A mythical drama about “yearning love’s misery”
Reflections on Stefan Herheim’s new production by Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach
Words open doors to cultural edifices of thought – German has the term bürger but does not distinguish as French does between bourgeois and citoyen. With these words Rousseau differentiated with linguistic precision between the propertied bourgeois, chiefly concerned with his own prosperity and autonomy, and the citizen (citoyen), who on his own responsibility contributes to advancing the common weal. Perhaps the failure of the German revolutions of the 19th century can be attributed in part to this lexical lacuna.
Exactly in the middle of his life the 35 year old Richard Wagner, at that time court conductor at Dresden, was actively involved in the Revolution of 1848 with speeches and writings. It is from this year that the first draft of his version of the Nibelung saga centring on the hero Siegfried dates. The director of the Dresden Court Theatre, Eduard Devrient, noted in his diary on 21 October 1848: “Kapellmeister Wagner brought me the sketch for an opera, his head still full of big socialist ideas. Now a united Germany is not enough for him. Now the aim is a united Europe, united mankind.” United mankind, a common humanity, the human being that is liberated from, or rather has escaped from, all national and societal structures – lies at the heart of this Ring of the Nibelung.
With arrest warrants issued against him, the revolutionary Wagner fled into exile in Zurich in 1849 where he added a mythical prehistory to his Siegfried project, expanding it into a tetralogy. Since the Nibelung Legend as a medieval epic actually deals with a Christian society, Wagner augmented it with a mythology that combines motifs from the Scandinavian Edda and the Völsunga Saga, so constructing a drama. By the time The Ring of the Nibelung received its premiere in 1876 at the festival theatre in Bayreuth, the exiled revolutionary Richard Wagner had himself become a propertied bourgeois and honoured master.
The long genesis of the Ring, lasting over a quarter of a century, left behind ideological and compositional, philosophical and music-dramatic growth marks in the work. The Ride of the Valkyries, for example, was composed as early as the summer of 1850 and must therefore be considered in the context of Wagner’s critique of Meyerbeer, whose Le Prophète he had seen in Paris. In a lengthy discussion he had criticised the opera for containing “effects without causes” on account of the sensational use of an electric sun, “purely for its effect on the senses … for the eye”. It may be said that in the Ride of the Valkyries the teichoscopic talk of Sintolt the Hegeling who is slung over Helmwig’s saddle, and Wittig the Irming, being carried by Ortlinde’s mare, is not exactly motivated by any cause as such, yet the passage owes its musical effectiveness to the dramatic pounding rhythm of words. The composer defined his works as “deeds of music become visible”; and in this musical deed made visible, the unified use of ears and eyes is intended to be discernible in the symbol-laden drama.
In Wagner’s biography escape, exile and travel figure extraordinarily prominently: 16 countries and nearly 200 towns. One is reminded of Wotan’s appearance before Mime – an act of desperation – in Siegfried, where he remarks, “The world calls me Wanderer”. Wotan is, as a matter of fact, only one of many culture-fugitives, searchers and travellers we encounter in the tetralogy. In The Valkyrie alone we see Siegmund on the run, first by himself and then with Sieglinde, and we witness Brünnhilde’s escape with the Volsung daughter, and Sieglinde continuing her flight alone. Even Wotan, who has run away from his wife and his lover, wants to escape from everything, calling for “the end!” in the middle of the opera.
György Lukács at the beginning of the 20th century spoke of the “transcendental homelessness” of the middle classes. That homelessness has gone on to become, in our day, a metaphysical refugeedom. We carry portions of our collective history and individual life stories around with us, searching for a new, mythical place of refuge. And we do that, again and again, by engaging in art as play, and in play as art. We play this game about a mythical reality, a real myth, in full knowledge of the fact that “Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays,” as Friedrich Schiller phrased it in The Aesthetic Education of Man at the end of the 18th century.
This human being is viewed in a twofold way as man and woman, especially in The Valkyrie. The abduction and forcible marriage of Sieglinde to Hunding, the free, incestuous love of the Volsung siblings, Wotan and Fricka’s deeply manipulative marital row, the intended punishment of Brünnhilde as female prey to male lust, the divine father’s farewell to his own will in the form of his beloved daughter… there is a lot about the relationship between the sexes and gender. And what’s more, renunciation of love or out of love is the main root of the work, although that conceptualisation returns us to the problem we began with: words open doors to cultural edifices of thought, and just by naming musical motifs we pin them down and inhibit their associative free flight.
The Ring tetralogy concludes after Hagen cries out “Get back from the ring!” at the end of Twilight of the Gods with a wordless orchestral finale 50 bars long, in which the Valhalla motif, the Rhinemaidens’ motif and one other motif are woven together. This third motif is often labelled the Redemption motif, yet in fact it points far beyond that semantic cage and back into the heart of The Valkyrie. While it makes an appearance in Twilight of the Gods already conjoined with the Siegfried motif in Brünnhilde’s closing monologue, this particular “melodic moment”, as leitmotifs were termed by Wagner himself, has its origin in Act Three of The Valkyrie, where Brünnhilde tells the fugitive Sieglinde, who has lost her will to live, that she is pregnant by her brother Siegmund and carrying “the noblest hero in the world” who shall bear the name Siegfried. These tidings of new life are “holy comfort” for Sieglinde. If it is a question of redemption at all, then only in the sense of an all-sacrificing love for the sake of new life; the redemption here is from hopelessness. To put it differently, the motif could be understood as “hope for love and life”. And it is used in this sense in Brünnhilde’s closing monologue, when she looks forward to union with her beloved Siegfried:
Feel how in my breast, too,
the flames burn;
engulfs my heart;
to clasp him fast,
to be embraced by him,
wedded to him
in mightiest love!
Hope-filled love, the yearning for union in love, the act of sacrifice by a woman – these words verbally frame the motif. When in the orchestral finale of Twilight of the Gods the grand Valhalla motif is linked with the gushing motif of the Rhinemaidens and this third motif rises up over them, then aurally we, like Sieglinde in The Valkyrie, become pregnant with new hope. The hope for love and life is the “mightiest of miracles”, the “holy comfort” in a world that is out of joint and ruined, a comfort that perhaps only art can give us an inkling of now. As early as 1851, in A Communication to my Friends, Wagner wrote: “It is the necessity of love – and the essence of this love is, in its most genuine expression, the desire for full sensual reality, for the enjoyment of an object that is perceived with all the senses, and clasped firmly and intimately with all the power of real existence. In this finite, sensually certain embrace, must God not perish and vanish? Is the person that yearned for God not negated, annihilated? Has love in its truest and highest essence not thereby become manifest?”
In Act One of The Valkyrie Siegmund confesses: “yearning love’s misery / burns bright in my breast, / urges me on to deeds and death”. This hymn to “holiest love’s deepest distress” is sung above the “renunciation of love” motif, which is familiar from The Rhinegold; Siegmund is thus heralding an act of love and a death. In the ecstasy of renunciation something new arises – a violent leave-taking. For Alberich in The Rhinegold it was the cursing of love in exchange for all the power in the world; for the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde it is the repudiation of all social and moral norms for the sake of love. The resolution ends in death a number of times in the course of the drama. So is the Renunciation motif placed here as a warning? Is something dreadful unfolding in this moment? When the fearsome blade Nothung shows its “sharpness and cutting edge”, the outcome is not only metaphorically human sacrifice – the urge to deeds and death will be obeyed as it is in Greek tragedy.