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Selected Review


Books

The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung

Roger Scruton by Andy Hall

Roger Scruton
Allen Lane, hardback 401pp. £25
ISBN 978-0-241-18855-2

Many years ago, Roger Scruton told me that he hoped some day to be able to write the kind of comprehensive study of The Ring of the Nibelung that Deryck Cooke had begun, but had less than half finished at the time of his premature death in 1976. Cooke had intended to show how Wagner’s text for The Ring is integrated with and illuminated by the music, something that no one had yet satisfactorily done. Sadly, what he completed of the book (published posthumously under the title I Saw the World End) deals mainly with the text and only barely touches on the music, of which he had a profound understanding.

Scruton has now produced his book, and it is a magnificent achievement. It does everything that Cooke might have done, and more.

As a philosopher, and a composer of two operas (both performed), Scruton is ideally equipped to understand what The Ring is about. He explains, on the one hand, how Wagner’s libretto is related to the philosophical theories of Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Feuerbach and Schopenhauer, and the revitalising of German folk-culture begun by Herder; on the other, he scrupulously analyses Wagner’s musical language, with its immensely subtle system of leitmotifs (an appendix includes 186 of them) that change and develop with the characters, and the ideas they represent, in order to elucidate his drama. It is a drama, Scruton shows, that encompasses the whole of human life.

Drawing on his philosophical knowledge, Scruton deals with the The Ring’s central themes of law, power, resentment and love with exceptional insight. He is critical of those who have viewed The Ring as an allegory, for, as he says, “such interpretations . . . absorb the individual characters of the drama into abstract categories that apply to us all.” He is insistent that all the main characters of The Ring – Wotan, Alberich, Brünnhilde, Siegfried – are complex individuals, brought to life with a dramatic power that equals the Greek tragedians. His portrait of Brünnhilde is one of unrivalled sympathetic understanding, and Siegfried too, often portrayed as a cardboard hero, is treated with sympathy and respect.

What comes across most strongly in The Ring of Truth is the immense seriousness of Wagner’s great work, and its importance to us, if we can understand its message. For great works of art are not mere entertainment; they have taken the place of religion in the lives of those of us for whom religious faith is now impossible. As Wagner wrote: “It is reserved to art to salvage the kernel of religion, inasmuch as the mythical images that religion would wish to be believed as true are apprehended in art for their symbolic value, and through ideal representation of those symbols art reveals the concealed deep truth within them.” Wagner was not a religious believer, but he shows how since the death of religion it is still possible to find meaning in our lives. “By purely artistic means”, Scruton says, “and with no reference to the transcendental, [The Ring] consecrates the short life that is ours.”

Throughout The Ring there are moments that embody the idea of the sacred, which for Wagner, as Scruton explains, is “conceived as an aura attaching to the great transitions and existential choices, the aura that sets them apart from nature, as visitors from another sphere.” For instance, in his farewell to his daughter Brünnhilde at the end of Die Walküre, Wotan promises that she will only be woken from her sleep by a fearless hero; the orchestra rises up in great waves, and the motif of her impending sleep, her transition from divine to mortal, is proclaimed with superb acceptance. These sacred moments culminate in Brünnhilde’s self-sacrifice at the end of Götterdämmerung, the only way that love can finally triumph, after it has been degraded by the machinations of its enemy Alberich and his son Hagen. Despite the pessimism of most of the rest of Götterdämmerung, in which the idealistic hopes of romantic love expressed by Siegfried and Brünnhilde at the end of Siegfried come to naught, The Ring ends with a moment of supreme rapture, as the orchestra recalls Sieglinde’s blessing of Brünnhilde in Act Three of Die Walküre, when the Valkyrie has promised Sieglinde that she will give birth to Siegfried. In all these moments love is expressed as a gift, rather than as selfish desire.

At the start of his book, Scruton deals briefly with modern productions of The Ring where, as he says, it is “deliberately stripped of its legendary atmosphere and primordial setting, and everything is brought down to the quotidian level, jettisoning the mythical aspect of the story, so as to give us only half of what it means.” I have seen productions of The Ring and the other mature Wagner operas where at almost every moment what is happening on stage is in conflict with what the music is saying. On these occasions the only remedy is to take a blindfold with you. These productions, in which Wagner’s ideas are relentlessly trivialised, are doing immense damage to the innocent young who are encountering Wagner for the first time. I am grateful that I saw decent productions of The Ring at Covent Garden before the rot set with Patrice Chéreau’s dismal deconstruction at Bayreuth in 1976. The Ring of Truth should be compulsory reading for anyone intending to produce The Ring, who then may perhaps learn modesty and be able to acknowledge his own insignificance in the face of Wagner’s majestic vision.

David Matthews

Picture by Andy Hall

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