R Scruton: What Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle teaches us about love and politics

Written By The Wagnerian on Monday, 11 July 2016 | 6:44:00 pm

Rodger Scruton:

Richard Wagner's four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which he began in 1848 and on which he worked over the next two decades, is a comprehensive re-working of Old Norse myths, as recounted in the Icelandic Eddas. In Wagner's story, the Viking gods are situated in a German landscape, along with Siegfried, hero of the German medieval epic Nibelungenlied. The Ring Cycle is about the gods, but the gods as conceived by a modern artist, whose concern is to create a myth that will comprehend all the principles – moral, political and spiritual – by which the modern world is governed. It is a story of the gods for people who have no gods to believe in.

That is why The Ring Cycle is of ever-increasing importance to music-lovers in our times. Its theme is the death of the gods, and what the gods have bequeathed to us, namely, the knowledge of, and longing for, the sacred. Until we recognise sacred moments, Wagner implies in this monumental work, we cannot live fully as free beings. These moments are the foundation of all our attempts to endow human life with significance. Despite the controversies that have surrounded this great work – its vast length, its dubious later associations with Nazi thought – it constantly grows on the collective imagination. It is not the answer to life in a post-religious world, but it asks the real questions, and shows us one fruitful way of confronting them. It's hardly surprising that the recent Opera North production of the Ring at the Southbank in London sold out within the space of a day.

When Wagner began work on the cycle, he was, like Karl Marx, a disciple of the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Like Feuerbach, he believed in the possibility of a political revolution that would free mankind from domination and establish an order of freedom. He even took part in the 1849 revolution in Dresden, where he was court Kapellmeister (the name given to the person in charge of music-making), after which he was forced to flee into exile in Switzerland and France. Some traces of Wagner's early radical political vision remain in the finished work, inspiring Bernard Shaw, in The Perfect Wagnerite (1898), to describe the cycle in Marxist terms, with Siegfried as a revolutionary hero, fighting the monsters of industrial capitalism. Having found himself unable, on this reading, to make sense of Götterdämmerung, Shaw dismissed the last of the four music dramas as mere "grand opera," arguing that Wagner missed the opportunity, in the character of Siegfried, to deliver the agenda for the new socialist man.

Such an interpretation holds little plausibility for us today. The "radical" Wagner of Shaw's imagination sits uneasily with the traditionalism found in his 1867 comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg or the evocation of a religious community in his final work Parsifal (1878). Indeed, during the course of writing the cycle, Wagner came to believe that there could be no political salvation from the ills of civilisation. Like his sometime friend the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, he saw resentment as the default position of human communities, and believed that each of us must achieve redemption for himself, gaining freedom and self-knowledge through our capacity for love. To take this path is difficult. Love condemns us to suffering on another's behalf; this capacity for sympathetic suffering is the highest human virtue, and the only known justification for our existence. Wagner's Ring Cycle, in its finished version, is an attempt to convey why we suffer. Seldom has an artistic intention of such magnitude been so convincingly pursued.

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