Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ungodly Innocence in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung

© Shamoni Sarkar

There is something splendid about innocence; but what is bad about it, in turn, is that it cannot protect itself very well and is easily seduced. Because of this, even wisdom – which otherwise consists more in conduct than in knowledge – still needs science, not in order to learn from it but in order to provide access and durability for its precepts.
Immanuel Kant

          Innocence and wisdom are redefined in the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Wagner’s four-part Ring of the Nibelung series. In Norse mythology, Wotan, the ruler of the gods, pays the giants Fafner and Fasolt with a golden ring that is the source of supreme power, in return for building him the mansion Valhalla where the gods can reside. However, the wicked gnome Alberich who stole the ring from its rightful owners, the Rheinemaidens, has already cursed it. Wotan realizes that by giving the ring to the giants instead of returning it to its owners, his kingdom has been doomed by the curse. Valhalla must fall, but a hero that is free from any godly influence can save the rest of the world. The opera is devoted to the search for this hero. When one filters the auditory, visual and spatial cues, one realizes that the theme running through all four parts is that of unguided innocence. Wagner presents us with a fearless Nordic hero in Siegfried, and in him we see the splendor of innocence that Kant speaks of, but ultimately it is too splendid. His eventual death suggests that his untamed innocence is not enough, and is in fact harmful, for the collective safety of the realms of the dwarves, the humans and the gods. Perhaps Wagner is telling us that a hero needs something else— something that would guide his savagery in the right way.


         Brünnhilde, Wotan’s favorite child, has inherited her all-knowing wisdom from her mother Erda. So her decision to help the human lovers Sieglinde and Siegmund against the wishes of her father cannot be a spontaneous act of sympathy but must instead be the result of deep foresight. Wotan has already told her that the world needs a hero that is free of godly laws. Maybe she intuits that helping the humans will benefit the world in the future and produce the elusive hero. Maybe she places hope in Sieglinde and Siegmund’s yet unborn son Siegfried, the man she will eventually marry. Ironically, it is the marriage and her subsequent submission to human passions that accelerate the process toward Valhalla’s imminent fall. Brünnhilde perhaps senses this downfall too, because when she agrees to give up her status as a god and live as a free mortal with Siegfried, she cries,

 My senses are reeling,
my reason fails:
            shall all my wisdom vanish?  

Are these words of lament and doubt? But why should they be, because isn’t Brünnhilde by now aware that the self-restricting nature of the gods’ wisdom has led to their impending downfall? Siegfried seems to be the potential savior because he is fearless and guided not by rules but by his senses. But Wagner still treats the gods with respect, and a victory of sense over reason seems too easy a resolution for the complexity of his opera. Brünnhilde’s doubts must be well founded. Perhaps there is still a need for some form of wisdom. The music interprets the unstable situation with menacing low notes punctuating spurts of shriller ones that accompany Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s outbursts of passion.
          Siegfried is an orphan who has seen no other world beyond the forest he grew up in. He is the ideal hero because he does not carry the burden of an older way of doing things. But he has never seen a woman in his life, so when he finds Brünnhilde, he is scared and cries out “Mother, mother!” The orchestra plays notes of sympathy. Perhaps Siegfried’s confusion is Wagner’s warning that he may lose himself in this kind of innocence. Soon, his lack of wisdom and his uncontrollable passion cause him to be swayed by humans with corrupt intentions, and he betrays himself, Brünnhilde and Valhalla’s future. So does fearless innocence still need a parent to guide it? Does a hero need something to hold him down?
          As one approaches the twilight of the gods in the fourth opera, one begins to understand that most of the leitmotifs used during the course of the entire series contain contrasting emotions. Magic Fire, one of the most human leitmotifs, is first played in The Valkyrie when Wotan requests Loge to construct a fire around his daughter to protect her from cowards. She has been trapped in a deep sleep by her father as a punishment for disobeying the rules of the gods and the family. Magic Fire is filled with high notes of doubt and premonition before it lapses into assurances of kindness and safety. The leitmotif Valhalla is used to introduce the realm of the gods. Confidently, it moves from lower to higher notes, punctuated by the exalting sounds of the trumpet. As a musical cue, Valhalla on its own contains no uncertainty. But by the time we get to Twilight of the Gods, we do not hear it, because everything takes place in the world of the humans. This absence of Valhalla’s calming influence creates the uncertainty, which reaches its peak with the frenzied images and music of Brünnhilde’s self-immolation.
           As the opera closes, fire gives way to the water of the Rheine, giving the sensation of a world being cleansed. Strangely, when I hear the music of the finale I am reminded of scenes of both rising and setting suns in films. So perhaps it is the darkest as well as the brightest hour for the gods. We hear the creation of a new sound: it is a merging together of Magic Fire, Valhalla and Redemption through Love. Perhaps we can decipher Wagner’s final word in this last piece of music. Valhalla cannot be the single site of power any longer, but must burn to make way for a new order. The trouble had begun when the gnome Alberich had stolen the precious golden ring by rejecting love, but now, going by the leitmotifs used to close the story, it is as if the world is being redeemed by love. Although Brünnhilde is stripped of her godly wisdom when she gives in to human passion and becomes a mortal, it is her love that is redemptive. She recognizes Siegfried as a hero that was led astray and realizes that for the world to start anew, she too must burn along with him and Valhalla. Through Brünnhilde’s difficult choices, her consequent revelations, and Siegfried’s fate, Wagner tells us that no kind of love deserves to be given free reign, but must be treated with caution and reason. At the same time, Wotan’s errors prove that the wisdom and reason of the gods had been bound too tightly in rules of conduct, to the extent that it hindered him from breaking away when needed. Wagner’s music makes a plea for disobedience, destruction and a new order. To return to Kant, neither the innocence of Siegfried nor the wisdom of the gods is enough. The “science” required for the new order must be an ungodly, innocent reason. It is innocent because it does not know of the existence of other systems before it, and it is ungodly because it does not derive any of its power from the gods. This reason is bold and knows how to guide itself based on its own rules. But most importantly, it knows how and when to be bold. It seems that Wagner is appealing to measured passions. Could this be the driving force of the new order?           

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