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Redemption in Wagner's Ring Cycle

Wednesday 24th August, 2016 @ 5:22 pm

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Professor Richard Bell of Nottingham University gave a fascinating lecture at St Mary's in June. The text can be found here.


Redemption in Wagner’s Ring cycle.
Lecture given in St Mary’s Nottingham, 22 June 2016.
Professor Richard H. Bell, University of Nottingham

I The Ring of the Nibelung

Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung comprises four operas: The Rhinegold, , Siegfried, and Twilight of the Gods (Götterdämmerung). In order to understand redemption in this vast work of around 15 hours, one has to be clear about how it evolved. The first sketch of the whole cycle was made in October 1848; this prose sketch contains many but not all of the essential elements of the final work and its purpose was to prepare for just one heroic opera, Siegfried’s Death (and Wagner produced a verse draft in November 1848). Very roughly Siegfried’s Death corresponds to what was finally to be called Twilight of the Gods (Götterdämmerung). But over the next four years Siegfried’s Death was prefaced first by The Young Siegfried and then by The Valkyrie and The Rhinegold. And as Wagner expanded the work his view of redemption, a central theme of the drama, was to change, as we will discover later.

But first, we must ask: what exactly is redemption (the German term is “Erlösung”)? And how would Wagner understand it?

II What is redemption (“Erlösung”)?

The fundamental source for his idea of redemption is Martin Luther’s German bible. Here we see that redemption means paying a price so as to free property or a person. The book of Leviticus chapter 25 tell us that if someone falls into financial difficulty and has to sell their property, then their next of kin should then come and redeem what the relative has sold (v. 25). That is they pay a price in order to free that property. This corresponds to our speaking of redeeming a mortgage. More interesting for our purposes of understanding redemption is the freeing of a prisoner, captive or slave by paying a ransom. We find this again in the book of Leviticus and indeed in the Ring cycle we see that the goddess Freia is ransomed in scene 4 of Rhinegold. Addressing her fellow gods (especially Wotan) she asks:

Does Holda (ie Freia) really seem to you worthy of ransom? Dünkt euch Holda wirklich der Lösung Werth?

She has been a prisoner of the giants, but when all the gold, tarnhelm and ring are given to the giants, Wotan exclaims to Freia “You are freed, you are bought back”; that is she is redeemed (cf. Fricka’s earlier words of Freia’s “begging silently for redemption (Erlösung)”).

But the idea of redemption I’m going to focus on tonight is when the price paid is not gold but the price of a person’s life. For Wagner the ultimate example of such a redemption is the sacrificial death of Christ. And in the early stages of composing the Ring he wrote sketches for an opera Jesus of Nazareth. There we read:

Jesus announces his true mission, his quality as son of God, the redemption of all peoples of the earth through him Jesus verkündigt seine wahre sendung – seine eigenschaft als gottes sohn, die erlösung aller völker durch ihn

This idea of Jesus’ redemptive death in the sense of paying a price is expressed by St Paul who tells the Corinthian Christians on two occasions: “you were bought with a price” (1 Cor 6.20; 7.23). However, if one then asks to whom the price was paid one can end up with some theological confusion. The Church father Origen argued that the price was paid to the devil. Others have argued the price was paid to God the father as a satisfaction. For my purposes today I assume that in such a redemptive act a price is paid but that it stretches too far the metaphor within the myth to ask to whom the price was paid. Such was the world of redemption in which Wagner was brought up. And one should never forget that Wagner was in many respects thoroughly Lutheran: he was baptised and confirmed a Lutheran. He was well acquainted with Luther’s bible; and in fact in preparation for his opera Jesus of Nazareth he worked systematically through the whole of Luther’s translation of the New Testament. His Lutheranism can be discerned not only in the Ring but also in Mastersingers and Parsifal and he took an increasing interest in Luther in the last 10 years of his life.

Now in addition to the direct influence of Luther’s bible there may well be other sources for his understanding of redemption. Very briefly, these are Greek tragedy, Norse mythology, Shakespeare, and Goethe. But Shakespeare and Goethe themselves were heavily influenced by the bible, and when it comes to Greek tragedy and Norse mythology, Wagner had essentially “baptized” them. And as far as German idealism is concerned, redemption seemed to take a back seat. The clearest sense of redemption is found in Schopenhauer but Wagner had actually written the libretto before he came to read this philosopher (his first proper reading was in the Autumn of 1854). He did however write an alternative Schopenhauerian ending in 1856, but decided not to include this when he came to setting the words to music.

Now the next question is what sort of redemption Wagner envisaged in the Ring and from what is one supposed to be redeemed.

III From what is one redeemed?

Anyone who has experienced the Ring cycle will see that the world is not really as it should be. Nature has been desecrated, and people are thoroughly unpleasant to each other. Indeed there is theft, betrayal and murder. Basically the world is a fallen world. One of the key themes of the Ring is original sin. The striking thing about this though is that the first sin was committed by the chief god Wotan. In the prologue to Götterdämmerung the first Norn (a fate) explains that once the World Ash Tree stood tall and strong, and in its shade was a spring from which wisdom came. But a “dauntless god”, i.e. Wotan, was so desperate to drink from this spring so he could attain wisdom, that he gave up one of his eyes. Then he broke off a branch from the sacred World Ash Tree to form his spear which came to represent his power and authority and his laws. But the wound left in the tree caused the whole mighty Ash to go rotten and the spring ran dry. Wagner’s Ring is remarkably modern and addresses many of our concerns, here, of course, the ecological crisis we now face. This is the first sin.

The second sin is seen at the beginning of Rhinegold. Three water nymphs of the river Rhine are pursued by a dwarf, a Nibelung called Alberich; he tries to seduce each one in turn but is unsuccessful. As the sunlight shines into the deep, the gold of the river Rhine is revealed in its glory. Two of the Rhinemaidens, Wellgunde and Woglinde, let out a secret: he who renounces love will be able to fashion a ring which will give him limitless power. Alberich then curses love and steals the gold. The stage direction emphasizes the violence of this theft: “He tears the gold from the rock with terrible force”, and then adds “Impenetrable darkness suddenly descends on all sides”. Disastrous consequences are to follow.

I’ll explain a few. Two giants, the brothers Fasolt and Fafner, have built for Wotan a castle, Valhalla. For payment they demand the gold of the river Rhine which Alberich has stolen. So Wotan in turn then steals the gold from Alberich together with the ring. But Alberich places a curse on the ring such that anyone who possesses it will come to a violent end. The power of this curse is seen almost immediately for the giants demand not just the gold but also the ring. And they fight over the ring and Fafner kills his brother Fasolt. The stage direction expresses the horror of this: “[Fafner] fells Fasolt with a single blow, then wrenches the ring from his dying brother” (WagRS 114). This may remind one of the first murder in the bible, again a fratricide, Cain killing Abel. Through the next operas whoever keeps hold of the ring comes to a violent end. So we have an original sin which leads to a series of disastrous consequences.

In view of such original sin Wotan needs a saviour figure. But as Wagner worked on the libretto in the years 1848-52, his conception of this saviour and what this saviour figure was to achieve was to change.

IV Who is the redeemer figure?

In the first sketches of the Ring, made in October 1848, this saviour figure was to be Siegfried. Wagner wrote “He has innocently taken on the guilt of the gods”. And in this early version, Siegfried’s death was to redeem the gods and also to free the race of dwarves, the Nibelungs! And this idea of Siegfried as redeemer recurs in the various drafts of the Ring right up until the verse draft for the third opera in the Ring cycle, Siegfried (this verse draft was completed 24 June 1851). So in the final section of Act III Scene 1 Wotan tells the earth goddess Erda that Siegfried “through a free deed / takes away the guilt / which a god once initiated”. Although in the final version of the Ring published in February 1853, Siegfried’s death still has an atoning value, the striking thing is that the key redeemer figure becomes Brünnhilde. We can discern this by the fact that as Wagner made final revisions to Siegfried at the end of 1852 the lines that Siegfried “through a free deed / takes away the guilt / which a god once initiated” were removed and a highly significant new line was added. Wotan declares to Erda that their daughter Brünnhilde “will work the deed that redeems the world” (“erlösende Weltentat”).

We have then this fundamental shift in Wagner’s development of his drama where the focus of the redeemer moves from Siegfried to Brünnhilde, and redemption moves from redemption of the gods to redemption of the world. And the way Brünnhilde emerges as this redeemer figure as the drama unfolds comes very much as a surprise in the second opera of the cycle, The Valkyrie. And it strongly suggests she is a Christ figure. Let me explain.

V Wotan’s plans to regain the ring and how they go wrong

Towards the end of the first opera, Rhinegold, as the gods are about to enter Valhalla, Wotan declares:

Thus I salute the stronghold, safe from dread and dismay. So – grüß’ ich die Burg, sicher vor Bang und Grau’n.

The stage direction says he sings “very resolutely, as though seized by a grandiose idea” and the so-called sword musical motif is introduced for the first time (here played by the second trumpet).

The fascinating thing is that the words say nothing of a sword yet it is seems highly significant that the sword motif is here played and for the first time in the Ring cycle. The reason Wagner uses this is to indicate, I think, that although Wotan is entering his stronghold Valhalla he still faces danger in that Alberich could recover the ring and wage war on Wotan and Valhalla (and Wotan expresses this anxiety in The Valkyrie Act II). The sword motif points to the hero who, Wotan unconsciously hopes, will recover the ring. So we do not have the idea of the original sketch that Wotan plans a hero to redeem the gods and free the Nibelungs, but rather we have Wotan, a politician in the worst sense, who wants to recover the ring so as to rule the world. Wotan himself cannot recover the ring because he is constrained by his treaties which are etched on his spear. So he needs a hero who can act independently of Wotan. And he realizes that an army of heros in Valhalla may well come in useful. So between Rhinegold and the next opera The Valkyrie Wotan gets to work in fathering lots of children, one of whom he chooses to be “the other”, an independent hero. So who are these children? Well they are not conceived through his wife Fricka (their marriage is actually childless). The first child, conceived by Erdea, is the Valkyrie Brünnhilde who becomes Wotan’s favourite daughter. Then he fathers eight more Valkyries (the mother is not specified although many assume without justification that the mother again is Erda). The function of the Valkyries is to take heros who have fallen in the battle field to Valhalla. Then he fathers twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, by a mortal woman. His plan is that it is Siegmund, chosen to be “the other”, who will recover the ring. One day Siegmund returned home from hunting with his father Wotan (whom he knew as “Wolf”); he discovered the house burned down, his mother dead and his sister missing. This was the work of the bandits the Neidings. Siegmund and his father set out to avenge this, but he was parted from his father. Sometime later Sieglinde, his long lost twin, was forced into an unhappy marriage with Hunding (a kinsman of the Neidings). But later Wotan arranges that Siegmund finds refuge from a storm in the home of Sieglinde and Hunding. The twins fall in love, Siegmund finds the sword which his father had left for him. The twins flee and Hunding pursues them.

At the beginning of The Valkyrie Act II Wotan tells Brünnhilde to harness her horse for there is to be a “furious fight”. She is to give victory to Siegmund – Hunding should die and Wotan adds that he does not want him in Valhalla. However, his wife Fricka, the goddess of marriage, arrives and Brünnhilde, a reminder to Fricka of Wotan’s infidelity, leaves the stage. Fricka tells Wotan that Siegmund must die. Siegmund has not only defiled a marriage but has committed incest. Wotan is eventually forced to agree to his wife’s demand. Fricka leaves. Brünnhilde, as she returns, sees that her father is deeply distressed. It is this scene depicted by Arthur Rackham in the painting I’ve used for the advertising this lecture. She says “Father! Father! Tell me what ails thee? With dismay thou art filling thy child”. Wotan tells her:

In my own fetters
I find myself caught: -
I, least free of all things living! In eig’ner Fessel
fing ich mich: -
ich unfreiester Aller

Brünnhilde asks him to unburden himself but Wotan fears that:

If I let it be spoken aloud,
shall I not loosen
my will’s restraining hold? Lass’ ioch’s verlauten,
lös’ ich dann nicht
meines Willens haltenden Haft?

Brünnhilde responds:

To Wotan’s will you speak
when you tell me what you will:
who am I
if not your will? Zu Wotan’s Willen sprichst du,
sag’st du mir du willst:
wer – bin ich,
wär’ ich dein Wille nicht?

Wotan does explain all, beginning with these significant words (unsung voices?):

What in words I reveal to no one,
let it stay
unspoken for ever:
with myself I commune
when I speak with you. - - -

Was Keinem in Worten ich künde,
bleib’ es den ewig:
mit mir nur rath’ ich,
red’ ich zu dir. - - -

Whereas Siegmund is “the other” (or should we say Wotan deceives himself into thinking that he is “the other”), Brünnhilde is the very essence of his will (In fact Brünnhilde is very much an Antigone figure in the Ring and it is significant that in the Greek myth Antigone was born out of the head of her father Zeus). And so Brünnhilde very much represents her father’s will. He explains that Sigmund must die. At first she violently objects to the plan to kill Siegmund but she is forced to agree with her father’s plan. And in the next scene Brünnhilde finds Siegmund together with Sieglinde, who is exhausted and sleeping. The Valkyrie announces to Siegmund that he must die in battle but that he will come to Valhalla to be with the heros. But when he discovers that Sieglinde cannot go with him he refuses this hope of immortality. (This could reflect Feuerbach’s rejection of immortality – Wagner had read his 1830 book Thoughts on Death and Immortality). Then the fundamental change occurs in Brünnhilde’s heart. Up until now she has been this Valkyrie figure, not understanding erotic love, and being simply an expression of her father’s will. But when she sees the love between Siegmund and Sieglinde she decides to go against Wotan’s will and fight for Siegmund. But in the ensuing battle when she fights for him, Wotan comes on the scene and has to intervene to see that his only son Siegmund dies.

The Ring is not a consistent allegory (George Bernard Shaw makes this point in his own political allegorical exploration). But at particular points in the cycle certain things strike one. We have a god who is constrained by two sorts of law: first the various treaties he has made (e.g. with the giants – so he cannot steal the ring from Fafner); secondly he has imposed law in order to create order in the world, and this is related to the law of his wife Fricka. Wotan finds himself in a mess as a result of law and sin, and discovers that the way out is to allow his own (and only) son to die. For me and I imagine for many the death of Siegmund reflects that of Christ; the significant difference though is that Siegmund’s death is not redemptive.

I earlier said that Wotan plans for a saviour figure, but who this figure is turns out to be a surprise. For it is to be Brünnhilde, his favourite daughter. As we have seen, she shares this close and loving relationship with Wotan, so close that she is an expression his will. Her actions and will are those of her father. This of course is precisely what is emphasized in Jesus’ relation to his heavenly father in John’s gospel and the letters of Paul. But she who was an expression of Wotan’s will, now comes to be set against him. In opposing her father a series of events are set in place which lead to the redemption of the whole world. And one of the key events is Brünnhilde having to become fully human. We can speak of her incarnation.

VI Brünnhilde’s incarnation

The key sources for Wagner’s Ring were the thirteenth century Icelandic Eddas. There we see that Brünnhilde is a Valkyrie, a Valkyrie literally meaning chooser of the slain. Some Icelandic sources suggest the Valkyries are rather blood thirsty women (see Njal’s saga). However the Eddas present them as “more dignified and less blood-thirsty”. This may have happened because the poets who preserved these pagan myths and legends were themselves Christian. My contention is that Wagner has further Christianized the Valkyrie Brünnhilde. Her nobility and compassion in the second opera of the cycle are striking. Indeed she takes on attributes of the Virgin Mary and of Christ himself. In his first sketch for the Ring Wagner describes her as a “divine virgin”. Note also that whereas in the poetic Edda she is the daughter of Budli, Wagner makes her the daughter of two gods, Wotan and Erda. Further, in Doepler’s costume design for the first Ring performance of 1876, Erda looks remarkably like the Virgin Mary.

Now the second opera of the Ring cycle is simply called The Valkyrie because Brünnhilde ends up being the focus of the work, and the fundamental turning point is when she is deeply moved on seeing Siegmund’s love for Sieglinde. And for Wagner true love is erotic love, and such love is fundamentally sacrificial. And perhaps it is worth saying that the disjunction some theologians make between eros and agape love is, I think, highly misleading.

Now when Brünnhilde perceives the true sacrificial nature of this erotic love the twins have for each other, she turns against her father’s command that Siegmund should die in the battle.

In Act III of Valkyrie she defends her disobedience to her father. But despite this defence she offers, Wotan is insistent that he has to punish her. She will no longer ride with Wotan and will be banned from Valhalla. She loses her Valkyrie status (which you could describe as divine – both father and mother are gods); she is to become fully human.

It is not explicit in The Valkyrie that Brünnhilde is the redeemer figure but it is clear in the next two operas, Siegfried and Twilight of the gods. But musically there are many indications in The Valkyrie that Brünnhilde will redeem the world. The final scene of The Valkyrie expresses the end of law and the beginning of love. The law is expressed by Wotan’s spear on which his various treatises are etched. This is a downward scale (see handout). Now Wotan’s spear is not physically broken until Siegfried Act III scene 2, when he is confronted by his grandson Siegfried. But there is a musical indication in The Valkyrie Act III, just after the exit of her 8 Valkyrie sisters, that Wotan’s spear is being broken. In the example on the handout you will see that in the first two bars we have the motif often called “fate” but which has a very specific identity in The Valkyrie and Siegfried. There it denotes mutual recognition. The use of the motif here is appropriate since Brünnhilde goes on to plead to her father “Look in my eyes” (stave four). Then in the bass of bar two we have the motif of Siegmund’s rebellion. We first hear this when Siegmund refuses the eternal bliss of Valhalla in Act II. This theme is then repeated in the next 6 bars. Its use here refers to the fact that Brünnhilde is defending her support for Siegmund in his rebellion. Then if you take Brünnhilde’s entry, you essentially have Wotan’s descending spear motif which is broken. So she sings E D C then rather than singing the B below she jumps up to the higher octave. Then she descends A G F# E then jumps up to the D above. Wotan’s law (which can be almost equated with Wotan’s power) is thus challenged by the Valkyrie who has come to recognize that the key to the world is not love of power but rather the power of love.

The end of The Valkyrie presents us with a remarkable irony. Brünnhilde is punished by her father for her disobedience. He appears to be the one with power. It is finally decided that she will be deprived of her Valkyrie status: no longer will she ride beside her father Wotan; she will no longer be with him in Valhalla. As punishment she will be put to sleep on the rock where they now find themselves; whoever awakens her will be her husband. The only consolation for her is that the one who awakens her will be a fearless hero since only such a person will be able to penetrate through the fire which will surround her rock. The key theological point is that Brunnhilde undergoes an incarnation. She loses her Valkyrie status. Wotan’s final words to his beloved daughter are:

And so – the god
turns away from you:
so he kisses your godhead away. Denn so – kehrt
der Gott sich dir ab:
so küßt er die Gottheit von dir.

His kiss then sends her to sleep. And the irony is this. A correlate of Brünnhilde’s “incarnation” is that Wotan’s power and his law begin to be diminished. One of Wagner’s helpers at the rehearsals of the first performance of the Ring in 1876 was Heinrich Porges, and he made notes on Wagner’s comments as he directed rehearsals. He writes: “A remark of Wagner’s that has an important bearing on the action must be cited: at the end, ‘And so – the god / turns away from you: / so he kisses your godhead away’ (‘Denn so kehrt der Gott sich dir ab, so küsst er die Gottheit von dir’), one must for the first time see Wotan’s spear slipping from his hand!”

Although this is a very sad scene, and when you watch The Valkyrie all the way through, at the end you either weep or try hard to hold back the tears. Yet the Act ends in a major key, that of E major! Yes it is very sad, but the major key and the whole atmosphere of the scene I think points forward to a future redemption. And the prerequisite of this redemption is Brünnhilde’s incarnation. There is a great cost to her incarnation. When Brünnhilde is awakened with the kiss of Siegfried in the next opera, although at first she expresses great joy, she also mourns the loss of her Valkyrie status. There is that remarkable passage in Siegfried Act III Scene 3 when the hero is overcome with passion, but Brünnhilde responds by lamenting the loss of her Valkyrie status as she looks on her helmet, breastplate and spear. Further, she has not only lost her armour but also her wisdom. She has passed this on to Siegfried (who does not seem to make great use of it!). Brünnhilde in her incarnation becomes vulnerable. And in the final opera of the cycle, Götterdämmerung, she is betrayed by Siegfried and she, in Wagner’s words, becomes “God forsaken”. So in Act II she cries to the gods whom she feels are punishing her:

Hallowed gods!
Heavenly rulers!
Was this what you whispered
within your council?
Would you teach me suffering
as none yet suffered? Heil’ge Götter!
Himmlischer Lenker!
Rauntet ihr dieß
in eurem Rath?
Lehrt ihr mich Leiden
wie keiner sie litt?

But at the end of Götterdämmerung the world comes to be redeemed by her death and by that of Siegfried. Siegfried’s death comes about through Hagan’s devious plan. Brünnhilde though offers herself as a voluntary sacrifice. This is the deed which redeems the world. The world is redeemed by the double sacrifice of Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Both of them can be seen as Christ figures. In his writings Wagner often links Siegfried to Christ. Many no doubt have difficulty with this idea since Siegfried is clearly an inspiration for Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” (superman). But as Siegfried’s death approaches, Christ-like images do appear. Shortly before he dies he utters “I thirst” (“Mich dürstet”), exactly the words of the dying Christ in Luther’s translation of John 19.28. Also the rhythm Wagner employs corresponds to that used in Bach’s St John passion; and the melodic shape also corresponds. Further, the stage direction says: “Siegfried has placed himself between Hagan and Gunther”. Compare the scene of crucifixion in Luke 23.39-43, Christ being crucified between two others. So if I’m not reading too much into this scene in Götterdämmerung, Hagan corresponds to the unrepentant crucified one; Gunther is the repentant one.

Now whatever we may feel about Siegfried’s shortcomings as a hero, he does come into his own at his death. But the most striking Christ figure is Brünnhilde who, as I have argued, undergoes an incarnation, and voluntarily lays down her life so that a new earth and a new heaven come into being. The opera Jesus of Nazareth I discussed earlier was never completed. But many of the ideas of the projected work end up on the stage of the Ring cycle. And if my analysis is correct then Wagner’s Ring cycle can be seen as a Christian allegory. It speaks of original sin, the world being out of joint, but then goes on to present to us the redemption which Siegfried and especially Brünnhilde work through their atoning deaths.



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