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Dramatic Technique and Meaning in Wagner's Ring

Dramatic Technique and Meaning in Wagner's Ring

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Dramatic Technique and Meaning in Wagner's Ring

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358 pagine
5 ore
Pubblicato:
Sep 25, 2020
ISBN:
9781528906081
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

This book stands out from other books about Wagner’s great work, Der Ring des Nibelungen because it discusses the Ring as a drama – an aspect that hitherto has been largely neglected. It outlines some of the key features of drama as a medium, and shows how these are relevant to the construction and the meaning of the Ring, and how failure to consider them has led to misconceptions which need to be corrected. It analyses in depth the action of the four dramas that make up the Ring, and shows how they contribute to the overall meaning of the tetralogy. The book relates the Ring to the plays of Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians, whom Wagner greatly admired. It also has a short final chapter showing how key features of dramatic technique can also be seen in another of Wagner’s works, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
The book challenges many of the assumptions that lie behind previous discussions of the Ring and offers significant new perspectives to its readers.
Pubblicato:
Sep 25, 2020
ISBN:
9781528906081
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

Sir Michael Buckley is a former Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. He has been an admirer of the works of Richard Wagner since boyhood. He has been a member of the Wagner Society for over 50 years and has contributed in the past to its publications. He is also a keen student of drama, especially the plays of Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians.

Correlato a Dramatic Technique and Meaning in Wagner's Ring

Anteprima del libro

Dramatic Technique and Meaning in Wagner's Ring - Michael Buckley

Michael Buckley


Dramatic Technique and

Meaning in Wagner’s Ring

Dramatic Technique and Meaning in Wagner’s Ring

About the Author

Copyright Information ©

Preface

Introduction

Chapter 1

What Do We Mean by Meaning and How Do We Get at It?

Chapter 2

Drama as a Medium

Chapter 3

The Dramatic Form of the Ring

Chapter 4

Das Rheingold

Synopsis

The effect in performance

Conclusion

Chapter 5

Die Walküre

Synopsis

Act 1

Act 2

Act 3

The effect in performance

Act 1

Act 2

Act 3

Conclusion

Chapter 6

Siegfried

Synopsis

Act 1

Act 2

Act 3

The effect in performance

Conclusion

Chapter 7

Götterdämmerung

Synopsis

Prologue

Act 1

Act 2

Act 3

The effect in performance

Prologue and Act 1

Act 2

Act 3

Chapter 8

The Meaning of the Ring

Chapter 9

Dramatic Technique in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

The Rules of the Competition

The portrayal of Pogner

Appendices

Appendix A

Appendix B What happens in Act 2, Scene 4 of Götterdämmerung

Appendix C

Wagner’s Treatment of Pogner

Appendix D

The great idea in Das Rheingold

End Notes

Introduction

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Appendix A

Appendix B

Appendix C

Appendix D

1 Wagner Nights, p 517.

2 Footnote on p 470 of Vol IV.

3 Op cit, p 70 and p 322.

Bibliography

General books

Index

About the Author

Sir Michael Buckley is a former Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. He has been an admirer of the works of Richard Wagner since boyhood. He has been a member of the Wagner Society for over 50 years and has contributed in the past to its publications. He is also a keen student of drama, especially the plays of Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians.

Copyright Information ©

Michael Buckley (2020)

The right of Michael Buckley to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by the author in accordance with section 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.

Any person who commits any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

Austin Macauley is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In this spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

ISBN 9781788781978 (Paperback)

ISBN 9781788789462 (Hardback)

ISBN 9781528906081 (ePub e-book)

www.austinmacauley.com

First Published (2020)

Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd

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E14 5LQ

Preface

Some of the material in this book first appeared in Wagner and Wagner News, journals of the London Wagner Society. (The former is no longer published.) However, I have substantially revised and extended the material; and on many points my views have developed.

I have tried to make the book self-contained and as accessible as possible to English-speaking readers by providing synopses of the action and translations of the German texts. Because many of the details of the action are relevant to my arguments the synopses are unusually full; but readers who are familiar with the action can skip them. The spelling of the texts has been modernised. However, I have generally retained the character ß, even where it has been replaced by double s after the spelling reforms of the 1990s. I have also retained the traditional spelling of the names of characters.

English has an unfortunate ambiguity in that the word character is used in discussion of dramatic matters to mean both a personage in a drama and the traits that are exhibited by personages. I hope that the intended meaning is usually clear; but where there seemed to me to be serious risk of confusion I have used the words personage or trait as appropriate.

Throughout the book the Ring means the tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Introduction

It is said that more books have been written about Richard Wagner than about anybody else except Jesus Christ and Napoleon. I do not know whether that is true; but there is no doubt that the number is enormous. So anybody who proposes to add to it ought to offer some justification. Mine is that this book discusses an aspect of Wagner’s work that has been largely neglected: the fact that he wrote dramas and that those dramas have a meaning.

To illustrate what I have just said, one might take The Wagner Compendium. The stated aim of this is to provide a compendium of information on every significant aspect of Wagner and his music. (Note that the phrase is Wagner and his music, as if the music were the only aspect of Wagner the creative artist that merited discussion.) The word drama does not appear in the index; and in the table of contents it appears only in the phrase music drama in a section headed "Musical Background and Influences (emphasis added). The section of the book on literary influences refers briefly to Shakespeare, but is otherwise almost entirely concerned with non-dramatic works. The section on Wagner as a librettist discusses only linguistic points. The one substantial contribution on dramatic aspects is by Professor Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Wagner and the Greeks"): it accounts for four pages out of four hundred. Very similar remarks might be made about The Cambridge Companion to Wagner.

I do not make these points in order to criticise either The Wagner Compendium or The Cambridge Companion. On the contrary, both works seem to me to be accurate reflections of what pretty well all recent writers on Wagner regard as important; and what is important for them does not include the dramatic aspects.

One book that does discuss the dramatic aspects is Wagner the Dramatist, by H F Garten. That makes the same point.

Wagner’s achievements as a dramatist have been neglected for obvious reasons: musicologists are not interested in them, and literary critics do not take them seriously since he was, after all, merely a composer of operas. Medievalists, on the other hand, scorn him for corrupting the genuine epics on which his works are largely based. Of course most of the countless books on Wagner also include an appraisal of his texts. There are even some which concentrate on the dramatic and textual aspects. But they are often blurred by a specific ideological angle which singles out one aspect at the expense of others (such as Shaw’s Marxist interpretation in The Perfect Wagnerite).¹

The bibliography to Garten’s work bears this out. It contains only 19 references to books on Wagner, and none to books on drama generally. Moreover, several of the 19 works that Garten does include cannot be accurately described as concentrating on dramatic and textual aspects. His own book leaves much to be desired in this area. The great physicist Ernest Rutherford once made the rather lofty remark that In science, there is physics, and there is stamp collecting. In its treatment of dramatic aspects, Garten’s book is stamp collecting. Its chapters take the form of a brief biographical statement of what Wagner was doing at the time when he wrote each of his works, plus a synopsis of the work (and any other texts, such as Weyland the Smith or The Victors, on which he was engaged at the relevant time). Garten claims from time to time to offer an appraisal of a work as a drama; but, apart from the not very penetrating thought that all Wagner’s mature works except Das Rheingold are in three acts, nearly all the appraisal could with only minimal verbal changes be taken as applying to a novel just as well as to a drama. Nowhere is there any indication that Garten is aware that drama is a separate artistic form with its own limitations, opportunities, and imperatives.

This state of affairs might perhaps not be surprising if one were considering writing about opera in general. Joseph Kerman makes the sweeping statement that Dramatic unawareness underlies almost all current writing about opera, from the most philistine to the most professional.²

But with Wagner it should be different. Wagner thought of himself as a dramatist no less than as a composer. The account of his fascination with the theatre is among the earliest pages of his autobiography Mein Leben. As James Treadwell says:

Wagner was always a man of the theatre, and his art is, in every sense, (including the best) stagy, characterized by an instinct for astonishing coups de théâtre. He spent much of his life in search of stages, finally achieving the almost absurdly hubristic ambition of building his own, and decreeing that no one else’s work could ever be performed there (and even, in the case of Parsifal, decreeing that his own work could be performed nowhere else). He observed, worked in and wrote about theatres again and again in his life. He exploits the nature of theatrical experience to fill his operas with effects that have no immediate dramatic function, but nevertheless make you catch your breath in live performance.³

The studies engaged in by creative artists tend to focus on the work of other artists in the same genre. An indication of Wagner’s predilections can be found in Cosima Wagner’s diaries: the index contains more references to Shakespeare than to any composer except Beethoven,¹ and there are many others to, for example, Schiller and the Greek tragedians. The whole thrust of the argument in

Wagner’s Oper und Drama is that the drama is the end and the music only the means to that end. He later modified that view; but he still emphasised the importance of the dramatic content – words and music together as against the purely musical. In Oper und Drama Wagner repeatedly says that he wishes drama to return to what he regards as the condition of Greek drama, expressing the spirit and consciousness of the whole people. That could be done only through drama with an accessible and ascertainable meaning. Wagner’s dramatic technique rises at times to considerable heights. That aspect of his work deserves better appreciation than it now receives.

It was not always so. G B Shaw, for instance, in the early years of the twentieth century treated Wagner as if he was in much the same business as Shaw himself. Writing at the end of the Second World War in The Playwright as Thinker, Eric Bentley, an eminent writer on the theatre, treats Wagner as a dramatist on all fours with Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, and Brecht. But there are few similar works among recent publications.

Why has the state of affairs come about? I believe that there are three main reasons.

The first is hinted at by Garten in the passage quoted earlier. At least in this country, current critical writing about Wagner is dominated by a small number of commentators, few of whom show any interest in dramatic theory, practice, or criticism; and those who do are largely concerned with matters of staging and production. This is true, for example, of Patrick Carnegy’s Wagner and the Art of the Theatre. Much the greater part of that book is devoted to an historical survey of productions of Wagner’s works, with perhaps special emphasis on the Ring and Parsifal. This is magnificently done. There are many detailed and illuminating accounts of seminal productions. These accounts are helpfully related to contemporary developments in the theatre; and Carnegy gives sympathetic and perceptive descriptions of what the directors were aiming at. The whole thing is magisterial. But it contains no explicit discussion of what Wagner’s dramas mean, what purpose productions of Wagner should serve, or how we can tell a good production from a bad one.

The second reason is that Wagner has become associated with Nazism and the Third Reich, and it is assumed in consequence that if his dramas have a meaning or teach a lesson, these must be in line with Nazism. In The Cult of the Superman Bentley argues at length that this association is misguided. And, as a matter of historical fact, it seems that most prominent Nazis did not share their leader’s passion for Wagner. However, these points are largely ignored. The association is there, and it unquestionably affects current attitudes. There is an assumption, conscious or not, that if a production were to express the meaning that Wagner put into his dramas (leaving for later discussion what such a meaning might be) it would express something unacceptable to modern sensibilities.

The third reason is the rise of the director. During the twentieth century there was a steady shift in emphasis from taking the purpose of a dramatic production to be the expression of the aims of the dramatist towards taking it to be an expression of the views of the producer or director.

Bertolt Brecht, who could see things from the standpoint of both the author and the director, said:²

Producers use plays, even new plays, as a stimulus for their personal vision.

and

Actors and producers, many of them talented, set out to remedy this (i.e., the boredom resulting from stale productions of the classics) by thinking up new and hitherto unknown sensational effects, which are however of a purely formalist kind: that is to say, they are forcibly imposed on the work, on its content and on its message, so that even worse damage results than with traditional-style productions, for in this case message and content are not merely dulled or flattened out but absolutely distorted. Formalist revival of the classics is the answer to stuffy tradition, and it is the wrong one. It is as if a piece of meat had gone off and were only made palatable by saucing and spicing it up.⁴

Bernard Williams makes similar points.

[T]he idiosyncrasies of singers have to some extent been replaced by those of directors, and most seasoned opera-goers have seen in recent decades some production of a well-known work in which only the music revealed what opera it was.⁵

Carnegy also makes essentially the same point, but in an approving, rather than a critical way.

The Berghaus production marked the end of an era in which producers believed they could make sense of the Ring. Many have since come to think that this is simply no longer possible, and even that it has never been possible, so great is the discrepancy between Wagner’s aim of creating a unified work of art and the fault lines in the completed work itself. Until Berghaus, as Mike Ashman has well said, even the most experimental producers had maintained a referential narrative visual framework, using either present-day or nineteenth-century equivalents for necessary symbols and scenery. Ashman rightly sees in Berghaus a transposition to the theatre of the emancipation of literature from authorial intent, as proposed by Roland Barthes in Writing Degree Zero. Certainly, Berghaus destabilized the previously dominant notion that production should primarily be about telling the story of the opera. Was Berghaus really, in heart and soul, the Marxist people’s artist that her affiliation with Brecht and Dessau would suggest? For the abstruseness of her work could not have been at a further remove from the scrupulously explanatory realism of Felsenstein and the Komische Oper. It was an art for connoisseurs, not at all for the uninitiated. No aspect of her productions could conceivably be described as socially realist, socially aware or reaching out to a broad audience. Certainly, Berghaus showed not the least concern for narrative clarity. On the contrary, her work was arcane, obscure, more a commentary on the problematic aspects of the operas than a direct engagement with their substance. It turned its back on intelligibility and was, in truth, only understandable – and then no more than partially – by those who knew the works extremely well.⁶ (emphasis added)

If the purpose of staging Wagner’s dramas (or anyone else’s) is to express the director’s personal vision and not the authorial intent – taking that for the time being to be the same as the meaning of the drama – there is no need to establish what that intent might be. The point is still stronger if intelligibility, with or without inverted commas, is something to be avoided.

This book tries to do something to shift the balance. It is concerned very largely with the Ring. This is essentially because I think the dramatic aspects are a good deal more important for understanding that than any of Wagner’s other works. There is, however, a tailpiece discussing Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as a further illustration of dramatic technique. My aim is not simply to discuss dramatic aspects for their own sake, but to build on them in order to offer a view of what the Ring is ultimately about – what it has to say about the world and those who live in it.

I should say at once that the book gives relatively little attention to the musical aspects. This is not because I underestimate their importance. Wagner’s works are still performed to packed houses far more because of their musical than their dramatic qualities. They would not hold the stage if shorn of their music. And often a dramatic impression depends almost wholly on the music. For instance, we regard Wotan as a finer and nobler character than Alberich, not so much because of what is in the text or the action – for much of the time Wotan behaves rather like a Mafia boss – as because the music associated with Wotan is finer and nobler than that associated with Alberich. We regard Hunding as a villain. Again, this is not so much because of what he says or does. Certainly he is dour, and treats his wife harshly. But many of his actions are rather chivalrous. What counts is the black and forbidding quality of the music associated with him. And the effect of the final scene of the Ring, Brünnhilde’s Immolation, depends almost entirely on its music.

Nevertheless, I do not think there are any instances where the music says anything significantly different from the text or the action. Certainly it enhances and deepens the effect; but that is not the point. Occasionally there is an addition: Grane’s reaction to Hagen in Act 1 of Götterdämmerung is an example. But the thought that Hagen is uncanny enough to frighten the horses hardly comes as a revelation.

Nowadays, a high proportion of writing about Wagner is by academics. Academics are professionally disinclined to deal with the blindingly obvious. Research grants are not usually given to those who investigate the blindingly obvious – an Ig Nobel Prize is more likely. However, some of the most important things in art are the blindingly obvious. With Wagner this includes the fact that he wrote much longer operas than other composers. Why did he write at such length?

Perhaps because the question is often asked by non-Wagnerians in a tone of voice that implies Do you seriously expect me to sit through hours of this stuff? Wagnerians tend to overlook the fact that it is both legitimate and important. Götterdämmerung takes around four-and-a-half hours to perform, not counting intervals – even more with some conductors. When one adds the fact that the operas of the Ring are intended to be staged as one cycle taking 15 hours, give or take, to perform, it is clear that we are considering a work on a scale that in terms of time is completely out of line with what is normal in Western dramatic art. This is not because musical ideas require so long to work out. Most purely musical works last less than an hour. Any that last much more are likely to be associated with words: a mass, a passion, an oratorio, or an opera. Even so, there are not many operas that last much longer than three hours. We do not feel that the musical ideas in the operas of Mozart or Verdi are left inchoate or undeveloped. Nor can one reasonably argue that artistic merit and length of treatment are positively correlated: indeed, one could argue at least as reasonably that artistic merit tends to be associated with conciseness and economy.

The dramatists who most obviously produced works on a scale something like that of the Ring are Aeschylus (in the Oresteia trilogy) and Shakespeare (Hamlet, for example, runs to nearly 4,000 lines, roughly the same number as the Oresteia). I suggest that it is no accident that they were the two dramatists whom Wagner most revered, and that it is a reasonable supposition that he was trying in his dramas to deal with the sort of ideas that they dealt with in theirs. To do so he needed not only a large canvas. He also needed words: music can deal with emotion supremely well, but it cannot deal with concepts; and Wagner wanted to deal with concepts. However, words in opera take much longer to deliver than words in the spoken theatre.³ So, if Wagner wanted to deal with the sort of concepts dealt with by Aeschylus and Shakespeare, he had to produce something that would take much longer to perform even than their massive works.

If this argument is right it leads to a number of conclusions. First, we should be looking for a meaning of the Ring which is of the same type as the meaning of a major Shakespearean play or of the Oresteia. Secondly, that meaning resides mainly, though not exclusively, in the words and the action, not the music. Put another way, the statement which one sometimes comes across that it is all in the music is wholly at odds with the implications of one of the most obvious characteristics of Wagner’s dramas. Moreover, if the statement were true there would be no need to stage performances of Wagner. We could get the full effect, at vastly reduced expense, by using our music systems at home. To put the point in a different way again, if only the music survived, little could be said about what happens in the Ring, although it could no doubt be inferred that some passages were love scenes, that others were fights, and so on. But if the text alone survived, the events – and so a large part of the meaning – of the drama could still be perceived. Michael Tanner puts it even more strongly:

It is a gesture of despair to say that what really matters about Wagner is his music, or a frivolous refusal – they come to the same thing – to take him seriously. For Wagner was right, however varying his formulations on the subject, when he claimed that his music was written in the service of something else.⁷

So does Treadwell:

As radical as the score of Tristan still seems (and it is hard to imagine how it must have sounded in 1860), in this aspect it communicates a perfectly simple truth about music. Music is dumb. Wagner himself always militated against that truth, finding a number of different ways of theorizing that music has an articulate communicative power. His insistence on the point is an aspect of the relentlessness of his desire. Convinced that his operas were meaningful, he demanded that their meanings be unambiguously represented to their audiences. Working in the medium of opera naturally lends music at least a veil of articulacy, in that it accompanies more specific modes of expression (words and visible actions). The Ring represents the fullest effort to absorb music into a linguistic system, aligning it via leitmotif with what the libretto says and the stage shows. Yet even in the Ring, music’s essentially indeterminate character reasserts itself at crucial moments (notably the so-called redemption motif at the end) to undermine its role in producing explicit, legible meanings…

The more dramatic weight music carries, therefore, the more uncertainty there is in the meaning of drama.⁸

In considering the Ring as a work of art, one can no more ignore the music than one can ignore the poetry in Hamlet. But that does not entail that the meaning of those dramas is not to be assessed chiefly from the words⁴ and the actions. To draw an analogy from another form of art, a critic might offer an exposition of, say, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne aimed at explaining the mythological references, and so what the work depicts. He would probably not need to say anything about the artist’s use of colour. It might be objected that this was a disastrous omission, since Titian was famous as a colourist. The reply would be Yes; and if I had been trying to explain the overall effect of the picture, your objection would be fair. But I was trying to explain an aspect to which colour is largely irrelevant.

As I noted earlier, Wagner’s own theories about the relation between words and music in his dramas changed over time. The best indication of what he really believed is probably to be found in his own practice. As Millington observes:

It is often forgotten that a large part of Wagner’s original purpose in making the orchestra invisible was to focus attention on the dramatic

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