Magazine article Musical Times

Reforging the Ring: Origins and New Beginnings

Magazine article Musical Times

Reforging the Ring: Origins and New Beginnings

Article excerpt

WITH A COMPOSER as endlessly written about as Wagner, reinventing the wheel - and recycling the clichés - should go naturally with the writer's territory. There 's a good example in a recent article about Lohengrin that eventually gets round to asking what the authors rightly regard as 'an old question: are states of mind amenable to musical representation? Can certainty and doubt, honesty and duplicity, mental anguish, all receive specific and recognizable musical gestures?' Fortunately, the authors promptly answer in the affirmative: 'music [...] reflects and explicates a character's choices and psychological condition, bringing to the foreground what is contemplated and left unsaid. Thus it allows us to perceive states of mind'.1

Stating the obvious as if newly minted is a perfectly reasonable strategy if there is sufficient novelty in the context and sufficient authority in the supporting narrative. These conditions are generally well met by Chrissochoidis & Huck. Yet such qualities are even more important when the subject under discussion is part or all of the Ring cycle: and any attempt to say something new about 'the coherence of Wagner's attempt at a Gesamtkunstwerk'2 is particularly bold when offered to readers suspecting that such attempts invariably deliver less than they promise.

One way of solving the problem is to open up the context to pre- or post-Wagnerian materials. But even before he moves on from Wagner to Schreker, Adrian Daub is able to provide a notably thoughtful statement about one of The ring's central and most satisfyingly multivalent images: the way word-play and note-play converge around Loge, 'luge ', 'lohe ', and the 'redness' of fire and gold; also, though Daub doesn't mention it, blood.

Two particular elements in Daub's interpretation merit emphasis here, and fit neatly into the foundations for this study of Wagner's Ring cycle. Starting from the well-rehearsed observation that Loge disappears as a 'person' from the tetralogy after the first evening, Daub suggests that 'Loge's dissipation into the purely motivic aspect of the musical drama and his complete disappearance from the embodied drama [failing the intervention of imaginative stage directors] constitutes a promotion rather than a demotion. [...] Loge's disappearance [...] leads to a motivic proliferation along metaphoric axes: the unsteadiness of fire becomes the unsteadiness of lying [...] and comes to signify undoing, subversion, and destruction tout court'.3

Daub's second point is that 'Loge [...] has to do with signification, but, in keeping with his divine attribute of fire, Loge has little to do with the accurate messaging that can take place in signification [...] but instead everything to do with the deception and distortion that can plague the signifying process'. Although Daub doesn't put it this way, Loge becomes the chief guarantor of The ring's modernity. And Daub makes his own contribution to the recently-favoured topic of Wagner, love and the erotic:4 'Loge's ambiguous, ambient redness, his flame-like quality, turns sex into simply another sign, something to be exchanged, bartered, and substituted. As such, he both grounds the Ring's erotics and remains indifferent to them'. However, when Daub drives to the conclusion that 'Loge's [...] willingness to undergo transformations does not so much deconstruct the coherence of Wagner's attempt at a Gesamtkunstwerk: it is rather its conditio sine qua non'5 he risks suggesting that the cycle is 'tied together' (if only in neoRiemannian fashion6) to a well-nigh symphonic degree. At the other extreme, analysis in terms of 'sudden disjunctions, mysterious failures of explanation, and multiplicities of motive'7 comes closer to those principles of 'rhetorical dialectics' - continuity vying with discontinuity - loosely defined by Wagner himself in his 1879 essay 'On the application of music to the drama'.

Stopping short

Coherence of a loosely harmonic rather than tightly motivic kind is a particular quality of Wagner's 1850 'setting of the prologue to Siegfrieds Tod' which remains the most substantial musical source of The ring's pre-history. …

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