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Monday, April 04, 2005


des ring der nibelungen

tonight i begin a sort of pilgrimage -- my first experience with the awe-inspiring wagnerian cycle "des ring der nibelungen", staged by the lyric opera to wide acclaim.

i've become, since buying the tickets, engrossed in the immensity of wagner's titanic masterpiece, reading a few complete books on the greater meaning and interpretation of the ring. of course, what it means is an open discussion and has been since it was first staged in bayreuth in 1876. wagner does more than retell the epic poems of the teutons. his characters can be seen as elements of the human psyche -- indeed, perhaps wagner anticipated jung and freud in some respects. it has been seen as a revolutionary political agitation, driven by feuerbach's naturalism and secular humanism in a call for the rejection of civilization and its institutions in favor of a new, enlightened society. it is also a dissertation on the problem of the rule of law, its ethereal nature and inevitable end in free and heroic action. (as such, you might imagine, i find it as relevant now as it was in prussian germany.) it is also a wish for a newer, better, transcendent world to be created of free will and human love. and it is also possibly a statement of schopenhauer's pessimism -- that neither law nor heroic virtue nor love can redeem life and give it meaning, that all is futile and empty struggle in a stream of change.

as a post-romantic, wagner himself believed in the power of his music to communicate directly with the souls of the observers. it is infused, to a much higher degree than the libretto itself, with the story of the ring by means of leitmotifs -- recurring bars and variations that almost subliminally refer the listener to other characters and events. this manner of contextualizing the story with music is now taken for granted almost so that postmodern man cannot appreciate its ingenuity in wagner. his music was intended to speak directly to the listener, bypassing reason and analysis to evoke that which is beyond and outside reason. and it succeeds, wordlessly telling the story of the world from creation and ordering to freedom, destruction and redemption in the conflagration of valhalla by the flames of siegfried and brunnhilde's funeral pyre.

what can definitely be said, i think, is that wagner's saga utilizes teuton mythology in a way that feuerbach explained in his 1841 "essence of christianity" -- "God is the manifestation of man’s inner nature, his expressed self; religion is the solemn unveiling of man’s hidden treasures, the avowal of his innermost thoughts, the open confession of the secrets of his love." wagner explores and examines man and mankind through the ancient teuton myths, using them as a mirror held up to ourselves -- and in so doing creates a mythology of his own. this explains much of the ring's enduring power to attract intelligence and effort, and elevates it beyond all doubt to the highest level of art.

tonight is das rheingold, and what i saw when i saw it last is what i hope to see now -- "the streaming, brilliant, edifying light of western civilization".

Thought you might enjoy this clip from an old BBC documentary.

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anon, that was lovely -- i thought haitink's comment on the (post)modernism of the staging was brutally incisive, if i may paraphrase: "at what point do we quit playing wagner's music as well because it too has become anachronistic and uninteresting?"

that postmodernism is, in opera, stuck trying to refashion a form and its centuries-old works beyond recognition says much for its philosophical bankruptcy. in the end, this betrays it as mere dilettante revolutionism -- postmodernism could convey its ideas in new forms but wishes not to. why? because postmodernism needs something established and dear to corrupt to gain its intended effect, which is barbaric shock.

the intention of wagner's work -- to outline the outline hypocrisy and futility of law, to embrace a schopenhauerian pessimism, to find an ending to civilization -- was an unmistakable clarion call (soome 40 years in advance of the world wars) heralding the sickness of western civility. postmodernism, it seems to me, is merely comfirmation of our decline.

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