdammerung, 
Act III Sc 3, in which she announces “to clasp him to me while held in my arms 
and in mightiest love to be wedded to him.”

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