It wasn’t possible to post last week. And why? Well, life presents its various difficulties, of course, but I think more than this is that I reached the precipice: Wagner. It was inevitable that I should eventually write about him, as I knew when I started this blog, although I wasn’t sure how I would get there or when. But, having spent some time on the Circe myth in Alcina and South Pacific, I started thinking about sirens, about the Lorelei, and this led me to the Rhinemaidens, that trio of seductive water nymphs swimming in the Rhine in the opening scene of Das Rheingold, first of the Ring operas.
This is the kind of moment that has the power to arrest the flow of prose. What can one say that hasn’t been said? At the same time, how can one choose what to say when there are so many things to say? Just take the Prelude of Das Rheingold, that long suspension of E-flat major bliss, growing from the subterranean basses and blossoming into swaths of full orchestral diatonic glory—how to focus? Do I say something about the significance of the three-flat key signature, suggesting simultaneously the trio of Rhinemaidens, the trio of Norns, the three muses (Dance, Music, Poetry) that Wagner cites when writing about his concept of music drama, the Christian trinity, the key of Beethoven’s Eroica, of the Masonic in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte? Do I then opine further about how in this originating kernel of E-flat-ness, Wagner has conducted preliminaries for a ritual theater during which he makes obeisance to the Christian god, to the norse gods, to the Greek gods, to the gods of music (Mozart and Beethoven)? Or do I go in another direction entirely and talk about the uses of Wagner—for example, the use of the Prelude from Das Rheingold in Terrence Malick’s film The New World (2005), ostensibly about the founding of Jamestown and the relationship of John Smith and Pocahontas, but projected, through the use of Wagner’s Prelude, into a larger creation myth, an originating legend for America paralleling the creation of Wagner’s world of the Ring, and/or a suggestion of the unspoiled world before European colonization.
(Nope, just kidding.)
You see? I have a problem. And no one’s even on stage yet!
I take consolation from reading Deryck Cooke’s I Saw the World End: A Study of Wagner’s Ring (Oxford University Press, 1979). An attempt to say as much as could be said, Cooke managed to say intriguing things about the libretti (and occasionally the music) for the first two Ring operas, and then laid him down to rest. Somehow this is touchingly fitting, in a way that echoes other extraordinary projects of scholarship cut short by the unsympathetic winnower: Henry-Louis de La Grange’s revision of his definitive Mahler biography, J. A. B. van Buitenen’s translation of the Mahabharata. What I mean is that the epic subject is honored, in a sense, by not being fully encompassed by similarly epic scholarship. On a more pedestrian level, I was by turns upset, amused, and relieved that in the extensive liner notes + libretto accompanying Karajan’s classic recording of Das Rheingold with the Berlin Philharmonic, the essayist Wolfram Schwinger hardly mentions that singing is going on. (Yes, really!) Schwinger’s focus is almost exclusively on the Master—Karajan!—and his sensitivity to orchestration, his commitment to accuracy, transparency, his refusal to get bogged down and insistence on maintaining forward momentum. All well and good, but. . .singers?
After all, here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Wotan, the ultimate singer of German Lieder crafting a father of the gods who is lyrical and sympathetic instead of brash, spoiled, tyrannical. And here is the masterful performance of Gerhard Stolze as Loge, who follows every opportunity for multi-dimensionality of character that Wagner provides: at one moment playfully mercurial, at another fiercely scornful, at another distant and wise. And here is Martti Talvela as Fasolt, volleying blasts of bass sonority over the orchestra and hamming it up marvelously as the unlikely love-struck giant. But perhaps this is why Schwinger doesn’t say much about the singers—they do their job splendidly, on the whole, so his focus is free to flit to other phenomena. (How’s that for Stabreim?) All this to say that, after delay and uncertainty, I feel liberated not to attempt the completist’s gambit. Flit, float, fleetly flee, fly—it will be enough to be and not to be enough.
Wagner’s command of musical irony always stuns me, and I was perhaps more sensitive to it than ever on this listen to Das Rheingold. The gold standard for Wagnerian musical irony is Act I of Tristan und Isolde, and the queen reigning over that language is Isolde herself, who can snatch away someone else’s line and spit it back laced with venom. But I don’t think I had fully appreciated how much irony there is throughout the first of the Ring operas. Take, again, that opening scene with the Rhinemaidens, where the dwarf Alberich, frustrated in his attempts to capture one of them, takes the Rhinegold instead and curses love so that he will be able to forge the ring of power.
(Don’t say anything about Tolkien. . .don’t say it!!! No, go on and say it—you’re in the nexus!)
In Wagner’s cosmology, love is the ultimate power inasmuch as it cannot be achieved through force, whereas everything else can be. So when Alberich can’t have love, he seizes upon the next best thing. Seen another way, the denial of love is what twists Alberich into a destructive tyrant. In Tolkien’s mythos, the creation of the Ring doesn’t work this way. It is forged by Sauron, who is so wholly evil, a force so far beyond conventional human experience, that to imagine him (it?) giving up love for power is a laughable suggestion. Love is foreign to evil in Tolkien’s universe; it cannot be imagined as existing anywhere in Sauron’s sphere.
Wagner invites us to consider, though, what might have happened had one of the Rhinemaidens chimed, “Oh, so he doesn’t replace the toilet paper and puts his elbows on the table—can’t help lovin’ that dwarf of mine!” And how does he invite us to consider this possibility? By writing mock-love music, of course! The Rhinemaidens sing, each of them, as if they’ve fallen for our sulfurous cave-dweller, and he buys it each time. But we know better, and not just because of the narrative context. Wagner hams it up, giving us saccharine overtures interrupted by action-oriented “underscore.” (Incidentally, do you realize how much mickey-mousing there is in Das Rheingold?! Steamboat Willie, sit down!) The music shifts gears too quickly for us to hear the love music as genuine; something that gets that sticky that quickly must be manufactured.
There are so many moments like this in Rheingold, each representing its own unique dramatic accomplishment, and the completist in me wants to dwell on many more, but the realist in me wants to mention one more general idea that kept occurring to me on this listen to the opera, and this has to do with Wagner’s materials. When the Rhinemaidens first direct Alberich’s (and our) gaze to the Rhinegold, we hear, for the first time in the score, a bright and shiny solo trumpet line. Got it, Wagner. A trumpet is made of brilliant metal, and so is the Rhinegold. But what about other such associations? Like the blast of clarinet sonority that accompanies Alberich, suggesting a reedy, swamp-like origin for him. Or the waves of arcing string lines in the Prelude suggesting, yes, the motion of the waters of the Rhine, but also, because of presence of string instruments themselves, the “threads” (strings) that the Norns are weaving and the wood of the World Tree—those organic materials. Wagner was the kind of brilliant orchestrator who understood the cultural significance of timbre, particularly as it had been used historically in opera, and knew therefore how to use timbre to communicate dramatic ideas. But the world of the Ring seems to me to have presented Wagner with the perhaps singular opportunity to associate instruments with primal elements. Okay, so this idea is partly formed at best, but I’m recording it nonetheless as one of those topics to keep in mind as the life journey that constitutes anything more than a passing familiarity with Wagner’s Ring continues to unfold. Long may it last and never reach its end.