The political trigger for the Ring was the 1849 Dresden uprising, when the young freedom fighter Richard Wagner financed the hand grenades and debated ethics with his co-revolutionary Bakunin. According to Bernard Shaw, the Russian stood model for Siegfried, the Ring’s hero who would overthrow the old order and install a new realm of personal and political freedom.
God was dying; nationalism killing Goethe’s enlightened neo-Hellenism. For Wagner, loss of faith in the divine and the divinely remote ancient Greeks demanded another route to meaning. He found it in pre-Christian Germanic texts, using them to shape the new cosmology of the post-Christian world. The result is his epic poem, The Ring of the Nibelung, which he chopped into four operas (16 hours of music), telling the story of civilisation from primeval soup to the Industrial Revolution through the symbolic hero Siegfried, who battles a dwarf, a dragon, a god and a woman to achieve freedom and non-religious but nevertheless uplifting redemption.
Like much 19th-century nationalist stuff (Rider Haggard, say), vivid depiction of heroic blond beasts in action is unappealing. We’re further offended by Hitler’s gleeful appropriation. But hindsight’s a tad unfair, as the accomplished equestrian Scruton demonstrates by a brilliant gallop through the religious, musical, historical and philosophical context.
The Ring took 26 years to complete, during which Wagner changed from Schopenhauerian atheist to mystically besotted husband of the hyper-religious Cosima; from anti-capitalist utopian to artist-prince financed by a mad king with a poor human rights record (Ludwig II of Bavaria) and an appetite for gold and power that was, like most of his Ring characters, insatiable. Three kings and the Kaiser attended the premiere, to Wagner’s great satisfaction.
Throughout these changes in his outlook and circumstances, Wagner kept hammering on at his blockbuster allegory of the downfall of civilisation brought about by the moral evil of 19th-century capitalism and the material evil of industrialisation poisoning and polluting the natural world, symbolised by the delicious Rhine Maidens. How did Eden lead to the factory? What could follow after? It could only end in ‘the destruction of all that is’. However, all was not gloom. Like Nietzsche, Wagner saw in the death of the old gods both unparalleled catastrophe and unparalleled opportunity to build a better society through the Übermensch, the man brave enough to jettison the old values.
Enter Siegfried: noble savage, hippy iconoclast. All you need is love — and a history-blind, tow-haired warrior sufficiently muscled to slay the dragons of religion and existing law, in order to establish ruthless personal freedom. Donald Trump has invaded Arcadia. Siegfried’s repellent political naivety is only matched by his clunking sense of humour, which even brave Scruton baulks at tackling in his chapter called ‘the problem of Siegfried’. Truly, a German joke is no laughing matter.
A fascinating chapter on how the music works covers Wagner’s development of verse forms, his reinvention of the orchestra and his use of leitmotifs: recurring short musical phrases that can act as signatures for people or objects or states of mind. Debussy sniffily called them ‘musical visiting cards’, but how cleverly just a few bars of, say, the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ woven into the orchestration acts as a subtext, a pinprick reminder of the bloodthirsty maidens, without slowing the drive of the plot or the music. Till now, 178 leitmotifs had been identified. Scruton discovers 186 ‘or more’.
The purpose of the Ring was to point the Germans simultaneously towards their noble past and their yet more noble future as a just society emerging from the destruction of illusions. Thomas Carlyle called it the northern Iliad. Nietzsche described its characters as ‘ever five steps from the hospital’. Both were probably right. Adorno saw in it the roots both of unacceptable German nationalism and of Hollywood’s ghastly penchant for schlocky leitmotif soundtracks. Hitler saw a role model and a justification. Scruton modestly admits to seeing it as ‘centrally focussed on the emergence of the free individual from the natural order and the puzzle planted in the heart of things by the accountability of persons’.
Wagner flung the Ring into the post-religious world believing that only art could redeem modern life. A redemptive hand grenade, then. A wreath on the composer’s grave bore the words, ‘Redemption for the Redeemer’. Nietzsche, exasperated by Wagner’s late-life return to religiosity, offered the small correction: ‘Redemption from the Redeemer. One breathes a sigh of relief.’
The Ring of Truth is published to coincide with Opera North’s new production of the Ring, which is touring the country and coming to London’s Southbank in late June and July. You’ll get a lot more out of it if you read this book first.