Richard Wagner's monumental Ring Cycle dramatises the eternal conflict between political power and human loveby Roger Scruton / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which he began in 1848 and on which he worked over the next two decades, is a comprehensive re-working of Old Norse myths, as recounted in the Icelandic Eddas. In Wagner’s story, the Viking gods are situated in a German landscape, along with Siegfried, hero of the German medieval epic Nibelungenlied. The Ring Cycle is about the gods, but the gods as conceived by a modern artist, whose concern is to create a myth that will comprehend all the principles—moral, political and spiritual—by which the modern world is governed. It is a story of the gods for people who have no gods to believe in.
That is why the Ring Cycle is of ever-increasing importance to music-lovers in our times. Its theme is the death of the gods, and what the gods have bequeathed to us, namely, the knowledge of, and longing for, the sacred. Until we recognise sacred moments, Wagner implies in this monumental work, we cannot live fully as free beings. These moments are the foundation of all our attempts to endow human life with significance. Despite the controversies that have surrounded this great work—its vast length, its dubious later associations with Nazi thought—it constantly grows on the collective imagination. It is not the answer to life in a post-religious world, but it asks the real questions, and shows us one fruitful way of confronting them. We should not be surprised that the forthcoming Opera North production at the Southbank in London was sold out within the space of a day.
When Wagner began work on the cycle, he was, like Karl Marx, a disciple of the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Like Feuerbach, he believed in the possibility of a political revolution that would free mankind from domination and establish an order of freedom. He even took part in the 1849 revolution in Dresden, where he was court Kapellmeister (the name given to the person in charge of music-making), after which…