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The Deepening of the Wagner Conundrum

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday 27 June 2014 | 12:37:00 am

Originally published at the Wagner blog "Sacrifice" where much more Wagner related analysis and thoughts can be found. Reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

The Deepening of the Wagner Conundrum

Most serious Wagnerians know that the germinal seed for what became The Ring was the story Wagner called The Death of Siegfried. After laboring for months over the story, Wagner realized that in order for Siegfried’s Tod to do justice to his inspiration, the opera would be overburdened with narratives needed to supply necessary background. Therefore, he decided to expand the original concept with what we now call a prequel. The working title for this opera was (Das) Junge Siegfried. Ernest Newman in The Wagner Operas provides a far better history of the prolonged adding to the original idea as it became four operas than I can give here (see pages 420 – 450. First American Edition).

If we examine the original plan for Young Siegfried, several difficulties present themselves.—all adding to the conundrum. The first revelation is that as Wagner tries to write a work about Siegfried, the composer becomes aware as he is supplying background that his story is really about Wotan—Wotan’s sin, Wotan’s weakness, Wotan’s tragic flaw. The further Wagner goes in his efforts to supply background, the more the story shifts focus from the original protagonist to the new one. Ultimately when the Ring is completed, the opera that was to be called Siegfried’s Tod has become Gotterdamerung or The Twilight of the Gods (really the Death of the Gods). Wotan does not appear in the opera except in Waltraute’s plea to Brunhilde, but he, not Siegfried, is the title character. We can see this shift in Wagner’s perspective in the preliminaries for Young Siegfried. All of us are familiar with Wotan’s first two appearances in the final version of Siegfried. He has become the Wanderer trying to hold things together as he observes and attempts to supervise the events. He appears in this guise with Mime as they play their game of riddles. Wotan appears to know all of the answers, but as we see later, he has not yet reached the right conclusion. The second appearance is his confrontation with Alberich. For the first sketches of this scene Wagner wrote an extended dialogue between the two, with Alberich giving as good as he gets. In fact, the Wanderer’s responses often become excuses as he attempts to justify what he did. Wagner shortened this dialogue in the final draft, but the extended dialogue may have been what allowed him to see the shift of focus that he ultimately made as the Ring and the god eventually overshadow the hero of the original concept.

The third opera of the Ring presents us with other difficulties. Consider the difficulty we have trying to figure out Siegfried’s age. Wagner originally called his work Young Siegfried. How young is young? In the final version of the opera, Siegfried behaves as a very young teenager—14 or 15 at most. He frollicks in the forest, behaves with childish hatred toward Mime, shows the teenage mood shifts of early adolescence. In the second act he seems to have become 16 or 17 as he begins to ponder about life and relationships in a more serious way. By act three, he seems to be 18-20 physically, but 15 -16 in innocence. When we get to the first Act of Gotterdammerung, we take him for 20-25 as he seems to have gained a great deal of maturity after spending the night with Brunhilde. Wagner tries to have all of these at once. When the opera stands alone, the hero’s age is not too much of a problem; the problem occurs when the opera is put in context between Die Walkure and Gotterdammerung. In Act 2 of Walkure Wotan tells Brunhilde that “the dwarf had mastered a woman, whose favours he gained by gold. A woman is carrying the fruit of hate; the force of envy stirs in her womb.” Forgive my weak translation, but I am sure that I have the tense correct. If so, the consequences are clear: Siegfried and Hagan are the same age. When these two meet in the opening of Gotterdammerung, the conundrum is clear—How many years did Siegfried spend with Brunhilde on the mountain top before his Rhine journey? If it were not years, then how can the wizened, evil Hagan seem early middle-aged? Anyone with teenagers in the house knows all s/he needs to know about “drama,” but the day-to-day experiences of teenagers hardly matches the intense emotional betrayals and vengeance of Acts II and III of Gotterdamerung. This kind of mayhem requires adults.

Finally, as we seek to understand the architecture of The Ring, Wagner presents us with another conundrum. I have already suggested that the structural climax of The Ring occurs in Rheingoldwhen Wotan steals the Ring, puts it on his finger, and falls victim to its power. That is when he falls. Everything that follows is just a working out of the collapse. If one disagrees, then he or she in the classical tradition of literary structure would look for the climax somewhere near the middle of the work (the Ring)—in this case in Siegfried. Certainly the confrontation between Wotan and Siegfried on the mountainside would serve. Siegfried has reforged the sword in order to take vengeance on the one who killed his father. Newman points out that in one of the early versions of Wagner’s poem, Siegfried does kill Hagan and that Wagner forgot to adapt the Gotterdammerunglibretto where Siegfried avows vengeance on the killer after revising his early format. However, when Nothung shatters Wotan’s spear, vengeance has been carried out—the god’s fate is now sealed and in reality, he is the one who killed Siegmund. I would suggest that this is not the climax of The Ring; rather it is the denoument. The massive Gotterdammerung, the story for which the rest of the Ring was to supply background is a coda, embellishing the fall of the gods, the appearance of a new world, and washing away Wotan’s error.

Even though Wagner presents us with one conundrum after another, the majesty and grandeur of the work is not lost. Perhaps the conundrums make the total even more enchanting and interesting. They certainly challenge us; they make us look more deeply into the work, and as we seek to answer the conundrums, we find more elements to enjoy, to think about, and to argue. As another critic pointed out, “I have seen the world end.”