Wednesday 11 September 2013

Aspects of Wagnerian Love: Sister, Bride, Wife and Son

(originally published as a programme note to a Salzburg Festival Concert, August 2013: programme details below)
Richard Wagner (1813–1886)

Siegfried-Idyll in E major, WWV 103
Act One of Die Walküre, WWV 86 B

Springtime Passion: The Heat of the Moment

If ever there were an act taken from Wagner’s Ring one might elect to perform in isolation, arguably from his entire oeuvre, it would be the first act of Die Walküre. It ‘works’ by itself; although only an incurious soul would not to wish to know what happens next, you do not need Das Rheingold to make sense of it. That is not, of course, to say that knowledge of the ‘preliminary evening’ does not have one appreciating Die Walküre differently, more deeply. The very contrast of sound-worlds between the frigid realm of gods, dwarves and giants, in which the goddess of love, Freia, is little more than a cipher, and the world of what Wagner, in thrall to the ‘sensualist’ philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach, called the ‘purely human’ is an implied part of the dramatic experience. Yet even the first-time listener will be drawn in by the Walküre tale of a brutalized woman falling in love with a mysterious outlawed visitor, the liberator in whom she will recognize herself and her true potential as a human being and who will likewise recognize himself in her. This is a Romantic journey from darkness to light, just as Wagner would have found in the archetypal musical example, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

With Wagner, tonal relations are more complex, arguably more equivocal, than in Beethoven. The Ring as a whole opens in E flat major, or rather it opens with that celebrated low E flat, from which even tonality itself seems to evolve, just as life itself may be understood to evolve from the Rhine in the Rheingold Prelude. Götterdämmerung concludes in D flat major, ‘flatter’ than the ‘natural world’ opening to the cycle, and indeed the key associated with the gods’ fortress of Valhalla. Yet the progression experienced in the first act of Die Walküre, if not quite so straightforward as that of Beethoven’s C minor to C major ‘narrative’, still brings with it a clear transformation, from the D minor of the Prelude’s extraordinary opening storm – Beethoven again a progenitor, not least in the Pastoral Symphony, though Wagner goes further in conceptual weight and arguably in sheer fury – to the blazing full orchestral triumph of G major as the curtain falls. That scorching climax, frankly erotic rather than metaphysically Beethovenian, occurs just in time in terms of stage action to spare prudish blushes as brother and sister cross the final frontier of mutual and self-exploration. Even then, however, we must register a qualification – opening and climax sharing a similarity of heroic Volsung defiance – in the flattened subdominant final chord that intensifies the dramatic excitement, yet hints at trouble in store.

Let us take a few steps back to the emergence of Siegmund from wild storm and dark forest. A proud example from Wagner’s line of charismatic heroes, he disdains bourgeois society as it disdains him: morally, politically – and violently. Like Parsifal, he stands so far outside civilization that he knows not even his name. He calls himself ‘Wehwalt’ (woeful) but only discovers his ‘true’ name, Siegmund (victorious protector), when his sister-bride bestows it upon him through love. Siegmund comes closer than most to the revolutionary Wagner wished himself to be. Marriage, forcible subjugation of Sieglinde as chattel by her thuggish husband, Hunding, is to be vanquished, on account both of its instantiation of bourgeois property rights and its thwarting the overpowering love Siegmund and Sieglinde discover in each other. Only later on, in Tristan und Isolde and in Götterdämmerung, do we discover that Romantic love is itself a form of power and thus equally to be suspected. We hear that from a beautiful heart-rending solo cello motif, voiced as water and Sieglinde refresh the fugitive visitor. It will develop into a fully blown theme of sexual love as their feelings develop: ‘Du bist der Lenz’ (you are the spring), Sieglinde will tell him. The emotional world conjured into being as liberation from the stern prison of emotional winter proves as vernal as anything Wagner wrote.

In the meantime, Hunding has returned home. According to customary laws of hospitality –Hunding is nothing if not conventional – the head of the household must offer shelter for the night. He distrusts his visitor, however, as he distrusts all novelty, and notes a suspicious kinship to Sieglinde; it is all in the eyes. It transpires that ‘Wehwalt’ is a foe of Hunding and his kin. Prefiguring his liberation of Sieglinde, ‘Wehwalt’ has rescued a child-bride forced by her family into a loveless marriage; the brothers who were slain are of Hunding’s clan. Though custom will constrain him this evening, Hunding announces his intention to avenge those deaths and the affront to patriarchy the following morning. Sieglinde drugs her tormentor and joins Siegmund, revealing the secret of the sword in the tree, awaiting a great hero. Siegmund’s father ‘Wälse’ – in reality, a disguised Wotan, roaming the human world in search of something ‘new’ – had promised him a sword that he would find ‘in höchster Not’ (in deepest need). The phallic symbolism of extraction is not subtle, nor should it be. Music and words emphasize Siegmund’s triumph: Siegmund the Volsung, you see, woman! As bridal gift he brings you this sword.’ (‘Siegmund, den Wälsung, siehst du, Weib! Als Brautgabe bringt er dies Schwert.’) The final revelation comes with Sieglinde’s recognition in Siegmund of the brother from whom she has long been separated. In defiance of the bourgeois morality of Hunding and his protectress, Fricka – Wagner, in a letter, derided her as the voice of mere ‘custom’ – Siegmund takes his twin as ‘bride and sister ’ (‘Braut und Schwester’). Thus will the blood of the Volsung race flourish (inspiring Thomas Mann initially unpublished 1906 novella Wälsungenblut).

Jeannine Altmeyer (Sieglinde) and Peter Hoffmann (Siegmund) Sieglinde and Siegmund in Patrice Chéreau's classic Bayreuth 'centenary' production of Die Walküre

Though one might deem this a tragedy considered in full – Carl Dahlhaus wrote of ‘the tragedy of the incestuous love of Siegmund and Sieglinde’ – and it is certainly true that both parties ultimately meet their death rather than enjoy or endure a ‘happy marriage’, ‘tragic’ is not how it feels. There is greatness in Siegmund’s subsequent rejection of Valhalla and immortality because Sieglinde will not be admitted; that greatness is born not only in his character but also in the transformative quality of the Volsungs’ love. Shocking experience of that very same quality will initiate Brünnhilde’s transformation from steely, inhuman Valkyrie to ‘purely-human’ woman. When, moreover, we come in the second act to Siegmund’s death, we understand it in the light of that love’s blazing conviction. A thoroughgoing anarchist in matters of love as well as politics, indeed a political thinker who recognized their inextricable interrelation, Wagner insisted that nothing endured for ever. Such, we discover in the Prologue to Götterdämmerung, had been Wotan’s error, to inscribe treaties as runes upon his spear, attempting to render eternal that which could only have had temporary validity. So it is for Wagner, the Dresden comrade-in-arms of Mikhail Bakunin and student of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Who knows what might happen to Siegmund and Sieglinde in old age? The very idea seems preposterous. Indeed, when, in the subsequent generation, Brünnhilde attempts to perpetuate her union with Siegfried beyond its natural life, tragedy ensues. Wagner captures the Volsungs’ springtime passion in all its immediacy, its immanence – always a primary concern to Wagner who, as a student of Young Hegelianism, stood determined to bring heaven down to earth. There is no Hans Sachs here, ready to counsel the youthfully impetuous that they need plan further ahead.

Foolhardy, indeed doomed, in the face of societal opposition though their love might be, what matters is the here and now; what matters in retrospect is the there and then. When Wotan returns in the second act, he will be weighed down by reflection, by consequences, whereas Siegmund and Sieglinde do not reflect, they simply act. Theirs is the Young Hegelian ‘Philosophie der Tat’ (philosophy of action) or of ‘the deed’. It may not be a ‘solution’ to the world’s problems. As Wagner discovered, the more he thought about it, the further away that seemed, hence his immersion in the ‘pessimistic’ philosophy of Schopenhauer, which he nevertheless declined to accept wholesale. The Volsungs’ deeds nevertheless thrill and inspire, especially in the white heat of the moment.  

Autumnal Progeny: A Return to the Symphony?

The flourishing of Volsung blood will find its fruit in Siegfried, born of Sieglinde at the moment of her death. We encounter the younger hero in Siegfried and, at a certain remove in the Siegfried-Idyll, or, to grant it its full dedicatory title Tribschen Idyll with Fidi-Birdsong and Orange Sunrise as Symphonic Birthday Greeting Offered to his Cosima by her Richard, 1870 – and one thought Hans Sachs’s christening of the Meistersinger melody, ‘selige-Morgentraum Deutweise’, lacked catchiness. Siegfried Wagner was born in June 1869, whilst work on the draft of Siegfried, from which the thematic material of the Idyll is taken, was completed the following month. Two sons, Wagner’s and the Volsungs’, thereby became intertwined in family mythology (though both would fail to meet unrealistic expectations).  We can smile at the marked contrast between the bourgeois family idyll, Cosima’s divorce from Hans von Bülow notwithstanding, the Wagners had created and the memory of Wagner’s anarchistic attacks upon that self-same thing. Or we can simply enjoy for what it is Wagner’s finest instrumental work: performed on that Tribschen Christmas Day as chamber music, yet conceived, as the autograph score attests, as a ‘symphony’.


Wagner was too hard upon some of his other instrumental efforts, yet he knew the value of this ‘symphony’ in modified sonata form, founded not so much upon Beethovenian dialectics as an idea of development rooted in musico-dramatic ‘endless melody’. Cosima recorded the following thoughts in her diary on on 30 August 1877:

He plays me the sonata for Math[ilde] Wesendonck and laughs heartily at its 'triviality'. […] He says he has never been able to write an occasional piece – this sonata is shallow, nondescript, the Albumblatt for Betty Schott is artificial; only with the Idyll had he been successful, because in that everything came together.

This lullaby of peace, joy and world-inheritance, to employ the conventional leitmotif references from the opera, may be our key to imagining those post-Parsifal ‘symphonies’ Wagner often envisaged, yet was never granted time to write. It seems they might have stood closer to Liszt than Bruckner, let alone Brahms.