Sunday 22 November 2020

Wotan: A Character Sketch


Donald McIntyre in Patrice Chéreau's Bayreuth Centenary Ring

“In the cloudy heights / live the gods,” Wotan, in earthly disguise as the Wanderer, tells Mime; “their hall is called Valhalla.” So it is, but such has not always been the case; indeed, it is a recent development. Wotan, at any rate, “reigns over” this Schar: a word that may be understood militarily or angelically (host), socially (company), or in a pastoral, religious sense (flock). That is part of the point. Wotan’s, more broadly the gods’, dominion is priestly. The priesthood, as actually existing priesthoods tend to be, is both religious and political; it relies upon tradition, custom, belief, and ultimately – although Wotan is cagey about this – upon force. “Not through force,” he tells his fellow god Donner, with his hammer; if only to sustain the illusion (Wahn), there should usually be another way.


Yet force, that primeval sin against Nature, is how Wotan’s – the gods’ – rule has come about, as we learn in the Norns’ Scene. An “intrepid god” came to the spring of the World Ash, drank its cooling waters of wisdom, paid the price. For, Wagner tells us, there is always a cost, be it political, religious, economic, ecological, metaphysical. Paying with one of his eyes, hence the eye-patch, Wotan broke off a branch; he hewed from it the shaft of his spear, the violence of that deed brought home by the spear motif’s abrupt upward leap of a major seventh in the orchestra.

Spear motif

Violence of spear creation

That that was more than the tree could take, more than Wotan should have done, is symbolized by the tree’s withering and its death, the poisoning of its spring. Yet with that deed of brutal, poisonous violence, Wotan became ruler of the heavens and thus ruler of the world. Wagner had learned much from his study of the philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach, as he acknowledged by dedicating to Feuerbach one of the major theoretical essays accompanying the Ring, The Artwork of the Future, echoing Feuerbach’s Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. Perhaps the most important lesson learned and extended was that human beings (for that matter, giants, dwarves, heroes too) have a psychological tendency to ascribe their positive qualities, above all their capacity to love, to an exterior being or beings. In that process, not only do they deprive themselves of those positive qualities; they thereby  invite, permit, enable that external force’s dominion (Herrschaft) over them.


Throughout the tetralogy, there is something ominous, indeed dominating, to the spear motif, closely associated with its creator and owner. It holds its own until finally Siegfried shatters it, scenically and musically. Wotan inscribes on it runes of law, with which he and the alien force of law rule over men, women, and their lives. His intentions have certainly not all been ignoble; he is a dreamer, with the advantages and disadvantages that entails. However, to inscribe them, literally, in dead wood is forcibly to perpetuate arrangements that have had their day. He must learn otherwise, and eventually does, but not before having fulfilled his dream of Valhalla, a sacerdotal fortress in the sky where, as he greets it, “safe from fear and dread,” the gods will rule in eternity. (That they need to be safe from fear and dread suggests that, at some level, Wotan knows they cannot be, that there is no eternity, especially when it comes to rule.) And so, he involves himself in a bargain with the giants, his builders, which he cannot keep; that is, he cannot keep to his own laws, his own runes. As the anarchist Wagner, friend of Bakunin, would tell you, such is the way of law, of political and religious power, of power relations tout court.


The Valhalla motif, the other principal theme associated with Wotan personally, is first heard softly, dreamily, as the young(ish) god imagines it, although even then, it has already been revealed, during the interlude between the first two Rheingold scenes as the other side of the motivic coin to Alberich’s curse, the latter’s B minor paralleled by the relative major, D, of Valhalla (in which both Das Rheingold and the Ring as a whole will conclude).


What a later, serialist generation, heavily influenced by Wagner and successors such as Debussy, would term all musical “parameters” – melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre – cooperate in the transformation. The Ring’s baleful song is voiced by cor anglais and clarinet reeds – the future of Tristan und Isolde not so distant – as scenically, if only in our heads, Rhenish tides at horizon become clouds. Harmony shifts, shedding dissonance and pungency of timbre as one. Softer-grained violas come to the fore, paving the way for the rhythmical transition towards Valhalla. That first soft, dream-like statement of the Valhalla motif proper is heard almost before our ears and mind realize any transformation has taken place. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, another dark tale of a castle fortress and doomed inhabitants, may have been born here in this transition, a process Wagner more generally and, in my view, quite rightly termed his “most delicate and profound art”.


By the time that Wotan has paid the giants, through deceit and brute force, “through theft” – as Loge has told him he must, in order to survive – and thereby enabled the gods’ entrance into Valhalla, both motif and orchestration have hardened. They dazzle, a little too brazenly. Dreamed horns (Wagner marks them weich, or “tender”) have been transmuted into the public display – almost “trespassers will be prosecuted” – of fortissimo full orchestra, at which the Rhine maidens’ sung accusations gnaw away: “false and cowardly” are the revels above, a charge underlined by chromatic C minor chords, piercing a diatonic rainbow bridge and fortress that are simply too sure of themselves. However, Wotan knows, even if he will not admit it, even if the other gods do not know it, that the gods’ rule, even at its apparent zenith, is now doomed.


Thus, when we see Wotan next, in the second act of Die Walküre, he is a man who has begun to change. He has sired a good number of children from women other than his consort – for Wotan and Fricka, read Zeus and Hera – but that is what patriarchs do. More importantly, encouraged by Erda’s words, he has begun to reflect upon his and the world’s predicament. The children of whom we know, and whom we meet, are the Volsungs – Siegmund and Sieglinde, from a mortal woman, unnamed – and the Valkyries, from Erda. Earthly heroes and the Valkyries who take them to (supposed) immortality in Valhalla serve one purpose for Wotan: to protect him and the gods, above all from Alberich. Siegmund is even intended – as ultimately is Siegfried – to win back the Ring from Alberich. Valhalla thus proves anything but “safe from fear and dread”; instead, it intensifies those feelings. As well it might, for, as Fricka’s ruthless logic points out, the tragic dilemma is entirely his own: like that of the modern political and religious order he symbolizes.


For, as Wagner wrote in a celebrated letter of 1854, immediately prior to starting work on the score of Die Walküre, Wotan is the “sum total of present-day intelligence,” not only an individual character. He is, essentially, where the world is, nowhere more so than in his second-act scene with Brünnhilde. In the course of this self-torturing monologue, in which Brünnhilde serves only as a foil, Wotan truly discovers for himself the impossibility of his situation and thus wills “the end.” He needs a free hero to rescue the order he has created, yet he also needs to control that hero’s deeds, thus removing his – “her” would be incomprehensible to Wotan and Wagner alike – freedom. Not for the last time in the Ring, though, Wagner the dramatist knows better than Wagner the theorist or Wagner the man-in-real-life, for Brünnhilde (see below), if incapable of nominal “heroic” status, nevertheless becomes indispensable to this process. Dramatic irony indeed. Faced with his insoluble dilemma, Wotan instead comes to will oblivion: first political, eventually metaphysical. We hear not merely repeated but developed, in well-nigh Beethovenian fashion, a motif that has since been named – not by Wagner, though – “Wotan’s frustration.”

'Wotan's frustration'

Itself born of the spear motif, it points to the source of Wotan’s problems: pursuit and exercise of power. Its developmental recurrences seem to hark back to an older operatic tradition, punctuating, as it were, recitativo accompagnato with something equating structurally to ritornello. (If only Wagner had known Monteverdi’s music; he is certainly inspired here by Gluck and Mozart.) “I, lord of contracts,” he declares, “am now a slave to those contracts.” That, then, marks the start, if only the start, of Wotan’s conversion to the pessimistic idea of the nullity of human existence. Via his reading of Arthur Schopenhauer, Wagner had grown increasingly convinced of that since completion of the text of the Ring poems and the composition of Das Rheingold; the idea would permeate ever more strongly the music of those dramas to come. Returning to the phenomenal world, Wotan must, quite against his inclination, either as god or father, sacrifice his own son, Siegmund. Only then will Fricka’s wrath (on which, see below) be appeased; only that way will the rule of the gods be maintained.


When, a generation later, we see – we hear too, with wondrously floating, “wandering” chords – Wotan as the Wanderer, conversion has progressed. The idea of the Wanderer had already a considerable German Romantic pedigree. Think of Schubert’s song, closing “There where you are not, there is happiness,” or Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, Wanderer above the Mist. There are, however, wanderings aplenty throughout the whole of the Western tradition, Homer’s Odyssey a case in point. In his essay A Communication to My Friends, Wagner had already drawn connections between Odysseus and earlier alienated, wandering characters in search of redemption: the Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin. Wotan takes his place here in a development of so many earlier tendencies, within a more pessimistic, Schopenhauerian context. For the resigned Wotan as Wanderer takes his leave not from Odysseus’ return to his beloved Penelope – Wotan and Fricka have no issue and never will – but to Schubert’s and Friedrich’s antihero: resigned, unwilling to act, awaiting the end. Following their riddle contest, Mime’s head is his, yet he leaves it – not without malice – to Siegfried. He wins the upper hand in his final confrontation with Alberich by declining to engage. Alberich may still lust after the Ring of power; Wotan has (partly) learned.

In the momentous first scene of Siegfried's third act, its Prelude having prepared the way for the perepiteia (turning point in ancient Greek tragedy) as a whole, Wotan may now reject Erda and her dictates of Fate. There may be an element of chauvinism, even misogyny, in the speed of transformation from “All-knowing! Primordially wise!” to “Unwise one,” but it is more than that. “What once I despairingly resolved in the wild anguish of internal conflict,” the conflict of family, society, and politics, “I shall now freely accomplish, gladly and joyfully.” And yet, while, having shed himself of the burden of that care – or so he thinks – Wotan cannot bring himself to acquiesce before Siegfried. The young Wotan is not entirely dead; nor will he ever be. Characters develop. Rarely, however, in plausible dramas, do they become something entirely different, any more than the head of an old political order will plausibly lead a new, revolutionary order. Here Wagner the dramatist, who had lived through the actual, political challenges of revolutionary defeat, knew better than Wagner the younger theoretician, who had called upon the king of Saxony to lead a “republican monarchy” and who had initially intended, in Siegfrieds Tod, to have the rule of the gods continue, purged and purified by the arrival of Siegfried in Valhalla. That had been almost a reversion to the old operatic necessity of a “happy ending,” the lieto fine. Neither life nor politics worked like that, however. At a dramatic level, Wagner had known that all along – as seen in Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin.


A Wotan philosophically converted yet not entirely transformed must still fight, must still have his spear shattered by the young hero’s sword. There is no avoiding the moment of the revolutionary deed, however bitter its consequent disappointments. Moreover, when Waltraute visits Brünnhilde in the first act of Götterdämmerung, we learn that Wotan in Valhalla continues to behave with fear and dread, not with the joy of which he spoke to Erda. Despondently, he awaits the end; even that is more difficult than he had assumed. Gloom and foreboding, of Wotan and the world he has in good part created, pervade the score of Götterdämmerung, even if he never sets foot on stage. It is arguably more “his” drama now than ever before. The most difficult lesson to learn – arguably he never does – is to await the acts of others. When Valhalla burns, a release both personal and political, it is at a moment of someone else’s choosing. Had Wotan asked himself riddles with the skill he did Mime, he might have learned that. Who, however, as even the Sphinx never asked, does that?

To read more on 'Characters in the "World" of the Ring,' see my chapter so entitled in the new Cambridge Companion to Wagner's 'Der Ring des Nibelungen', co-edited by Nicholas Vazsonyi and me, published this autumn.