Podium: Tim Cordell - Wagner's Ring is more than music

From a series of lectures by the Professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania in America
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The Independent Culture
FOR VAST numbers of music lovers, The Ring of the Nibelung remains an incomprehensible mystery. Even dedicated opera lovers sometimes wonder how to approach Wagner's Ring for the first time. After all, there are several practical problems: it is a deeply intricate and sometimes convoluted work written to raise important questions regarding man and society; the music is not always tuneful and for long stretches of time one could become bored; and, it is so long!

To complete the cycle requires four evenings totalling fifteen to sixteen hours of concentrated listening. The Ring is an innovative experience in which the audience is expected to assume an active role by sensing a number of intellectual and emotional situations. It involves complex questions relating to the growth and decay of civilisation, while containing enough entertainment to satisfy most people who approach it seriously.

Still, to enjoy opera does not necessarily mean that one will appreciate this work. There is a fundamental dissimilarity between opera and Wagner's staged festival play, and he intended these differences to be glaringly obvious. Detesting passive spectators who went to the theatre for a night out, or as a diversion from the dreariness of life, he refused to pander to anyone's superficial desire for pleasure. All too frequently opera represented a mindless form of diversion, even though the best of them contained some exquisite tunes.

With most Italian and French operas, the process of becoming familiar with a new work for the first time is not difficult. The occasional opera goer, or one not willing to do too much advanced preparation, may arrive at the theatre early, buy a libretto, and read the plot; or glance over the programme notes before the performance. If some particulars are forgotten, they can just sit back and listen to the music. Sooner or later some melody should make the evening worthwhile.

This approach will not work with The Ring. Without a good background, Wagner's Ring is almost impenetrable. Nevertheless, anyone interested in the economic, political, and social problems affecting mankind may approach this work without hesitation. Is all of this advanced preparation really necessary?

Regrettably, the answer is yes, and for a practical reason: except for a few brief, albeit highly charged and exciting, musical show-pieces, the music alone seldom commands undivided attention. Undeniably, some of the music is known even to those who are unfamiliar with Wagner's name: the entrance of the gods into Valhalla; several sensuous parts of the first act of "The Valkyrie"; the bombastic ride of the Valkyries ; the fire music which closes that drama; the forest murmurs in "Siegfried"; and the Rhine journey from "Twilight of the Gods".

But when added up, these musical titbits total about one hour, or less than one-15th of the time it takes to perform the cycle. Without adequate preparation the music by itself is not likely to engage anyone's concentrated attention.

Wagner was aware of what he was doing, and it was deliberate: Whenever words are of special importance, they must be heard and understood, and that sometimes means reducing the orchestra to a level even lower than chamber music. Attending The Ring cycle was not meant to be a vicarious emotional experience at the expense of one's intellectual faculties, but exactly the opposite. At its conclusion, one is expected to be so intellectually stimulated that the important philosophical, political, economic, moral, and social questions should prompt a re-evaluation of our civilisation.

No other composer demanded this of an audience. Wagner forces us to understand some of the world's problems and shortcomings so that we may ultimately help change the course of history, or share responsibility for not having done so. He anticipates that his arguments will be taken seriously, for he is concerned with the issue of power, together with man's mental and physical enslavement of others. It depicts, as he once so clearly described to his wife, "the curse of greed for money, and the disaster it brings about". This premise was the principle reason why he wrote the cycle. In so many ways The Ring of the Nibelung is a morality play built upon an integrated philosophical base. It is as timely now as when written. Wagner intended to expose the reasons why man brought so much misery, unhappiness, and anxiety upon himself. If man would only recognise that the blind craving for power was wrong, if not evil, he could "tear it out by the roots and establish a righteous world in its stead".