Ring of Truth
The Metropolitan Opera’s new Siegfried, part of its ambitious Ring cycle, exposes the greatness—and the limitations—of Wagner and his admirers
If Wagner did nothing better than this, we would laugh off his music as a curiosity. But he was far cleverer than the musicologists. His musical aim is to subvert our sense of purpose. Part of this he accomplishes through what he calls “endless melody,” in contradistinction to classical form. The trouble is that if a melody has no end, it doesn’t have a middle, either, or any intermediate parts. “Endless melody” risks becoming an endless blah; Nietzsche wrote that the technique leads to “the complete degeneration of rhythmical feeling” and “chaos in the place of rhythm.”
But Wagner, again, is cleverer than this. He stitches together short musical numbers that point to a tonal goal, but he changes track before the goal is reached and heads in a different direction. Wagner, that is, creates expectations in the way that an audience familiar with classical form had come to expect, but artfully subverts them. To succeed, Wagner’s manipulation of musical time requires an audience that knows classical form.
A canny conductor maintains a high degree of metrical flexibility throughout, a sense of rhythmic ambiguity such that the Wagnerian change-up pitch appears as a smooth transition. Luisi, newly appointed the Met’s principal conductor, seemed uncomfortable with the score, especially in the first act. He conducted each segment with metronomic regularity, shifting abruptly into the next one; perhaps he was afraid of losing control of the orchestra and hung on to the beat all the more tenaciously. The overall effect resembled a potpourri of incomplete waltzes, polkas, foxtrots, and tarantellas more than endless melody. Luisi relaxed a bit during the second and third acts; this was the opera’s opening performance on Oct. 27, and the Italian conductor, replacing the great Wagnerian Levine, might have been nervous.
The Ring cycle’s pivotal moment comes when Siegfried shatters his grandfather’s spear, traverses the magic fire, and awakens the sleeping Brünnhilde. “The whole world exists just to ensure that two such beings may gaze on each other,” the composer wrote, and the cleverest music in the cycle is reserved for their first encounter.
Siegfried’s kiss is accompanied by a grand orchestral gesture on a B-major 7th chord, preparing a quite conventional resolution to E minor, that is, the sort of cadence from the 5th scale degree to the tonic that we hear in every piece of Western music. But Wagner has a trick up his sleeve: The E-minor chord, blown in a grand fortissimo by a steroidal brass section, isn’t a resolution at all. The top note of our E-minor chord in the brass choir resolves upward to C (pianissimo in the strings with harp accompaniment), so that we hear the E-minor triad not as a tonic chord, but as passing motion to C major. (Click here for my audio explanation with musical examples at the piano. Readers unfamiliar with musical terms might skip the explanation below and listen to the audio example instead.)
That is a piece of musical sleight-of-hand worthy of Siegfried and Roy. After first hearing it, we reinterpret what we have heard; the E-minor triad was not a point of resolution, as Wagner had tricked us into hearing, but only the preparation for something else. The real tonal goal, C major, is announced grandly in arpeggios in the harps (Wagner wanted six; the Met had four).
In Western music, we expect the leading tone (the 7th step of the scale) to rise to the topic (“si” rising to “do”) to achieve stability. Reversing the direction of the leading tone (with “do” falling to “si”) is a conventional gesture in popular music. We hear it in songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and “Both Sides Now.” It evokes nostalgia; instead of “going home” to the tonic as “si” rises to “do,” we move away from home, so to speak.
Wagner’s climatic gesture is something like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in reverse. We thought we had arrived at one tonal goal (E minor), but to our surprise, we find ourselves in a different place altogether. Wagner evokes in purely musical terms a sense of waking from sleep. As the leading tone rises to the tonic in its delayed resolution, we return from dream to reality.
Wagner’s grandiose gesture, laboriously prepared, twice repeated, and underscored by the full resources of his orchestra, stops time dead in its tracks: At the C-major tonality on “Sonne,” we have to stop and reinterpret where we are. Exultation in the moment replaces dedication to a goal. Of course, Wagner had to cannibalize the musical techniques of goal-oriented music in order to subvert it.
Siegfried and Brünnhilde have something in common with Siegfried and Roy: Once you know how the trick is done, it’s much less fun to watch. The better I understand Wagner’s music devices, the less I want to hear the music again, and I present this brief example in the hope that it will spoil your appetite as well.
Why, then, did the young Mahler and so many other arbiters of culture get so gooey over Wagner? The young Mahler felt his life changed; the mature Mahler said, “There is Beethoven and Richard, and after them, nobody.” W.H. Auden called Wagner “perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived.” And Wagner’s great apostle in the English-speaking world, George Bernard Shaw, said, “Most of us are so helplessly under the spell of his greatness that we can do nothing but go raving about the theater in ecstasies of deluded admiration.” Hitler had a lot of company. One can sit such people down at the piano and show that a single late Schubert sonata has more tonal originality than the whole Wagner corpus, to no avail. They will continue in their ecstasies of deluded admiration.
The reason so many clever people adore Wagner, I suspect, is the same reason that I raved about him as an antinomian adolescent: Wagner makes sensuous their desire to be free of the constraint of covenants, to give themselves to the moment rather than dedicate themselves to goals. In that sense Wagner is far more revolutionary than Marx, who read Aeschylus and Shakespeare at home: Wagner asserts the right of strength to remake the world according to caprice. Wagner delivered the cultural message of the 20th century more vividly than anyone else. That is why you should not miss the Met’s brilliant Ring cycle. But try not to enjoy it.
Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld, Israel’s greatest living writer and author of the new Until the Dawn’s Light, retains his capacity for wonder