Saturday, 22 September 2012

On the anniversary of the first performance of Das Rheingold...

... and two days before the Ring opens at Covent Garden. (Alas, I have been unable to acquire tickets, but look forward to hearing from those who have.)

Valhalla is not only a stronghold of political power, but also a sacerdotal fortress — Ein’ feste Burg, in the words of the celebrated Lutheran chorale. Wotan’s initial greeting to his castle in the sky had possessed a similar magnificence to the chorale, both in the vocal line  and in the full statement of the noble Valhalla motif. His words upon awakening from his dream, ‘Vollendet das ewige Werk!’ resembled those employed by the angels in The Creation in praise of God’s creativity, ‘Vollendet ist das große Werk’: ‘Achievèd is the everlasting [Wagner]/great [Haydn] work.’ Yet one of Wagner’s fundamental claims is that Wotan’s proud edifice is thoroughly illusory. As Feuerbach had proclaimed in The Essence of Christianity: ‘Religion is the dream of the human mind,’ a dream in which ‘we only see real things in the entrancing splendour of imagination and caprice, instead of in the simple daylight of reality and necessity.’ It is through the imagination alone that ‘man neutralises the opposition between God and the world’. Boulez, at work on the Ring (he conducts here), noted that our first encounter with Valhalla is in no wise a moment of triumph, for ‘Valhalla is not clearly delineated but belongs to a world of dream, phantasmagoria, and mirage.’Religion, according to Marx’s critique of Hegel, ‘is but the illusory sun, around which man will revolve for as long as he does not revolve around himself’.

Nowhere is the claim of illusion more apparent than during the gods’ entry into Valhalla, when Loge turns upon the gods’ triumphalism. It is as if a Young Hegelian critic such as David Strauss or Bruno Bauer had entered stage left. Bauer himself recalled that prior to Strauss's Life of Jesus, Hegel’s followers had ‘lived in patriarchal calm, as blessed gods in the kingdom of the Idea.’ Thereafter, the ‘lightning of thought’ had struck in that realm, and ‘disturbed the dream’. In the words of another Young Hegelian writer, Max Stirner: ‘If you devour the sacred, you have made it your own! Digest the sacramental wafer,’ or burn Valhalla, ‘and you are rid of it!’ Loge thus speaks as both a Young Hegelian critic and a harbinger of Bakunin, with a distinct tinge of Mephistopheles — ‘I am the spirit that always negates!’ Consider Loge’s disdainful soliloquy, in which he also refers menacingly to his annihilating role as god of fire:

They hasten to their end,
they who imagine [wähnen, a usage preceding Wagner's encounter with Schopenhauer] themselves so strong and enduring.
I am almost ashamed to associate myself with them;
I am tempted to transform myself
once again into flickering flames.
To burn those who once tamed me,
rather than to die foolishly with the blind,
even though they be the most divine gods!
That does not seem stupid to me!
I shall think about it: who knows what I shall do?
Those words and the chromatic, negating destabilisation of his music with respect to that of the gods make a mockery both of Donner’s bravado in clearing the skies and of the alleged ‘splendour’ of the fortress ‘safe from fear and dread’, as greeted by Wotan. Wotan’s downcast, guilt-laden remark prior to the thunderstorm seems more apposite: ‘With an evil toll did I pay for that building!’ Froh, true to ineffectual form, constructs a rainbow bridge, as if that would seal a new covenant. To quote Peter Wapnewski: ‘The gods are on dangerous ground, but they fail to recognise the fact, dazzled as they are by their own splendour, their foolish arrogance, and their delight in illusions. They are participating in a glorious, richly costumed dance of death.’One can hardly dispute the glory and splendour of the blazing rainbow bridge theme, but the impression is that the brass doth protest a little too much — rather like those repetitions at the end of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, in which the composer seems vainly to be trying to persuade himself that all is well. The difference here is that the composer knows the score, as it were, only too well; the gods are human, all-too-human. Valhalla’s denizens are not unlike those dynasties of whom  the Watchman in Æschylus's Agamemnon’s had reported: ‘their shining blazoned on the air, these stars, upon their wane’. In Stirner’s words, ‘alienness is a criterion of the “sacred”. In everything sacred there lies something “uncanny”.’

Alberich’s world of capital may be no better — it may even be worse — but the Nibelung’s actions have helped lay bare the illusions of Valhalla, just as the cult of Dionysus had once shattered the serenity of Olympus and thereby initiated the great religious struggle between two opposing forces immortalised in the Bacchae of Euripides (or in Henze’s most Wagnerian opera, The Bassarids). The giants’ return to claim their wages and ransom sits uneasily with the ancien régime of the gods, bringing into question any notion of divine right — or, indeed, of divinity. As Marx pointed out, ‘the relationship of industry and, in particular, the world of wealth to the political [and religious] world is one of the principal problems of modern times.’ The present ‘ancien régime’ was but ‘the comedian of a world order whose true heroes are dead,’ which therefore instead sought ‘its salvation in hypocrisy and sophistry,’ just as the gods of Æschylus had been compelled to die a second, comic death in the dialogues of Lucian.

Such is the gods’ ‘new-found splendour’, in which Loge sarcastically suggests that the lamenting Rhinemaidens, deprived of their gold, might care instead to bask. Yet, rather than heed his none-too-thinly-veiled warning, the gods merely chortle, and stride across the bridge to Valhalla. Everyone, of course — not least the gods themselves, would they be honest — knows the new splendour to be no more real than the modern musicians’ trick, outlined in Opera and Drama, of building ‘shimmering golden towers of music on vapid and unworthy’ foundations. The final words of Das Rheingold are allotted to the Rhinemaidens, victims of the politico-religious war of emancipation against Nature:

Rhinegold! Rhinegold! Pure gold!
If only your lustrous glitter still shone in the depths!
Only in the depths is there harmony and truth:
false [falsch] and cowardly [feig] is the rejoicing above!

The music, now in the key of G-flat major, as far away as possible from the C major tonality of the gold, reminds us of the poverty of Valhalla’s grandiloquence as compared with the true splendour of the previously valueless gold. The C-flat minor chords on falsch and feig drive home the message further, piercing the unreality, the false consciousness, of Valhalla’s diatonicism. Valhalla, however recently it might have been built, is already a simulacrum — as Plato would have understood only too well. Indeed, one may doubt whether an ‘original Valhalla’ ever really existed. Those who would attempt to restore an unmediated ‘authentic’ Wagner Ring ought to take note.