Magazine article Gramophone

The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung

Magazine article Gramophone

The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung

Article excerpt

The Ring of Truth

The Wisdom of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung

By Roger Scruton

Allen Lane, HB, 401pp,25 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-0-241-18855-2

However determinedly musicologists try to confine the serious study of Wagner to developments that affected music in general and opera in particular during the 19th century, other kinds of writers have refused to be silenced--not least philosophers. The first--Nietzsche--set the bar of controversy high, and no philosopher active in Nietzsche's wake makes stronger demands for the attention of Wagnerians than Roger Scruton.

In 2005 Scruton published a concise and challenging study of Tristan und Isolde whose linking of 'sex and the sacred' in the title signalled that he understood that music drama as 'a work with profound religious meaning'. Now he makes comparable claims for The Ring, on the grounds that Wagner's later operas 'are more than mere dramas: they are revelations, attempts to penetrate to the mysterious core of human existence'. More sweepingly still, 'The Ring is not only a work of philosophy, but one that uses music to cast a unique light on the human condition.'

Scruton has plenty of musical expertise and proclaims music's supremacy as 'the vehicle for Wagner's dramatic intention'. Again, something unique seems to be involved, as the orchestra 'fills in the space between the revealed emotions with all the ancestral fears and longings of our species, irresistibly transforming these individual passions into symbols of a common destiny that can be sensed but not told. Wagner acquaints us with our lot, and makes available to an age without religious belief the core religious experience--an experience that we need, but which we also flee from, since it demands from us even more than it gives.'

These quotations give a flavour of the sermonising tone that punctuates Scruton's text, complementing the intricate close reading of the four Ring dramas and their sources that otherwise dominates as he seeks to expose their attempt 'to penetrate to the mysterious core of human existence', and, as a philosopher, to explain and even dissolve that mystery, as must surely occur if a work of art is to become 'a work of philosophy'. Scruton's frequent use of the present tense, and his references to 'us', 'we' and 'our', indicate the most obvious differences between his approach and earlier 21st-century accounts of The Ring by Mark Berry (Ashgate: 2006) and Daniel Foster (CUP: 2010). …

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