Mar 25

Der Ring des Nibelungen DVD set, composed by Richard Wagner, and performed by Bayreuther Festspiele, conducted by Pierre Boulez ★★★★★

What can I say? I love the music of Wagner. Wagner the man is despicable, but like so many people, their person and their art are not congruous. Many folk hate Wagner. Some dislike his music. It’s not strophic. They expect a Mozart performance with ensembles, duets, solos, and delightful musical interludes. Wagner has no intention of offering that. I was first encouraged to listen to Wagner by Dr. Sunderland with whom I was doing a summer research project. She was Jewish but loved Wagner, and loaned me a recording of Tristan und Isolde. I listened to about 15 minutes and found it intolerable—it is the very music that years later hear with riveting fascination and tears in my eyes, wondering how music could be so beautiful. Wagner’s music is definitely complex and thus needs to be listened to several times before true appreciation can occur. It is not easy music, but a little sweat and patience will definitely pay off. Isn’t that also true of the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, Shostakovich, and so many other truly great composers?

The other reason people hate Wagner is because of his personality. It is true that Richard was a horrible excuse for a human being, proud, atheistic, rebellious, racist, anti-semitic to the core, self-serving, and envious of all others outside of himself. The music of the Ring, when rightly understood, is highly anti-semitic (the dwarves representing the typical Jew), and it is to that which must be looked through to admire his works. Wagner is a vehement atheist and was at times an intimate friend of Neitsche. The “God is dead” theme reverberates through this opera. When examined critically, the god that Wagner portrays is the god of Arminian theology, a not-so-powerful god that is dependent on the choices and will of others, and dependent on an external standard of morality. Wagner’s god is not all powerful or transcendent, not omniscient, immoral, and needs to rely on others to know things or to accomplish things. He is subservient to the oaths carved out on his spear and lapses into terminal despair when that spear is shattered by his “grandson” Siegfried, the Übermensch, the hero that knows no fear.

I will not detail the story of the Ring. If you haven’t seen it at least once before, you will not be terribly interested in my rehashing of the storyline, and it is not a terribly gripping story, missing the music that drives it. Too many listen only to the Walkürienfluct or Siegfried’s Rheinfahrt only to miss 17 hours of steady great music. It is no wonder that many conductors today that are known for outstanding Ring performances also happen to be Jewish, like James Levine. Listen to the music, and forget the man. I try to listen to or watch a Ring performance every year. I certainly love most of the other operas of Wagner, personal favorites which include Parsifal and Tannhäuser. Wagner was first introduced to me by a childhood friend in Portland, Ron Bonneau, who would listen to the Ring in his living room off of vinyl: it took about 35 or more records and he would diligently change and flip each record from start to finish, pausing only to feed his wolf dog. I’ve seen both the Ring live (in Seattle with Dr. Cull) and Tannhäuser (in Chicago with Alan Segall). Betsy and I both marvel at how the singers can not only remember their lines, come in at the right time but also act so well. Truly it takes the best of the best opera singers to do Wagner. Give the Ring a chance or two and you also might become addicted.

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