Medieval Influence on the Libretto of the Ring

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 27 June 2014 | 11:48:00 pm


Medieval Romance and Musical Narrative in Wagner’s Ring

J. P. E. Harper-Scott.


First printed in: 19th-Century Music 32, no. 3 (2009): 211–34

In some respects Wagner’s “medieval” practice has been well documented. Deryck Cooke offered a famously sensitive and detailed exploration of the literary and scholarly sources of the Ring in I Saw the World End. His findings on the central importance of the Poetic Edda to Wagner’s poems for the cycle have more recently been amplified by the literary scholar Stanley Hauer, who draws out in more detail Wagner’s metrical and lexical debt to the Scandinavian sources and his use of punning names.[1]As a study of the origins of the libretto and of Wagner’s synthesis of narrative elements, Cooke’s chapter remains useful. But in focusing exclusively on details of plot and (to a much more limited extent) of verse forms, both Cooke and Hauer miss the remarkable – indeed arguably unique – underlying structural principle of medieval narrative: the interlace structure. It is this important but “hidden” detail of medieval prose and poetic narratives that, translated into musical terms, constitutes perhaps Wagner’s most fruitful contribution to the history of music.

Cooke and Hauer demonstrate the high level of Wagner’s scholarly involvement and establish the realistic possibility that, while finding ways to shape his sources’ narratives to suit his dramatic ends, Wagner also replicated certain aspects of his sources’ structure in his musical language. The sources in question are both literary and scholarly. The literary texts are the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, the German-inspired (but Old Norse)Þiðreks saga, and the Old Norse Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, and Völsunga saga.[2] The scholarly studies Wagner owned and read include Karl Lachmann’s thesis on theNibelungenlied (“Habilitationsschrift” über die ursprungliche Gestalt des Gedichts von der Nibelungen Noth), which more or less founded strictly philological research into the lay, and works by the Grimm brothers (Wilhelm Grimm, Die deutsche Heldensage and Jakob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie).[3]

The Nibelungenlied (ca. 1200) came late in the day for tales of a broadly comparable sort, even discounting the very ancient epic poetic or prose narratives (Iliad and Odyssey and the Indian Mahabharata); the Old English Beowulf (possibly twelfth century, though there is doubt) and Welsh Mabinogion (before AD 1000) still predate it.[4] The extent of theNibelungenlied-poet’s knowledge of earlier Scandinavian archetypes is unknown, but Cooke suggests that the poem was to some extent an amalgam of earlier lays.[5] For present purposes it does not matter whether the Nibelungenlied-poet knew the earlier sources; the poem’s style, particularly in relation to other medieval narratives, is what matters, because it was the style more than the detail of the literary hinterland that would manifest itself in Wagner’s stage works.



Many of the surviving examples of medieval Germanic heroic poetry, for example, Beowulf and the Poetic Edda, use alliterative verse.[6] The Nibelungenlied, by contrast, adopts the then newfangled Romance end-rhymes; the poem is composed in 2,400 four-lined stanzas, each expressed in couplets. It is well known that Wagner ignored this model because it was less “authentically” Germanic than he wished (alliterative verse patterns come naturally to Germanic languages because of their tendency to stress the root syllable of a word). He wrote instead in a modified form of old German Stabreim, with densely packed alliterative lines.[7] Insofar as we understand Wagner’s use of medieval aesthetic technique, we understand it in terms of his use and misuse of Stabreim.[8] The broader matter of medieval narrative form has drawn little attention.

On the music of the cycle Hauer is silent. Cooke depends on the examination of leitmotifs (however subtly psychoanalyzed in the Donington tradition) and consequently has little to say beyond the superficial level of more or less immediate thematic reference. More analytically minded writers, meanwhile, are apt to give less attention to the literary sources even though they can explain more convincingly than Cooke and the leitmotifists exactly what composers who followed Wagner – whether they wrote operas or not – considered so potent in his musical style. It is Wagner’s use of “associative tonality” and the patient unfolding of gigantic tonal forms based on an almost endlessly deferred but ever-present sense of a tonal center or double-tonic complex that had the more fruitful influence on later music, as is variously demonstrated by the symphonies of Bruckner, Elgar, Mahler, and Sibelius, the symphonic poems of Strauss, and in opera by composers as aesthetically different as Strauss and Britten.[9] As important and obvious as the use of leitmotif and alliterative verse may be in the context of Wagner’s own works, these fingerprints have not been as interestingly replicated by later composers as have the more complicated matters of his tonal process and use of associative tonality (both of which, I shall suggest, owe something to his digestion of medieval narrative).

To appreciate the richness of Wagner’s structural interlace procedure, we need first to understand his model. In what follows I do not mean to suggest that Wagner consciously saw in medieval literature what only began to be widely discussed in literary criticism in the twentieth century, although for a composer of such immensely broad intellectual and artistic interests and evident willingness to extrapolate sensitively from the material available to him, it would be plausible to do so. Instead of arguing for conscious and direct influence, this article has the modest aim of establishing some important points of contact between structural features of medieval narratives and the Ring, and the implications of this for Wagner’s view of human existence in a phenomenologically conceived time. In the process the article shows how some recent analytical studies have pointed in the medieval direction without noticing it (not that they should; there is nothing obvious about the conjunction) and seeks to establish the groundwork for future research linking literary study with music analysis.

Interlace in Medieval Narrative

The trope of interlace in medieval literature, and later work inspired by it, has received two main kinds of treatment in the last half century, one literary, another more interdisciplinary. Among the earliest examples in English of the first kind is a study of Edmund Spenser by C. S. Lewis.[11] Defending The Faerie Queen from detractors puzzled by its “constantly shifting from one story and one set of characters to another, but with a ‘dovetail’ or liaison at the point where we change,”[12] Lewis notes that the broad outlines of this narrative style may be found in Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso and perhaps derive ultimately from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Lewis calls the technique “interwoven” or “polyphonic” narrative, and although he generally prefers the latter I shall avoid confusion with Bakhtinian literary-critical uses of the word – irrelevant to my argument here – by using the favored term of most other studies, “interlace.”

Lewis suggests that interlace “dominated European fiction both in prose and verse from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century,” though other scholars, as we shall see, have found it earlier. Its principal function for Lewis and, I suggest, for Wagner is to enhance the sense of realism in the whole. Although switching from one tale to another, perhaps as a result of a chance encounter in the forest (the forest is a symbol of uncertain fate), may superficially seem both clumsy and confusing, “it is an effect particularly suitable to a tale of strange adventures” because it suggests that “adventures of this sort are going on all around us… . We lose the feeling that the stories we are shown were arbitrarily made up by the poet. On the contrary, we are sure there are plenty more which he has not time to show us. We are being given mere selections, specimens: instances of the normal life of that wooded, faerie world. The result of this is an astonishing sense of reality.”[13]

The faerie land of Spenser’s story is no more “lifelike” in the ordinary sense of the world than the world of Wagner’s Ring, but like its counterpart in the Ring it is lifelike in a second sense as a result of the interlace structure. Although the introduction and indulgent telling of a new adventure may take us away – for hundreds of lines of a poem or an hour of Wagner’s music – from the “main” plot (if there is such a thing) or from the characters we have been concerned with, the episodes become lifelike in their consistency with their created world and the profligacy of the design has a positive artistic effect: “It is lifelike by its consistency – all the adventures bear the stamp of the world that produced them, have the right flavour, make each other probable; in its apparent planlessness – they collide, and get mixed up with one another and drift apart, just as events would in a real world; in its infinity – we can, so obviously, never get to the end of them, there are so obviously more and more, round the next corner… . There is forest, and more forest, wherever you look: you cannot see out of that world, just as you cannot see out of this.”[14]

Lewis’s thoughts on Spenser are expanded into a more general theory in Eugène Vinaver’sThe Rise of Romance.[15] The theoretical basis for the late-medieval use of the interlace design, a usage with clear relevance to Wagner’s construction of a smooth plot from a piecemeal assembly of divergent sources, is the attempt to “forg[e] significant and tangible links between originally independent episodes … the scholastic principle ofmanifestatio.” In the nineteenth century, this model was condemned for its “uninspired prolixity,”[16] reflecting some judgments, then as now, on Wagner’s own style. But criticisms then – and twentieth-century judgments like Cooke’s – are based on a modern aesthetic prejudice shaped partly by the influence of the novel[17] and partly by a dependence on Aristotle’s famous definition of the classical unities of time, place, and action – essentially the requirement that the entire shape of a story, from beginning through middle to end, be constantly perspicuous. I shall return to the Aristotelian model in more detail below.

No story in a thirteenth-century narrative cycle like the “Lancelot-Grail” cycle is entirely self-contained. Adventures may come and go in any part of the work and the cumulative “unity” of the design is produced only by the careful managing of their interaction. Consequently a cycle is not a mosaic that would still be readable were a single stone to be removed, but a tapestry that would unravel if a single cut were made across it.[18] A single example taken from Vinaver’s selection will suffice to show how this works in practice. In one version of the Arthurian romances,[19] Lancelot recognizes Bors from the latter’s sword: it is the sword of Galehaut which, 600 pages earlier, in a different episode, Lancelot had sent to him as a present. The sword is a symbol of male love paralleling Excalibur (the gift from Arthur to Gawain, then Gawain to Lancelot). Yet in a later combat, Gawain fatally wounds himself while striking Lancelot with Excalibur, and the symbolism takes on a sadder note: “The reminder is, as always, merely implicit; but once the two events become simultaneously present in our minds, each acquires an added depth through the other and their interaction brings to the fore, as no other device could have done, the underlying tragic theme.”[20]

A particularly potent Wagnerian example of this “implicit” reminder would be Hagen’s first greeting to Siegfried in Götterdämmerung, act I, announced to the motif sung by Alberich as he curses the Ring. The connection is not overstated by repetition or by further reference in the text or music (Hagen’s “Heil dir” is not followed by Gunther, in an undertone, singing “he really means curse you!”); it is enough for the listener to make the contact back over the span of the work to Rheingold, sc. 4. (Leitmotivic links like this one are not, then, irrelevant; they are simply not the irreducible basis of Wagnerian narrative design.) We need no textual reminder; we simply remember the connection and gain satisfaction from the memory of music heard perhaps eleven hours ago in the context of the musical work and almost certainly around seventy-two hours ago in real life (a span comparable to the 600 pages between episodes in the Vulgate version of the Arthurian romances).

Citing Giovambattista Strozzi’s definition of a unified work (on the Aristotelian model) as being “indivisible in itself, but divided from other things,” Vinaver shows that the medieval interlace structure presents a contrary model in which “any theme can reappear after an interval so as to stretch the whole fabric still further until the reader loses every sense of limitation in time or space.” Any theme, Vinaver adds, “is, of course, ‘indivisible’ bothwithin itself and ‘from other things’: it is not even divisible from themes yet to be developed, from works yet to be written.”[21] At neither the poetic nor musical level do Wagner’s designs exhibit the double character Strozzi demands, but they do seem related to Vinaver’s definition of interlace. There are obvious ways in which Wagner’s oeuvre in general echoes this generalized, unclassical indivisibility – think of the way that Lohengrinbleeds narratively into Parsifal, or that the Ring continually expands the bounds of mythic time (we think that “the origin” is in the Rhine until Wotan takes us into prehistory in Die Walküre, act II, sc. 2, and the Norns take us back still further in the Prelude toGötterdämmerung) – but there are less obvious ways too, which I shall examine later.

Despite these hints, we are not yet ready to make connections to Wagner’s mature music dramas. Two general problems appear obvious: geographical appropriateness and chronological generality. The works that interest Lewis and Vinaver are either French or later in origin than most of Wagner’s sources or both. Some scholars believe that this narrative method was not used in the far north of the Prose Edda or Þiðreks saga. If the interlace structure was restricted in geographical range to works that Wagner did not consult, he probably could not have encountered it, and even if he had he might not have regarded it as primordially German in spirit. Moreover it is not entirely clear what defends Lewis and Vinaver from Morton W. Bloomfield’s objection that because “the use of several narrative threads is a commonplace in literature of all periods and all countries,” there is no obvious reason why the medieval model should be regarded as significantly different.[22] What exactly is unique about this method, and how can we be sure that Wagner is using it rather than the ordinary, historically and geographically omnipresent multiplication of narrative threads?

These twin problems of geography and chronology may be answered by reference to several studies: those by William W. Ryding and John Leyerle that extend Lewis’s and Vinaver’s historical range backwards, one by Carol Clover that examines Norse sagas in particular, and another by Sylvia Huot that treats manuscript organization as the establishment of a “performance space” distinct from a repository for oral performances. Ryding suggests that from the middle of the eleventh century to around 1200, “the writer normally carries his sequence of events to a perfectly satisfactory conclusion, then begins again and tells at considerable length matter neither implied nor necessitated within the framework of the first half of the story,”[23] noting (with obvious relevance to Wagner) that works fitting this plan include the Nibelungenlied and Perceval. Leyerle, in a pioneering and influential study of Beowulf, demonstrates that the interlace technique was in use several centuries earlier than Lewis and Vinaver acknowledge.[24]

Clover addresses the Norse family sagas in The Medieval Saga and rejects the commonly held view that they have a single-stranded narrative. She argues for a parallel between, on the one hand, the development from oral þættir (short stories) to sagas that do not conform to the Aristotelian model of unity but are “capable of infinite regression into impinging matter,” and, on the other hand, the process that transformed court stories into the Vulgate cycle. The aesthetic effect, she observes, is the same as the interlace within cycles. And in keeping with Vinaver’s observation that the Arthurian romances are “not even divisible from … works yet to be written,” she adds that the Norse sagas share characters and material “in a way that suggests that they were not conceived as self-contained wholes but as interrelated or interdependent members of a larger undertaking”[25] – hence the development of encyclopedic cycles.

Clover does not treat the Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, or Völsunga saga, which Wagner used. Although her study demonstrates an Old Norse interest in interlace, it cannot be used to suggest that Wagner picked up the device directly from his Old Norse sources. There is less doubt about the fact that, as Ryding notes, there is interlace in the Nibelungenlied, and more generally in contemporaneous narratives from Northern Europe. Among the various sources Wagner drew on, interlace was at least available as one possibility among many, and one that he ultimately decided to work with. It is the cultural availability of the interlace design, and its aesthetic conception of the human, that I suggest finds a new venue in Wagner.

There is, however, some evidence that a prototypical narrative interlace operated even in manuscripts like the Codex regius, the source for the Poetic Edda. Sylvia Huot argues that the illuminated manuscripts that preserve French courtly lyric and lyrical narrative poetry from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries operated as a performance space in their own right, not simply as a repository for oral performances, and that the seeming arbitrariness of their organization veils an “authorial” narrative voice in the scribe.[26] To support her claim, Huot examines the reasons why scribes chose to organize their manuscripts, whether as a sequence of didactic texts or as narratives, in the order they did. She detects a “thematic unity” to MS Bibl. Nat. fr. 24428, a collection including L’Image du monde, Li Volucraires, Li Bestiaire divin, an anonymous allegorical lapidary, and Marie de France’s Fables d’Ysopet. Following a straightforward discussion of the natural world in the first text, the later texts systematically expand the range of the potentially “open text” with which the collection begins. The manuscript organization “reflects the medieval system of fourfold exegesis: we begin with the literal reading of the world, progress to allegorical and tropological readings, and arrive finally at the anagogical reading, an unveiled explanation of the moral life of the human soul.”[27] The Image provides the basis for the compilation, and the other components enhance its meaning. Each member benefits from its part in the juxtaposition; there is an “intimate relationship between poetic and scribal practices, between the microstructure of the individual text and the macrostructure of the anthology codex.”[28] In other words, the manuscript acts like a visual “narrator” in “performing” seemingly heterogeneous contents within the unifying world of the (material) book.

In narrative collections, the resonances that build up are even more suggestive. MS Bibl. Nat. fr. 1447 collects the anonymous Floire et Blanchefleur, Adenet le Roi’s Berthe aus grans pies, and the anonymous Claris et Laris. Huot notes differences between them, but crucial similarities too. The first two concern the ancestry of Charlemagne: Floire and Blanchefleur are parents of Bertha, his mother, and so run into one another smoothly. But they also preface the third and set up a pairing of Christian and classical traditions that then infuse each story with added meaning. The Christian side is established by Floire’s conversion for the sake of his wife, as a result of which he becomes king of Hungary, father of Charlemagne, and a great hero of Christianized Europe. The classical thread is introduced – I am tempted to say “interlaced” – through the symbol of a cup for which Blanchefleur is traded. The cup had belonged to Aeneas, who gave it to Lavinia. After many generations it came to be stolen from the Caesars. Just as Aeneas and Lavinia were the ancestors of Romulus (who founded Rome), so Floire and Blanchefleur are the ancestors of Charlemagne (who founded the Holy Roman Empire). The subsequent Claris et Laristransplants Arthurian material onto a broad European stage, with Arthur fighting figures from France, Germany, Spain, and Hungary, and thus implicitly becoming associated with Charlemagne.

These texts are not associated in any other surviving manuscript, but the scribe for this particular manuscript evidently “saw in the personages, themes, and motifs shared among these works the possibility for a poetic conjointure that transcends the boundaries of individual texts… . Central to this picture of historical and cultural progression … is Charlemagne, the mythico-historical figure whose presence, both implicit and explicit, informs the entire book.”[29] It may be that a narrative reading of the ordering of the mythic poems in the Codex regius could turn up an “interlaced” structure after all, and that the interlace Clover found in the Old Norse family sagas may have found its way into the mythic narratives of the Eddas and Völsunga saga, at least insofar as the scribal act of compilation acted as an implicit narrative voice within the “performing space” of the codex.

I return to Bloomfield’s problem with the difficulty of associating the ubiquitous interlace design with any particular time or place. Although it is indisputable that many narrative traditions employ a threadlike design, the medieval interlace narrative (and Wagner’s) is distinguished both by its emphasis on the illusion of reality and on its anti-Aristotelianism. Although a narrative as far from the tenor of Arthurian romance as that of the film Pulp Fiction may employ a complex series of apparently unrelated stories, during the course of the narrative the threads’ interrelationship clarifies to the extent that, although the whole is not presented straightforwardly, it ultimately coheres along familiar Aristotelian lines into a beginning-middle-end formation. The world closes in on itself and the narrative is unified. To recall a metaphor invoked a little earlier, this relatively commonplace use of narrative threads appears more like a mosaic (the total design is not obscured by the removal of one tile) than like an interwoven cloth. Accordingly, the design does not construct a plausible secondary reality. It does not need to; the events it portrays fit somehow into our own world and need no suggestion of infinite depth to give them a “lifelike” feel. Contrarily, for disbelief to be suspended successfully in a world of spears and magic helmets, there is a pressing need for a secondary reality to be constructed and maintained in plausibility by the implicitly infinite capacity of the interlace design. The answer to Bloomfield is that the medieval interlace narrative is distinguished from the rest because it uses threads to deny closure, not to make it inevitable, and that it does so because the denial of the kind of closure that makes a neat frame for a work is a pressing aesthetic requirement.


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