Striking a Common Chord

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Striking a Common Chord

Post by feuerzauber » Tue Nov 04, 2014 7:40 am

I stumbled across this 1840 account by a 20-year old that resonates with so much that we know of then 27-year old Richard Wagner’s views at the time, and later. The young author’s thoughts arise from his pilgrimage to the Rhineland town of Xanten—‘Siegfried’s Native Town’.

I wonder if anyone can guess its author.

Siegfried’s Native Town
There lived in the Low Lands a rich king’s heir by right,
His father Siegmunt, his mother Siglint hight,
In a castle brave that everywhere was famed
Down by the Rhine, and Santen it was named.

Der Nibelunge Not
Young Germans should choose a seldom visited place for their [Rhine] pilgrimage—I am speaking of Xanten [Santen in the poem], the native town of the horn-blowing Siegfried.

A Roman city (like Cologne), Xanten remained small and outwardly insignificant during the Middle Ages, while Cologne grew large and gave its name to an electoral archbishopric. By contrast, Xanten Cathedral, looking out in splendid perfection far across the prosaic Dutch sand flats (and Cologne’s more colossal cathedral), remained a torso. But, Xanten has Siegfried while Cologne has merely St. Anno, and what is the Song of Anno compared to the Nibelungs!

I came to Xanten from the Rhine. I entered the town through a narrow, dilapidated gate; dirty, narrow alleys led me to the friendly market-place, and from there I approached a gate built into the wall which encircled the former monastery court with the church. Above the gate, right and left, below a pair of small turrets, were two bas-reliefs, both unmistakably of Siegfried.

The hero [Siegfried] stands in a closely-fitting coat of mail, spear in hand, driving it into the dragon’s jaws in the image on the right, and trampling down the “strong dwarf” Alberich in the image on the left. It struck me that these bas-reliefs are not mentioned in Wilhelm Grimm’s Deutsche Heldensage, where everything else relating to the subject is collected. Nor do I recall having read of them anywhere else, although they are among the most important pieces of evidence for the local connections of the legend in the Middle Ages.

I passed through the echoing Gothic vaulted gateway and stood before the church. ... Here in front of this church I sensed as never before the power of the Gothic style. If Cologne Cathedral, in all its gigantic dimensions—instead of crowded round with houses clinging to it like swallows’ nests—stood free and open to the gaze from all sides like the church of Xanten, truly the nineteenth century would have to die of shame that for all its super-cleverness it cannot complete this building.

I entered the church; high mass was just being celebrated. The notes of the organ thundered down from the choir, a jubilant throng of heart-storming warriors, and raced through the echoing nave until they died away in the farthest aisles of the church. You, too, son of the nineteenth century, let your heart be conquered by them—these sounds have enthralled stronger and wilder men than you!

They drove the old German gods from their groves, they led the heroes of a great age across the stormy sea, through the desert, and their unconquered children to Jerusalem, they are the shadows of hot-blooded centuries which thirsted for action! But when the trumpets announce the miracle of the transubstantiation, when the priest raises the glittering monstrance and the whole consciousness of the congregation is intoxicated with the wine of devotion, rush out, save yourself, save your reason from this ocean of feeling that surges through the church and pray outside to the God whose house is not made by human hands, who is the breath of the world and who wants to be worshipped in spirit and in truth.

I departed shaken. ...

I went out of the town and up a sandy rise, the only natural elevation for miles around. This is the mountain on which, according to the legend, Siegfried’s castle stood. At the entrance to a pine grove I sat down and looked at the town below. Surrounded on all sides by earthworks, it lay as it were in a cauldron, with only the church rising majestically over the brim. On the right the Rhine embracing a green island with broad, gleaming arms, on the left the hills of Cleves in the blue distance.

What is it about the legend of Siegfried that affects us so powerfully?

Not the plot of the story itself, not the foul treason which brings about the death of the youthful hero; it is the deep significance which is expressed through his person. Siegfried is the representative of German youth.

All of us, who still carry in our breast a heart unfettered by the restraints of life, know what that means. We all feel in ourselves the same zest for action, the same defiance of convention which drove Siegfried from his father’s castle; we loathe with all our soul continual reflection and the philistine fear of vigorous action; we want to get out into the free world; we want to overrun the barriers of prudence and fight for the crown of life, action.

The philistines have supplied giants and dragons too, particularly in the sphere of church and state. But that age is no more; we are put in prisons called schools, where instead of striking out around us we are made with cruel irony to conjugate the verb “to strike” in Greek in all moods and tenses, and when we are released from that discipline we fall into the hands of the goddess of the century, the police. Police for thinking, police for speaking, police for walking, riding and driving, passports, residence permits, and customs documents—the devil strike these giants and dragons dead!

They have left us only the semblance of action, the rapier instead of the sword; but what use is all the art of fencing with the rapier if we may not apply it with the sword? And when the barriers are finally broken down, when philistinism and indifference are trodden underfoot, when the urge to action is no longer checked—do you see the tower of Wesel there across the Rhine? The citadel of that town, which is called a stronghold of German freedom, has become the grave of German youth, and has to lie right opposite the cradle of the greatest German youth [Siegfried]!


But I want to go down to the Rhine and listen to what the waves gleaming in the sunset tell Siegfried’s Mother Earth about his grave in Worms and about the sunken hoard. Perhaps a friendly Morgan le Fay will make Siegfried’s castle rise again for me or show my mind’s eye what heroic deeds are reserved for his sons of the nineteenth century.

Friedrich Oswald
[Telegraph für Deutschland, No. 197, December 1840]
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Re: Striking a Common Chord

Post by alberich00 » Wed Nov 05, 2014 6:14 pm

Dear Feuerzauber:

Is Friedrich Oswald a pen-name for the author, or the actual author? I really wouldn't have a clue, but it reminds me a bit like a sort of synthesis of Heinrich Heine and Bakunin. I've really no idea.

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Re: Striking a Common Chord

Post by feuerzauber » Wed Nov 05, 2014 7:02 pm

Friedrich Oswald” is a pen name. No, he’s neither Heine nor Bakunin.
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