The Wagner Universe; 'Ring' Composer: Musical Genius, Moral Reprobate

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The second and most popular of the four operas in the famed Ring Cycle of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), "Die Walkure" ("The Valkyries") highlights the secret origins of the composer's hero Siegfried and introduces the fallen warrior-goddess Brunnhilde, perhaps the most famous soprano role of all time. The breadth, scope and sheer artistic audacity of Wagner's musical epic has yet to be equaled even in our own high-tech times.

In his already controversial new book, "Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950," Charles Murray largely credits the West's emphasis on rugged individualism, leavened with Christianity, for its cultural predominance since 1400. If Mr. Murray's theory is true, Wagner would certainly win this competitive arts sweepstakes hands down. For he attempted nothing less than uniting music, drama, and poetry with his own idiosyncratic theology to create a new artistic universe with himself as its new god.

Being mounted in Washington this fall as a stand-alone opera, "Die Walkure" packs plenty of punch and great special effects. This is particularly true in its fiery finale, which foretells of the divine catastrophe that is yet to come in the final opera, "Die Gotterdammerung" ("The Twilight of the Gods"). The first full-length opera after the cycle's one-act prequel, "Das Rheingold" ("The Rhine Gold"), "Die Walkure" parallels the love story of Siegfried's parents, Siegmund and Sieglinde, with the rebellion of Brunnhilde against her father, Wotan, the king of the gods.

The opera boasts perhaps the greatest of Wagner's greatest hits, the swashbuckling "Ride of the Valkyries," which has been pilfered for TV commercials and immortalized in such films as "Apocalypse Now." Perhaps most famously, the theme was parodied in the funniest musical cartoon of all time, "What's Opera, Doc?" In that Warner Brothers' classic, Elmer Fudd, in helmet and spear, vows to "kill the wabbit," chasing Bugs Bunny to the strains of Wagner's triumphal tune.

However, the Ring, for Wagner, was serious stuff. As a composer, he had started out rather late in life. An indifferent university student, he was first addicted to Romantic literature and poetry. He largely discovered musical composition on his own, but he soon seized upon it as his destiny, perfecting his techniques largely without recourse to universities or teachers. He became convinced in his own mind that it was his destiny to become the greatest composer that the world had ever known. What would eventually become the Ring would be the fulfillment of that destiny.

It seemed to many that Wagner was completely delusional. His early compositions and operas were disastrous failures, hardly a harbinger of immortality. A monomaniac, a womanizer, and a spendthrift, he hopped from country to country evading creditors and furious husbands and breaking the heart of his unfortunate first wife, Minna. He finally got himself exiled from the principalities that then constituted Germany for engaging in revolutionary activities in 1848.

Wagner was simply not a nice guy. The late critic Deems Taylor, called him a "monster." Throughout his life he had far more enemies than friends - although he chose his friends well and used them cunningly.

But between adventures and intrigues, he always found time to compose, and he had already begun to sketch out the poetry and the music of what would eventually become the Ring Cycle.

His fortunes as a composer gradually improved. He scored a success with his largely derivative opera, "Rienzi," in 1842. …