I saw the world end

I have a confession to make...it's a serious one, one that's been burdening me for a long time...I don't "get" Wagner, or rather, more honestly and specifically, I don't "get" The Ring. Now this may not seem much to you, but to a musician it's a big deal. It's rather like mentioning casually over nibbles at the Spanish Inquisition's annual cheese and wine bash that you've always been a bit undecided about transubstantiation. It's not that I don't like or appreciate the music because I do, but there's something about the whole thing that just alienates me.

I think there are several problems most of which are not Wagner's fault. First there's the sheer nuttiness of some of the productions - not, I hasten to add that I've ever seen The Ring live, perhaps I'd feel differently if I had - but some of the productions that I have seen on TV have been, well, weird is the only way to describe it : people on stilts, Rhine maidens in fishtanks, large red balls whizzing across the stage (no, I don't know why). And there's the singer problem - Wagner's tricky to sing, your technique's got to be good if you're going to survive a performance, and also you need a certain level of physical development too. So younger characters are usually played by noticeably older singers in dreadful wigs and sometimes (usually!) equally bizarre costumes. Then there's the cliquiness of Wagnerites. Most I'm sure are lovely people, but a lot that I've met are a mixture of Richard Attenborough's "Lovies" with a hint of Star Wars conventioneer and a good dose of musical snobbery thrown in. I mean, you can't altogether blame them - you must feel like comrades in arms after being entombed in an opera house for 4 nights.

I don't blame Wagner for any of this - he can't help who likes his music, or their oddities of behaviour, or the idiosyncracies of opera directors. But my main problem is Wagner's fault. What I find most difficult are the gods - I'm just completely incapable of suspending disbelief for Rheingold, or for that matter for anything which involves gods and goddesses tramping up and down stage. It all seems a bit, well, silly....

Which brings me to Deryck Cooke's I saw the world end. ISTWE is a sort of commentary on The Ring cycle. Cooke, one of the foremost musicologists of his age, had intended to write a substantial volume on the text of The Ring (Wagner was librettist as well as composer) examining Wagner's sources for the cycle, and his own adaptations / amendments. This was intended to be followed by a further volume examining the music in detail. Unfortunately Cooke died before he'd even completed the section on the sources. Enough however was done for ISTWE to be assembled in its current form. The section on Rheingold is complete, and Walkure is just about done. Some of the background to Walkure does seem to be slightly sketchy certainly when compared to the Rheingold chapters, and there's no concluding chapter as there was for Rheingold, but to all intents and purposes up to that point, it is complete. Sadly nothing was done about the final two operas in the cycle Siegfried and Gotterdammerung, neither was anything put together for the music volume. Although it's likely that his radio talks were intended to feed into these missing volumes.

At this point you may be puzzled as to why with my Ring phobia I'm reading ISTWE at all. Well, part of my work does involve Deryck Cooke, and, another guilty confession, I should have read it at university and never quite got around to it, so I thought that perhaps now was the time. The surprise is that I really enjoyed it. But I really enjoyed it not, I must admit principally, because of Wagner. Cooke is a very engaging writer, and his enthusiasm sweeps you up. I was also much relieved a few pages in to read this: "...but many people are actually put off The Ring because they find them [i.e. the gods] frankly ridiculous." If not absolution, it did at least make me feel that my Ring phobia was not entirely unreasonable. So on to the volume itself...

The first chapters look at some of the ideas behind Ring criticism, and then looks very briefly, but also helpfully at the music and Wagner's use of motives in the cycle (v. handy if you're about to embark on some Ring listening). Some musical knowledge is needed here, and if you have at least some prior knowledge of the themes that are used in The Ring you'll find this very useful. However after that when Cooke starts to look at the more literary side, no real musical knowledge is needed, and it's not just dedicated Wagnerites who will enjoy the majority of the volume. Cooke looks in depth at the legendary and literary sources (mainly Scandinavian and German) that Wagner drew on, and how he moulded and adapted them for his operatic cycle. And these sources I found fascinating, as they impact hugely on Western literature. Here are the stories that were drawn on for Beowulf, for Lord of the Rings, even for Arthurian legend; and which continue to be used in an updated version in, for instance, Star Wars. Perhaps it's not surprising after all that dedicated "Ringites" have something in common with sci-fi conventioneers(!) It's really interesting stuff from a literary perspective, and there's the odd surprise.

Take Lord of the Rings for instance which was heavily influenced by Tolkien's own background in Anglo-Norse mythology. Although many of the similarities between The Ring and Lord of the Rings are purely because they share source materials, certain ideas and themes are simply Wagner. The power invested in the ring itself, for example, is taken straight from Wagner, not from the original legends. Where Cooke surprised me most however was when he explained how humanity, rather than a parade of gods lies at the heart of the operatic cycle. By part way through reading the section related to Walkure, I was reassessing my own conception of The Ring, and was realising that, perhaps, I had got it all a bit wrong, so...whispers embarrassedly, I went out and bought a complete Ring cycle. Deryck Cooke may not have quite converted me, but I think I'm well on the way to being absolved.

This review is purely the personal thoughts of Bookhound, and has no relationship to any other lives I may lead here in cyberspace or elsewhere in reality...

Comments

McGonagall said…
Happy absolution! I've seen the Ring Cycle twice at Seattle Opera, and would jump at a chance to see it performed by another company. Yes, the story is absurd. You only have to listen to Anna Russell's factually correct, but hilarious analysis, to realise that it's Pythonesque. (https://beautifulrailwaybridgeofthesilverytay.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/daily-video-the-ring-of-the-nibelungs-an-analysis/). Fortunately, I have an extreme susceptibility to the willing suspension of disbelief. Hope you enjoy the Ring Cycle with new ears.

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