“Keep away from the ring!” – A dark day dawns for the gods
An essay by Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach
Twilight of the Gods
The third day of A scenic festival in three days and one eve by Richard Wagner
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Director: Stefan Herheim
With Clay Hilley, Thomas Lehman, Jürgen Linn, Gidon Saks / Albert Pesendorfer, Nina Stemme, Aile Asszonyi, Okka van der Damerau et al.
Premiere on 17 October 2021
When Richard Wagner completed the composition of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS in Bayreuth in November 1874, Johann Strauss and his librettists had just brought out DIE FLEDERMAUS to great success in Vienna. Rosalinde, in her aria that closes the operetta, has seen through the game and has attained knowledge: “Champagne was to blame, tra la la la la la la!” This drink, the king of all wines, can be held responsible for people forgetting their vow of fidelity and for their later atonement: “Yet it gave me the truth / And showed me in full clarity / My husband’s fidelity / And led him to repent.” And everything happens just in time – “his Majesty is acknowledged”, and the welter of confusion and mix-ups, of game-playing and deceit, can be washed away into world-affirming life by a glass of sparkling wine. In 1876, the year of the world premiere of THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG, Richard Wagner was honoured by a patented and award-winning brand of sparkling wine named “Rheingold” and who knows, in the next interval the audience may hum that theme of utopian promise – not written by the Bayreuth master, however, but by Vienna’s Waltz King:
“Little brothers and little sisters
we all want to be,
join in with me!
Little brothers and little sisters,
let’s be on familiar terms,
for always, just as today
if we still remember tomorrow!”
Forgetting and remembering are accorded special roles in TWILIGHT OF THE GODS. When in Act One Siegfried is offered a “spiced draught” by Gutrune on Hagen’s suggestion, this drink too is intended to make the hero forget all the women he has known so far and to be consumed by love for Gibich’s daughter. But more than a ploy, what plays out here is a much larger adieu to opera, to the world and to the myth of the gods, one that can inscribe its motto on the total art work with Wotan’s credo “All that lives loves change and transformation. That play I cannot forgo!”. The drink of forgetfulness is a stage prop that is merely illustrative of an awareness, just like the love potion in TRISTAN AND ISOLDE. The fateful draught is as a matter of fact an instrument of dialectics: Siegfried, the “freest hero”, thereby becomes free of memories, free of ties, free of obligations. Through it Siegfried, grandson of the father of the gods, becomes definitively human. And furthermore he who is supposed to release Wotan’s system of laws from the entanglements of guilt and to stave off disaster, in actual fact, as a result of it, brings about its downfall. The magic drink causes something already there to come to the surface – it does not change the personality. Because of his instantaneity and unconditional present-centredness, Siegfried is predestined to undo the entanglements of contracts and divine laws – but it is precisely his inability to remember that ushers in catastrophe and indeed makes Hagen’s knowledge-related trickery possible in the first place.
Siegfried’s drink – “in the firestorm from the vines” (FLEDERMAUS) – leads initially to forgetting and then in Act Three, with Hagen dosing it, to recollection and consequently to Siegfried’s death. In systemic terms, Hagen takes revenge with his spear for the false oath whose utterance he himself was instrumental in. When Brünnhilde then sacrifices herself so as to join her spouse, the system, which can barely be made out motivically in the complex music, is destroyed. Redemptive love is amorphously audible in the final bars; it has yet to take shape in the realities of the present for our collective.
“A day of darkness dawns for the gods” – Erda prophesies to the father of the gods right back in THE RHINEGOLD, telling him, “I advise you: shun the ring!” And so Wotan lets the curse-laden piece of jewellery go and enters the fortress Valhalla newly built by the giants, followed by the other gods, while Loge comments derisively: “They are hurrying towards their end, / who imagine they will endure for ever.” The twilight of the gods therefore already began during the preliminary evening; only, the gods have not yet learned to read the signs of their own demise.
Richard Wagner explained changes to Erda’s warning in THE RHINEGOLD text in a letter to August Röckel from 1854: “Instead of the words, ‘A day of darkness dawns for the gods: your noble race will surely end in disgrace if you don’t let go of the ring!’ I now have Erda say simply, ‘All that is – ends: a day of darkness dawns for the gods – I advise you: shun the ring!’ – We must learn how to die, and die in the fullest sense of the word; fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness and is engendered only where love itself has waned.” The meaning of love is here related to the power of finiteness – a thematic web that continues to grow denser, also during TWILIGHT OF THE GODS. Erda functions at this point exactly like the ancient oracle, as her warning is at the same time a prophecy which fulfils itself upon being proclaimed. Wotan’s initial fear of the end changes in nature during THE VALKYRIE; with his “grand idea” it finds its dialectical antithesis in the fearlessness of the title hero of SIEGFRIED. But it’s this fearlessness that spells disaster. Siegfried could give the Rhinemaidens the ring back at the beginning of Act Three of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS, and nearly does so – until they threaten him and he feels compelled to demonstrate his fearlessness in word and deed:
A ring would make me heir to the world.
For requited love I gladly relinquish it.
I would give it to you if you granted me love
but if you threaten my life and limb,
even if it was worth less than a finger,
you will not wrest the ring from me!
For life and limb, see –
thus I fling them from me!
In the dialectical sense Siegfried’s lack of fear with respect to his life makes love possible, because in Wagner’s well attested system “fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness” and therefore an absence of fear about the end is a source of love. However, this awareness remains hidden until Brünnhilde’s final scene, so “that a woman would come to understand”.
In Wagner’s prose sketch of 1848, Wotan does not meet Erda at the beginning; instead it is the “three women of destiny (Norns) who warn him of the fall of the gods”. The Norns end up making their entry at the beginning of the last part of the tetralogy, even though Wagner had produced a musical sketch of the scene in summer 1850, 20 years before he finally composed it. The Third Norn in the prologue to TWILIGHT OF THE GODS prophesies, “The end of the eternal gods / will then fall for ever” while the Second Norn ponders, “Does day dawn? / Or is it the fire blazing?”, the First Norn having begun by asking: “What light is shining there?” Is it sunrise or fiery downfall? Natural light or cultural conflagration? A light that illuminates or blinds? And who is still able to differentiate? These weavers of destiny have lost their former clarity of vision, as the First Norn admits: “My eyes grow dim and deceive me. / I cannot clearly recall the sacred past, / when Loge once flared into fiery flame. / Do you know what became of him?” Brünnhilde takes up the form of the question in her closing oration: “Do you know how this came to be?” And being herself a daughter of Erda, she will answer the question about Loge, as though a fourth Norn, when she takes her own life to join Siegfried in a fiery liebestod, and thereby purges the system of divine guilt and of the curse that lies upon it, creating space for an audible intimation of loving hope. Neither Siegfried nor Brünnhilde fears the end and consequently, within the system of ideas, they enable love, which Alberich of course had cursed in the opening scene of the preliminary evening.
The story of how the eponymous, accursed ring originated is told as a kind of original sin of the Nibelung Alberich in THE RHINEGOLD. In TWILIGHT OF THE GODS we learn of the original sin of the god Wotan. The Norns try to go on weaving the narrative thread, but fail, as they can no longer find anything solid to attach it to. And Siegfried even boastfully declares to the Rhinemaidens: “My sword shattered a spear, / even if they wove wild curses into it: / Notung will sever for the Norns / the eternal rope of primeval law!” The free, natural Siegfried grew up in the wilderness, beyond laws and contracts; his sword is a symbolic counterpart to Wotan’s spear. All the same he gets more and more entangled in the world, and the “freest hero” actually ends up as a manipulable pawn in Hagen’s plot, by means of which Alberich’s curse is fulfilled. We learn from the Norns that Wotan’s spear is the product of an act of violence: the audacious god had wanted to drink from the spring of wisdom at the foot of the world ash tree, broke off a branch and carved himself a spear from it; the spear, inscribed with laws, has since served to demonstrate his power. Wotan paid for it with an eye, but this bodily sacrifice by no means compensates for the injury done to nature. Even this primordial barter – Wotan’s eye for a bough of the word ash tree – has failed and has never been legitimized by natural myth; the god literally has a restricted view of things. This act of violence has caused a rift between newly instituted positive law and natural law throughout all existence – an original sin that from that time has had to be hushed up, suppressed by statute and played down, and presents a disturbingly topical image of our own world.
But to get back to the opening of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS: the Norns can no longer distinguish day from night, the warming sun from a conflagration; they don’t even know where to attach the narrative rope of destiny. Those who are supposed to weave, attach and tauten the destiny of the world do not understand that world any more. And this chaos is delivered into the hands of the audience: where does the original sin lie? With Alberich, who robbed the Rhine of its gleaming gold in order to forge a power-conferring ring from it? Or with Wotan, who damaged the word ash tree in order to carve a power-conferring spear from it? Are these two adversaries polar opposites across the generations, or are they rather variants of one form? The First Norn’s account of the spring of wisdom in its early days is couched in an arpeggiated E flat major, the key in which the Rhinegold also was bathed in the preliminary evening of the RING. Alberich and Wotan are placed more or less on an equal footing in terms of their lust for power, two actors in a game that does not know the harsh contrast of black/white, but instead displays the diversity of colours of the rainbow which the gods cross at the end of THE RHINEGOLD to enter their stronghold and thus meet their doom. Alberich curses love in order to acquire the Rhinegold and with it power; Wotan tells Brünnhilde in THE VALKYRIE: “When young love’s delights faded, / my spirit longed for power.” The lovelessness of power is for both of them the starting point for a story, the mythic narration of which is intended to overcome the powerlessness of love. But the myth cannot be related by the Norns any more; knowledge has been lost. It is not even possible to renew the narrative strands of what originally occurred – the rope snaps, and the audience finds itself, as Wagner noted in 1873, in an “ideal illusion”. That is the formulation of his dramatic principle, which he said “puts us […] in a waking dream of what has never been experienced”. In his speech on the laying of the foundation stone for the Bayreuth Festival Theatre, Wagner specified what an audience would be confronted with, namely “the total reality of the most meaningful illusion by a noble art”. These three terms – reality, illusion, art – become boundary stones that one passes multiple times. The adjectives – total, meaningful, noble – set the course and need first of all to be localized.
In TWILIGHT OF THE GODS the oldest text meets the newest music in the RING’s compositional process, which spanned more than a quarter of a century. Wagner’s pursuit of an especially close association of words and music dates to an early stage, as is evident from a letter he wrote to the Berlin music critic Karl Gaillard in 1844: “Before I set about writing a verse or sketching out a scene, I am already intoxicated by the musical fragrance of my creation.” Text and music are interdependent in the powerful, genre-synthesizing action of imagination and intoxication. All the more exciting, then, is the unusual evolution of Brünnhilde’s closing oration and hence of the conclusion to the whole saga.
Brünnhilde was divine and has become human – she accordingly goes through “self-annihilation” and experiences the “freedom of human consciousness”, to use Richard Wagner’s terms. In the sketch from the year of revolution, 1848, Brünnhilde resolves to accompany the dead hero, “guarantor of eternal power”: “Let one alone rule: / father of the gods! Glorious one! / Rejoice in the freest hero!” Wotan’s guilt would be erased by this double death of self-immolation and atonement; he could consequently rule in glory – Wagner’s political views of the time pervade the finale. He believed in a monarchy with a capable sovereign; in a pamphlet from the same year the composer demanded that “the King should be the first and most genuine Republican”. The belief in a republican king, and that in a god redeemed of guilt, are nourished from the same source. An entry in Cosima Wagner’s diary from spring 1874 shows the composer reaffirming the significance of his revolutionary impulses of 1848 for his stage festival play: “Only the Springtime of the Nations brought continuous fine weather from March onwards, and despite all the nonsense the foundation was laid then for Germany’s unification. I believe I would not have conceived the Ring without this movement.” A big revolution did not really take place; a republican monarchy remained wishful thinking. The god, resigned but still operative, can only expiate his guilt by death and therefore is abolished and deleted from the system.
The version of 1851 shows, in turn, a hero who frees himself from gods and triggers their destruction: “Blanch in bliss before the deeds of man, / before the hero whom you begot! / I proclaim to you blessed salvation / from your fearful dread through death!” Brünnhilde perorates. Not only is the symbol of the old regime, Wotan’s spear, shattered by Siegfried, but the god himself now finds salvation in death. This is added in theatrical form in 1852, with Brünnhilde acting as follows: “There – I fling the brand / into the grand fortress of Valhalla!” In just a few years therefore the ending has swung from the consensual termination of divine rule, once purged, to the gods being charged, condemned and executed.
In 1856, Wagner replaces the verses that annunciate an era of liberty with lines of a considerably darker hue: “Sorest suffering / of grieving love / opened my eyes: / I saw the world end.” The different text versions of Brünnhilde’s closing oration result in either an exultantly life-affirming finale or one of salvation through death; light and shadow in contrast with one another – the father of the gods, reigning in glory, and the fearful god, redeemed by death. In the final version of the composed drama, not all the lines of the closing oration were set to music, though they were probably published in the libretto. Brünnhilde’s enlightenment culminates in an insight that is given the follow linguistic form: “Blessed in joy and grief, / let there be only – love!” Wagner, however, relies on the music: “It will hardly have escaped the notice of musicians that these verses had to be omitted in actual performance, their meaning being already conveyed, most emphatically, by the impact of the musical rendering of the drama.” The saga began in THE RHINEGOLD with the linguistic cursing of love and it ends with the musical glorification of love.
The RING tetralogy concludes orchestrally and wordlessly after Hagen’s exclamation, “Keep away from the ring!” with 50 bars in which the Valhalla motif, the Rhinemaiden motif and others are woven together with a particular motif that can be glossed as the Redemption or Hopeful Love motif. This “melodic moment”, as Wagner himself called his leitmotifs, originates from the third act of THE VALKYRIE, when Brünnhilde tells the fugitive Sieglinde, who has lost her will to live, that she is pregnant by her brother Siegmund and is carrying in her womb “the noblest hero in the world” who shall bear the name Siegfried. These tidings of new life are a “holy comfort” for Sieglinde. If one can speak of redemption at all here, then only in the sense of an all-sacrificing love for the sake of new life; the redemption is from hopelessness. Or to put it differently, the motif could be interpreted as “hope for love and life”. It is used in this sense in Brünnhilde’s final oration, when she looks forward to union with her beloved Siegfried:
Feel my bosom too,
how it burns,
a bright fire fastens on my heart;
to embrace him,
enfolded by him,
to be one with him
in the most powerful love!
Hope-filled love, the longing for union in love, the self-sacrificing act of a woman – these words verbally frame the motif. When the motif reappears in the orchestral finale, then we, aurally, become pregnant with new hope just like Sieglinde. Yet the loss of all security, the destruction of domestic life, the death of the loved one antecede this hope. The desperation into which Sieglinde flees is reflected in the finale by the destruction of the world by fire and water, so that the melody of the “mightiest of miracles” suggests this hope for love and life very subtly in the form of a question.
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?”
After the mythical milieus and natural spaces of the previous three parts of the cycle, the setting at the opening of Act One of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS – “Hall of the Gibichungs on the Rhine” – brings us into the reality of the human world for the first time in the RING. Wagner described the scenography for this location as “the most difficult task of all”, and Josef Hoffmann’s stage design for the premiere performance led to the first serious dispute between them. Wagner considered even the sketch “much too grand”. He had after all turned away from specific history so as “to eschew all outward splendour and to present man without any conventional additions”, as Cosima noted in her diary at the end of 1873. Presenting (wo)man was his object in TWILIGHT OF THE GODS; “conventional additions” on the stage imply costumed specificity of time and place, which there is no escaping from. Josef Hoffmann not only designed a Hall of the Gibichungs for the Bayreuth stage, but even constructed one in its entirety for the 1892 Vienna Music and Theatre Exhibition, where it was housed in its own pavilion. The two halls had been designed in the most opulent Germanic mythological style on the basis of archaeological studies, but Wagner only wanted the pure essence as necessitated by the drama. And in music theatre locally, that can be understood for a start as the man or woman in the here and now who visits the Deutsche Oper Berlin and, on entering the foyer, lets him- or herself in for what is an institutionalized theatre performance.
The big ground-floor foyer of this opera house is dominated by a metal sculpture that hangs as large as a cloud on the wooden wall: George Baker’s Alunos Discus – 10m long, 3m high and weighing a tonne. The kinetic sculpture was commissioned by the American Chamber of Commerce on its 75th anniversary as a gift for the people of West Berlin. A frequent visitor to the Deutsche Oper Berlin over the years, Baker himself saw the sculpture in the context of Richard Wagner. He explained the relationship of time and space as a direct result of attending a performance of PARSIFAL in 1975: “The orientation, location and scale decisions were finalized.” The sculpture was inaugurated in the middle of a RING cycle, between SIEGFRIED and TWILIGHT OF THE GODS. In 1978, the sculpture was set in motion by a flick of a switch by the US Secretary of Commerce, Juanita Kreps. At the inauguration Baker stated: “The sculpture is concerned with form in its most abstract and non-representational sense. Although the shapes of forms are abstract, I am aware that the intuitive judgements and resulting images are a product of my own evolution, dreams and environment.” In the work the artist consciously plays with changing abstract forms, differing surface reflections and non-figurative shadow patterns, with the result that the viewer’s standpoint becomes particularly focused and one sees the images as the product of one’s own evolution, dreams and environment. At the request of Fritz Bornemann, architect of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the sculpture was later spray-painted to fit in with the look of the foyer. Does the work define the space or does the institution shape the work? What does active reception actually mean? Reaction? Even when painted a darker colour to better suit the wooden panelling?
Wagner was equally concerned about emotional understanding (Gefühlsverständnis) on the part of his audience, recognizing that achieving it would be difficult especially in any staging of the final part of the tetralogy. He made the following remarks at the end of A COMMUNICATION TO MY FRIENDS: “When I was forced to accept that composition of ‘Siegfried’s Tod’, each time I attempted it in earnest, was pointless and impossible, so long as I held to my definite intention of having it given on stage immediately, I was not only troubled generally by my knowledge of today’s opera singers being incapable of accomplishing the task I presented in this drama, but also and in particular I was beset by the worry that the emotional understanding which is the sole aim of my poetic conception in all its parts would not awaken in the audience of today, or indeed in any audience.” Doubts about the feasibility of staging the work ultimately led to an immense concentration of roles. For no other artist have all the artistic ideals and technical matters been so concentrated as they were for Richard Wagner at the premiere production of RING OF THE NIBELUNG in Bayreuth in 1876. Wagner had not just written the libretto and the music himself, he also built a theatre specifically for the work, chose production design and stage technician personnel, cast the singers, led rehearsals with them, and directed the performance himself. After more than a quarter of a century of peregrinations and exile, the location and venue for his art work in fact represented, for Wagner, nothing more than an opportunity to have it performed. Following the financial disaster of the first festival of 1876 – the debts were not fully repaid until 1906 – Wagner even considered emigrating with his festival to the USA, where he had been handsomely remunerated for his Centennial March for the opening of the international exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, receiving 5,000 dollars. He ascribed nothing specifically national to his art; rather he used it to answer a question he had formulated in a letter to Eduard Hanslick as early as 1847: “And from the standpoint of my capacities, which personally I doubt much more than I overestimate, my current and next projects are in effect experiments to determine whether opera is possible.”
Wagner saw his festival theatre consecrated “by the German spirit”, even though he definitely did not want any national theatre, as he said in his speech at the laying of the foundation stone for the festival theatre in 1872 – “Where might the ‘nation’ be that erected this theatre for itself?” Wagner forged a link between his German spirit and the audience “because it [i.e. the former] might hope to recognize itself in your hearts”. The RING was thus a mythical collective forge of the German spirit – which Wagner had claimed for himself, as we see in a diary entry from September 1865: “I am the most German person, the most German spirit.” At the time Wagner set about fashioning a work from the Nibelung legend, it was a very popular German subject. Ernst Raupach’s five-act play Der Nibelungen-Hort of 1834 was set as a grand opera by Heinrich Dorn. Wagner knew Dorn as director of the orchestra at the theatre in Riga while he was kapellmeister there, and he was also familiar with that work, as Franz Liszt had conducted its very successful premiere in Weimar in 1854. The opera inspired Friedrich Hebbel’s tragedy Die Nibelungen, which was performed, also in Weimar, in 1861 after a ten-year period of composition. As early as 1844, Friedrich Theodor Vischer had recommended the Nibelung legend “as the text for a great heroic opera”. It is especially interesting, from today’s gender-aware perspective, that he spoke explicitly of “heroes and heroines”, and made the following urgent request: “Let these iron men, these giant women, be given the eloquence that the drama demands, the sophistry of passion, the reflexion, the ability to set out, justify and doubt their wishes, as is absolutely necessary for the dramatic character.”
This call was echoed by one woman in particular, who championed the cause and took up the literary realization of such a work. The socially critical democrat and founder of the first German women’s movement, Louise Otto, born six years after Wagner, published a long article on the “The Nibelungs in Opera” in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik on 12 August 1845. In it, she wrote: “Opera is supposed to be an art form, perhaps one of the greatest, because so many arts come together in it – and what has one made of it? One regards it only as composition, enquiring at the very most how the prima donna sang.” She recognized the genre’s possibilities, and was aware of efforts in literature to create a national drama for the German stage, but found no analogous impulses among composers. “The first step would have been taken if an opera were to be made out of the Nibelung legend,” she wrote, urging: “Give us first the Nibelungs as an opera; that will also be the first step in raising opera from its present sunken state to its apogee once more, where it can be infused with the new consciousness of the times and can carry the new ideas of the times. But until music itself has recognized this as its own peculiar task, we will have to be content if it decides to cease striving for a one-sided universality and consider nationality as its prime and most sacred goal.”
Its attainment was initially hindered, however, by precisely this national consciousness. Otto wrote scenes for a Nibelung opera and, acting on the suggestion of the librarian Gustav Klemmt, she approached Richard Wagner about composing the music for it. Wagner responded by saying he wanted to be “poet and musician in one” – if he were ever to work on that material. The first act of Otto’s draft libretto was published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1845. That summer she wrote to Vischer, with whom Richard Wagner was later friends as well: “If it’s Heaven’s will, we shall hear the Nibelungs sing in 1847” – the young Danish composer Niels Gade having expressed his intention to set Otto’s libretto. Gade was a mentee of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, who had conducted the premiere, in Leipzig, of his first symphony – enthusiastically reviewed by Robert Schumann – and he not only took over as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts, but also travelled to Meissen in order to work with Otto on the Nibelung opera. In 1847 she noted with satisfaction, “I have written a libretto – nothing less than the Nibelungs, which Niels Gade is now composing”. That same year Gade played through the first act for her on the piano, but nothing more was to be completed of this German national opera, because the Schleswig-Holstein uprising led to military conflict with Denmark; in 1848 Gade had to flee to Copenhagen, where he became director of the Music Society. The First German-Danish War put a stop to further realization of a Nibelung opera.
Otto finished off the libretto by herself and published it in 1851 in the Frauen-Zeitung newspaper and also separately as a reprint. The preface reads as follows: “Brunhilde and Chriemhilde are a genuine type of ancient German female character, before whose might we should involuntarily bow down today; and I consider it to be highly appropriate for our times that such characters should be presented to us. After all, what is exhibited in Brunhilde is the free, bold woman who does not wish to be a man’s slave and who, having become one, finds herself forced into the bad characteristics of slavery and her sole recourse: cunning. Meanwhile the noble, gently loving Chriemhilde, who has her beloved taken from her and is denied justice for his death, seeks refuge in revenge, and turns from a loving maiden into a ‘blood-thirsty she-wolf’. Chriemhilde’s fate is shared by many women, most especially in these times – and for this reason, too, it is high time to present this ancient saga to our readers.”
Robert Schumann arranged for the publication and had a letter sent to the authoress announcing his interest in composing the music. Otto was very gratified and offered to make alterations in advance to accommodate Schumann’s wishes. “Where you would like changes – maybe cuts or the transposing of scenes – I could carry that out and then tell you if we were to meet in person in late autumn, so that we could then put the finishing touches to it together,” she informed the composer in 1852. Schumann was enthusiastic and voiced praise: “Volker the minstrel’s song, and a number of other things in your Nibelung libretto are real jewels. We shall decide on other matters, on everything indeed, quickly at a later point.” The song he mentions is sung at the betrothal of Siegfried and Chriemhild, and tells of the hero and his treasure: “The Nibelungs’ hoard was gained by his hand, / the sword Balmung won by the hero from the lowland.” The minstrel Volker von Alzey poetically evokes something beyond the material value of the Nibelung treasure and reveals a gentle side to Siegfried in the final stanza:
Nun sprach von hoher Minne er manches süße Wort –
Sei’s auch im andern Sinne ein Nibelungenhort,
Ein Hort, der nimmer endet, wie viel Ihr nehmt und gebt,
Der ewig treu verpfändet in zweien Herzen lebt.
(Now many a sweet word he spoke of courtly love – / as though it were in another sense a Nibelung treasure, / a treasure that never ends, no matter how much you take and give, / and that lives, truly pledged forever, in two hearts.)
This time it was Schumann’s worsening illness that not only prevented the personal meeting scheduled for late autumn in Dresden, but also ruled out work on the composition altogether. One wonders what sort of national opera that would have been, with a libretto by the women’s rights activist Otto and music by the Romantic Schumann. What would the German spirit have sounded like, had it begotten, not Brünnhilde’s enlightened self-immolation, but Kriemhild’s man-slaying orgy of revenge? Would we have heard in it anything of the world which Wagner could only intimate in the final bars?
Louise Otto, for herself, was an enthusiastic follower of Wagner. She saw RIENZI, THE FLYING DUTCHMAN and TANNHÄUSER in Dresden, and gave the composer her text Art and Our Time which had been published in 1852. The composer even received from her in person, some ten years later, a poem dedicated to him, the last stanza of which reads:
Dir winkt der Tempel der Unsterblichkeit,
Die jeden Genius der Zukunft weiht,
Der seinem Volk vorangegangen.
Es folgt Dir nach zum Reich, das Du erschaut,
Der Zukunft Kunstwerk wird einst hoch erbaut
Und Dir geweihet prangen.
(To you beckons the temple of immortality, / which consecrates every genius of the future / who has led the way for his people. / They follow you toward the realm that you glimpsed. / The art work of the future will one day, erected high / and dedicated to you, shine forth.)
Still, as a seventy-year-old she informed the Berlin music critic Wilhelm Tappert: “I am no blind devotee of Wagner. Many of his views I do not share, least of all his pessimism in the Nibelungs. I leave every performance in a grim mood, while [I leave] Lohengrin and Meistersinger in the most exalted [mood], as the supreme artistic pleasure.” She first saw Wagner’s RING in Leipzig in 1878 and was enthusiastic in her review of the female figures in the tetralogy: “It is quite admirable how Wagner has been able to shape the most varied female characters here both poetically and musically and to differentiate the one from the other, and how here male avarice, brutal passion and violations, cunning and malice are always met with nobility, purity and sublimity on the part of the women.” If she leaves TWILIGHT OF THE GODS in a “grim mood”, then it is because the “day of darkness that dawns for the gods” foreseen in Erda’s dictum has indeed come to pass, but without bringing the bright new day that should dawn for all humanity.
When Richard Wagner presented the director of the Dresden Court Theatre, Eduard Devrient, with his sketch on the Nibelungs, the latter 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.”
Humanity common to us all, the human being that has escaped from and is liberated from all national and societal structures, stands at the beginning and the end of this RING OF THE NIBELUNG, on both sides of the curtain. Louise Otto, in 1847, certainly welcomed a pre-revolutionary democratization of art but warned: “As yet it is only the middle classes, the bourgeoisie, that has grasped and used this advantage. But it would be especially desirable if the music were to penetrate to the lowest strata of society, to help and provide relief there.” In the course of the political events of 1848 she asks: “The revolution is here; it will not leave us until it has gone its way in all regions and done its work. A great, great work – will we live to see its completion?” The search for a mythical home continues to this day, sustained by a revolutionary impulse for constant social reorganization.