"A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." ~ Ariel Durant
Paris around 1840 was the apogee of the artistic world, drawing to it immigrant painters, sculptors, writers, and musicians, a roiling mass that included poets like Heinrich Heine and composers Giaocchino Rossini and Giacomo Meyerbeer, whose Robert le Diable became a template for French grand opera for the rest of the century. For a young composer on the make, it was the place to prove one’s mettle, and so Richard Wagner attempted from 1839 to 1842.
A provincial German, he brought upon himself many troubles trying to fit into the cosmopolitan Parisian society. He approached and initially received support from Meyerbeer, a wealthy German Jew from Berlin, but, as Joachim Kohler demonstrates, his attempts to extort blackmail from Meyerbeer were not as successful as Heine’s. Lacking funding and unable to sell music sufficient to support his extravagant lifestyle, he took to writing for German newspapers and transcribing music; many of his early writings are collected in Wagner Writes From Paris, which gives an inkling of his future directions.
He did compose one opera in French Grand Opera style, Rienzi, and its premiere in Dresden made his name in that city. The problem with Paris, Wagner decided, was not that HE was wrong, but that the model of drama that they pursued, derived from Roman forms, was inadequate to the task of tragedy. While working as musician for the court chapel in Dresden, he worked out with his artistic circle the ideas that would revolutionize music drama: the foremost among these was an attempt to return to the roots of tragedy, in ancient Greece. The elements of music, painting, dance and poetry were all present then, and he would restore them in proper balance.
Leading a revolution in ideas is perhaps difficult when cosseted in the bosom of the state. Wagner’s friends in Dresden, including the anarcho-communist Bakunin, helped solve that problem for him by instigating the revolt of May, 1849, a revolt in which Wagner himself took a major part. The suppression of the revolt led to Wagner’s fleeing from a death sentence, to take up residence in Zurich, much like another socialist.
On the way to Zurich Wagner stopped in Paris, where he wrote his essay Art and Revolution. Here he was to outline why Greek drama was superior, and why modern (and Parisian) drama had failed to stir the soul: "Modern changes in society have resulted in the catastrophe that art has sold ‘her soul and body to a far worse mistress — Commerce.’ The modern stage offers two irreconcilable genres, split from Wagner’s Greek ideal — the play, which lacks ‘the idealising influence of music’, and opera which is ‘forestalled of the living heart and lofty purpose of actual drama.’" Wagner conceived of his superior dramatic form as the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total art work.
In Zurich Wagner began to compose the poem of the Ring, brilliantly assembling sources from a wide range of sagas, a process outlined in I Saw the World End (tragically incomplete due to the author’s death, it’s the best guide to the poem of the opera). He started with what became the last opera of the Ring Cycle, eventually named Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), and wound up having to explain so much of that story that he wrote three other operas to precede it, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried, each providing background to the one that follows, all written in reverse order from the one that they are performed in.
The Ring begins in Das Rheingold as an exposition of the ideals of Young German Wagner, a howl against those who steal gold from nature and use it to base commercial and political ends. That this desire for ill-gotten commercial and political gain is toxic is revealed in the fact that everyone who possesses the Ring forged from the Rheingold dies, facts on display later in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. The Ring itself, however, is absent from Die Walküre, the music drama in which Wagner most strongly pursued his conception of Greek drama.
At the heart of Greek drama, according to Aristotle, was catharsis, an emotional cleansing. As Wikipedia notes, "Some modern interpreters of [Aristotle] infer that catharsis is pleasurable because audience members felt ekstasis (Greek: ἔκστασις)(ecstasy)… from the fact that there existed those who could suffer a worse fate than them was to them a relief." The bearer of this fate we came to know as the tragic hero, anticipating the central Christian doctrine of the man who takes on the sins of the world and through suffering absolves them.
It is one thing to read and study this concept, however, and another entirely to experience it. The plays of Aeschylus, Euripedes, and Sophocles might have cleansed the psyches of ancient Athenians, but their scenarios seem often too remote to effect the same response in modern audiences. Wagner realized that the elements of music and chorus were missing from these tragedies, and sought to add them back. In this regard, he wrote the poetry, composed the music and specified exacting stage and scenery directions.
On April 12, 1997, these elements were assembled at the Metropolitan Opera house. Wotan, chief Norse god, (sung by James Morris) has had all his plans to recover the Ring thwarted, and all by his own entangling agreements. His beloved hero son, Siegmund, he must sacrifice; his favorite daughter, Brünnhilde (sung by Hildegard Behrens), disobeys him while doing what he wished to do, and he must banish her forever. The second half of Act III consists of her imploring him to protect her; the emotion that is unleashed when he finally relents overwhelmed the New York audience, the cold, hard, cynical, worldly New York audience, who wept as one and stumbled out afterward, blinking into the daylight, transformed, inoculated by catharsis against the worst anguish life could throw at them.
This effect was obtainable only for several reasons. The haunting music, which Wagner said made him ill to write, is a necessary condition, and played at a cadence by James Levine slow enough to allow it to brood but not so slow as to produce melodrama. It is not sufficient, however: also required is a Brünnhilde who can act and reasonably looks like the daughter of Wotan; the ability of the audience to understand the action, only granted one year before by Met Titles for those not conversant with medieval Stabreim German; and a production that respects Wagner’s exacting stage directions, with Brünnhilde to be laid to sleep on a rock, surrounded by fire, under a pine tree.
It is this last condition that is most often observed in the breach. The Ring is the single greatest artwork created by one person, but it seems to invite adaptation by artists not near Wagner’s level. It would be a dull world where no modernized staging of the work were presented, but the opposite effect obtains: there is precisely one major Ring cycle left today that is staged largely in accordance with Wagner’s directions, and it is slated to disappear after this season’s performances at the Metropolitan Opera.
O, reader, if you would understand the collapse that Geithner, the Treasury and the Fed will bring about, and not fear it, you must hie to the Met for these last cycles, starting Saturday, March 28th. The emotional punch to the solar plexus delivered by Walküre will leave you with a lifelong visceral distaste for the Ring of Power. Only after watching the old order collapse at the end of Götterdämmerung, with newly freed humans crawling forth to build a new world, will you not fear the consequences of reckless statist inflation, but have a bucked-up resolve to build that just new world. Let the words of Persian poet Rumi invite you:
Come, come, whoever you are. Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vow a thousand times Come, yet again, come, come.