Creative individuals in every era have produced works that inspire and provoke their fellow citizens, challenging them to both confront distorted realities and reimagine better lives. Artifacts that have stood the test of time and critical reception usually elicit multiple interpretations among contemporaries and are reinterpreted by future generations. Ulti-mately, said works were eventually embraced or vilified by the wider public. Often, the more complex the work, the more nuanced and lasting the debate. Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is a case in point. It is one of the nineteenthcentury’s monumental arti-facts. The much-anticipated 1876 premiere was a cause célèbre, and to this day engenders scholarly and popular critique of unprecedented proportion. Der Ring has enjoyed a recent revival in American opera houses; Robert Lepage’s production at the Metropolitan Opera continues to garner abundant criticism as it enters its second iteration. The Lyric Opera of Chicago and Washington National Opera, too, have produced stunning, original stagings to sold-out audiences and critical acclaim. Der Ring seldom fails to provoke controversy, though, whenever and wherever it is performed. Wagner’s tetralogy offers one an opportu-nity to confront entrenched political, theological and cultural views, while simultaneously beholding its rare beauty and raw power. The following essay will offer another look at Wagner and DerRing, eschewing the more obvious political themes and investigating the subtle influences of Neo-Platonism and a related theological concept, panentheism, might have had on his music-drama. Strains of both Neo-Platonism and panentheism are indeed present in this quintessential Romantic work, despite little mention of this confluence in the vast Wagnerian bibliography. This investigation offers a new perspective on his latent yet potent theism, with the hope of encouraging all who might be averse to his life and output to risk a first hearing or, at least, commit to revisiting the tetralogy with fresh eyes and ears. Taking another look affords an opportunity to see and hear a complex theological synthesis of post-Romantic religious yearnings. This essay hopes to persuade those skepti-cal of Wagner’s art to experience it firsthand and, ultimately, gain a new appreciation for this masterpiece. Ronald Witzke is Professor of Voice and Opera at William Jewell College, Liberty, Missouri. He regularly offers a humanities course on Wagner’s Ring within the college’s core curriculum.
Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen has been a rich source of scholarly research and aesthetic critique for nearly 150 years. Scholars, critics, and audiences have lauded its beauty and complexity, lampooned its hyper-romanticism, or dismissed it outright because of its anti-Semitic overtones. The critique continues unabated in the twenty-first century, with both devotees and detractors attempting to convince would-be listeners of Der Ring’s magnificence, malevolence, or irrelevance. To detractors, especially since the rise, fall, and now resurgence of Nazism, Wagner’s life and works are guilty by association, mainly because his widow, Cosima, and their children were esteemed, admired, and embraced by the leadership of the Third Reich. Consequently, his magnum opus has justly earned the reputation as a controversial Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) that continues to defy summative interpretations and explanations. Every performance of Der Ring since its premier in 1876 rekindles the debate on whether Wagner should be revered or vilified. Wagnerphiles claim that it remains both infinite and entire, able to transport one to a world transcendent, rich in symbolism, interwoven with philosophical and religious themes that evoke the past and portend the future. Wagner phobia is a justly held stance, too, especially in today’s political climate of increased nationalistic fervor. Forging a middle ground of aesthetic appreciation seems an impossible task in view of the vast amount of polarizing, critical reviews.
For example, Dieter Borchmeyer begins his Drama and the World of Richard Wagner with the following claim: “Wagner is the most controversial artist in the entire history of culture.”1 More recently, David P. Goldman offers a tempered critique, writing in the Catholic journal, First Things
Why did Wagner loom so large to his contemporaries? The answer is that he evoked, in the sensuous, intimate realm of musical experience, an apocalyptic vision of the Old World. Wag-ner’s stage works declared that the time of the Old Regime was over—the world of covenants and customs had come to an end, and nothing could or should restrain the impassioned impulse of the empowered individual. Wagner’s baton split the sea of European culture2
Wagner’s detractors and doubters have sought to dismiss, or at least downplay in their minds, overly wrought Romantic notions, finding his project flawed from the start. E. Michael Jones is a representative, arguing that
Wagner was thus faced with a choice that would have terrible consequences for the music of the West. He could have either melody or emotion….From a human perspective, there was generally only one emotion that demanded this sort of extension ad infinitum, and that was the sexual. The music that was the fullest expression of this modulation of emotion from key to key for hours on end with no resolution in sight had a lot in common with pornography.3
Jones echoes Friedrich Nietzsche’s post-Wagnerian stance wherein the Apollonian/Dionysian polarities were largely abandoned. Jones’ and Nietzsche’s either/or positions attempt to soften the comprehensive Romantic, Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, hoping would-be opera goers might eschew it altogether. If a total work of art claims significance in the life of a culture, and if it represents a paradigm for subsequent works of art and theology, an either/or proposition is untenable and deserves scrutiny. It is not an overstatement to claim that Der Ring necessitates one’s full attention as an iconic, paradigmatic work of art that can synthesize past, present, and future while at the same time challenging the mind and heart of each listener to new realities. Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is not only a pluralistic Gesamtkunstwerk illustrating a subconscious yearning—a specifically religious Sehnsucht—but is also inherently comprised of subtle Neo-Platonic and panentheistic concepts.
Romanticism, Neo-Platonism, and Panentheism
Contentious philosophical, religious, and political themes embedded in Der Ring are well documented in both primary and secondary sources. In-depth musical and dramatic analysis of the characters, Leitmotifs, and the hidden complexities of familial relationships provides a rich tapestry for life-long investigation; and modern performances make for a rich store of controversial topics, such as nation-hood, racism, religiosity, anti-Semitism, and incest. The role of art as a function of the State and a substitute religion was a conceptual framework developed during the early Romantic period, more than a century prior to the rise of the Hitler’s Third Reich. Admittedly, not only was the mytho-poetic, Romantic vision fulfilled in Wagner’s Der Ring, but likewise a foreboding, intrinsically German ideology, born of a nascent nationalism and culminating in the National Socialist’s rise to power a few decades after his death in 1883. The Wagner–Hitler connection has sparked intense debate throughout the Ring Cycle’s history. To be sure, many will never be able to forgive Wagner, nor overlook the historical associations wrought by this destructive and deadly alliance. The passing of time and memory may prove unable to heal the wounds. Resistance is lessening to a degree, engendering fresh historical perspectives, mainly because new productions of Der Ring continue to provide opportunities for dialogue in an ever-complicated world of potent nationalisms infused with religious overtones. Wagner’s reputation will no doubt be exposed to further criticism as the twenty-first century progresses.
The juxtaposition of art, nation, and religion which matured during the 1930s was nourished in the soil of the early Romantics’ deification of nature together with the potent brew of liberalism. The modern nation–state was congealing at a frantic pace in the late eighteenth century. Art with a capital “A” gained new status among emerging nations, especially among German intellectuals. Georg Wilhelm Frederich Hegel and Johann Gottlieb Fichte identified the Volk as critical to Teutonic unity and the creation of genuine artistic expression, both of which were seminal in Wagner’s thinking. The reception of Wagner’s Der Ring was destined to polarize European cultural elites. This synthesis of nature, politics, art, and religion in the 1790s birthed a dynamic artistic movement that rejected the sterile rationalism of Classical aesthetics. Art and nature eventually became substitutes for religion, and within a decade the newly divinized Romantic artist and his creations were infused with a new spiritualized aura. “The affinity between religion and art, then,” wrote cultural historian Jacques Barzun, “consists in this, that the artist, like the worshiper, gives himself over to an experience so very different from those of the ordinary self that he deems it loftier, true and more lasting.”4 Barzun’s lectures at the National Gallery of Art further elucidated the ways in which most twentieth-century elites developed their artistic tastes and preferences after the rise of Modernism (ca. 1880). The conflicted Romantic artist is at the core of the Wagnerian ethos, saturating his 23-year obsession with the Nibelungen myth.
Barzun’s belief that the artist does indeed worship art illuminates some of the complex theological issues within Wagner’s artistic project. First and foremost, the God of monotheism is in the Wagnerian world, panentheistically via the dramaturgy and Leitmotifs—a complex cosmos whereby the listener becomes sensitive to his eternal Spirit moving within and among the Wagnerian universe via the orchestral texture of the Leitmotifs. This fluid panentheist paradigm, together with its Neo-Platonic substrata is submerged within the tetralogy’s scenic unfolding. His sophisticated Gesamtkunstwerk is in once sense a typical Romantic view; notably, nature and art are two Divine languages that lead us to a renewed relationship with God. The German and English Romantics, such as Wackenroder, Tieck, Wordsworth and Coleridge, all advocated this ideal. Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk combines music and drama in far-reaching ways, though, enabling him to supernaturalize nature. Time is suspended, eternity evoked; the two realms, nature and art, are blended into a transcendent Now with the Absolute nearer than imagined. This divine revelation comes to the listener via musical metaphor, slowly exposing both panentheistic and Neo-Platonic foundations.
M. H. Abrams’ masterpiece, Natural Supernaturalism, summarizes the influ-ences of both Pagan and Christian Neo-Platonism on nineteenth-century think-ers who, like Wagner, were exploring the juxtaposition of Nature and Art and religion. He writes,
The several decades beginning with the 1790s constituted a genuine epoch in intellectual and cultural history; not, however, by absolute innovation but by a return to a mode of hereditary wisdom which was re-defined, expanded, and applied to the emerging world of continuous political, industrial and social revolution and disorder which is the world we live in today (italics mine).5
The Neo-Platonists and their Christian followers in the late eighteenth century sought to offer what Abrams identifies as “general categories of essential good and evil, human health and disorder.” Understanding these important Neo-Platonic crosscurrents in Romantic ideology and the ensuing development of panentheism aids in elucidating Der Ring’s theological infrastructure. Neo-Platonists, pace Plotinus, were seeking to synthesize the previous speculations of mostly Greek philosophers into a coherent and unified worldview in which the immaterial, i.e. pure thought, intelligence and intellect preexisted the material and reality of a first cause, or the One/Good. Early Christian theologians, too, studied Plotinus and were deeply indebted to his speculations. In his Enneads Plotinus developed his views about the One and the Good, reality and materiality, nature and art, beauty, the origin of evil, and the soul’s ascent to purification, perfection and unification with the One. He posited three Hypostates, which describe three progressive stages of a unified reality. They are soul, intelligence, and the One (the Good). Matter (evil) is not a separate or created substance but is furthest removed via circularity from the One. The soul’s journey away from evil toward the One is cyclical partly because the soul is returning to its source (the One) from an initial separation. The soul needs the intellect via reason on the journey to recover the sense of Divine unity and fulfillment. Plotinus’ ideas continued to prove fertile in the thinking of early Romantic theologians.
Abrams then explicates three Neo-Platonic strands in Romanticism. The first is the idea of a personal God (Christian), which “tends to become an impersonal first principle, or absolute whose perfection is equated with his self–sufficient and undifferentiated unity. Evil…is held to be essentially a separation from unity.”6 How does Der Ring embody this concept? At its essence, it is a mythical yet universal narrative about the history of the world, including its creation, corruption (good and evil), and its restoration. This Romanticized Neo-Platonic idea manifests itself in the opening scene of the first opera, Das Rheingold, when the Nibelungen dwarf, Alberich, curses love in order to gain the gold to fashion the ring of power. He has no conceptual framework of morality imposed by a higher power and, therefore, embodies the lust for gold and power. He is unhinged from and contemptuous of any restraints. The entire tetralogy from that moment narrates the conflict between the moral order of the gods and humanity’s struggle to form a world on their own. A higher power is never far removed, though, as Alberich soon discovers. Importantly, this Neo-Platonic idea of a Christian God that is removed from the affairs of humans, yet immanent in the world via nature andart, finds its way into the opening scene.
Abrams’ second Neo-Platonic/Christian feature highlights man’s falling away from the One, thus becoming permanently alienated. Wagner’s Wotan (the ruler of the world) serves as this model, even though he is a deity. Not only does Alberich’s ring (materialism) tempt and enslave him, he loses control of all relationships, ultimately willing the destruction of the world. Wotan’s wife, Fricka, and the twins of Wotan by a Wälsung mortal, Siegmund and Sieglinde, are swept up in the ring’s curse. Wotan’s favorite Walküre (by Erda), Brünnhilde, and his grandson, Siegfried, too, become tightly bound within his increasingly frustrated plans. By the end of Siegfried, third in the tetralogy, Wotan’s alienation is permanent. Third in Abrams’ typology is the Neo-Platonic circle of emanation and return via the powerful current of love flowing ceaselessly from God.7 This
circular movement from above to below and back in the life of a redeemed individual reveals itself in Siegfried, the chosen one, and Brünnhilde, his aunt and bride, both of whom Wotan hopes will do what he cannot—rescue and save the world from Alberich’s curse.
Other Neo-Platonic themes, too, fuse with Christian theology and emerge in both Romantic theology and Wagner’s aesthetic. One, in particular is the emphasis on the inner thinking and feeling of the individual as one journeys toward the perfect One, the Good, and the Beautiful. This exploration of the subconscious and its role in our development as humans was gaining credence in German Romanticism. Friedrich Schelling’s transcendental idealism and his philosophy of art and mythology were potent in this regard. He wrote in 1800 that, “This universally acknowledged and thoroughly undeniable objectivity of intellectual intuition is art itself. For aesthetic intuition is precisely intellectual intuition become objective.”8The Absolute, therefore, in Schelling’s thought was only accessible to humans via art and the aesthetic intuition; a mode of inner objectivity that he developed from Kant’s mode of disinterested contemplation of beauty and subjectivity of the sublime. Together with the recovery and emphasis on Greek and Teutonic mythology as a means to discover primitive culture and language, these mytho-religious yearnings found creative expression in Wagner’s fertile mind.
Schelling’s philosophy of art is clearly indebted to Plotinus. Moreover, both modified the Platonic stance on the place of nature. Werner Beierwaltes suggests as much, writing in The Legacy of Neoplatonism in Schelling’s Thought, noting that Schelling’s friend, Friedrich Creuzer had, early in the first decade of the 19thcentury, translated selections of Plotinus’ Enneads. Nature for both Schelling and Plotinus, according to Beierwaltes, was an unfolding of the spirit and organic subject standing opposite of thought and contemplation; a mirror and expression of divine reality and logoi whereby humans could learn, commune, and sense the pure One or Absolute/Divine. Nature thus emanates from the One outward and possesses a refracted image of Being. This leads naturally and logically to a form of panentheism.9 What of the Neo-Platonic (Plotinian) confluence in the realm of art and artistic creation?
Plotinus elevated the role of art beyond both Plato and Aristotle’s conceptions.
Motivated by Aristotle’s poetics, Plotinus now argues as follows: if art imitated nature, then it does not do so in the sense of a concealing double of true reality. Its point of reference … is not nature as a purely empirical, available objectivity, but rather nature as a process of contemplation which brings forth and is related to the logoi.10
timeless structures of being, says Beierwaltes. For Schelling, this idea is nearly impossible to overestimate. The artist, in turn, must grasp the essence of nature, both beautiful and terrifying, and transform the immanent into the material. Wagner, reading Schelling, was quick to embrace this idea, transforming it into musical expression, then synthesizing it into what he would call music drama. Nature and art, for Wagner, were not identified as God. Rather, the Romantic Absolute of the later Schelling and (later still) Arthur Schopenhauer was the essence of the cosmos. This Romantic version of Neo-Platonism via Schelling, together with a conscious expression of pure music as the Schopenhauerian Will belie a subterranean, quasi panentheism—all the world in God—evident in both drama and music. Wagner bathes Der Ring in this layered theological, quasi-panentheistic aesthetic.
John W. Cooper, in his 2006 monograph Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers: from Plato to the Present, argued that the historical roots of panentheism were nourished in the Greek philosophical traditions of Plato and Neo-Platonism. He detailed the rise of panentheism and what he calls “Classical Christian Theism.” The foundation for the God of the Philosophers is Plato’s view of a transcendent, absolutely self-sufficient, eternal, and immutable God who is forever and completely distinct and removed from his created cosmos. Ironically, Cooper insisted, most panentheists also borrowed from Plato and Plotinus the concept of God being “in” the world who is actively involved with his creatures and the natural world. “The One God generates the Mind, which generates the World–Soul, which generates the world, which exists in the World–Soul, which exists in the Mind, which exists in the One. Neo-Platonism is panentheistic because everything exists within God in a series of concentric emanations.”11 Hints of this historic Neo-Platonic panentheism are indeed manifest in Wagner’s Der Ring, and are central to its framework, emerging from the mists of Nibelheim via Wagner’s musical Leitmotifs, which perpetually penetrate the subconscious of the listener, offering a potential metaphysical union with the Absolute. This underlying quasi-religious quest remained central to Wagner’s aesthetic project, the seeds of which were discovered by him in Ludwig Feuerbach’s theology. Mark Berry writes of the seminal influence of Feuerbach on Wagner’s thinking, which eventually made explicit appearances in Der Ring. Wagner himself wrote fondly of Feuerbach in his theoretical treatises and personal correspondence with friends. Feuerbach’s decidedly humanist turn as evidenced in his theological writings emphasized the immanence of the divine in humans and the making of our own gods, allowing us to craft our own destinies without the need of an Absolute “Other.” This idea, leading to a life of pure, selfless love, gave Wagner much to explore in Der Ring.“Love,” says Berry, while arguing Wagner’s rejection of religion, “the essence of religion, is perverted and denied by its transferal to a transcendent deity.”12 Berry appears to ignore Wagner’s genuine, though problematic, religious impulses and their trajectories, which, in turn, gives one an incomplete understanding of Der Ring. Underlying Wagner’s artistic project was an unconscious, developing panentheism within Der Ring based on the foundation of the Neo-Platonic/Schelling/Feuerbach axis. His aesthetic treatises show this to be the case and were critical to Der Ring’s development.
Wagner’s artistic theory, fertilized by the early Romantics, crystallized into the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk while he was exiled in Zurich after the failed Dresden revolution of 1848. He embarked on this creative project to unify human consciousness within metaphysical domains, hoping to inspire his German compatriots to explore the possibility of Gesamtkunstwerk’s hidden meanings; ultimately, an artistic credo emerged, infused with a spiritualized tone and foundation. His three major written works were all drafted while in he was in exile. Art and Revolution(July 1849), Artwork of the Future (November 1849),and Opera and Drama (January/February 1852) together make astounding claims and show him to be one of the few artists in history who crafted a theoretical foundation from which to create a dynamic change in the way an art form could be conceptualized. Prior to their completion he had written “The Nibelungen Myth” and a prose draft of the libretto—Siegfried’s Tod, which eventually became the last installment in the tetralogy, now titled Götterdämmerung. The entire prose narrative was conceived and written in the following order: Götterdämmerung, Der Junge Siegfried (now simply Siegfried), Die Walküre, and finally, Das Rheingold. The four were then ‘reversed’ as he set them to music, premiering as a cycle in August of 1876. Important also is the fact that all prose and poetic versions of the cycle were completed before a note of music had been scored. The three treatises, together with the Nibelungen Myth, portended a bold new operatic undertaking: a concept of German opera that became the antithesis of the Italian and French traditions holding sway in the courts and opera houses of Europe. Rejecting these operatic traditions was essential to his argument. Embracing Beethoven’s compositional legacy, even more so.
Wagner’s earlier experiences listening to and conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony had convinced him of the need to effect a reorientation of the music/word synthesis that had been at the center of operatic history since its earliest beginnings in Florence, Italy, ca. 1600. Beethoven, not known for his operatic output, had introduced Friedrich Schiller’s poem into the final movement of his Ninth symphony (1824). Wagner argued that Beethoven’s ‘pure’ symphonic texture could not rise to the demands of melody and text; a new union was called for, even though the Classical structures of thematic development (sonata form) inherited and mastered by Beethoven were stretched to the breaking point in his late piano sonatas and string quartets, leading to a more fluid expression of musical ideas. Thereafter, the fusion of text (story-telling) and tone birthed an important nineteenth-century debate centering on the nature and primacy of programmatic vs. abstract music. This occupied the minds and hearts of serious composers and their critics. Wagner’s music dramas would figure prominently in this milieu, especially later in the century. Subsequently, the compositional foundation of pure, thematic development would no longer dominate Wagner’s thinking in Der Ring. More importantly, he and most Romantics, notably Hegel, believed that the text must originate from the earliest Volk as the essential unifying identity of culture. Dramatic intent, then, was to be privileged once again, the recovery of which Wagner perceived as originating in ancient Greek theatre, coupled with a view toward cultural renewal. Emotional substance and meaning would evolve and unfold in the drama and be self-evident to the audience, but only if music and drama were so tightly woven so as not to dominate each other at any given moment. “A composer who attempted to mould [sic] his melody exactly to the formal requirements of the verse would rob his melody of the chance to reveal its own sensuous beauty, thus also rendering it powerless to raise the verse to a gripping expression of feeling.”13 Further, Wagner wanted to resurrect an ancient form of German rhyme scheme, that of Stabreim, to use as the prose narrative, thus forcing an uneven, unending musical phraseology that to this day many find unsettling. Moreover, Greek mythology presented him with the flexibility for a new dramaturgy, one patterned after the Oresteia Trilogy, all of which subsequently transformed both the Nibelungenlied and Volsung Saga. These three sources were enriched further by the twelfth-century Icelandic Eddas. The final synthesis provided a disparate, yet compelling Teutonic Folk forging renewed connections to a disrupted and forgotten history. He later modified his stance to that of musical primacy in response to Schopenhauer’s idea of the World Will, but from its earliest days, the Wagnerian project was birthed to meld music and drama as never before, pouring new intoxicating ecstasies into old brittle wineskins. Traditions were under assault, shattered and replaced by a distinctly Wagnerian, pre-modernist consciousness. The heralds of late nineteenth-century Modernism wasted no time in idolizing Wagner as the torchbearer of the ‘new,’ often exuding a breathless, yet inspiring hyperbole.
Wagner’s quest toward the Romantic synthesis of art and religion as a Gesamtkunstwerk built on Greek and German myth began early on with Die Wiebelungen—the prose narrative of the Nibelungs (1848). This was the first step in the 28-year journey ending with the performances of all four operas at Bayreuth in August of 1876. The first sentence in the “Origin and Evolution of the Nibelungen Myth” begins with these words:
Man receives his first impressions from surrounding nature, and none of her phenomena will have reacted on him more forcibly from the beginning, than that which seemed to him to form the first condition of existence, or at least of his knowledge of everything contained in creation: light and day and the sun. Gratitude, and finally worship, would be accorded this element above all; the more so, as its opposite, darkness, or night, seemed joyless, hence unfriendly and fear-compelling. Now, as man drew all his joy and animation from the light, it would soon come to signify the very fount of his being: it became the begetter, the father, the god.14
He herein describes the ways in which humans were the first creatures to perceive their surroundings through natural phenomena. Note the enclosed world containing light, day, and sun—a created order. The cosmos existed in some form a priori to humanity’s appearance, and nature’s phenomena is the window through which they will be able first to know security, not fear. Second, realize that the source of this light becomes an inner fountain flowing with an organic wisdom, which, in its full fruition deifies the created cosmos. This language hints of Feuerbach’s thesis of inner god-formation by primitive humanity, but also belies a self-contained world within which humans were free to evolve towards God as they discover materiality. In Plotinian terms, the absolute One is awaiting the created one’s return to godhood and perfection. Further evidence of this concept is expressed in the Prelude of Götterdämmerung as the three Norns (Past, Present, and Future) describe the state of affairs of the cosmos while spinning the tangled cord of time. Recall that the libretto of Siegfried’s Tod (later Götterdämmerung) was written first. Hearing Götterdämmerung as the last installment, listeners now know what the Norns know because in three previous operas the world has evolved from creation into its current complexity:
Though good or ill may come,
Weaving the cord, I’ll sing now.
At the World Ash-tree
once I wove,
when fair and greenthere grew from its branches
verdant and shady leaves.
Those cooling shadows
sheltered a spring;wisdom’s voice
I heard in its waves;
I sang my holy song.
A valiant god
came to drink at the spring;
and the price he had to pay
was the loss of an eye.
From the World Ash-tree
mighty Wotan broke a branch;
and his spear was shaped
from that branch he tore from the tree.(shortly thereafter…)
holy laws and treaties;
cut their words in the spear;
he held it to rule all the world,
until the day a hero broke it in two;
with shining sword he destroyed the god’s holy laws.
Then Wotan ordered
to hack down
the World Ash-tree’s trunk,
and to cut its branches to pieces.
The Ash-tree fell; dry were the waters of the spring!
And so today
I must tie our cord to the rock.
That mighty hall
the giants have raised—
there the immortals and heroes
all have assembled;
there sits Wotan on high.
But all around it
there are heaped
like a wall
huge, mighty branches:
the World Ash-tree once they were!
When that wood
blazes furious and bright,
when the flames
seize on that glorious abode,
the rule of the gods is ended;
darkness falls on the gods.15
One notices a pristine, created world over which the Norns, Erda, and the ‘Father’ of the gold (identified in the prelude to Das Rheingold) have presided over before the corruption wrought by Wotan, the seeker of wisdom. Wotan is a god, but clearly to a lesser degree than others who existed as overseers before his wandering and eventual discovery and destruction of the Ash tree. From the outset Wagner creates an ambiguous hierarchy of relationships. How did the world come into being? Not by Wotan’s hand, surely. What world existed before Wotan and his cohort of gods and goddesses? An uncorrupted one. How did Wotan gain the wisdom necessary to rule the world? By sacrificing his eye. The Norns observe and recall the goings on as they unravel the rope. They describe what was, is, and is to come, a certain ‘Being’ and ‘Becoming’ in Plotinian terms. Earlier, in Das Rheingold the rape of the Rhine’s gold and the rejection of love occurred via Alberich’s curse. At the conclusion of the tetralogy Brünnhilde has returned the ring of power to the Rhinemaidens during her immolation scene while Valhalla burns, ignited by Siegfried’s funeral pyre. The gods are thus vanquished, brought about partly because, in Wagner’s words, Wotan willed his own destruction. M. H. Abrams again,
A conspicuous Romantic tendency, after the rationalism and decorum of the Enlightenment, was a reversion to the stark drama and suprarational mysteries of the Christian story and doctrines and to the violent conflicts and abrupt reversals of the Christian inner life, turning on the extremes of destruction and creation, hell and heaven, exile and reunion, death and rebirth, dejection and joy, paradise lost and paradise regained.16
His last point recapitulates the theme of eternal cosmic stability followed by humanity’s waywardness or disintegration from this original state, followed by ultimate recovery or return to the One. This was Abrams’ second feature of Neo-Platonism within Romantic sentiment, similarly found as a universal myth in, among other writings, Plato’s Symposium, the Gnostic writings, and the Orphic tale.
This world begins in the opening scene of Das Rheingold with the frolicking Rhinemaidens, singing a nonsensical, yet potent Ur language. Suddenly, the Nibelungen dwarf, Alberich, appears with the hope of a sexual encounter with any one of the three. As he enters, however, one maiden sings, “Be on your guard, Father warned us of such a foe!” Who is their father? Might he be the perfect One as spoken of in Plotinus’ Enneads? If so, all of the characters in the cycle—gods, goddesses, half-gods, giants, dwarfs, dragons, animals, humans—could be functioning in an enclosed reality overseen, but not controlled by a pure, Absolute (Plotinian) Good. Additionally, all named characters have some flaw and are at various points in the cycle wandering toward or away from an elusive kind of paradise. Alberich curses love after rejection by the Rhinemaidens, then gains the gold and sets in motion an evil curse; Wotan has despoiled the garden to gain wisdom as law giver and adjudicator, moving away from the Good, but resigned to destruction; Brünnhilde slowly extricates herself from Wotan, choosing love and wisdom of a higher and nobler realm; Siegfried naïvely thrashes his way through the world until made a fool by Hagen. Most important, all represent a falling away from the One (the Father?) who is only hinted at in the libretto. Neo-Platonism’s shadow looms large throughout the cycle.
This complex dramaturgical construct is impotent without Wagner’s music. Simply reading the libretto can lead to a confused, befuddled and unfulfilled narrative. The musical Leitmotifs, however, which symbolically refer to characters, actions, objects, and ideas, sustain an evolving coherent narrative from first note to last. The preeminent twentieth-century musicologist Carl Dahlhaus wrote cogently about this synthesis.
When he [Wagner] used the word ‘motive’ in his writings it did not refer to a melodic idea, but to its dramatic foundation or motivation. In order to be understood beyond all shadow of doubt (and it was the ambition to be so understood himself that turned Wagner into an indefatigable exponent of his ideas) a musical idea—a ‘melodic element’—had to be introduced in association with both words and an event on the stage, and it was the lat-ter that was of crucial importance. The expression that stands out in the letter to Uhlig is ‘scenic-cum-musical realization,’ which clearly means not so much that the stage realization is contained or prescribed in the text as that it only comes into being with the music, so that the events on the stage are connected with musical motives and the musical motives, vice versa, with events on the stage.17
From the opening low E-flat in the string basses in Das Rheingold to the last tour of motives in Götterdämmerung’s final scene, the thematic materials offer a kaleidoscope of rhythmic, melodic, timbral, and tonal variations that create their own world for the listener; musical metaphors with richly infused symbolism offer a sensualized guidebook for the journey. Occasionally, they are explicit in shape and character, evoking a militaristic triadic arpeggio for the sword or, at the opening of Das Rheingold, an undulating outline of the tonic chord increasing in intensity over four minutes, symbolizing the Rhine’s waves and currents. Most of these musical fragments often require repeated hearings because they have become transformed in rhythm and melodic content and, therefore, rely on the long-term memory of the listener. Foundational to this expectation is Wagner’s use of the orchestra. He creates a variegated tapestry stitched with the vocal melodies that contribute to the evolution of the concept of absolute music, a term used by him for the first time in 1846. This idea of absolute music originated in Friedrich Schelling’s thought, first as “absolute artwork” as early as 1800. Mark Evan Bonds identifies the term as a retronym, or two-word neologism created to distinguish between older and newer varieties of a particular phenomenon, typically in response to technological or historical developments. Wagner was “responding instead to an increasing widespread aesthetic attitude that conceived of music as an entirely autonomous art, existing for its own sake and serving no broader social purpose.”18This critical understanding of Wagner’s use of Leitmotifs is necessary to fully appreciate Der Ring, and aids in revealing both the Neo-Platonic and panentheistic features within the musico-dramatic textures.
Specifically, Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk was and is a world unto itself, allow-ing for a universal interpretation via mythological constructs resulting in a form of orchestral absolutism. The mythical narrative of the libretto, with its human endowed characters, is incomplete and incoherent without the music. This coherency of words and music is the subject of many authors’ writings. Roger Scruton, writing of Wotan’s Fire Music, the orchestral interlude after he has punished Brünnhilde by depriving her of divinity and putting her to sleep on the rock, says, “The musical process … creates the myth … [It] does this by forging connections in our feelings. The attentive listener is aware not merely that Brünnhilde is asleep on the mountaintop surrounded by forbidden flames … [This] aware-ness … remains too deep for words.”19 This is one example among many which occur throughout Der Ring, synthesizing a total world of drama and music on a macro level of eternal mythoswith the characters’ motives and relationships. The orchestral texture functions as the transcendent expression of the Divine, immanent within human agency. John W. Cooper claimed that Schelling “clearly states the twin themes of modern panentheism, that God’s existence is essentially historical and that God and humans cooperate in their common existential quest to fulfill their destiny and actualize their essence in history.”20 To be sure, the central characters in Der Ring—Alberich, Wotan, Brünnhilde, and Siegfried—are often interpreted as engaging in paradigmatic struggle to control their destinies. Nevertheless, these characters, indeed all of the characters, are functioning within a musical panentheistic cosmos that offers a glimpse of a veiled Christian theism. The myriad musical themes and motifs are not sacred or religious per se. Rather, the motifs’ manifest role in telling the story via absolute rather than programmatic music, and as representative of Schopenhauer’s ‘Will’ as thematic transformation, embody in themselves a cosmos of immanence wherein God dwells. Within this cosmos of music and drama, the unique aural identity of the Leitmotifs thematically molds both our aural and visual world into coherency; an active, yet mysterious, divine and multi-toned symbolic Spirit of tone transporting us beyond the particular to the universal. Dramatically, the gods perish and Valhalla burns; but a new world is born in which humans and the dwarf Alberich remain, aided by the memory and potency of the all-knowing Absolute via the Leitmotifs themselves. Wagner had created an Absolute within the Gesamtkunstwerk in the personage of the Father who remains distant/transcendent. Wagner then metaphorically and brilliantly crafts musically potent Leitmotifs that are immanently ‘in’ the world, without which the listeners would be lost and unable to understand the Nibelungen cosmos. From first note to last, the orchestra immerses the listener in a spiritualized world which becomes ever-illuminated by the musical textures.
Arthur Schopenhauer earlier identified music as the only art form that could faithfully represent and embody the blind force he called the World–Will. Wagner, pace Schopenhauer, embraced this view as affirmation of what he knew intuitively in his compositional process via music drama. And, as argued here, theological nuances were never far removed from Wagner’s Romantic sensibilities. The Romantics’ search for the Absolute approaches a modified ‘supernatural panentheism’ reflecting God in the world vs. the world in God. God becomes immanent via his works of nature and man’s artistic renderings; both are the two domains whereby humans can escape the material world and embrace the Absolute. Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk fulfills this modified quasi-theistic thinking with an ever-present substratum of Neo-Platonism and panentheism, creating an enclosed world from first chord to last; a world infused with deep mystery, potent symbols and a musico-dramatic prose that is cyclic and fertile in nearly every sense, inviting his listeners on a journey from birth to death to renewal. Der Ring des Nibelungen embodies this comprehensive mytho-historical narrative of the nineteenth century—a totalizing of German idealism which
[seeks] accurately to place man in his universal context, and to bridge via the reconciliation of self-comprehension various gaps, chasms even—between man and Nature, Spirit and Nature, knowledge and will, reason and ‘sensuality’ (Sinnlichkeit), ‘ought’ and ‘is,’ secular and divine, self and society, theory and practice.21
Another author identifies these chasms or dualisms as ‘exacerbating polarities.22 However labeled, these contradictions beg for continued analysis, both theological and aesthetic. One could be forgiven in thinking that any attempt to rescue Wagner from history’s complexities is a fruitless and pretentious quest. A word of caution is in order, though. The great twentieth-century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar offered a possible corrective. “There has never been a single philosophy, not even in the case of Hegel (for Marx has unmistakable objections to him). There is only philosophizing humanity, ceaselessly circling in dialogue around the riddle of the being of the world, and life, and man, and history and death.”23Der Ring des Nibelungen is emblematic of this continuous dialogue between history and future; one of renewal, both theological and aesthetic.It offers a complex, sophisticated, captivating beauty of infinite expanse; a glimpse of the past, present, and future, both utopian and apocalyptic.
Wagner’s gods, goddesses, dwarfs, giants, and heroes emerge within and are infused with Neo-Platonism and panentheism. [Re]discovering Wagner’s epic tale promises, among other things, fresh exposure into a great artist’s genuine yet tortured spiritual quest. Wagnerites and Wagnerphobes are invited into to a Gesamtkunstwerk of multiple dimensions, which “[F]rom its very outset … has been marked by clashes between mechanical and organic form, technology and technophobia, mass reproduction and the aura of originality, individual genius and the Volk, commerce and communism.”24 These essential features, along with the sacred/secular dichotomies, were sown, fertilized, and harvested from the Romantic aesthetic of the art/nature conflation. The debate among those who study the milieu of contemporary culture and religion continues to expose these polarities in fresh ways. Taking another look at Der Ring des Nibelungen by absorbing Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk in the darkened opera house might soften objections to his tainted utopian project and offer theological–aesthetic insights into our twenty-first-century longing for the transcendent.
Cite this article
- Dieter Borchmeyer, Drama and the World of Richard Wagner, trans. Daphne Ellis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), vii.
- David P. Goldman, “Why We Can’t Hear Wagner’s Music,” First Things, December, 2010, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/12/why-we-cant-hear-wagners-music.
- E. Michael Jones, Dionysos Rising (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 43.
- Jacques Barzun, The Use and Abuse of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 26.
- M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism (New York: W.W. Norton, 1971), 146.
- Ibid., 152.
- Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, eds., Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger (Chicago, 1976); quoted in David Simpson, ed., The Origins of Modern Critical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 226.
- Werner Beierwaltes, “The Legacy of Neoplatonism in F. W. J. Schelling’s Thought,” trans. Peter Adamson, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 10.4 (November 2002): 393-428.
- Ibid., 408.
- John W. Cooper, Panentheism—The Other God of the Philosophers: from Plato to the Present (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), chap. 1, Kindle.
- Mark Berry, Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire: Politics and Religion in Wagner’s Ring (Cambridge: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2006), 153.
- Geoffrey Skelton, Wagner in Thought and Practice (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1991), 29.
- Richard Wagner, Richard Wagner: Stories and Essays, trans. and ed. Charles Osborne (LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Co., 1991 ), 164.
- Richard Wagner, The Ring of the Nibelungen, trans. Andrew Porter (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976), 248-249.
- Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, 66.
- Carl Dahlhaus, Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas, trans. Mary Whittall (Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press,  1979), 85.
- 8Mark Evan Bonds, Absolute Music – The History of an Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), chap. 8, Kindle.
- Roger Scruton, The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen (London: Allen Lane of Penguin Random House, 2015), chap. 4, Kindle.
Cooper, Panentheism, chap. 4, Kindle.
- Bonds, Absolute Music, 25.
- Warren Breckman, European Romanticism: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008), 17.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, Truth is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, [1972 in German] 1987), 49.
- Matthew Wilson Smith, Total Work of Art: From Bayreuth to Cyberspace (New York: Rout-ledge, 2007), 4.