Friday, August 7, 2009

What Does It All Mean?

Throughout August we will be featuring a series of guest writers here on the blog. Our guest bloggers are all Seattle Opera patrons who are attending the Ring and have a wealth of thoughts, opinions, and insights to share! Today we begin with Jonathan Caves, who is not attending just one cycle, but all three! If you are a regular reader of this blog or if you frequent our Facebook or Twitter pages, you have undoutedly seen Jonathan's comments. Please welcome our guest bloggers throughout the month!


Being in the software industry I am a left-hemisphere kind of guy: I like stories in which there is a well defined beginning, middle, and most definitely, an end. I want to hear "... and they all lived happily ever after." If I can't have that then I'll happily settle for "... and Tosca threw herself off the battlements," or "... the Don was dragged down to hell." Ambiguous endings leave me scratching my head and wondering what it all means.

Which sometimes makes me wonder why I love Wagner so much. Wagner almost never produces a nice clear cut ending: often you leave the theater wondering what on Earth did the last 10 minutes of the opera mean? In the Ring, I believe, we get off pretty lightly: both Das Rheingold and Siegfried have, at least to me, clear endings. In Das Rheingold the gods enter Valhalla and the only cloud left on the horizon is the ring on the hand (claw?) of Fafner and the gnawing desire/dread that this instills in Wotan. Siegfried has an even clearer ending: boy gets girl - it doesn't get much simpler than that.

The other two operas are much more problematic. So here is what I think happens at the end of these operas - remember this is viewpoint of what I'll call a rationalist - someone who wants a reason for everything. I am probably completely off-base but this is how (at the moment) I rationalize what I see on the stage.

Die Walküre
My problem with this ending is not so much what we see on the stage - Brünnhilde, mortal, asleep on the stage surrounded by fire - but more the why. Why does Wotan feel compelled to punish Brünnhilde in his way? Yes she disobeyed him but the punishment seems way in excess of the crime (though Wagner himself could fly into terrible rages over the smallest of perceived slights). My rationale for what happens is as follows: Wotan isn't just mad at Brünnhilde: he is mad a Fricka, he is mad at fate, but most of all he is mad at himself. He wants the ring: the desire for it has been eating at him since he took it off his finger in Das Rheingold - I suspect he spends every waking hour thinking of ways he can wrest it from Fafner but all his plans have failed. Wotan is bound by the contracts he has entered into so he can't just take the ring from Fafner - he needs an independent entity to win the ring for him, and as Fricka explains in Act 2 of Die Walküre, this is most definitely not Sigmund who was both fathered and shaped by Wotan: Sigmund is anything but independent. So (I suspect once again) Wotan's plans for getting the ring have failed. He is impotent: there seems to be nothing he can do to regain the ring. What's the point of being a god (and the chief god at that) if you can't actually do anything? So Wotan is furious, and he strikes out at the person he feels has betrayed him - Brünnhilde. As a punishment he makes her mortal and leaves her on the ledge; but because of a change of heart he gives in to her final request and surrounds her by magical fire. Now it could be that he does this because his temper starts to cool, but also, I think because he sees that because of her betrayal Brünnhilde has broken some of the bonds between father and daughter and she is now acting independently. During this scene I think that the wheels in Wotan's mind start to turn again: I think he realizes that maybe Brünnhilde is that independent entity he needs; he begins to believe that if he can't get the ring himself then maybe Brünnhilde can. So when Wotan is putting his daughter to sleep (all while singing some of the most beautiful music in the whole cycle) I think he is secretly hoping that she will be the one to re-claim the ring. On this level I think of Wotan is a bit like an addicted gambler - he believes that the next roll of the dice will finally get him what he wants. It is not until the 3rd Act of Siegfried that he finally realizes and accepts that this will never happen: he will never regain the ring.

At one level the ending of Götterdämmerung is straight-forward: all Wotan's scheming has come to naught, the ring is returned to the Rhine Maidens and the world of both men and gods is destroyed leading to a rebirth of a new world. But again I find myself looking for the cause and effect. In this case my attempt at rationalization starts back in the 3rd Act of Siegfried: In my opinion, at the beginning of this Act Wotan has at last made some progress in his quest for the ring - Fafner has been killed and the ring is now in the possession of a rather naïve youth - surely a much easier prospect than an ancient, suspicious giant magically changed into the form of a dragon. Furthermore the youth is on a quest to free Brünnhilde, couldn't she acquire the ring (eventually she does!) and gift it to her father? But something strange happens at this point - Wotan seems to abandon his quest and instead decides to work towards the end of the gods. Does he realize that even the ring will not give him the happiness and peace (and I think rest) that he so desires? Does he just get tired of living? Is he bored of existence? This idea definitely has a very romantic 19th Century feel to it - picture the poet in a seedy garret dying from a deep melancholia brought by a forbidden or rejected love. I think Wotan just doesn't want to continue: he realizes it is all futile - the world around him is decaying and he has had enough. He decides that the only solution is to tear everything down and start again (all very Schopenhauer). From this it follows that lot of what happens in Götterdämmerung is irrelevant - the course is set, the world will be destroyed: even if Siegfried hadn't drunk the potion or he had voluntarily returned the ring to the Rhine Maidens the outcome would still have been the same - Valhalla would have burned and gods would have been destroyed.

One problem I have with this explanation is that it ignores the "Redemption by Love" theme - but who is redeemed? The gods? Siegfried and/or Brünnhilde? Us? True, the Rhine Maidens get their gold back but beyond that everyone else on stage is destroyed.

I don't think there is any completely satisfactory explanation for end of Götterdämmerung and I suspect Wagner himself really didn't understand it (his explanations were usually pretty obtuse) but maybe that is part of the magic of the Ring - it causes us to pause and to reflect on what we have just seen. Or maybe we should just stop analyzing (and worrying) and instead just enjoy the incredible beauty in the music at the End Of All Things.


  1. Who is redeemed? Well, the world. The world(i.e. mankind) will no longer be affected by the evil caused by the ring. The Gibichung palace is destroyed as well as Valhalla, but the '89 Met production and the '76 Bayreuth production both ended with a group of humans who survived the appocalypse, so not everyone is destroyed(this is also written in the libretto). Wagner also had anarchist leanings at the time he wrote the Gotterdamerung libretto, and one main theme of the Ring is that any kind of government is corrupted and curtails the freedom of the individual, whether it be Wotan who tries to rule the world in a noble way with laws or his mirror image Alberich who uses power to control and turn the Nibelungs into slaves. So, with Valhalla's destruction(i.e. the destruction of government)humans are redeemed in another since: they now have complete freedom.
    But you bring up a good point about the end of the ring being illogical, and Wagner himself never had a good expanation for why the Gods had to be destroyed. After all, according to Waltraude, if Brunnhilde just gave the ring to the Rhine daughters everything would be peachy for everyone. But then we wouldn't have the incredible appocalyptic conclusion to the cycle. As music, Brunnhilde's Immolation works on a visceral level that defies logic. It is like the appostrophe at the end of a long and wonderful sentence.

  2. (on ring photo contest, from Kevon Wick): "Ewww! Lower your arms! Didn't you get up for a shower at all during that long sleep?!?"

  3. A great analysis, Jonathan!!
    Could Wagner have left the ending of "Götterdämmerung" unclear because he anticipated the current era of "Regietheater" in which every Regisseur concocts her/his own interpretation (no matter how ridiculous or werk-untreu) of this 4-piece masterpiece?

  4. In the mythic background from which Wagner drew his story, the destruction of the world and of the gods is fated all along--in Voluspaa, the opening poem of the Poetic Edda, the Seeress predicts the terrible battle and final destruction of the gods at Ragnarok (this is why heroes are taken to Valhalla--so they'll be able to help in this fight). In the opera, when we see Erda (who is a version of the Seeress), her warning leaves the impression that Wotan should give up the ring to escape disaster. But, if one accepts the idea that death is inevitable, then the disaster wouldn't take the form of one's own destruction so much as of a failure to live out one's destiny heroically. Wotan wouldn't be able to do that if he had the ring, because he'd be under the power of its curse, even though he may think that it would make him more powerful.

    Given the nature of the curse (and of the Schopenhauerian worldview that informs the opera), I suppose one could also say that, to desire the ring is to desire one's death.

  5. The question about the ending of the "Ring"--must keep in mind the historical roots of the "Ring"'s compositional history. Wagner didn't simply write the words and compose the music in order, from page one to measure # billion at the end. Rather, Wagner conceived the whole aesthetic of the "Ring" in the late 1840s in a spirit of revolutionary romanticism politically charged--a kind of romantic, emaotional early Marxism. He finished the last drops of musical ink for the last page of "Gotterdammerung" almost three decades later, in the early 1870s, just before finally opening his own strange new opera theater festival with the world premiere of the whole crazy project.
    This means that Wagner's own intentions concerning the end of the "Ring" have roots in nearly three decades of Wagner's own autogiography historically, intellecually, musically, dramatically, philosophically, and even in terms of his own lifestyle changes. To change the dates around a bit and put it in our own contemporary terms, it would be like an artist today beginging a large work of art about the meaning of life when that artist is a mid-20s lost rebellious loser, and concluding that same large work of art when the artist is a nearly retired, tired old fart whose youthful ideals have been confronted by may a grim reality and whose whole outlook on life has radically changed.

    What were those changes?

  6. Great historical perspective on the creation and evolution of the "Ring", Perry!! Glad you also put it into the context of R. Wagner's early Marxist thinking. I'm now reading a long-out-of-print biography on Karl Marx's wife, Jenny, and I#m struck by the fact that they were forced to be even more peripatetic by the "powers-that-be" than was Richard W. Both Richard and ´Karl, however, produced works that changed their professions significantly!
    -- Win H.

  7. What is destroyed at the end of the Ring is the rule of law (Wotan and Valhalla). And the ring (money, wealth, property) is returned to nature. The death of Siegfried (free nature) and Brunnhilde's (absolute, self-sacrificing) love for him accomplishes it, thus redeeming the world.