Little in art created by a single mind compares to the sheer size and scope of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Only a genius with a hint of madness could have conceived anything this colossal, let alone willed it into completion over twenty-six years of gestation and creation.
Furthermore, its 18 hours comprising a single music-drama have gripped every generation since its 1876 premiere with incredible power, unleashing a torrent of commentary. In order to so possess both artist and audiences, Wagner's Ring clearly must be more than a simple sword-and-sorcery epic about giants, dwarfs, gods, and heroes.
And it is. Within that immense journey from the dawn of consciousness to the obliteration of an entire cosmic order there is a compelling moral core. However, even though the composer and his audience were unavoidably enmeshed within a Christian European milieu, it is far from your mama's Sunday-school lesson, a long way from the Ten Commandments, those pillars of Western ethics.
Shortly after writing his first draft of the Ring story, Wagner began a five-act sketch for an opera to be called Jesus von Nazareth. Though this was abandoned, formal Christian concepts nibbled at his heels from the pagan-Christian conflicts in Tannhäuser and Lohengrin to the symbolism that suffuses Parsifal. Even the comedy Die Meistersinger begins during a religious service and ends with a Church holiday. In the Ring there is not a whisper of such conventions‹but nonetheless it can leave even the most traditionally pious spectator shaken by a spiritual force far deeper than mere involvement with legendary plot and characters.
Wagner outlined his earliest Ring thoughts in The Nibelungen Myth as Sketch for a Drama in October 1848, derived from a synthesis and elaboration of multiple Norse and Teutonic mythologies. It was followed that December by a libretto-poem entitled Siegfried's Tod ("Siegfried's Death"). Persuaded it needed an introduction, Wagner wrote the poem for Der Junge Siegfried, then Die Walküre, finally Das Rheingold.
In 1857, in the middle of composing Siegfried, he abruptly took a hiatus from the Ring. He wrote to Franz Liszt, "I have left him under his linden tree and have bade him farewell." He did so for an astonishing 12 years, writing Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and many essays in the interim.
During this period he changed the title of Siegfried's Tod to Götterdämmerung, shifting focus from the hero to the doom of the gods. When he returned to composing Act III of Siegfried and all of Götterdämmerung in 1869 his musical approach had altered, too. In a deviation from his ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk, the unity of music, stage picture, action and words, music became dominant even at the expense of verbal clarity. Often the orchestra alone carried the drama. Thus, nine leitmotifs are compacted into the brief prelude to Act III of Siegfried, evoking both story and mood. In Götterdämmerung, the number of leitmotifs, not including exact repetitions, rises to 1,003 from 405 in Die Walküre.
Wagner's philosophical convictions underwent similarly significant refashioning. When he began the Ring, he was influenced by Ludwig Feuerbach, whose principal tenet, explicated in The Essence of Christianity, was that man created God, not the other way around. Religion merely reveals truths about mankind's needs, and its most meaningful revelation is that God is love. Therefore, the pathway to salvation, personal and societal, is love.
In early drafts of the Ring, the liaison between Siegfried and Brünnhilde brought about a triumphant ending for Wotan's sovereignty. However, by 1854, when Wagner first read the masterpiece that impacted his thinking ever after, Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, he was already disillusioned about the perfectibility of either mankind or civilization. The Buddhist-like pessimism of Schopenhauer set the seal for Wagner, and he slid the metaphysical center of the Ring from Siegfried's death to where, as he wrote to his friend August Röckel, "Wotan rises to the tragic height of willing his own destruction."
All this is interwoven with the composer's dismissal of organized Christianity, his bitter anti-Semitism, and the Ring's roots in mostly polytheistic legends. It's not surprising, then, that soon after the E-flat-major chord opens Das Rheingold, characters begin acting in ways prohibited by the Ten Commandments.
The Ring has no lone Divinity who created this cosmos in six days, so the foundational "I am the Lord thy God," and the commandment "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" are by definition inapplicable, while the Sabbath carries no sacred obligation. In fact, the gods need not work at all, the Nibelungs work almost all the time, and heroes seem to spend most of their energy either fighting or looking for fights.
Graven images as the Bible describes them are not literally present in the Ring, but objects nonetheless become venerated, from Wotan's spear at one end of a moral equation to the Ring at the other.
Even allowing Wotan his supremacy, the commandment "You shall worship no other gods besides Me" is disregarded. He may be the chief god, but he is merely first among many, including his wife Fricka and all her siblings. Wotan is hardly revered unanimously, and even he acknowledges higher authorities. Erda knows things he doesn't; his almost bureaucratic dominance derives solely from treaties engraved in runes on his spear, treaties to which he is subservient.
In the Ring the behavioral commandments are routinely flouted. "Do not bear false witness against thy neighbor" is violated habitually. Characters lie as it suits them. Events are initiated by Wotan's spurious promise to the Giants to pay them by giving them Freia in exchange for building Valhalla, a promise he knows he cannot keep, as she is the indispensable symbol of love whose golden apples keep the gods alive. His shady ally, Loge, is defined as a double-dealing trickster. Brünnhilde breaks her promise to her father to allow Siegmund to be killed in combat. Mime makes dissembling a veritable life's work, ably carried forward by his nephew, Hagen, in Götterdämmerung.
The Ring characters come up woefully short concerning "Honor thy father and thy mother." Brünnhilde disobeys Wotan, and his grandson Siegfried destroys his power. Mime, who raises Siegfried from infancy and even makes him toys, is treated with disturbingly cruel contempt by the bumptious hero. Hagen, whom Alberich sired via gold-empowered lust as a tool to retrieve the Ring for him, mutters that if he succeeds he will keep it, not hand it over to his Nibelung father.
"Thou shall not steal" is honored in the breach; misappropriation, of persons or of things, provides much of the plot machinery. First, Alberich plunders the Rhinegold, and afterward, theft of others' possessions, including the Ring, motivates action upon action.
The commandment's ban on "adultery" doesn't begin to proscribe all the hoo-ha going on. Toss in incest and rape, too. There's sex everywhere, mostly illicit, starting with the teasing of Alberich by the Rhinemaidens which leads to his abjuring love‹love, not lust. The definitive heroine, Brünnhilde, and her Valkyrie sisters are the offspring of an adulterous liaison between Wotan and Erda; Wotan also illegitimately fathers the Wälsung twins by a mortal. Sieglinde's infidelity is excoriated by marriage-goddess Fricka, as is her violation with Siegmund of an even more basic taboo, incest. But Wotan defends the twins ("…those two are in love") and, like most audience members moved by the ardent love music, views both transgressions kindly.
As for "Thou shall not murder," Fafner kills his brother Fasolt, the first victim of Alberich's curse, and we are off to the homicide races. Hunding slays Siegmund, only to be destroyed by Wotan's contempt. Siegfried kills Fafner, the Giant-turned-dragon, and then, after realizing that Mime is trying to poison him, kills him as well. By the time the gods' destiny climaxes, Hagen has murdered both Siegfried and Gunther and is himself drowned by the Rhinemaidens. Eventually Brünnhilde sets Valhalla ablaze as part of her self-immolation upon Siegfried's funeral pyre ("Thus do I hurl the torch into Valhalla's proud-standing stronghold") and all the gods die.
Finally, "coveting that which is your neighbor's" is pretty much the whole raison d'être for the Ring story, starting with Alberich's desire for the Rhinemaidens, then for the gold they guard. Thereafter everybody seems to want what doesn't belong to him or her: the Ring, a sword, a treasure, someone else's wife, sheer power.
Yet in spite of Wagner's wholesale abandonment of the Decalogue, the bastion of Western morality, Der Ring des Nibelungen generates explosive ethical and metaphysical impact. He started with the absorption, fusion and reinvention of myriad legendary sources, and layered Schopenhauer's philosophy upon Feuerbach's. In Art and Climate Wagner wrote, "there is no true freedom except that which is common to all mankind... The redeemer is therefore love… starting with sexual love, [it] strides forward through love of children, brothers and friends, to universal love of humanity." The emphasis is his. Yet, some years later he wrote to Mathilde Wesendonck, "I can conceive of only one salvation. It is Rest! ...The stilling of every desire!"
Wagner spent decades on starts, abandonments, and modifications until what emerged is a life-altering affirmation of love, in its highest form. He drafted two verse endings to Götterdämmerung, one a paean to sexual passion and human affection, the other a Schopenhauer-like embracing of oblivion‹and used neither. As he finally culminated the epic, love-inspired Brünnhilde, joining Siegfried in death, at last understands that Wotan's conscious renunciation of life and his outworn laws and aspirations will reconcile these world-views. Brünnhilde's last message to her father, delivered by his ravens, is "Rest now, you god!" Then the world can be reborn, now ruled by limitless unfettered love.
Wagner once wrote to Röckel, "I have come now to realize how much there is, owing to the whole weight of my poetic aim, that only becomes clear through the music." He later described the discontinuity between his "rationally formed ideas" and "the exquisite unconsciousness of artistic creation… guided by wholly different, infinitely more profound intuition."
Music alone would now convey the message. The last moments of Der Ring des Nibelungen are given entirely to the orchestra: there is too much weight for words. Something greater than the story, richer than all the sources, probably better than Wagner himself knew, is brought to a healing close with a tender statement of a motif heard only once before in the Ring, when Sieglinde learns she is bearing her child of love, Siegfried. It is the motif of Redemption Through Love.
In the end, Wagner fashioned a masterwork of such extraordinary strength that it transcends analyses, personalities, philosophers, his own prejudices, and even his total disregard for Judeo-Christian society's standards of ethical behavior.
Out of the highest art came a truth beyond even his explanation.