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Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire: Politics and Religion in Wagner’s Ring
by Mark Berry

274 pp
Ashgate Publishing Limited.
ISBN 0 7546 5356 0 (hardcover)
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This book is unusual, even in the crowded field of Wagner scholarship. . As John Deathridge notes, "despite the intellectual challenge Wagner’s many-sided personality poses, scholars who can bridge interdisciplinary boundaries have been surprisingly rare". Berry is a historian whose knowledge of the social, political and philosophic background is panoramic. Since Wagner was something of a polymath and extremely widely read, this is an achievement in itself. What makes this book outstanding, though, is that Berry is also a very gifted musician. He understands how music can evoke feeling and concept. Wagner saw music as being a non-verbal way in which he could express his "most profound intuitions". Berry brings detailed musical analysis to support his themes. He understands that "the relative autonomy of art, with its prophetic gifts, its sublimated flashes of insight, its formal yet authentic discontinuities, provides richer pickings than the "scientific" security of archives." One needs to be something of an artist oneself to be able to write so instinctively about art.

Just as materialism had demeaned society, theatre had descended from Greek ideals to superficial artifice. Beethoven’s music communicated so deeply that Wagner called it "involuntary attempts to construct a language", poems without words. Integrated with the human expression of feelings and ideas, instrumental music could become a "truly living organism". As Berry puts it, music "as a ‘language above language’… can achieve the ‘completion’ of verse". The thrust behind Wagner’s music-drama was therefore fundamentally conceptual, encompassing a limitless, highly integrated world-view. Because what he was doing was so innovative, he had to create his own means of expression. His opera fused the motivic sophistication of the symphony after Beethoven with drama based on ideas. Instinctively, he turned to mythical archetypes as symbolic images, long before Jung found them therapeutic emotive. Yet, his characters are so cannily filled out by background and music that they are psychologically convincing, making the drama work on a profoundly emotional as well as intellectual level.

Berry is crucially aware of the importance of this deeper level, and of the way music can express that which cannot be articulated. Indeed, Wagner’s leitmotivs create the complex architecture of the saga, linking past and future, linking theme and counter-theme, like unseen and influential commentary. Berry’s innate musicality infuses his analysis of the relationship between music and dramatic concept. His exegesis is built, theme by theme, on a detailed analysis of the score and how it progresses Wagner’s thoughts. This is a level beyond mere textual awareness. Music is a powerful means of communication, but this communication can be so subtle that it allows for informed interpretation. Berry’s appreciation of performance issues means that he respects what conductors and musicians have learned from living with the Ring. He quotes Furtwängler sensing the menace behind the ideas. In particular he refers to Boulez, who studied the Ring both as conductor and composer. Boulez ‘s musical and intellectual insights are striking, and it is good to see Berry giving them their due. For Boulez, Wagner’s music reaches the deepest levels of the psyche, "counterpointing … a multiplicity of things that are not visible … bearing the watermark of the limitless theatre of the imagination". It is an observation that helps explain why the Ring is so endlessly fascinating, and sparks such challenging interpretation.

Thus follow detailed analyses, theme by theme, demonstrating how the saga is developed, and how it is intensified by music. This is lucidly intense, concentrated writing that repays thoughtful reading. Meticulously logical, the arguments follow a tightly organised structure, and are models of clarity. Yet Berry’s ideas are so fertile that they raise many tantalising tangents that could themselves be developed into whole chapters. This is a book to be read many times over, savouring its insights to the full, the music ringing in your ears. The elegance of the prose is like music itself, well cadenced and developed.

Doing justice to the detailed analyses is difficult. There is a masterly account of the symbolism of the forest and Rhine, positioning Wagner in the context not just in terms of his well known philosophic influences but in the widest flow of Germanic thought. Berry’s knowledge of the intricacies of nineteenth century socio-economic thought is superb. Wagner’s intuitive linking of economic forces with tyranny makes his views worryingly prescient. Alberich and Hagen would only have to don the Tarnhelm "to transport the German people to 1933". The Ring, with its sweeping vision of relationships, and the "treacherous bonds" that being part of society entails, presents a worldview that goes beyond its time and is still prescient about the challenges of our technological, information based age.

Wagner, who knew state suppression at first hand, believed that unlimited, all controlling power was a kind of theft. "The necessity of free self-determination of the individual, which is common to all organs of society, amounts to the destruction of the state". Those who hold the Ring come under its thrall, and are destroyed. Wotan’s frustration is played out in his music as demonstrated through quotes from the score, libretto and stage directions. Thus Valhalla, as the material symbol of the gods’ power, is "fantastical, parasitical reflection of social, political and economic reality". As Berry wryly demonstrates, "Wotan’s Burg is not fest", despite the sonority with which it is depicted. Nonetheless, from the idea of redemption through god-made-man, grew the seeds of Wagner’s resolution of the conflict between individual and the state. Hence the role of Loge, whose music wavers between keys and tonalities, restless and mocking. Berry observes that Gerhard Stolze’s controversial near-Sprechgesang playing of the role highlighted Loge’s fundamental alienation from either god or man. He provides the fire that will protect Brünnhilde, but his very nature is a challenge to the complacency of the gods.

As Furtwängler observed of Alberich, "the will to power" can only be achieved if "the imagination, joy in life (is) anathematised". It leads "to the authoritarian state and finally to the atom bomb". No surprise that the "frenetic chromatic frustration" of Alberich’s music degenerates into distortion as he tells Hagen to "hate the happy". Happiness, then, is the alternative and can be achieved at least temporarily, through love. The ecstatic orchestral lyricism in Act One of Die Walküre heralds the bond between the outsiders, Siegmund and Sieglinde. It is "the revolutionary novelty and power of the Volsungs’ love" that so impresses Brünnhilde that leads her to defy the rules of the gods. Berry’s critique of Wagner’s socio-political ideas on love could be expanded to analyse the operas as a group.

Similarly, Berry’s ideas on the role of outsiders as agents for change apply to Parsifal, Stolzing and the Flying Dutchman as well as to Siegmund and Siegfried. But "Taten" (deeds) without "Philosophie" (understanding and purpose) cannot achieve real change. As Boulez said, Siegfried’s music is "essentially movement and action …. all light and colour": Siegfried disregards fear, but does understand it. Berry studies the "extraordinary leitmotivic genealogy, both intellectual and human" in the funeral music, and then goes on to discuss Wotan’s renunciation of power and Will. Since man (and by extension God) could not exist solely for himself, Berry says, "not only could he endure nothingness, it might even represent the ultimate hope". Brünnhilde’s benediction, "Rest, rest, you God" takes the form of a rocking lullaby, a far cry from the angry counterpoint in Wotan’s dismissal of Erda.

Through suffering, Brünnhilde translates personal love into compassion. "The possibility of conscious suffering", as Berry paraphrases Wagner, "brings recognition of the oneness of the human species". Acting through the purest, selfless form of love, Brünnhilde annuls the "treacherous bonds" that have compromised the world. Returning the Ring restores the natural balance as the Rhine waters flood and cleanse. But is this a simple ending? As Berry notes, where’s Alberich? And the men and women watching Valhalla go up in flames, will they simply gawp or will they learn? Will they create a new world without gods? Will they have learned, from Brünnhilde’s example, to live with compassion instead of false gods and laws? Where does Parsifal stand in relation to the Ring? Herein lie some of Berry’s most provocative insights. He quotes Wagner writing as early as 1849, "whereas the spirit of the isolated man remains eternally buried in deepest night, it is awakened in the combination of men". Do the watchers provide a counterbalance to the nihilism of Loge’s cleansing fire? Berry examines the final, wordless, equivocal ending with its echoes of the past. Just as the Greek oracles were deliberately ambiguous, listening to the final bars of the Ring may tell us, as Boulez said, "to renounce easy illusion and create in ourselves the void from which a new genesis may spring". Wagner has released us from the concept of fixed endings, just as he throws us the responsibility of thinking and searching creatively.

Just as coming to terms with the Ring is a commitment in time and imagination, this book will repay dividends in terms of insights into the music and the worldview it represents.

Anne Ozorio


Ashgate Books


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