Sunday 28 May 2023

Review: "The Cambridge Companion to Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen

This is a review that has been long in the making, as long as Wagner spent on the Ring Cycle - or so it has seemed to me. It started and changed many times in the most stiff and formal way. An early draft begins something like this:

"The Cambridge Companion to Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is a valuable and comprehensive guide to one of the most complex and influential works of art ever created. The book consists of fifteen chapters, divided into four parts: Myth, Aesthetics, Interpretations, and Impact. The contributors are experts in various fields, such as musicology, literature, philosophy, history, and performance studies, and they offer a range of perspectives on Wagner’s tetralogy and its reception.

The first part, Myth, explores the sources and meanings of the myths that Wagner adapted for his epic drama. Jason Geary examines the influence of Greek tragedy and myth on Wagner’s conception of drama and music, while Stefan Arvidsson traces the origins and development of modern mythology in the nineteenth century and its impact on Wagner’s worldview."

Dull! Dull! You could read as much on the publisher’s website. And for those readers that would prefer to read as such, there are many to find. But for us - and by being here I hope to include you - the Ring is a living work of art. The ultimate union of music and theatre, literature and philosophy, mythic and social, the conscious and unconscious. It lights up the dawn of modernity. Without it, and Wagner’s other work, there are no giants such as Strauss, Schoenberg, and Mahler - or at least as we know them. Here lie the seeds of psychoanalysis, maybe cinema and surely the film soundtrack. So any good book on this masterpiece deserves something else. And by goodness is this the book that at last, after many, many tries, begins to do this work justice. Is it perfect? The only perfection can be found on the shining, unreachable heights that hold Plato’s Forms. Nothing on this earth can ever be perfect. But in the wise editorial hands of Mark Berry and Nicholas Vazsonyi, with only a few slips, this is the best we have got so far. So with that wandering, opening out of the way, onto: 

The Cambridge Companion to Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen"
Editors: Mark Berry · Nicholas Vazsonyi
Sep 2020 · Cambridge University Press

Der Ring des Nibelungen is a great work of art, a living thing that breathes and burns with the fire of Wagner’s soul. It is a drama of myths and men, of gods and heroes, of love and power, of life and death. It is a music that speaks to the blood and the nerves, that stirs the passions and the senses, that awakens the spirit and the mind. It is a vision that challenges and transforms, that inspires and provokes, that reveals and conceals.

This book is a guide to that work, a companion for those who want to know it and feel it. It has four parts, each with different voices and views. The first part tells of the myths that Wagner used for his drama, how he took them from the Greeks and the Germans, how he made them his own. It shows how Wagner was influenced by the tragedy and the myth of ancient Greece, how he admired the art and the philosophy of Aeschylus and Sophocles. It also shows how Wagner was fascinated by the saga and the legend of medieval Germany, how he explored the history and the culture of the Nibelungs and the Volsungs. It explains how Wagner combined these sources into a new mythology, a modern mythology that reflected his own ideas and feelings.

The second part tells of the music and the drama, how Wagner wrote them and shaped them, how he made them one. It shows how Wagner developed his theory and practice of music drama, how he aimed to create a total work of art that integrated music, poetry, action, and spectacle. It also shows how Wagner composed his music and his drama, how he used leitmotifs, themes, and motifs to create a musical narrative that expressed his thoughts and emotions. It explains how Wagner structured his music and his drama, how he formed a cycle of four operas that spanned from the beginning to the end of the world.

The third part tells of the meanings of the Ring, how Wagner saw the world and the people in it, how he showed their struggles and their choices. It shows how Wagner portrayed the characters in the “world” of the Ring, how he gave them depth and complexity, how he made them human and divine. It also shows how Wagner explored the political implications of the Ring, how he engaged with contemporary issues such as nationalism, revolution, democracy, and capitalism. It explains how Wagner expressed the metaphysical dimensions of the Ring, how he used music to create a sense of depth and transcendence, how he searched for a new religion and a new morality.

The fourth part tells of the responses to the Ring, how people have heard it and seen it, how they have loved it or hated it. It shows how Wagner’s work has been received and interpreted by critics and commentators from its premiere to the present day, how it has generated debates and controversies over its artistic value and its social impact. It also shows how Wagner’s work has influenced subsequent composers and musical genres such as Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg, film music, and musical theatre. It explains how Wagner’s work has inspired other arts and media such as literature, visual arts, cinema, television, and video games.

The book is well done, well made, well filled. It has many things to say and show about Wagner’s masterpiece. It has many things to learn and enjoy for those who care for it. It is written by experts in various fields who share their knowledge and insight with clarity and passion. It is edited by scholars who have organized it with care and skill. It is illustrated by images and musical samples that enhance its beauty and meaning. It is referenced by notes that provide sources and suggestions for further reading.

It is for everyone who loves or wants to love Wagner’s great work of art. It is for those who are familiar with it or unfamiliar with it. It is a friend for those who seek to understand and appreciate Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.