Sunday, April 15, 2007

Why is there a Twilight of the Gods?

I am a lifelong Wagner lover. When my elder daughter Holly booked for her first Ring at the English National Opera in 2004, I thought I should email her some introductory thoughts about the Cycle under a quick, off-the-cuff title Why is there a Twilight of the Gods? Over the next four months what was originally intended as a few background notes for Holly grew into the story here.

            Notes to text

               * ‘You’ throughout is of course my daughter Holly.

* Plettenberg is a resort in the Western Cape. We spent a few days there with Holly and her husband Phil after Xmas 2003 when they were in South Africa on holiday. A year before I had emailed Holly urgently one morning from an internet café in Plettenberg High Street to ask her to bring the Schopenhauer for me when she came over alone on a business trip in February 2003.

* Uniondale is a small village in the Little Karoo that Holly and Phil visited during their holiday. They highly recommended a local restaurant and I visited the place after they had returned to the UK in early January 2004. Surrounded by the mountains, I found myself thinking of the Wotan-Brunnhilde scene.

* Holly and I did not discuss Wagner on this holiday and have not discussed him or listened to his music together at any time. Only a week or so after her return to London she emailed me out of the blue to say she had booked for The Ring.

* These notes were written and sent as a series of emails to Holly over the next 3-4 months – up to May 4 2004.

For Holly

This disk is a gift for you, inspired by your first attendance at The Ring. I hope you go many more times, but I hope you may always want to keep it in any case.

It contains all the notes I wrote between January and April 2004 under the heading ‘Why is there a Twilight of the Gods?’ Part III is sub-divided by a part III contd; Part IV is like The Twilight of the Gods - Prologue and Act I, Act II and Act III. These titles make no sense and are rather silly, but I started out without any plan and had to sectionalise the writing in some way as I went along to produce readable chunks.

Last of all I wrote this explanatory ‘For Holly’ - titled to make it easy to pick it out on the disk from the other material - and ‘May 4 2004’. On May 4 1954 I heard the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde and the Liebestod for the first time. It remains the most extraordinary experience I have had and one that changed my life. After the music finished that night I tried to write down what had happened to me. I kept at the time not a ‘dear diary’ but a hard-backed exercise book in which I noted occasionally what I took to be interesting experiences. By any measure I had just had a whopper. I can still see ‘May 4 1954’ at the top right hand side of the fresh page in my youthful handwriting. Perhaps sadly, perhaps just as well, I cannot remember a word of what I wrote now but even at the time I knew it fell very far short of adequacy. Some time later I threw the whole book of recollections away as unsatisfactory.

When you booked your first Ring, it was only a few months off fifty years since Wagner had made himself known to me so unforgettably. By the time I finished these notes it was as near fifty years to the day as did not matter. It seemed appropriate to mark the coincidence by putting ‘May 4 2004’ at the top right hand side of the page just as I put ‘May 4 1954’ there half a century ago. Except that today I did it with a word processor and then with a fountain pen, nothing seems to separate the two events in time. 



Genius rocks the boat: Newton; Darwin; Einstein. But even if Wagner had not been one of the greatest geniuses who have ever lived - many, including very likely the composer himself, would say the greatest - he would have been a revolutionary. The times made it unavoidable for a mind like his.

He was born in 1813. Napoleon was only two years from his downfall but his conquering armies had carried the ideas of the French Revolution the length and breadth of Europe and set fires that could not be put out again. After Waterloo, monarchies throughout the continent made it their individual and cooperative task to smother any blaze-ups of freedom, the response and indeed calling, in the view of all red-blooded revolutionaries, of all Government at all times. Like their ancestor Canute, the kings and princes were taking on an irresistible force. The dreams and schemes of idealists and activists, intellectuals and artists, stirred up outbreaks in 1820 and the 1830s and culminated in the Year of Revolutions, 1848, when peoples across Europe rose as one and many on both sides thought the long-expected end of the world had duly arrived. Delacroix’s famous painting of Liberty Leading the People sums up the fierce, romantic hopes of these years, the inspiring imagery echoed to this day on the posters outside the Cambridge Theatre for Les Miserables  (is it still running?).

Romantic, with a capital R, is in every way the right word to bring in here because two other upheavals continued to play their own parts in undermining the old world that seemed so corrupt and spent: the Industrial Revolution and Romanticism. The first was spreading year on year unparalleled new wealth, creating new classes of people, increasing populations in old and new cities and producing innovations like the steamboat and telegraph, newspapers and railway, that brought ideas and people into conjunction and conflict as never before in history. At the same time it forced upon every thinking person the issues of poverty and exploitation, not because there was anything new in human suffering but because it was now on so vast and visible a scale. Romanticism, with its emphasis on the self and self-expression, on feeling and imagination, on Nature and an idealised past, especially the ancient ‘truths’ contained in myth and legend, cast its many-sided passion for life into this ferment. The artist was adrift more than most in the turmoil, in this world grown above all ugly, but with his deeper insights he felt empowered, if not divinely appointed, to do something about it. In this sense Shelley called poets ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’

Richard Wagner grew up through all these events and years, in the thick of it. By the Year of Revolutions he was your age. Mixing with poets and actors, musicians and philosophers, both poet and composer himself and intensely conscious of his genius and vision, he became convinced that his life’s work was to provide an answer to the greatest problems of the world, with the greatest music drama ever created.



Wagner was a thinker and it helps to know what he thought his art was for.

Obviously it was not to make money: Wagner’s financial troubles nearly all his days  make a terrible story. It was not for ‘entertainment’ (as thousands who have sat bored to desperation through his long, ‘heavy’ operas would readily confirm!). ‘Entertainment’ was what you got at the Paris Opera and slavishly duplicated at lesser opera houses across Europe: empty, meretricious stuff, over-staged for the sole purpose of transferring money from the fat purses of the vulgar nouveau riche to the even fatter purses of Jews.* True art, ‘sacred’ art, Wagner’s art, concerned another world altogether where it had the highest and purest purpose - or perhaps a better word for it is meaning.

It was not that art should ‘teach’; it was more than that; it was the Greek idea. In Ancient Greece ‘art’ was integral to people’s lives. In festivals and rites the community shared as one what we know as the ‘myths’, but were actually timeless truths about the mysteries of the gods and existence. In this pristine world poetry and music, dance and drama, costume and settings, were not separate contrivances fostered by a sophisticated elite, but natural elements in the spontaneous expression of permanent, common values.

The idea that degraded contemporary opera came near this great truth was deeply repugnant to Wagner. He began to see that an entirely new form was essential, one that drew all disciplines into the service of a fundamental ‘music-drama’ (though he himself rejected this term as a new name because it singled out music’s part in the whole). Among the root-and-branch changes that music-drama would involve were ending opera’s primary concern with music before drama; dispensing with all artificialities like recitative and set pieces - virtuoso arias, duets and choruses; and equally painful for so many who enjoy the ways of society, getting rid of applause for the singers during acts: ideas highly unlikely to commend themselves to performers or audiences.

In 1848 Wagner finished Lohengrin. He put ‘opera’ behind him forever. The same year he started writing the poem for something he was calling Siegfried’s Death. Friends to whom Wagner read it, others who got word of it, had never heard anything like it. No one could imagine how these words could be set, such a huge epic staged, the kind of music it called for. No one saw how any of it could ever be done.

*All his life Wagner would resent the wealth of, beg money and favours from, abuse and detest, the Jews - but that is another story.


To realise his revolutionary new drama, Wagner now needed to revolutionise music. His prodigious answer was the symphonic use of leitmotifs symbolising people, things, emotions and ideas. In scores of ever-increasing complexity his orchestra takes on an independent role in the drama alongside the singing and stage action. In Rhinegold there are 279 different occurrences of motifs; in Valkyrie 405; in the first two acts alone of Siegfried 452; in Twilight of the Gods more than 1000. The Wagner orchestra pursues the musical logic of this material and at the same time, with the infinite subtlety and suggestibility possible in music, describes, comments, foretells, contradicts and recalls in a continuing monologue of its own. What can I offer on this profound achievement when the experts still analyse and wonder at it? Perhaps a few of the many personal rewards it has given me, to contrast with the ones you will collect if you develop a love of Wagner.

I mentioned discovering Wagner in my last year at school.* Not long after, my girlfriend bought me a recording of Strauss’s Don Juan coupled with Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Funeral Music. Still new to The Ring, I remember listening to these extracts at first simply as two pieces of descriptive music. But I learned that the Rhine Journey is more than a graphic tone poem of Siegfried’s trip. It is a brilliant new combining of motifs, with all the layers of meaning they have accumulated, for quite new psychological and dramatic purposes. At the start you hear Siegfried’s Horn Call, carefree and optimistic; then Love’s Resolution running in cheery counterpoint (after all, it is the morning after the guy’s wedding night!). Next comes the Rhine rolling grandly along – and gradually the mood begins to darken and the orchestra to mutter reminders of the treacherous Ring, the rape of the Rhinegold and Servitude, the unresolved moral wrongs that give the lie to Siegfried’s new happiness and will soon destroy him. The Funeral Music similarly ‘stands alone’ as a magnificent elegy for a hero and also recalls Siegfried’s life, by being composed of the narrative themes of his race, tragic destiny and triumphs.

In the Gibichung scene Hagen describes from the window of the Hall Siegfried’s approach down the Rhine. With wonderful invention Wagner changes Siegfried’s Horn Call - so vividly that you can see them - into the powerful strokes of the hero’s arm propelling the boat along; the orchestra pictures the waters rippling back from his oar. In an unforgettable moment in one production, Siegfried entered the Hall to be welcomed by Hagen’s warm, smiling embrace, as Alberich’s Curse motif from Rhinegold thunders out that here is the decisive turn of the wheel, the final lurch downhill into disaster. From the opening fateful chord to the last redeeming one, The Twilight of the Gods is hardly short of miraculous in the way it is full of the greatest music, enjoyable purely as music, yet also conveying the epic drama with a depth of meaning words cannot match.

*Knowing no German except ‘Heil Hitler’ (then as now unusable at all times, and especially as a chummy indicator to the natives of one’s limits in their language), I remember asking some Sixth Form girls who had taken German what ‘Liebestod’ meant. They giggled and gave no clear answer, though looking back I sense (all too late) it somehow put up my stock with them, perhaps making me seem some budding Heathcliff, driven by unspeakable desires. 


The Twilight of the Gods is undoubtedly the greatest of The Ring cycle, in every respect the supreme accomplishment of Wagner’s Olympian undertaking, but I could not say that it or any one of the four dramas is my ‘favourite’. If I think of The Ring casually, as a whole, my mind seems always to turn to Act II of Siegfried, the episode known as Forest Murmurs. This lovely island of stillness in the tragedy, the warm sunlight flickering through the trees and dappling the forest floor, Siegfried’s innocent musings about his father and mother, the enchantment of the Woodbird’s song, harbour a special secret from some faraway springtime that slips instantly away at the lightest effort to unrobe it. It is the same for me with Hans Sachs monologue as he sits alone under the linden tree on that summer evening in Die Meistersinger. It must simply be my idea of beauty.

The Ring has beauties enough for everyone. Siegmund’s Spring Song and love duet with Sieglinde in Act I of Valkyrie are two of the most famous, along with Wotan’s Farewell at the end of the opera. (I will remember the first time I saw Wotan summon Loge as long as I remember anything. The spot where his spear first pointed sprang into flame, a flame that blazed up to surround the mountaintop, engulf the stage, consume all Covent Garden theatre, until the whole world was one mighty fire silhouetting the god.) Of totally contrasting beauty are the dazzling water- and sun-splashed scene between Siegfried and our tempting trio of Rhinemaidens and the extraordinary, ethereal music of Brunnhilde’s Awakening. The imaginative range and scale amaze the mind and defeat all words. If you hear and see anything more glorious than the moment Siegfried shatters Wotan’s spear and starts his ascent of the mountaintop, please tell me where it is.

But I cannot stress enough the merits of less obvious scenes. Waltraute’s visit to Brunnhilde embedded in the middle of Act I of the relentlessly great Twilight of the Gods has some of the finest singing and music in The Ring. The opening of Act III of Siegfried where Wotan summons Erda is sensational in its vigour and power, Wotan at his most godlike. The Fricka-Wotan scene in Act II of Valkyrie has long been one of my favourites. Anger, scorn, exasperation all figure in this crucial argument between husband and wife, echoing Wagner’s own disastrous marriage. But this time the composer is certain of the last word. At Fricka’s victory the orchestra wells up in triumph – but at once contradicts the moment with the Fate motive! It is essential also to know what Wotan talks about at length to Brunnhilde in the same act. The Ring tells an intelligent story for intelligent as well as feeling listeners and what the characters are saying is very rarely immaterial. Surtitles on the night (do you have them?) are most helpful but cannot convey the structure of complex scenes to someone hearing them for the first time.

Coming directly at last to the question, Why is there a Twilight of the Gods? it should be becoming clear by now that that is to ask, What kind of world should we be living in? Since that involves in turn every possible question of importance, the magnitude of the task that Wagner had taken on stands before you.


As in The Ring, this final part of the story opens with a Prologue* that hovers at the edge of the answer, though it veils it in questions that seem strange and impenetrable.

Why does what the Norns say go to the heart of the mystery yet leave them unable to explain the most pressing mysteries of all? Why do the gods still perish when the Rhinegold is restored to the Rhine? Why did I think to point out to you in Plettenberg the place where I had sent my email asking you to bring Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung – a trifling event seemingly of no significance? Why did Deryck Cooke call his study of The Ring ‘I Saw the World End’ - a line from the closing scene of The Twilight of the Gods that Wagner never set to music? Why did you buy me that book for Christmas? Addressing Wotan for the last time Brunnhilde sings: ‘Alles, alles, alles weiss ich.’ She understands everything - everything. But what is it she understands at last? What do you not understand? What did I not understand until this week?

Coming down to earth, I should mention some of the many things I am leaving out. There is very little here on Wagner’s use of Teutonic myths and nothing on ideas of German ‘race’ that it has been said to promote or on the Freudian and Jungian analysis it invites. The first is a subject on its own; the other two always strike me as forms of myth-making themselves. Wagner saw myths as embodying humanity’s oldest and purest insights into its own existence but used them because they served his narrative and dramatic purposes. (On points where they did not, he changed them.) Only hindsight or prejudice could find anything sinister in it. His themes are universal and in his view could not be projected through the particular lives of historical figures or creations of his own. As to psychoanalysis, other approaches to ideas in The Ring seem to me more to the point and to my taste. They hardly settle what The Ring is ‘about’. That is not possible. They are ways into the endless variety of meanings that are part of the wonder of it.

Back to the main action.

*The Prologue to Act I of The Twilight of the Gods is of course the mysterious Norn scene 

                                                         Act I

You remember I started by sketching the political, social and intellectual unrest of Wagner’s earlier years. Powering this along was the newfound notion of ‘evolution’, taken at the time to mean that everything ‘progresses’, moves from lower to higher forms. How this idea is relevant to The Ring you will see shortly. The point here is that the revolutionary will not wait on this process. He does not work steadily to rid the world of injustice. He wants to overthrow, destroy the world now. Nothing else can make it ‘pure’ again. The revolutionary’s role is to restore - or bring forward - a utopia, an Ideal.

He is vague about what the Ideal is. It lies in the past, where everyone enjoyed it equally, or in the future where they will enjoy it equally again. For centuries Utopia was the Messiah who would come, or the Kingdom of Heaven. With the birth of the nineteenth century and more secular times, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity described the ‘natural’ state of mankind before kings and religion and privilege usurped it. As free enterprise and industrialisation dehumanised humanity into exploiters and exploited, the collective dream took on new styles: socialism and communism that identified the greed for ‘gold’ as the cause of evil in the world; anarchism that found any exercise of authority morally wrong and denied the legitimacy of all government. To the artist, the Romantic, Civilisation itself could seem false and corrupt, a Fall from a time when men lived simply and innocently, at one with nature and one another. These ideas fed into and helped shape the young Wagner’s beliefs. Until the failed 1849 Dresden uprising, he was the archetypal revolutionary. To ‘purify’ the world, everything had to go. If there is a core idea in The Ring, this is it. It never changed. But over the years what Wagner meant by it changed completely.

You see why the world has to go in the very first scene of The Ring. What the enticing Rhinemaidens offer is not love or money: the Rhinegold is the glittering prize of power. Frustrated in love, Alberich grasps at power. The master of the world, Wotan, must answer for this. Wotan intends to rule not by force but by Law. He has carved on the shaft of his Spear the ‘runes’ that bind him as much as his fellow men. But as the First Norn tells us, he tore the Spear, the source of his authority, from the World Ash Tree after giving up an eye to drink at the Well of Wisdom. [See note at end] Wotan in the beginning did violence to nature itself. Wotan’s own primeval choice of power before love is the terrible precedent and reason for Alberich’s rape of the Rhinegold and all the other evil that will follow it. Man has poisoned the very roots of the world.

For Wagner, then, only man can put the world to rights. There is nothing and no one else to do it - not Destiny, nor gods of any kind. Wotan was never a god. Wagner was an atheist.

Some of the problems Wagner faced become clearer. When he settled down to serious work, the question posed at the end of Part III - ‘What kind of world should we be living in?’ - would have confronted him inescapably. It requires political, social and economic answers. The revolutionary on the barricades could postpone, even ignore them, pleading the heat of battle. But the artist could not ‘purify’ the world without saying what was to replace it, unless he was content to create an entertaining fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after. Also, after 1849 Wagner was in exile. The easy optimism of youth was over. Besides realising that a complete ‘reform’ of the world was impossible, he must have seen that he had never been a revolutionary in the way he had imagined. The turmoil, the Cause, was in him and as an artist he had a different contribution to make. For four or five years the creator of The Flying Dutchman and Lohengrin composed no music at all, spending his time feverishly reading, arguing, studying, writing, publishing. In retrospect he appears some demigod himself, getting in shape to scale Olympus.

The unparalleled conception and text that emerged was Der Ring des Nibelungen. In the original poem of Siegfried’s Death, Siegfried and Brunnhilde were to redeem the world and after their deaths rule in justice with Wotan in Valhalla. Now Valhalla and gods and world together were to be destroyed by fire. Occupied with debates about ‘revolution’ and ‘evolution’, mid-nineteenth century society no doubt saw this notion (if not as plain madness) as revolution. In terms of musical art that proved to be true. In terms of artistic truth, the value of highest concern to Wagner, it was one more phase in its evolution.

The world was to be destroyed by fire to make way for a purer one that love has redeemed. But the ‘people’ in the world are the problem, not the solution. For love to redeem the world, a new kind of man and woman must come - purer, higher beings, to undertake the revolutionary task. In the myths there was Siegfried, a great Hero who did not know fear - an apt and exciting idea with obvious dramatic potential. Siegfried had also the innocence and freedom Wagner needed: a brave upbringing among the beasts in the forest, no father and mother to shape him - no knowledge of them, or of anything of the world outside the cave. Nature would school Siegfried from birth and qualify him to bring into existence, with Brunnhilde, a world purged of the love of power through the power of love. It did not work out like this. The ‘higher’ theme too has fossilized by the time we reach the end of the drama. Siegfried is murdered before the final downfall of the gods. It takes the evolution of the highest form of all to complete the epic: to explain the true meaning of the end of the world. (That is ‘Act II’ here.)

‘Evolution’ is obviously not a pat explanation for The Ring. The work is not a metaphor for it and presents no sustainable case even for the ‘evolution’ of love within the action. (What effective difference is there, for instance, between Siegmund’s and Sieglinde’s love and Siegfried’s and Brunnhilde’s?) The wonderful music and total human drama are what are important and they unfold and speak for themselves. But the idea does provide one of the ways in - if only to disagree with - and a means of getting a perspective on the whole vast structure. If you have seen Valkyrie by now, you must have noticed the complete difference between the world it inhabits and the world of Rhinegold. In the very first scene where Siegmund rushes into Hunding’s hut, the mind hesitates and asks, How and why are we here? Where is the connection back? You will find a similar ‘disconnectedness’ between the worlds of Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods - the ‘jump’ to the Gibichung Hall seems again to require explanation. It can be cleared up by remembering that Rhinegold is called an ‘Introductory Evening’. It sets out the problem of power: how it came about and began to evolve into the violent contemporary world we know. Valkyrie, Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods follow to show developmental stages in the solution - the power of love.* This view at least gets you off on a sounder footing than efforts to explain the overall drama in Marxist terms, with Rhinegold a description of capitalist society (though you can see there is some truth in that also.)**

On the solution, the power of love, it is very clear that the love that is the most important of all is the love as it develops between Wotan and Brunnhilde (also explained in ‘Act II’ here). But something must be said about our eponymous hero, Siegfried, whom we have to thank for starting off the whole fabulous conception in Wagner’s mind.

Some time in the early 60s I remember writing to my friend Dave in Nigeria about a Ring I had just seen. Dave also loved Wagner. It struck me, I said in the letter, how Siegfried goes through this whole stupendous drama, achieving incredible triumphs, falling in love, being cheated, used and murdered, without having the slightest idea from start to finish of the gigantic events he stands at the centre of. For the first time the full impact of his tragedy had got through to me during his Narration and Death in Gotterdammerung. Of course it is the glorious music that brings it home, but it is more. Critics have ridiculed and reviled Siegfried as a blond-haired, blockheaded thug, the German Superman, a Hitler Youth lacking only the swastika on his upper arm. Yet when all the lies and deceit of the world are lifted from his eyes and he is dying, the only thing the poor mortal thinks of is the one woman he knew and loved. The reason it is so terribly moving is that before our eyes we see the Great German Hero was only ever a man.

At the end of 1853 Wagner’s friend and fellow revolutionary August Rockel wrote and asked the composer the question I repeated in my Prologue above. ‘Why, since the Rhinegold is restored to the Rhine, do the gods still perish?’ Wagner was a dramatist of the first order and considered every aspect of his work in the greatest depth. He had been labouring to produce his ‘final’ text, week in, week out, for over five years, and he had recently published it. His reply in the circumstances is flabbergasting. He said he did not know.

But more extraordinary than his answer that he did not know, is that the artist in him did.

* Valkyrie’s whole concern from start to finish is the different kinds of love and the different kinds of sacrifice they involve

** In London during a conducting tour, Wagner viewed from a Thames steamer the great pulsing heart of empire in the age of coal and steam. ‘This is Alberich’s dream come true, Nibelheim,’ he commented, ‘world dominion, activity, work, everywhere the oppressive feeling of steam and fog.’ The artist had had his own dark vision of a terrible new world long before Das Kapital and I understand there is no record of Wagner ever reading Marx

A note on the Well of Wisdom, the World Ash Tree and Wotan’s Missing Eye

Though they are diversions, I am dropping in personal anecdotes to try to make these notes live for you rather than be only an academic, even tedious, briefing on The Ring. On these next points, as a PhD in Biology, you may well be ahead of me.

‘Norns’, ‘World Ash Tree’, ‘Well of Wisdom’ - what does it all mean? Is it not just fancy? You may have seen Kubrick’s Space Odyssey 2001. If not, perhaps you will see it one day. I saw it around 1968 when it came out and it was on TV here one night in early January. I watched again just the memorable opening scene.

Apes sit aimlessly around outside their cave on some featureless plain. They snuffle, occasionally roar oddly, make pointless little animal dashes at each other. Kubrick’s scenes simply dissolve in and dissolve out, one after the other. There is no music, no story, no development, no meaning. On one occasion the apes haphazardly drive off some other apes that come near. It seems an ‘event’. But it is not. The little to-do ends meaninglessly, as all the other activity.

How many eons pass? Fade in. The scene is the same featureless plain. An ape sits snuffling among the bleaching bones of a mammoth or bison. It is threshing about aimlessly among the bones. By chance, like a baby at a rattle, it grasps at a bone, and holds it. It begins to wave it about, then beat it up and down, finally beating it down on the other bones to smash them to pieces. It begins to roar. The bone flies out of its grip, whirling high into the air, turning and spinning, spinning and turning - into a space ship.

Fade in night scene. In the utter silence apes huddle near the cave. The camera seems intent on one, as it sits motionless in the darkness: its eyes have something in them above the mindless stare of the beast. Is this animal, for the first time, aware of the night? Is it, for the first time, uneasy in the dark? What is it uneasy about? Can it for the first unbelievably terrifying ‘time’ know that it is not itself the night, not a tree, not a brook nor a stone? – know that it is other than nature? The ‘Well of Wisdom’ that Wotan drinks from at the Beginning is consciousness. The ‘World Ash Tree’ that he tears a branch from symbolises nature.  Man’s entry into the world marked a primordial crime against everything else that exists.

From the Beginning, there was no free lunch. For the Gift of Wisdom, Wotan had to give up an eye. That is the trade-off. You gain knowledge or wisdom, but at the expense of feeling perhaps? At the expense of sympathy for your fellows? At the expense of love?

But do you see the astounding place where it all leads? Consciousness would not have suddenly switched on like floodlights at a football ground. It would have come to Ape-Man in his caves, on the trackless plains, randomly - here and there, like fireflies flickering on in the night. If this is right, there must have been a first.

Wotan is the Ruler of the World because he is the First Man. The first genius.

                                                  Act II

One day some ten years before you opened your eyes on the world I found myself in a record shop in Enfield with Dave. On an impulse I bought a box set of Act III of Valkyrie and we took it home there and then and played it, like two kids opening their Easter egg. It was to be one of those ‘revelations’ Wagner’s music has given me. That is why I remember it clearly and can tell you about it today.

At the end of the wonderful Wotan-Brunnhilde scene I exclaimed - ‘Isn’t it great the way you see both their minds working towards the same end!’ Though it hardly takes Einstein to figure it out, that is certainly correct. Of the many dramatic turning points in The Ring this is the greatest. When every other argument fails to blunt Wotan’s fury, Brunnhilde has her brilliant inspiration that will lead to the redemption of the world. She begs her father to command a great fire - you hear the motif of Loge’s Fire blaze up in the orchestra - so that only the bravest man will claim her on the rock. Brunnhilde’s dauntless spirit moves Wotan to the depths of his being and triggers the beginning of his own   transformation. For the first time Love is able to claim victory in the struggle between love and power that has always raged within him. At the end of the Act, surrounded by Loge’s flames, Wotan bans from the rock and from his beloved daughter all men who fear his Power. He sings the majestic spell to the full fortissimo Siegfried motif (what scene is there like this in all imagining!). The Hero who knows no fear is to come. 

As I say, it does not take Einstein. Dave agreed Yes, it was ‘great’ the way their minds work together and we left it at that. But I had also had an intuition of something else, something beyond that, which I did not, could not, put into words - something the music meant. The moment passed. For forty more years I was not to complete my understanding of the truth my dearest friend and I had uncovered together on that long-ago afternoon. Then I started writing these notes for you a week or so back.


In the normal course of events it was Richard Wagner who bowled everybody else over. Arthur Schopenhauer bowled Wagner over. That is to trivialise it. Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation became to Wagner like the Bible to a devout Christian.

It was not that Schopenhauer ‘changed’ Wagner. You have only to consider the world of Valkyrie against that of Rhinegold to see how Wagner had already changed himself, without any help from outside. Wagner had finished the music for Valkyrie (in 1854) before he began reading Schopenhauer. Rather Schopenhauer confirmed for Wagner the rightness of Wagner’s own deepest beliefs and intuitions. Richard Wagner is a great composer, not a great philosopher. Arthur Schopenhauer is the great philosopher.

(Wagner must be turning in his grave at what I am saying about him - not so much because I have it wrong, but because he always much preferred to do the talking himself. Now it is Schopenhauer’s turn to turn.)

Mountains; snow; freedom; trams; astro-physics; thunderstorms; mathematics; the taste of yogurt; cloudy skies; history; cabbages and kings - if you, the knowing subject, were not around, how far could these objects be said to exist? If this causes you a momentary hesitation, you probably recover by saying, ‘Well, they would obviously still exist for the other knowing subjects.’ Ok. Now suppose all the knowing subjects were not around. (Ironically, with WMD, AIDS, potential meteor strikes and the rest, that seems less unlikely now than in Schopenhauer’s day, though that is not the point.) If there were no knowing subject, in what sense could clouds, history and the rest be said to exist? Schopenhauer was perfectly clear about it. He said they would not exist. These objects are all perceptions of one kind or another. Reality is in every respect as you experience it but it is dependent upon and mediated through the knowing subject: You. You can never know the ‘inner’ or ‘true’ nature of things as they exist independently. Everything that you feel, touch, imagine, understand, know or can know is ‘representation’. This is what Schopenhauer meant by the World as Representation.

As to man’s lot in this world, Schopenhauer set it out to be one of unappeasable longing, misery within himself and conflict with his fellow men. The reason for this is that man’s very existence - his body - is the incarnation of his Will-to-exist. He cannot escape the imperative to strive and struggle, the endless desire that he literally incorporates. Happiness on earth will only ever be the briefest moments of respite from this desire, when he manages to ‘lose himself’ - through sexual love, say, or among the beauties of nature, or through art, especially the art of music. People who have happy experiences are well known to speak of having been ‘taken out of themselves for a while’. For a brief hour or day they have managed to escape the unrelenting demands of the Will.*

Schopenhauer’s ideas in this respect are close to those of the purest forms of Buddhism and Hinduism. The world must be seen for what it is - evil, or at best fleeting and irrelevant, and to be escaped from or ignored. In the eastern religions, initiates gain access to the blessed ‘Will-less’ state through mental discipline or mystical contemplation, rising above the pain of their individuality into Nirvana or the World Soul - The One. Schopenhauer was a rationalist and atheist. He arrived at his philosophy through logic, not religious experience. But his escape route was similar. Those prepared to accept the demands and to deny the Will within them could achieve a state beyond evil, beyond suffering, and a sense of Oneness with, and compassionate concern for, nature and others. It does not matter how feasible it is for reason to conquer dark, innate drives as old as human beings. Salvation or redemption, inevitably, would only be available to the very few, the ‘higher ones’ who could achieve it.

*This Will is not the ‘Will’ in the title of Schopenhauer’s book, a technical point that does not matter here


Rough though it is, this summary should provide some insight into why Schopenhauer’s thinking had such a fundamental impact on Wagner and his beliefs about art and life. Looking at his finished text of The Ring now, Wagner was stunned. Not only had he raised ultimate questions without being conscious he was doing so; he had anticipated intuitively the answers to them, arrived at after a step-by-step, painstaking labour of logic by another great contemporary mind. Schopenhauer even taught the primacy of music, its unique power to unveil mysteries that words and all other art forms could not. 

Nothing is so convincing as another’s agreement. In 1857 Wagner broke off work on The Ring for twelve years while he composed Tristan and Isolde and Die Meistersinger, the latter one of the sublime masterpieces in the world, the former a masterpiece altogether out of this world. This sabbatical no longer amazes me as it once did. By 1857 Wagner had been certain for three years why there is a twilight of the gods. And he knew he would be able to reveal in what manner the world ended any time he chose - in his music.


As I finished writing what I labelled ‘(IV) Act I’ I began to realise I must not tell you the ‘final meaning’ of The Ring after all. The chief reason is that it really does not matter. The only important thing is to enjoy the music and drama. If you do not, no meaning, final or otherwise, will add the slightest interest. Second, it is much more fun to discover secrets oneself than to be told them. Third, any and all ‘answers’ are in the music. Whenever anyone said to Wagner they did not understand the ending of The Ring, he said it was in the music - you must listen to the music. That is why he never set Brunnhilde’s final words that are the title of Deryck Cooke’s book. They were simply unnecessary. When I at last saw the whole meaning a week or so ago it was through the music, which I carry in my head. The reason in the end for not telling on, and why Wagner himself did not, is that to put it into words misses the point.

You may protest I could have saved us both a lot of trouble by reaching this conclusion sooner. One excuse for the length of these notes is that they became part detective story and had to leave the necessary clues: certainly all the clues are now in place to help you find the solution if you choose to. But I did not go about the task consciously. I started without a clear plan and hardly had one worth the name at any stage. What is here took on a life of its own and grew in a way I did not intend or anticipate. The only explanation for this seems to be that the question I originally addressed to you to get you thinking - Why is there a twilight of the gods? - was in fact addressed to me. I realise I have known unconsciously all my life that I had some unfinished business with The Ring.

But I fear one mystery has only yielded to another. How did you, who have never seen The Ring, manage to give me the answer I did not even know I sought? Because you most certainly did. Without you I would not have it yet and possibly might not have had it at all. Much more intriguing is why you managed to give me the answer. In the next and final part, ‘Act III’, everything .. everything .. is made known. Or, to be honest, left up to you again. New mysteries, like old mysteries, take us round in a circle forever.


                                                              Act III

What happened is this.

I had reached the part where I was describing the basic similarity between Alberich and Wotan. Here I hit a snag. I could remember two conflicting explanations of why Wotan gives up an eye. I did not want to tell you something wrong. Which one was correct?

I had only one place I could check: Deryck Cooke’s I Saw the World End, the book you bought me for Christmas. I had no idea if a detail like that would be covered in it. I had not opened the book since you handed it to me in the armchair on Christmas Day. (You must remember I seized on the Popper as soon as I unwrapped it. That and other reading have taken up my time since.) When I took it from the bookcase here in the library, I Saw the World End was as untouched by this particular human hand as Brunnhilde herself on her rock.

The book fell open at the page I needed. I had my answer at once. It was such a startling coincidence that, all alone though I was, I actually laughed and said, ‘Oh, thanks!’ And now - most irritatingly - comes the only part in this entire story I am not clear about. Next, either I turned the pages idly (why would I do that?) and found the passage by chance (surely unlikely?), or I looked up Loge in the index. Why? Why would I have looked up Loge in the index? The only reason I can think of now is that I was thinking of the email I had recently sent you (5 March), the day before you saw Rhinegold. I wrote: ‘Watch out for Loge, in many ways the most interesting character in the Rhinegold’ - another startling coincidence in view of what was about to happen.

Cooke had completely cleared up the puzzle of Wotan’s missing eye. Perhaps I had the thought he would be equally enlightening about Loge - give me some insight about him to pass on to you later. Whatever the reason, however I got to the page, I had not finished one paragraph of it when an ‘insight’ more explosive, more exhilarating, than any I could ever have imagined shattered the mosaic of my ideas, scattered all the pieces into the air and in the same few moments re-patterned them in flawless final order in my understanding. It was everything: the meaning I had sensed ‘behind’ the music but could not put into words that afternoon when Dave and I had played Act III of Valkyrie; the reason why not even Siegfried and Brunnhilde’s love could save the world; the until now baffling mention of Loge by the Third Norn in the Prologue to The Twilight of the Gods; the explanation of why the gods still perish even though the ring is returned to the Rhinemaidens; ‘all’ Brunnhilde has come to ‘know’ in her last words to Wotan. It was not Cooke who revealed these things, brilliant though his analysis is. Cooke had only told me something about Loge. Everything was there in Wagner’s music, the music I have known all my life, since my last year at school, blazing up in an instant inside my head.

These pages have taken time over the last month. To explain my long absences in the library, I told Tess over dinner one night that I had made a discovery about The Ring that was important to me. I told her how it started with the book falling open by coincidence while I was writing to you. Tess said: ‘There is no such thing as coincidence.’

This started my mind working not on another, but on a parallel track. Without reading Schopenhauer first hand, I am not sure it is possible to ‘feel’ (as opposed to understand) what Wagner had come to believe about life and human destiny. References in opera programme notes and elsewhere to ‘Schopenhauerian pessimism’ confuse rather than clarify. You kindly brought me The World as Will and Representation as a gift when you came here in February 2003. I have read Schopenhauer first hand - thanks again to you.

On one view there have been too many coincidences like this for it all to be coincidence.   You brought the books because I asked you to bring them - of course. I remember clearly the morning I got that idea during my holiday in Plett at New Year 2002/3. I felt pressured by it. I went out at once into the town to find an internet café. I wanted to get off my request to you urgently in writing to avoid slip-ups. You had barely a month to get the books for me. I had to have those books. When Phil, you and I walked down High Street in Plett last Christmas, I took the trouble to point out the mall where I had sent my email. Why bother you with such a triviality? Indeed you found no interest in it. But it is not hard to explain why the event would seem important to me yet mean nothing to you.  I was the one about to make the discovery as a result of it.

There is a passage I love in The Hound of the Baskervilles that goes something like this. ‘Then there is the singular event of the dog barking in the night,’ commented Holmes. ‘But the dog did not bark,’ objected Watson. ‘That is the singular event,’ said Holmes.

After you left in January I went on your say-so to Uniondale to try the restaurant. I was on my own there and so very conscious of your presence before me in that remote, quiet, beautiful place: before me you had been in the restaurant, signed the visitor’s book, gone up to the fort. Could that explain ‘the singular event’ that on my visit, for no reason I can work out, the Valkyrie Act III Wotan-Brunnhilde scene kept intruding into my mind? On January 19 when you first wrote to tell me you were going to The Ring, I replied at once. I quote my email: ‘After you left I found myself taken by a persistent thought one day .. I could not get rid of this idea. What is a god standing alone for on a bare mountain peak around which he has called up a magic fire to guard his most beloved daughter whom he has cast into an enchanted sleep?’ It is almost as if I had known in Uniondale you were going to go back and book for The Ring. It is almost as if I had foreknowledge that I would feel called upon to explain it to you and that I did not know yet how to. Why else would it have been the Act III Wotan-Brunnhilde scene - the pivotal scene of the whole Cycle - that kept knocking and would not go away: the scene whose inner meaning I had come to the very point of uncovering with my closest friend so long ago, only to have it elude me?

And, following on from the coincidences of books and events and places and timings, are we to see your first booking of The Ring as only another coincidence? Or - in the same way that Brunnhilde set Wotan on his path to the truth - was it the prescient inspiration whereby you made me see at last the entirety of Wagner’s vision and the full marvel of the denouement he had made his own long journey to reach in The Twilight of the Gods?

As with Brunnhilde, your bounty will pass back to you. Nothing makes that so plain as that you have already written to say you are ‘only able to appreciate them [the dramas] at a very superficial level.’ Of course you are. Once the school leaver thought Siegfried’s Rhine Journey was a tone poem of the hero’s trip. It is and it is not. The world is and it is not. Your journey has begun and cannot stop. These personal notes, my gift in return, are part of it. At some time you will discover that you have always known the answers all of us search for one way or another all our lives, and which Richard Wagner pours out in his beautiful music forever, for everyone who will listen.

Below is a letter I have sent to Bryan Magee, an authority on Schopenhauer and author of several books on Wagner. If I get a reply I will forward it to you but I think I know already what it would say. Deryck Cooke, a leading musical analyst who completed Mahler’s Tenth Symphony from sketches the composer left, planned I Saw the World End as two volumes but died after completing the first, covering The Rhinegold and The Valkyrie. As soon as I made my momentous discovery in it about Loge, I put it aside while I finished these notes to you. I did not want to be accused of plagiarism. I am free to finish the book now and I will let you know if anything emerges to re-arrange my ideas again. I think it is unlikely.

South Africa

3 April 2004

Dear Bryan

With my eldest daughter presently attending The Ring for the first time, I would appreciate it very much if you could find time to clear up a problem for me. I would like to share your thoughts on it with her as a kind of gift.

As Wotan’s spiritual journey so obviously follows that of Wagner himself, who is it supposed was the ‘real life’ Brunnhilde? What are your views on this? If Brunnhilde is simply another side of Wagner himself, was there no woman/women at all in the back of his mind who might have been the ‘model’ over all the years he created The Ring?

As an aside I would also be most interested to hear if Wagner-loving fathers often ask you about this point.

Yours sincerely


                                                                                                                                               May 4 2004

On May 4 1954 I heard the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde and the Liebestod for the first time. Words remain as helpless as they always were to describe the shattering effect it had on me. After some more fruitless runs at it as a way to start off this postscript, I give up on all attempts for good. I should have known better by now than to try.

But lying awake several nights recently, I have found myself with enough words at last to tease out from that overwhelming experience strands that are intelligible, at least to me. In with my soaring wonder at this totally new music, the tumultuous onrush of feeling that swamped and swept me away, there mingled a sense of something fathomless and frightening happening to me: an intimation that everything was changing, would not be the same again. I was hearing all there could ever be and nothing you could ever have.

This intuition was uncannily in accord with Wagner’s intention but it worked in me the other way round. When my reason reassembled I had not learned that Bliss lay elsewhere. I concluded that the world was full of wonders and that I enjoyed special privileges, even special powers, to come by them. Unable to express or share it, but never doubting it, I lived in expectation that ineffable beauty would recur, be there for me, not often perhaps but as a matter of course, throughout life. The thought that I would be looking for it in the wrong place never crossed my mind. 

As the busy years went by, I came to know that May 4 1954 would not repeat. When I thought of it I felt no sense of loss. Rather I felt a tinge of guilt, mild unease at something lacking in me, that the highest point of all had been this music one night alone. I see now those feelings were more mistaken than if I had felt loss. My out-of-this-world experience changed and magnified my life in this world. It does not relegate any part of it, even though it is more than any part of it. It is not unfortunate that you never have the moment again. It is supremely fortunate that you have it at all.

There is nothing on earth like Tristan and Isolde. Wagner composed it after he came to see ‘the world’s nothingness’. But to see the world as nothing means he must have also seen it as everything - and his to create. On May 4 1954, unprepared, uncomprehending, I shared in with the rest that frantic intensity of need to exist and exist for - that if this, this, were the only thing the world is to offer, you would live and die to get in to have it. As for The Twilight of the Gods, I saw an ENO production years ago myself. In it the producer simply refused to accept that Wagner had ever stopped being a young revolutionary. At the end, when the gods had fallen, Valhalla and the world burned, the ring had returned to the Rhinemaidens and the final chord of music died, the curtain did not fall. Instead half-lights came up. The entire cast had come silently back on stage and now stood in the dimness with their backs to the audience. They turned to us as one, putting to us the unspoken question: What kind of world should we be living in?

Not even genius can tell us what to think. When I see young Dave and me in the shop in Enfield now buying Act III of Die Walkure, you are with us; we are all chatting away.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You might get more hits from the grauniad site if you were to put the dot in after the first 3 Ws.

However, we already know that Wagners music is better than it sounds. lol