Reflections on Der Ring Des Nibelungen

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Dec 302013

I set myself the challenge over the winter break of listening to Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Wagner’s epic cycle of operas telling the story of the fall of the gods and the assent of free-thinking man. Or, to put it another way, how to avoid being corrupted by the power of technology and knowledge. Or to put it differently again, the fight between gods, men, dwarves, giants and dragons!

Opera is traditionally shrouded in social pomposity, but after listening to each of the operas and reading the stories, I don’t know why this is the case with Wagner? Where Peter Jackson coats his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit stories in cinematic spectacle, Wagner works on a much more psychological level. Themes emerge from characters who are facing dilemmas of personal challenge. This is not a world of certainty, but one of reflection. Everyone has a role to play, but only some are capable of breaking free from the predetermined archetypes that are laid out for us, and think independently. These themes emerge in both the telling of the stories and in the form of the music.

It’s my initial and very simplistic reading that Wagner is asking questions about how we deal with the world that we have been born into and encounter? Wagner is asking to what extent it is possible for us to manipulate other people that we encounter in our lives to our own ends? He is proposing that our human view of life is naïve. That our actions lead us to making reckless mistakes that cost us our ultimate happiness? Are we at the mercy of unseen powers controlling our lives, or are we in charge of our own destinies.

Perhaps most simplistically those who lust after power and control, according to these allegories, are doomed to die as a result of its corrupting influence. Though it seems to me that each of the protagonists and antagonists have a legitimate claim that justifies their skewed view of life. The dwarf Alberich is treated with disdain by the Rhinemaidens who guard the gold that frames this drama. His lust for power, wealth and control is unleashed when he steals the rock and forges it into the ring of power.

Wotan, on the other hand, is a figure of diminished and continually diminishing power right through the drama. His role as the king of the gods is to hold the balance of power and to ensure that the contract that are made are held to. The problem is that Wotan’s life has got just a bit too complicated. He wants to settle down in his newly built fortress, but he’s been tricked into paying a price to the giants that built it that he doesn’t want to pay. So he goes looking for an alternative to offer the giants. On hearing about the ring of power he undertakes an elaborate scheme to win the ring and to pay off his debt. Subsequently, the rest of the operas are about his efforts to undo this mistake, and the cost that it has on the gods and their all powerful position.

I can certainly see why so many people become fanatical about Der Ring Des Nibelungen – though not to the extent of the Nazis perhaps! It’s a story that is tied into mythology and deep-seated questions about humanism, autonomy and the challenge of the modern word, technology, knowledge and language. I’m looking forward to seeing some version on DVD, and finding out more about this festival of drama.

My Christmas Retreat – The Golden Ring

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Dec 152013

I’ve decided to start a new winter tradition, and rather than indulge in the manic festivities and consumer-driven pile-up that takes place at this time of year around Leicester, I’ve decided, instead to go on a retreat and spend the longest winter evenings working through Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Wagner’s masterpiece of ‘total theatre’, love, gods, betrayal and redemption. It would be nice to do this by attending a performance of the complete Ring Cycle, but alas trips to Bayreuth are beyond my means for the time being. So, instead, I’ve invested in a complete set of the Decca Der Ring Des Nibelungen recordings, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, and performed by the Wiener Philharmonike. These recordings are proclaimed by many as the finest music recording of the Twentieth Century, so I’m expecting a lot.

My plan is to work through one disk each evening and to read the libretti as I’m listening. I’ve started by watching the accompanying DVD of the Golden Ring, a BBC documentary by Humphrey Burton from 1965 that presents a fascinating account of the last ten days of the recording sessions for Götterdämmerung in 1964. Under the guidance of Decca recording producer John Culshaw, who pioneered the introduction and development of the emerging technology of stereo audio reproduction. The documentary is fascinating in the way that it gives equal respect to the recording engineers as well as the internationally acclaimed singers and musicians. The thrilling footage of the performances in the studio are equally matched by the idiosyncrasies of the engineers behind the mixing desk – sandals with socks and all.

What is immediately striking from the documentary is the complete dedication and focus that is literally poured into the recordings by everyone involved. Solti isn’t playing with a new technology here. He’s mastering it and building performances that are primarily designed to be heard on disk, rather than simply capturing a performance taking place in a concert hall. Each three hour rehearsal and recording session produces a fifteen minute segment of the complete opera. There are twenty-five recording sessions in all, none of which feels stuffy or snobby. The orchestra smoke and drink coffee in the intervals, and there’s a respect for the intentions of the composer that is generated in Solti’s physical immersion in the music, counterpointed by Culshaw’s urbanity as the recording team capture it all.

My second evening has been taken-up with listening and reading about Wagner’s use of leitmotif, which is a musical motif “defined as a ‘short musical idea … melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic, or all three’, a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition: ‘the smallest structural unit possessing thematic identity.'” My only prior experience with this style of musical structuring has been through the soundtracks that John Williams scored for Star Wars, but Wagner’s use of leitmotif goes way beyond compare. Wagner is a master craftsman, a genius tinged with a hint of madness. How Wagner constructed, apportioned and maintained the consistency of fifteen hours of this opera is astounding. No wonder it represents a lifetimes work. To be guided through its constituent components and to get to listen to the interleaving and overlapping themes and motifs will be something of a treat.

The next part of my journey is to start to make some sense of the story and the protagonists and characters that populate it. It sounds like a bonkers bit of storytelling, but if I can sit through The Hobbit, I’m sure I can listen to Der Ring Des Nibelungen and make sense of it – giants, dwarves, river maidens and all! I just hope that my neighbours don’t mind the noise so much, as I’m likely to be pushing the volume a lot.