The importance of Wagner's Ring
Richard Wagner’s four-part musical drama, The Ring of the Nibelung, can justifiably be called the Holy Grail of art criticism. It is not only the most extensive in scope of all the canonical stage-works in the Western theatrical and operatic traditions, but is arguably the most comprehensive vision of the human experience presented on any stage since its premier in 1876. It remains the single work of art which most fully expresses that angst which is the hallmark of the modern world. Its great magnitude is a tribute to Wagner’s evident belief that in it, he was unveiling a world-myth (i.e., disclosing the essence of universal human nature, which he described as the “purely-human”) beneath the façade of diversity in the world’s distinct languages, cultures, religions, traditions, customs, and modes of government. What it means, and how its musical motifs carry or express this meaning, is still to be determined after more than 130 years’ effort. A key purpose of the present study is to demonstrate how completely absurd it is to treat it as just another opera, and that it can best be understood as a work of drama expressing a unified philosophy or world-view.
The Ring remains a mystery to this day, and is what Deryck Cooke called a “problematic” work (like Hamlet or Goethe’s Faust). [Cooke: P. 12-13] Given its world-historical importance, it is astonishing that no study has yet been produced which comprehends the entirety of the drama and its music. George Bernard Shaw’s Socialist, and Robert Donington’s Jungian interpretations are universally regarded as one-sided and incomplete today, and the most serious effort to encompass the entire work in a single study, by Deryck Cooke, was left incomplete by his premature death. For the most part students and admirers of the work now remain content to enjoy it in the theater without troubling themselves further about any deeper meaning. It is generally assumed that it is too densely packed with a variety of sometimes contradictory meanings, on multiple levels, which are in any case largely subliminal and therefore inaccessible to reasoned discussion, to be grasped as a whole.
Warren Darcy, in his Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’ (1993), noting that Deryck Cooke “… proposed to follow Wagner’s own suggestion … that the transformation of each [musical] motif should be pursued carefully ‘through all the changing passions of the four-part drama,’ ” observed that “unfortunately, Cooke died before he could carry out this task, and no one else has attempted it.” [Darcy: P. 50] Cooke himself, speaking - in his I Saw the World End (1976) - of a particular example of the confusion Wagner caused by associating a single musical motif with two passages of text from the Ring poem which seem conceptually inconsistent, stated that “… there are many others in the Ring, all of which lead away from their immediate dramatic contexts to the whole involved story, and to its complex tangle of symbols, which seem intended to bring some great revelation but has always eluded our understanding.” [Cooke: P. 10] It appears, then, that much of the Ring’s meaning remains unconscious for its audience, something “felt” but not “thought.” On this subject, Michael Tanner, in his Wagner (1996), quotes Hans Keller: “ ‘Wagner’s music, like none other before or after him, let what Freud called the dynamic unconscious, normally inaccessible, erupt with a clarity and indeed seductiveness which will always be likely to arouse as much resistance (to the listener’s own unconscious) as its sheer power creates enthusiasm.’ “