Freedom between Resignation and Revolution

Remarks on Stefan Herheim’s New Production of THE RHINEGOLD ... An essay Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach


I. »Even freedom must have its master.«

In January of the revolutionary year of 1848, Richard Wagner programmed Beethoven’s EROICA for his first subscription concert in Dresden with the Royal Saxonian Court Orchestra. This heroic symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, but when the revolutionary consul crowned himself emperor, Beethoven decided that he had betrayed his heroic potential as a promethean bringer of liberty, and the composer withdrew his artistic homage in bitter disappointment, even before the first public performance. Wagner, however, was not interested in the symphony’s realpolitik background, or in a »sequence of heroic relations in a certain historical, dramatic sense,« but in the timeless activation of the heroic: »First of all, the designation ›heroic‹ must be understood in the broadest sense, and referring by no means merely to a military hero,« Wagner noted. When the composer and conductor had to flee Dresden after the failed uprising in 1849, going into exile in Zurich, he immediately organized and conducted the next EROICA there. He recalled how he scheduled three extensive rehearsals in preparation, in order to achieve a »freedom of rendition« in the performance; he then noted in his analysis of Beethoven’s third symphony in 1851: »When we consider the ›hero‹ as an entire complete human being, who is possessed of all purely human feelings – of love, of pain and of strength – in their greatest fullness and force, then we comprehend the right subject which the artist has expressed to us in the moving, eloquent notes of his work.« Wagner concludes that the last movement of the symphony »reveals the overwhelming power of love«; in its final measures, »the entire, full human being calling out the creed of divinity to us in jubilation«.

One can hardly avoid recognizing Wotan’s grandson Siegfried in this entire, full human being joyfully confessing his divinity to us, whom Wagner sketched out only weeks later in his first text draft for the initial figure of his RING OF THE NIBELUNG. As early as 1847 – when he was composing Act III of LOHENGRIN – Wagner wrote to his subsequent foe Eduard Hanslick: »The more I produce with an increasingly artistic conscience, the more I am compelled to make a whole human being; I want to give it bones, flesh and blood, I want to make the person walk, move freely and truthfully«. After LOHENGRIN, Wagner wrote much about human freedom – albeit in theoretical texts on politics and opera, and not in a composition. His »entire human being« who can be moved »freely and truthfully« and »joyfully calls out his creed of divinity to us«, first sees the light of artificial day in THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG. Since Wagner forged his own myth from Nordic sagas, fairy-tale tropes and the Song of the Nibelungs, he recognized the possibilities of drama vis-à-vis symphonic music. Thus, he wrote to Hans von Bülow early in 1852: »once more – absolute music can express only feelings, passions and moods in their opposition and intensification, not, however, relations of any kind of a social or political nature.« Music as art may not only be adored in absoluteness, but can and should be activated as the ferment of social processes. The decisive social and political relations depicted in the RING, however, refer to this very necessity, of recounting the myth and reflecting its performance, which arises from this struggle for freedom.

As a notion, »freedom« is not only essentially inscribed in revolutionary rhetoric of the mid-19th century, but in many ways it remains faceted and linguistically varied at the centre of the RING. Quoted as a slogan in the libretto, it only appears prominently once in THE RHINEGOLD: when Wotan has taken not only the entire Nibelung’s hoard of gold, but has also violently torn the ring with its promise of power from the captive Alberich, the Nibelung burst out with his curse: »Am I now free? Truly free? – Thus greets you then this, my freedom's foremost word! As by curse came it to me, accursed be this ring!« The black elf Alberich is unchained as »of wretches the wretchedest slave«, while the white elf Wotan poses as »the mightiest lord of all might«. This supposed contrast between power and impotence, freedom and captivity, god and dwarf, however, is not a clear dichotomy; on the contrary, they are all interdependent.

When Wagner travelled to Albisbrunn to take the waters in the late summer of 1851, he integrated Wotan into the scene of the Rhinemaidens bathing in his very first prose sketch of the opera’s opening scene, but in the next draft, THE ROOM OF THE RHINEGOLD, dated March 1852, Wotan has been eliminated from this scene, and only his complementary shadow Alberich remains, who then commits the original sin of stealing the gold. The conjunction of god and dwarf, however, remains: amidst the interlude between the first and second scenes, the so-called »Ring« motif – first heard during Wellgunde’s explanation that »the world's wealth would be won by the man who, out of the Rhinegold, fashioned the ring which measureless might would bestow« – is reprised. Its broken ninth chords are unleashed like triads, and a maestoso rhythm transforms it into the »Valhalla« motif. At the orchestral level, this makes audible a profound connection between Alberich, the spurned dwarf of revenge, and Wotan, the unfaithful god of excess: Alberich’s deed – cursing love in order to attain the powerful gold – is a form of original sin; Wotan’s deed – trading away the goddess of love to build his hulking fortress – is actually its analogue. In resounding irony, therefore, every form of power – including the sublime, divine – is immediately proven corrupt.

The black elf wants to extort power by cursing love, and the white elf has commissioned a mighty false front for the price of love. Loge – a portmanteau word comprising »Lohe«, blaze, and »Lüge«, lie – however, announces: »In the world's wide ring nought is so rich that a man will take it as price for woman's worth and delight!« This »world’s wide ring« is not just the earth, but can also be understood to mean the RING as a total work of art. The RING does not tell a tale of good and evil, but a story which frays the concepts of freedom and bondage; a story which aims to tell of the »entire« person who is capable of love, which requires him to liberate himself from treaties and traditions, from despotism and fear; a story which playfully translates utopian ideals of art into realities and aims to affect the future of real persons through its vision.


II. The Excessive »Es«

The first two measures of Beethoven’s EROICA seem like a double exclamation mark: the entire orchestra plays two E-flat-major chords in forte that come across like punches, like raised fists greeting the audience – a political notion of liberty expressed not through, but in music. Beginning the RHINEGOLD prelude, Wagner allows this E-flat-major to slowly emerge, creating a world: a low E-flat, played another octave lower, buzzes up from the orchestral abyss of the double basses as a pedal point before the fifth is added five measures in, with the double B-flat of the bassoons – a pure fifth, as we also find in the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Eventually the third above completes the major chord, maintaining this tonality for 136 measures. »In the beginning was the tone, and the tone was the ›Es‹ and the ›Es‹ was the tone« would be the opening of a RING gospel, and in THE RHINEGOLD, that gospel would recount the original sin in several ways. For almost four and a half minutes, the prelude exudes strains of pure, flowing harmony – a »lullaby for the world«, the birth of the world from the spirit of music.

A chronological counterpart of this RHINEGOLD prelude exists in the supposed silence associated with the grand piano which is so central to this staging – a radical break within music history. In 1952 John Cage provoked a scandal with his piece »4’3’’«, in which pianist David Tudor played a three-movement piece marked tacet, consisting of nothing but silence: for four minutes and 33 seconds, nothing is played. Only the opening and closing of the piano lid marked the difference between movement and pause; the pianist produced no sound, but remained silent, as per the instructions. And yet, this silence cannot be experienced as the absence of noise, but only by giving up the intention of hearing something; in other words, by altering one’s conscience to accept the absence of intentional noises. None of what one has heard for four minutes and thirty-three seconds was written by the composer: the fire engine’s siren passing by outside, the whispered comments, the hum of the hall’s air-conditioning, the crinkling of one’s neighbour’s candy wrappers, the sound of one’s own feet stirring, and much more – something will be most definitely be heard, but the musical performer plays nothing. This leads not only to a heightening of our perception as active participants in the audience collective, but also elevates ambient noises to sound. Yet is this aleatoric sound music, then?

The analogous period at the beginning of Wagner’s RING is experienced as the exact opposite: the almost four and a half minutes of the prelude to THE RHINEGOLD draw us deeper and deeper into the world of resounding intensity that is the eternally flowing »Es«, which signifies both the note E-flat and the Id in German. In his 273-second piece – perhaps also a reference to the absolute zero point of -273 degrees C – John Cage made post-modern reception history by removing the composer from the equation. Wagner, on the other hand, used the »Es« as a mythically personalized focal point of himself, in order to recount the striving for liberty of humanized gods and deified humans, all the way to the final conflagration of the world, which signifies not the end, but a state of no-longer. The atmospheric prelude in E-flat-major conquers space, continuously, ecstatically augmented – both the collective stage space of the opera house and the individual space within the souls in the audience. The circular movement of the music thus moves from shapelessness to defined form, from silence to movement, from dark towards light, from the unconscious to consciousness. Every creation myth, however, begins with a perfidious fallacy, an interrupted cadence, because a narrator, a conveying instance, a driving instinct, a subjective »Es« must already exist, and here we even hear it, as a note with a natural overtone series. What we experience here is not a »creatio ex nihilo«, but rather an evolution from the diverse perspective of a no-longer, respectively a not-yet of the collective escaping from bondage. It congregates around the piano like a virtual firepit, recounting the mythical story of power’s lovelessness and love’s powerlessness while searching for social and individual freedom.

Wagner himself, on the other hand, stylized the prelude in a romantic tale: while taking a midday nap, he claimed to have been inspired to this initial in E-flat-major, a paragon of conditional calmness and soaring movement. In MY LIFE, he recounts the so-called »vision of La Spezia« at an Italian hotel after a long hike at the end of the summer of 1853:

»Returning home in the afternoon, I stretched out dead-tired on a hard sofa, to await the long-desired hour of sleep. It did not come; instead I sank into a kind of somnolent state, in which I suddenly felt as if I were sinking in rapidly flowing water. Its rushing soon represented itself to me as the musical sound of the E-flat-major chord, continually surging forward in figured arpeggiation; these arpeggios appeared as melodic figurations of increasing motion, yet the pure E-flat-major triad never changed, and seemed through its persistence to impart infinite significance to the element in which I was sinking. Feeling as though the waves were now roaring high above me, I awoke in sudden terror from my half-slumber. I instantly recognized that the orchestral prelude to THE RHINEGOLD, which I had carried it about within me without ever having been capable of pinning it down, had risen up out of me, and I also quickly grasped how things were with me: the vital stream would not flow from without, but only from within.«

Here, a narrator consciously invokes mythical artistic creation from half-slumber; this is something Wagner also did repeatedly in letters, suggesting a natural phenomenon unrelated to work. The sketches and corrections to the prelude, however, document a totally different approach to the composition: from a highly conscious process replete with revisions and rejections, the prelude slowly emerges – the complex result of strenuous work which Wagner undertakes by the sweat of his artisanal brow. Indeed, no other part of RHINEGOLD was altered so radically after the overall sketch had been laid down as the prelude, whose final form was only fixed after the opera was fully conceived, like an overture. One week after his vision, having returned to Zurich, Wagner wrote to Liszt: »[…] so I turned around – to perish – or – to compose – one or the other: there is nothing else for me.« It was not the gentle breeze of natural genius, but rather a hard, difficult piece of smithery, carefully constructed in numeric and artistic terms, which led to the musically multi-layered and only apparently organic prelude.


III. Playing the Game, Gaming the Play

Despite all that, Wagner himself identified less with the smith Mime and more with godfather Wotan at the beginning of the RING: »Observe him closely! He is cut from the same cloth as we are; he is the sum of the intelligence of our time«, the composer wrote in 1854 from his exile in Zurich to August Röckel, his friend and co-revolutionary who was incarcerated for thirteen years. Dogmatically, Wotan exclaims at his first appearance: »Ranging and changing love all who live; forego that game, then, I cannot!« The game, however, does not only denote Wotan’s passion, but also the self-referential core dynamic of the theatre, where illusion becomes reality. The term »Spiel«, which may signify either game, sport or play, appears almost a dozen times in THE RHINEGOLD – in the lines of the Rhinemaidens, the Nibelung, the giants and gods as much as in the stage directions. When Alberich approaches the Rhinemaidens, he asks: »Spoil I your sport, if still I stand here and gaze?« Woglinde’s reaction feigns surprise: »Would he be our playmate?« Playing, sporting, gaming is inscribed into the action and its content; it is the titular Rhinegold at the bottom of the river to which the three Rhinemaidens pay homage in special games: »Games will we play so gladly with thee: flasheth the foam, flameth the flood, as, floating around, with dancing and singing, we joyously dive to thy bed!« These frolics of the Rhinemaidens dissolve rational boundaries; metaphorically, fire and water merge here in joyful games, in song and dance – flasheth the foam, flameth the flood: a game, a play as the mythical nucleus in which the sensual elements of water and fire, strictly divided in ordinary life, fantastically, freely amalgamate in this alliteration on the letter F.

This dissolution of the laws of everyday reality and poetic art also dominated the first performance in Bayreuth. The three graceful Rhinemaidens were – as the composer colleague Camille Saint-Saëns, present in 1876, noted – »almost liquid and half-translucent […] Nothing more delightful can be imagined. They play tag with graceful swimming motions«. To Saint-Saëns, however, it is not merely a miracle that they seem to »be held suspended in mid-water«; he also labels the phenomenon clearly: »a triumph of technical stage illusion«. Here, the reality of technology and the aspiration of art, conscious playing and its illusory power successfully merge in the impression of revolutionary novelty. It was Carl Brandt who had constructed the swimming wagons, which posed considerable physical challenges to the Rhinemaidens: a rolling platform wagon for each of them was fitted with a pole that could be extended to a length of 6 metres. The singers had to use ladders to mount a revolving support frame, to which they were strapped. Invisible to the audience, each wagon was staffed by three men: a stagehand pushing the wagon, a technician controlling the machinery and a musician directing the wagon’s speed and the height of the pole in accordance with the score. Wagner set great store by choreographic motion in time with the music, for it was not mainly a naturalistic effect he was after, but an onstage expression derived from the music.

From the beginning, it is all about the play, the game – the playfulness of sensuous seduction on the level of action and of the theatre, which is posited aesthetically, but initially not judged by ethical standards. In THE RHINEGOLD, the play arises from supposed nothingness which is in truth everything, a collective playing that gives birth to worlds, to which the individual falls prey, a magical play that liberates art from the lie of having to be the opposite of reality.


IV. Freedom and Liberty in 1876

The first performance of THE RHINEGOLD took place in Munich as early as 1869, against Wagner’s explicit will. The conductor Hans Richter had withdrawn at Wagner’s behest – he would go on to forge the RING musically at its world premiere in Bayreuth in 1876 – and so the director of the Royal Vocal Consort, Franz Wüllner, conducted the work. Like Alberich, Wagner laid a curse upon him: »Hands off my score! That is my advice to you, Sir; otherwise the devil may take you!« The performances, however, went ahead. THE VALYRIE was also given an anticipated first performance at King Ludwig II’s wish in 1870; subsequently Wagner gave only the piano reduction of SIEGFRIED to the King, to prevent another production. The actual genesis of THE RHINEGOLD, however, must be viewed within the context of the RING tetralogy; in 1876 it marked the splendid opening of the first Bayreuth Festival at its purpose-built theatre. At the same time, admiration for Richard Wagner led to the creation of »Rheingold« – the eponymous sparkling wine by the Söhnlein winery. This liquid Rhinegold was the first German brand of sparkling wine to be entered into the trademark register; that same year it won the Grand Medal at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia, the same at which the arm of the Statue of Liberty with its golden torch was first presented to the public.

The alcoholic consumable Rheingold was ennobled by an ordinance issued by Emperor Wilhelm I, who directed imperial warships to be christened only with this brand, thus pointing in a direction that would eventually produce real-life refugees. Similarly, the Statue of Liberty opens a chapter on the ideals of freedom and the reality of immigrants who heeded the promise to »give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free«. Neither the Wagner enthusiasm of the German Emperors – Wilhelm II had the claxon of his first automobile tuned to Donner’s »Heda! Hedo!« – nor the golden glow of the Statue of Liberty’s torch which attracted the tired, poor, freedom-seeking masses of refugees from all over the world, however, are to be the focus of attention here; rather, let us examine Richard Wagner’s personal connection with this World’s Fair.

The Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia took place in 1876, marking the centenary of the American Declaration of Independence, in which »life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness« were accorded the status of inalienable human rights. Sensations of the exhibition were not only Bell’s telephone and Edison’s telegraph, but also popcorn and Heinz’ tomato ketchup, the elevated monorail and industrially manufactured typewriters and sewing machines – milestones of modernism. Wagner was asked to write a grand festive march for the opening ceremony; he, however, demanded the horrendous fee of 5,000 dollars for the composition. The money was raised by Mrs. Elizabeth Gillespie and the women’s committee, who asked that the composition be dedicated to them. Thus, Wagner wrote to the intermediary, Theodore Thomas: »Towards my friends, I have interpreted several tender passages in my composition in such a way that the beautiful and capable women of North America can be imagined marching in parade to its strains.« His wife Cosima, on the other hand, noted honestly that Richard was complaining »that he could imagine nothing while composing this piece … except 5,000 dollars«. Scored for monumental forces – including triple winds plus contrabassoon as well as the brand-new bass trumpet and tam-tam – a rising accented triplet becomes the rhythmical core motif of a bombastically vacuous composition, which might be called »Variations on No Theme at All«.

The fact that Wagner was working on this march – his most voluminous – in February and March of 1876, despite conducting in Vienna and Berlin and casting, organizing and directing the world premiere of the RING for his first Bayreuth Festival, can be explained only by the desire for money – at least he prefaced the rather mediocre sonic construct of the march for the USA with a motto that proved central to him over and over: »Freedom and life are earned by those alone who must conquer them each day anew« – the phrasing is not his, but Goethe’s, who has his Faust speak this »highest wisdom« shortly before dying in Part II. Striving for freedom and its opposite is dramatically illustrated in the RING: it is about the freedom of the god who is ensnared ever more deeply by guilt, and therefore wishes in THE VALYRIE: »Denn einer nur freie die Braut, der freier als ich, der Gott!« (For one alone winneth the bride; one freer than I, the god!) This is linguistically witty and philosophically profound; what does the state of freedom mean for humans as individuals and part of a collective? A question which we have had to ask ourselves in recent months, unaccustomed as we are to it. What do humans seek for their community through their »gods«? When can peace win the day for them?

When, in THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS, Siegfried approaches Brünnhilde deceitfully in the shape of Gunther, he announces: »Ein Freier kam!« (A suitor came! ). This is evil irony from one ensnared in deceit. Siegfried, after all, has possessed love and knowledge with Brünnhilde and power and riches with the ring – can anyone be freer than this human grandchild of the gods? Is he not the »entire, complete human« who can »move freely and truthfully«? Why does he set out again at all? Could it be that being free of a sense of history, free of a conscience, free of fears for the future, is the actual imprisonment that binds him and makes him such an intriguing figure to Wagner? After all, the poet and composer wrote his RING in reverse order – starting with SIEGFRIED’S DEATH, then prefacing that with YOUNG SIEGFRIED before going on to create THE VALKYRIE and finally THE RHINEGOLD.

The freedom Wagner purchased by composing the 5,000-dollar march was intended for his art; like Alberich, he took the gold to forge a ring for himself, building his Valhalla on the Green Hill in Bayreuth, like Wotan. However, he could even imagine emigrating to the USA in order to escape his debts, building his festival on the other side of the Atlantic; the RING itself was always on the run – and the first festival turned out a financial disaster. Later, his widow Cosima frequently spoke of leaving Bayreuth and finding another place for the festival – there was talk of Koblenz. Packing one’s bags to find a place for the musico-theatrical myth; packing one’s bags to find a new homeland; packing one’s bags in the hope of arriving.


V. Journey to Freedom

After the world premiere in Bayreuth, the RING came to Berlin: in May 1881 Angelo Neumann presented successful performances at the Victoria-Theater, using the original sets from Bayreuth, in the presence of the German Imperial Court as well as Richard and Cosima Wagner; ultimately, more people saw the RING here than in Bayreuth. Neumann toured the work all over Europe for the next two years, giving 135 performances of the cycle, broadening the tetralogy’s significance and becoming the composer’s main source of income, thanks to royalties from this »Wagner Theatre«. The RING on its grand tour, suitcases packed – using sets and costumes, however, which never fully satisfied Wagner himself. What he had managed in terms of aesthetics of concept, text and composition could not be realized on stage, making it unsurprising that Wagner summarized the world premiere with a gently ironic sigh: »Having created the invisible orchestra, I would now like to invent the invisible theatre.« The visibility of theatre, however, remains an important part of reception; the drama cannot be liberated from the insufficiencies of reality – every ring encircles an empty spot which may be defined, in the case of the RING, as freedom.

Wotan, reluctantly impressed, follows Erda’s advice: »Flee the ring’s dread curse […] be counselled, give up the ring!« Relinquishing it, he ceremoniously declaims: »To me, Freia! You are free.« This freedom bought for »Freia die Holde, Holda, die Freie« (Freia, the fair one, Holda, the free one), however, merely continues the course of imprisonment. Fasolt had warned the god at the very beginning: »What thou art, art thou only by treaties; […] pledged are we freemen in peace to thee: cursed be all thy wisdom, peace be no more between us, if, no more open, honest and free, in bargains thou breakest thy faith!« The freedom of the god who is bound by treaties and the freedom of the giants who are bound to peace – the freedoms negotiated here are not simple slogans, but complex constructs which must prove their effectiveness in action. Wotan is not an autonomous creator-god in a mythical fairy-tale, but a psychologically complex figure trying to escape the negative effects of his own actions – at any cost to his freedom.

His freedom, this »ranging and changing«, »that game« is what Wotan is now trying to attain by building his castle. As a philandering husband, he hopes on the one hand to be rid of Fricka’s nagging; as a ruling god, on the other hand, he hopes to have built a fortress for his power. Wotan is divine due to his excess: he wants to merge the freedoms of love and power in his game, but over the course of three evenings, the play on the opera stage will reveal the ultimate impossibility of this union.

In the Germanic myth, the rainbow Bifröst represents a bridge between Midgard, the earth, and Asgard, the realm of the gods – and that is what Wagner refers to when Donner dissolves the clouds with a blow of his hammer and a rainbow forms as a pathway to the new abode of the gods, which Froh explains: »The bridge leads you to the castle, light yet firm to your feet: now tread undaunted its terrorless path!« The demigod Loge, on the other hand, comments on the gods’ entrance to Valhalla via this rainbow with words that are framed by the musical fire motif: »They are hasting on to their end, who now deem themselves strong in their greatness.« Once again, contradictions in ordinary life are sensuously merged: while the music features the fire motif, the image evokes a rain-drenched spectacle of colour. Only the play, the game which the collective plays on stage and which Wagner plays with us through his work, can achieve this. Thus, the twilight of the gods has begun in THE RHINEGOLD, but the gods have not yet learned to read the signs of their own demise, signs that resound in slight irony in the massive blows of seventeen blaring brass players, marching with strings and percussion towards ever-increasing loudness, and thus with deceptive strength. The witty critic Oscar Blumenthal takes us full circle, back to our beginning:

»Wagner gleicht Beethoven? – Mit Verlaub,
Ein Unterschied bleibt, ein schwerer:
Bei Beethoven war der Musiker taub,
Bei Wagner werden’s die Hörer.«

»Wagner like Beethoven? – Pardon me!
An assertion made in quite the wrong clef.
Deafness afflicted Ludwig van B;
With Wagner, the listener ends up deaf.«

Wagner also remembered his third subscription concert in the revolutionary year of 1848, when he performed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the King and public: »All the audience was oppressed by the dark spectre of dangers and revolutions approaching«. Wagner had conceived the entire concert programme with pieces in minor keys, but when the Symphony in C-minor – Beethoven’s Fifth – began, the oppressive, tense atmosphere in the hall immediately changed: »The symphony begins, such jubilation, such enthusiasm! All the pressure evaporates, vivats for the King – the rejoicing crowd leaves the theatre as if redeemed. That is the unspeakable aspect of this art!« Just one year later, during the Dresden uprisings in May of 1849 which were to force Wagner into exile in Zurich, he had a Beethoven encounter which he described in MY LIFE: »On the following morning, Monday, May 8, I tried again to get information as to the state of affairs by forcing my way to the Town Hall from my apartment, which was cut off from the place of action. As I was making my way over a barricade near St. Ann's, one of the Communal Guard shouted out to me, ›Mr. Kapellmeister, your ›Freude schöner Gotterfunken‹ (spark of divine joy) has indeed ignited; the rotten building is razed to the ground.‹ Obviously this had been an enthusiastic member of the audience at the last performance of the Ninth Symphony.«

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony can be read both as a beacon for the bloody revolution, but also, in Wagner’s own words, as »the redemption of music from our own peculiar element into the realm of universal art.« Beethoven’s Fifth can inspire royalist cries of jubilation or be understood as the symphony of fate by a deaf musician; Beethoven’s Third Symphony may shine forth as a plea for freedom, but was scandalously transfigured by Hans von Bülow into a Bismarck Symphony in 1892, and from the era of National Socialism there are even reports of how »the image of the Führer clearly shines forth from the notes of Beethoven’s heroic symphony, a clairvoyant premonition of clear characterization«.

As initially quoted, Wagner distinguished between absolute music, which can only express »feelings, passions and moods in their opposition and intensification «, and drama, which can depict »relations of a social or political nature«. However, the musico-theatrical message – especially when the freedom of mankind is concerned – is also embedded within porous reinterpretability. The great opera about state violence and the striving for freedom, Beethoven’s FIDELIO, was celebrated equally during post-revolutionary times of new beginnings and during the reactionary Biedermeier period, used for gala performances in Nazi Germany and the reopening of the Berlin State Opera after World War II, and even performed on the last anniversary of the GDR in Dresden in 1989. In its form, the music slips the moorings of the petit-bourgeois singspiel, moving through the musical drama of spousal love towards the great oratorio of freedom, thus leaving the audience behind in euphoric vagueness. Wagner, on the other hand, begins the search for freedom in the RING with a mythically skewed, fragmented perspective – declaring: »My preludes must all be elementary, not dramatic like the Leonore Overture, for that renders the drama superfluous.« His drama develops in an iridescent manner: a bright trumpet fanfare leads to the brilliant C-major of the water creatures singing »Rhinegold! Rhinegold!«, but the motif, illuminated by the strings, has a deceptive glitter, a deceiving promise which the Rhinemaidens make explicit in the end: »Tender and true 'tis but in the waters«. The relevant sounding board of this sonic art remains the individual viewer, who flees his reality into an artificial space, but reflects it and that reality, perceiving it anew and hoping to literate himself as an »entire, complete human being«. Goethe’s view of liberation was neither revolutionary nor resigned, but poetic: »The word liberty sounds to agreeable that we could never do without it, even if it only expressed an error.«

Translation: Alexa Nieschlag


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