by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, April 25, 2011
Act II Scene 1 of Die Walküre, from Bayreuth, 2000.
Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung is noted for being very long and very loud. The score, which consumes more than two thousand printed pages, has parts for thirty-four characters and requires a monster orchestra that includes three steer horns, six harps, and eighteen anvils. If the four parts of the Ring — Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung — were played from beginning to end, they would last from morning until midnight. An intricate saga of the Norse gods and a veiled assault on plutocratic capitalism, the Ring is, arguably, the most ambitious work of art ever attempted, and, unless human civilization makes an abrupt swerve back toward bourgeois grandeur, it is unlikely to have future rivals. The Metropolitan Opera is carrying on the Wagner tradition by unveiling, in stages, a new production that costs at least sixteen million dollars and features a mechanical apparatus weighing forty-five tons.
Yet Wagner’s reputation for gigantism misses the mark. The Ring is big, no question, but it is made up of hundreds of intimate moments, through which the mythical squabbles of gods, dwarves, and men take on an almost uncomfortable immediacy. It is an affair of sidelong glances, compassionate shrugs, paralyzing hesitations, callous joys, comforting sorrows, and, beneath it all, endless yearning. Nietzsche, who initially worshipped at the Wagner shrine and then made a show of renouncing it, called Wagner “our greatest miniaturist,” one who “crowds into the smallest space an infinity of sense and sweetness.” The remark had a sardonic edge, for Nietzsche went on to castigate Wagner’s feats of spectacle, the “circus of Walküre” included. Yet, as Nietzsche well knew, the man who hammered out the “Ride of the Valkyries” also created the piercingly tender final scene of Walküre, in which Wotan, chief of the gods, bids farewell to his daughter Brünnhilde, having been forced to punish her for passionate deeds that he wishes he himself could commit. Indeed, Wagner might have forged the steely Valkyrie music as a foil for the heartbreak to come.
The usual way to write about Wagner is to proceed from the world-historical level, musing on some combination of Aeschylus, the Icelandic sagas, Shakespeare, Faust, Beethoven’s Ninth, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, George Bernard Shaw, Theodor Herzl, Adolf Hitler, Apocalypse Now, and Bugs Bunny. It is an absorbing game, although at the end of the day it leaves little space for the music, which is the ultimate source of the spell that Wagner continues to cast upon the world.
Recently, I decided to look closely at one of those miniaturist moments: a short passage in Walküre, at the end of the first scene of Act II. It comes at a crucial juncture in the Ring. At the outset of the act, with the Valkyrie motif blaring in the orchestra, Wotan is plotting to regain the all-powerful ring that the dwarf lord Alberich forged from magic gold in Das Rheingold. In the final scene of that work, Wotan took the ring from Alberich and then reluctantly surrendered it to a pair of giants, as compensation for the building of Valhalla. The treaties etched on Wotan’s spear prevent him from reneging on the deal, but he believes that he has found a loophole: with a mortal woman, he has sired Siegmund, who, acting independently of his father’s will, can win back the ring.
Enter the goddess Fricka, Wotan’s embittered wife. She picks apart his scheme, pointing out that Siegmund is Wotan’s pawn, not a free agent. Fricka also laments that Siegmund has committed an outrage by sleeping with a woman—Sieglinde—who is not only another man’s wife but also his own twin sister. Wotan acknowledges that he must step aside and let Siegmund die for his transgressions. And, in abandoning his master plan, he realizes that the curse of the ring is upon him, that the twilight of the gods is at hand. He goes into the most spectacular psychological tailspin in the history of opera—a twenty-minute monologue that begins with cries of “Endless rage! / Eternal grief! / I am the saddest of all living things!” and culminates with a quiet rasp of “Das Ende!” Wagner was in the final years of his youthful revolutionary phase when he wrote the libretto for the Ring—the text was finished in 1852—and Wotan served as a metaphor for those arrogant potentates who had subjugated humanity through a system of laws and dogmas.
Just before Wotan falls to pieces, the orchestra plays a brief interlude—more a “microlude,” to borrow a term from the Hungarian composer György Kurtág. It is couched in E-flat major, which, significantly, is the key in which the Ring commenced, the primeval harmony of the Rhine. It consists of a single upward-arcing, gently aching phrase, lasting ten bars and around thirty seconds. It is not part of Wagner’s leitmotif system, the network of themes representing characters, objects, and ideas. It appears just this once, a solitary spasm of regret.
I have cherished the passage as long as I’ve known the Ring. Each time I hear the opera, I wait for it, and try to grasp it as it unfurls. It seems to communicate some essential wisdom that the characters cannot put into words. So I dug into those ten bars—studying the score, reading the literature, talking to musicians—in the hope of gaining a perspective that might elude me if I started with Antigone or Colonel Kilgore. There are, of course, no final answers in the Ring, a behemoth that whispers a different secret into every listener’s ear. But I suspect that Willa Cather, in her operatic novel The Song of the Lark, was onto something when she had her heroine say, “Fricka knows.”
Wotan is irresistible. Even at his self-pitying nadir, he remains hugely charismatic—a swaggering autocrat who has seen the error of his ways. His soliloquy movingly presents the crisis of someone who is facing, for the first time, the inevitability of death and the futility of egotistical designs.
Not everyone loves Fricka; at first, she seems a scold, even a shrew. When Schopenhauer read the libretto of the Ring, he wrote in the margins of the Wotan-Fricka exchange, “Wotan under the slipper.” The mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who is singing Fricka in the Met’s new Ring, told me, “Whenever somebody asks me what I’m doing next, and I say that I’m doing Fricka, the first thing out of their mouth, ninety per cent of the time, is ‘God, what a harpy. What a horrible woman.’ I have never had to defend a character as much as I’ve had to defend Fricka. And I am very keen to defend her, because I think she is an extraordinary character. Like all of Wagner’s people, she is so beautifully delineated.”
When Wagner, in the early eighteen-fifties, set about writing the Ring, he, too, was caught in a dying marriage. Minna Wagner, not unlike Fricka, regularly upbraided her husband for his profligacy and inconstancy. In Act II, Wagner’s sympathies plainly lie with Wotan, who becomes a mouthpiece for the composer when he says, “Age-old custom is all you can grasp: but my thoughts seek to encompass what’s never yet come to pass.” They are arguing over the adulterous, incestuous love of Siegmund and Sieglinde. Fricka upholds traditional morality while Wotan looks ahead to a bohemian utopia where desire makes its own laws. In 1857, in the throes of an affair with the poet Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner broke off composing Siegfried to write Tristan und Isolde, the supreme erotic drama of the nineteenth century; but Walküre, whose first act seems to end mid-orgasm, is similarly charged. Laurence Dreyfus, in his revelatory new book Wagner and the Erotic Impulse, notes that the composer quickly became a beacon for advocates of sexual liberation, notably for early campaigners for homosexual rights. Any gay man or woman trapped in a sham marriage would have thrilled to Wotan’s line “Unholy I deem the vow that binds unloving hearts.”
Nevertheless, Wagner lets Fricka speak for herself. Much as he may dislike her adherence to propriety, he understands the pain of her position, especially with respect to the infidelities of Wotan, whose strategy to save the gods involves a lot of extramarital sex. There are very few absolutely unsympathetic characters in Wagner, and Walküre is an opera without a villain, unless it is Wotan himself. In Rheingold, Fricka cries to her husband, “What is still sacred and good to your hearts when you men lust for power?” In Walküre, where she appears only in the first scene of Act II, she intensifies the attack, portraying Wotan’s waywardness not simply as a personal betrayal but also as a dereliction of godly values. In one draft of the libretto, she says, “If mindless destruction is smashing its way through the world, wild and defiant, who but you, violent Wotan, can bear the blame for the calamity? You never shield the weak, you stand only by the strong.”
Wagner cut those lines, but Fricka is still given plenty of intellectual ammunition. At the end of the scene, once Wotan has lost the argument (“He sinks into a feeling of powerlessness,” the libretto says), she sings a stately arioso in which she reasserts her jurisdiction over marital matters, declaring that Siegmund must not be protected from the wrath of Hunding, Sieglinde’s husband: “We gods would go to our ruin were my rights not avenged, nobly and gloriously”—in German, “hehr und herrlich.” Her music, in a decorous triplet rhythm, is rather old-fashioned, as the Wagner scholar Thomas Grey commented to me; it’s reminiscent of Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, Wagner’s early Romantic operas. Barry Millington, the British Wagner authority, says that it reminds him of a Schumann Lied.
Margarete Klose, Bayreuth, 1940, with Franz von Hoesslin conducting.
To whom, though, are these words addressed? Wotan, sinking into his colossal funk, may no longer be listening to Fricka. Perhaps she is really speaking to Brünnhilde—the child of Wotan and the earth goddess Erda—who has just galloped into view, her Valkyrie cry faltering when she perceives that something strange has happened between Wotan and Fricka. (Wagner’s music can have incredible specificity; here it means “Oh, wait.”) Patrice Chéreau, in his legendary 1976 staging of the Ring, at Bayreuth, beautifully captured the dynamic between the two women: Fricka, dressed as a pillar of the haute bourgeoisie, keeps glancing in Brünnhilde’s direction while singing of nobility and glory. Fricka has Wotan under control, but she knows that Brünnhilde is susceptible to human passions and may goher own way. Her fears are soon realized. Later in the act, Brünnhilde becomes so entranced by the crazy love of the siblings that she defies Wotan and makes a failed attempt to save Siegmund’s life. Then she rescues Sieglinde, who has become pregnant with the future hero Siegfried. At the end of Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde resolves the crisis by riding into Siegfried’s funeral pyre with the ring on her finger, whereupon Valhalla goes up in flames, the Rhine overflows its banks, and the Rhinemaidens regain their gold.
When Fricka’s arioso is over, the motif of Wotan’s Spear sounds in quiet resignation alongside a morose theme representing powerlessness. Wotan swears to Fricka that Brünnhilde will uphold Fricka’s values, saying, “Nimm den Eid” (“Take the oath”). The ten-bar orchestral passage, the microlude, now unfolds. One clue to its meaning can be found in the diaries of Cosima Wagner, who succeeded Minna as Wagner’s wife, and had a somewhat happier time of it. She wrote in 1878, “Over coffee in the summerhouse R. quotes ‘Nimm den Eid’ and recalls the feeling of satisfaction which then imbues Fricka with dignity.” Not stiff or self-consciously grand like the preceding arioso, the music moves with an easy, striding rhythm. It is notable for its wide range: crossing two octaves, the phrase keeps opening up, spreading its wings. At the top, though, it hits a snag: sharp rhythmic figures in F-flat major—sounding like E major—collide with the columnar E-flats sounding below. We instinctively feel the dissonance as a pang, a twinge. What might have been is set against what is.
I asked several conductors for their impressions of the passage. The English conductor Justin Brown, who was presenting a Ring in Karlsruhe, told me, “You feel as if you’ve known this phrase since before you were born. I hear it as a summation of Fricka’s character and state of mind at the moment of victory—a victory which, while not exactly Pyrrhic, is certainly not a happy one.”
Simone Young, who had recently finished leading two complete Ring cycles at the Hamburg State Opera, sees the microlude as an encapsulation of the scene, with Wotan’s song of sorrow interrupted by the snapping figure, which throughout the scene has been associated with Fricka’s complaint. To bring out the melancholy, Young asks the orchestra to hold back a bit. “The strings will want to play it with too Romantic a vibrato, the horns will want to sound too heroic,” she said. “The beauty is very seductive but is false.”
James Levine, too, senses a darkness in the music. “She has sacrificed her relationship to him for the principle,” he told me, after a long day of rehearsal at the Met. “What is left of that relationship, which, admittedly, wasn’t much, she has now killed. He won’t be able to look her in the eye again, because the consequence of what she demands is unbearable. When she leaves, I always have this feeling that she vanishes from functional existence. This little passage has a sort of amazing juxtaposition of triadic motifs”—the “natural” tones of E-flat major—“and stepwise ones. What makes it so hopeless and so tense and so haunting is something about the relationship of one sequence to the next being removed by only half a step.”
Simon Rattle, who conducted the operas of the Ring in Aix-en-Provence and Salzburg between 2006 and 2010, gave a wistful laugh when I queried him about the microlude. “It’s the end of the world, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s extraordinary how Wagner chooses to paint total collapse. This music is a kind of magical doorway into Wotan’s monologue, his confession full of violence and terror. In the bass you hear Wotan, ‘throwing himself on his rock in misery and anger,’ as the score says. Above that you hear Fricka—Fricka and the truth. She is the only one who constantly tells the truth.”
When directors stage the passage, they often use it to give a final glimpse of Wotan and Fricka’s marriage. Singers routinely perform a gesture of reconciliation. Christa Ludwig, in the video of Otto Schenk’s old production at the Met, reaches out to Wotan and then pulls away, resuming an icy attitude. (Ludwig’s Fricka is the richest portrayal on modern recordings; on earlier disks, the standard is set by Margarete Klose, precise in diction and acute in expression.) In the film of Harry Kupfer’s 1988 production at Bayreuth, John Tomlinson, delivering a Wotan of alarming intensity, angrily rejects the Fricka of Linda Finnie when she takes his hand. In Jürgen Flimm’s 2000 Bayreuth production—a memorable staging in which Wotan had the look of a compromised C.E.O., cowering in a Bauhaus-style office suite—there was a brief kiss of reconciliation between god and goddess. Blythe, who first sang Fricka at the Seattle Opera, in 2000, likewise seeks a moment of intimacy with Wotan, although with the tragic awareness that it will be the last.
At the same time, the microlude is part of a mostly silent negotiation between Fricka and Brünnhilde. The accompanying stage direction is this: “Fricka strides upstage; there she encounters Brünnhilde, and halts for a moment before her.” Fricka then says, “The Lord of Battles awaits you: let him explain the fate he has chosen!” And she departs, never to reappear in the cycle. The ardor emanating from the orchestra may hint at a subtext to Fricka’s seemingly cold, clipped message: perhaps she is aware of the fate that awaits the gods, and perhaps she senses that Brünnhilde has a crucial role to play in it. (In the Icelandic Edda poems, one of Wagner’s chief sources, the goddess Frigg knows all but says nothing.) This music might even be a kind of secret blessing. “Fricka does not like Brünnhilde, but she respects her,” Blythe told me. “She calls her a ‘valiant maid.’ She trusts her to act rightly.” As Fricka exits, three trombones intone the terrible motif of the Curse. It is sounding for the first time since Rheingold. (“Let the coward be chained to fear . . . the lord of the ring as the slave of the ring.”) It has much the same striding rhythm as Fricka’s music, and it, too, unfolds over an unvarying E-flat. Blessing and curse are bound together.
The microlude marks the moment at which women begin to take charge of the Ring. Wagner was no feminist in the modern sense, but he did cultivate a kind of androgynous philosophy, as the musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez has proposed, and he expressed his disdain for conventional masculinity by dressing in sensuous silk and satin. In 1851, Wagner praised “that true womanliness, which should one day bring redemption to me and to all the world, after male egoism, even in its noblest form, has obliterated itself before her.” The obsession continued to the end: on the day he died, in 1883, he was working on an essay titled “On the Womanly in the Human.”
Brünnhilde is the true hero of the Ring, the one who destroys the illusions of male egoism. In Act III of Walküre, after Brünnhilde saves Sieglinde from Wotan’s fury, Sieglinde hails her with the words “O hehrstes Wunder! Herrliche Maid!”—“O noblest wonder! Glorious woman!” Sieglinde’s majestically wheeling melody is heard again in the coda of Götterdämmerung, surging above the fires of Valhalla. Wagner called that motif the “glorification of Brünnhilde.” The Ring is, in the end, the glorification of a woman who, as Blythe says, “acts rightly.” And the words that honor her—hehr and herrlich— are those which Fricka uses when she pleads with Wotan to restore dignity to the gods. There are musical similarities, too: echt-Romantic harmonies, downward-gliding sevenths, gracious triplets. Brünnhilde achieves a transfiguration of Fricka’s sense of justice. Wotan simply disappears.
Astrid Varnay at the Met, Dec. 6, 1941, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting. Go here for a further discussion of this passage.
“It’s not a nice thing to discover that you don’t have power anymore,” the German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi told me, poring over the score of Walküre in a hotel lobby on Central Park South. At the age of eighty-one, with a shock of white hair framing a hawklike face, Dohnányi looked like the embodiment of prewar German Kultur. It has been some years since he conducted Wagner in the opera house, but the music is still on his mind. “This is the Wendepunkt, the turning point,” he said, examining the passage that I had singled out. “Fricka makes Wotan see the future.”
We moved past the Fricka scene to the first part of Wotan’s monologue: the clawing lines of bassoons, bass clarinet, and cellos evoking Wotan’s sensations of humiliation and dejection; the jagged falling intervals—octave, major seventh, minor seventh—to which the god sings of his rage and grief; the extreme dissonances that erupt over an abyssal C. (If you shrank one of those harmonies to minimum space on a piano keyboard, it would contain a four-note cluster—what you might get if you tried to hit a C with your fist.) And this fortissimo freak-out is just the beginning. The fundamental note keeps moving down, one false bottom giving way to another, until we reach the basement of the world. Wotan proceeds to retell the story of the Ring with a clear view of his own guilt: “I longed in my heart for power. . . . I acted unfairly. . . . I did not return the ring to the Rhine. . . . The curse that I fled will not flee from me now. . . . Let all that I raised now fall in ruins!” Finally, he emits two cries of “Das Ende!”—the first loud and the second spookily soft, like a negative epiphany, a shuddering acquiescence. The soliloquy undercuts everything that is popularly associated with the term “Wagnerian.” It is a deconstruction of power, a dismantling of grandeur.
Dohnányi brought up a contradiction that every historically aware operagoer must register: the Ring delivers a sweeping critique of the urge to dominate others, but it was the creation of a domineering man, and it drew the worshipful admiration of Hitler, the most frightening of megalomaniacs. The main continuity between Wagner and Hitler was, of course, the composer’s anti-Semitism, which disfigures his writings and lurks behind his later operas. Wagner once called the Jews “the plastic demon of the ruin of mankind”—a line that Joseph Goebbels used many times in his speeches. “If you have experienced recent German history, you must think about it,” Dohnányi said. “Was Wagner somehow the source, or one source, of what happened?”
I sought out the conductor in part because he had experienced that history at close range. His father was Hans von Dohnányi, a lawyer and a military-intelligence officer who played a leading role in plots to assassinate Hitler. In 1943, Hans von Dohnányi was arrested, alongside his brother-in-law, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer; the two men were executed in April, 1945.
“I don’t blame any Jewish person, not any, who would say, ‘Wagner’s music might be great, but I don’t want it,’ ” Dohnányi told me. “My father was in a concentration camp, and they played Wagner when they put them in the gas chamber. And even before, many gebildete people—educated people—did not care for Wagner because he stood for something ugly. My family loved Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. When I first conducted Wagner, my mother said, ‘I only come because you do it!’ ”
Dohnányi paused. “But when I really think about Wagner I don’t discover anything that had to lead to Hitler. And what happens here”—we were looking at Wotan’s cries of shame—“is not something that any Fascist could have written. Because it is not simplifying. It is a ‘giving up’ thing. Wagner abused power but hated the state. And that hatred is at the heart of this huge intellectual conception of absolutely Shakespearean genius.”
Wagner’s music is marked by a constant tension between a will to power and a willingness to surrender. The contradiction is not one that we should seek to resolve; rather, it is integral to the survival of the composer’s work. Because we can no longer idealize Wagner, he is more involving than ever. This idea animates Five Lessons on Wagner, a recent book by the philosopher Alain Badiou, with a long afterword by his colleague Slavoj Žižek. The latest in a long line of thinkers who have tussled with Wagner, Badiou and Žižek try to revise the prevalent picture of the composer as a proto-Fascist—the phrase was “virtually invented to describe Wagner,” Badiou says—by heightening his paradoxes. In Wotan’s monologue, Badiou sees a pivotal moment in which “power and impotence are in equipoise”; that paralysis creates the possibility of a different world. He goes on to paint the Ring as a mythological tale that annuls, one by one, the consolations of mythology. Žižek sees in Brünnhilde’s sacrifice the hope for a new kind of politics—a space of selfless action beyond the failed ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Wisely, Žižek does not spell out what those politics might be. The music offers hope, nothing more.
“All things, all things, all things I know,” Brünnhilde says in her final monologue, without quite divulging what she has learned. The perennial trouble with Wagner is that he creates ambiguity and certitude in equal measure. His music somehow instills a sense of knowing all, each listener utterly sure of his or her response. No artist is more fanatically loved or more fanatically hated; few people think that Wagner is merely pretty good. Ultimately, the bond that he forms with his listeners is one of pure, wordless emotion, and his gift for capturing the nuances of human feeling constantly complicates our response—as when that great rising melody for Fricka darkens at the top and then vanishes from the world.
I keep thinking of something that Blythe said of the microlude, when we spoke between rehearsals at the Met. “Yes, it’s gorgeous,” she told me. “And that’s why Wagner made it so short. This”—she tapped the corresponding page in her well-thumbed vocal score—“this is something we try to get hold of. And by the time we get there it’s gone.”