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One Apple a Day: Age and Ageing in Wagner’s Ring Dr Barbara Eichner

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday 16 May 2015 | 10:57:00 pm

A fascinating paper by Dr Barbara Eichner, Senior Lecturer in Music at Oxford Brooks and among many other things contributor to The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia. Recommended

One Apple a Day: Age and Ageing in Wagner’s Ring 

Dr Barbara Eichner

When the Nordic god Thor visited the giant Utgard-Loki, he was invited to enter a series of contests. Having failed at emptying a drinking-horn and lifting a cat, his host suggested a wrestling match with his old nurse-maid. To everybody’s amusement the frail old lady wrestled the god to his knees, but of course there was a trick: As Utgard-Loki revealed the other morning, the old woman had really been the personification of age, who forced everybody to the ground eventually. Although Wagner did not use this funny episode for the Ring project, the idea of ageing and dying was thus built into the mythological sources when he turned to the Nordic gods for the prehistory of Siegfried’s death. He was, however, not content with introducing the abstract concept of old age but created an opera where the process of ageing is actually presented on stage – a challenge that other composers and librettists never faced by sticking to the classical unities of time and action.The gods age at a momentous point in Das Rheingold at the end of the second scene, between the abduction of the goddess Freia by the giants Fafner and Fasolt, and Wotan’s descent to the underworld to retrieve the all-powerful ring from the Nibelungs. Immediately the gods start to age, as described by the stage directions: “A pale fog fills the stage with growing density; through it the gods take on an increasingly elderly appearance; all stared anxiously and expectantly at Wotan, who meditatively looks to the ground.”

For the first ever performance in Munich, this effect was created by dropping thin, transparent veils and curtains to dim the light; at the dress rehearsal King Ludwig II was not happy with the overall effect and recommended burning salt with spiritus.

The directions given by Wagner during the rehearsal process enhanced the dejected atmosphere, as his assistant Heinrich Porges Remembered: “the positioning and gestures of the actors must convey their feeling of being in the grip of a magical spell threatening their lives. They group themselves around Wotan who stands brooding, eyes downcast, his spear lowered, its tip pointing downwards …”

But even in a production that ignores all these suggestions, the music, as Porges puts it, “expresses a feeling of mortality.”

So how did Wagner approach this quite unusual challenge?

The scene is divided into three sections: Loge’s description of the gods’ lacklustre appearance and waning strength, his explanation that the absence of Freia’s golden apples causes their distress, and Wotan’s final resolution to descend to Nibelheim. The overarching key of E minor unifies the scene in its entirety, as Alfred Lorenz and Warren Darcy both recognised, who label it as period 12 or episode 11 respectively. Within Rheingold  , only the two episodes dealing with Freia’s abductions are cast in E minor, which is thus associated with her distress. Contemporary treatises on key symbolism are not very forthcoming, but Gustav Schilling speculates that E minor signifies “a limited life, wrestling with changing circumstances that prevent resting; the lament of compassion and moaning about the lack of strength to help.”

The feeling of weakness is most obvious at the start of Loge’s monologue and enhanced by the instrumentation.

Against a backdrop of muted string tremolos, woodwind instruments – notably the mournful cor anglais – alternate in spelling out a chromatically altered version of Freia’s personal cantilena. The jolly motif of the god Froh,which is an off-spin of Freia’s golden apple motif, moves from E major to E minor and finally to a harmonically destabilised C major, while Loge torments his divine colleagues by stating the obvious. Interestingly he does not taunt Wotan directly, but sneakily asks Fricka whether she doesn't like Wotan’s morose pallor that makes him an old man. Taken together with Wotan’s lowered spear, this can easily be heard as a snide comment on his loss of virility as well as his slipping grip on power. The extended pedal point during Fricka’s, Donner’s and Froh’s lamentations vividly paints the frozen horror of the gods. It is interesting that Wagner decided to have Loge, rather than the gods themselves, describe their demise, not only because he is less affected than they are, but he is also, as Deryck Cooke describes him, the bringer of unwelcome truths; in any case his mocking declamation further highlights their passivity.