I’m an unashamed Wagner tragic!
I love all this mighty composer’s mighty works but his Ring of the Nibelungs is something about which I’m particularly passionate.
It’s one of those things you either get or you don’t. And once you DO get it – the rewards are great. You have a work (taking the four operas in the so-called Ring Cycle as a whole) that will give you something on which to exercise your intellect, your love of music and your emotions for the rest of your life.
Much scholarship has been devoted to The Ring – and this scholarship has been much derided, too. Non-Wagnerians think of it as pretentious; a load of hooey. And I, too, am sceptical and iconoclastic about many of the claims made for the real “meaning” of this work – as anyone who has read my book Ringtones can attest!
As with other serious musical works, The Ring can be understood and appreciated on several levels. On the most obvious level it’s a grotesque fairytale with an unhappy ending. On another level it is a re-telling of ancient Norse myths and those like myself who enjoy mythology and its insights to the bases of our various cultures get a big kick out of this. Then there are those who dismiss all those gods and dwarves and giants and say they are merely symbols that represent different aspects of human nature. And others, who take their cue from Wagner himself and search score and libretti for aspects of humanism as well as human nature, and assert that the whole thing is about the lust for power versus redemptive love. I myself, like George Bernard Shaw, can posit a Marxist interpretation of The Ring and see its main them as one of class warfare. In fact it’s just about possible to interpret The Ring any way you want.
And there are those who don’t care too much about the story and just lose themselves in the wonderful, passionate, inspiring, uplifting, inspiriting, gorgeous, tragic, splendid….hey, I’m running out of adjectives here…MUSIC!
Like many, I cam to The Ring via the music itself, long before I had a clear idea of the storyline or had seen it on the stage or screen. I still, even in this age of DVD and YouTube, love to sit back and just listen because the visual effects and characters and costumes and props can all be a bit distracting. Especially nowadays when – I sometimes think – those responsible for producing new Ring Cycles seem to put more importance into the sets and the special effects than the singing. Thus adding considerably to the cost and putting such live productions beyond the reach of most of us. Yes, Robert LePage, I mean you! Among others.
So, I’ve decided to dedicate this page of the GardenEzi website to Wagner – and especially The Ring. I’ll post articles from time to time, my own and those of others, and also any links to other interesting Wagnerian sites. We Wagner-tragics are a special lot and need to stick together because we’re an oft-misunderstood minority!
What’s all this got to do with a gardening website, you ask? Well let me tell you, horticulture plays a big part in The Ring! There are Freya’s golden apples, for one thing. And a herbal potion or two. Plus the great Ash Tree of the World’s Knowledge (though if you want instructions on how to grow one of these you’ll have to ask Erda the Earth Witch, if you can wake her up). And there are an awful lot of trees, especially in the two middle operas Walkure and Siegfried. So there you go.
If you’d like to know more about Wagner and his works – and join in discussions with those who love him as I do, here are a couple of useful links to be going on with.
SIEGMUND AND SIEGLINDE – THE NOT SO HEAVENLY TWINS
Some people would be better off just not being born! Such is the case with Siegmund and Sieglinde, the doomed twins who make only a brief, tragic (but splendidly sung) appearance in The Valkyrie (or Die Valkure if you prefer German), the second opera in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung.
These kids just never have a chance. They are fathered by Wotan who, as we all know, is not above forgetting his status as Head God and getting down to Earth – and down and dirty with a Mortal woman or two. Quite how he manages this is never explained but then the old Greek and Roman gods were also able to fornicate with humankind and cause a lot of mayhem (think of Paris and Helen!) so obviously the basic equipment is the same on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Anyway, Wotan has it away with a woman of presumably good birth and she produces twins (In Ringtones I’ve tried to make better sense of this than Wagner did, including the origin of the family name ‘Volsung’). Wotan does this in his guise as ‘Wolf’, a sexually-aggressive vagabond who (not surprisingly perhaps) has made himself a lot of enemies. These enemies are responsible for slaying the twins’ mother and leaving Sieglinde to be brought up by others – perhaps distant kin – who, as soon as she’s nubile. marry her off to Hunding, a rather horrible landowner with poor manners.
Siegmund, lucky for him, was off with his father ‘Wolf’ in the forest when his home was burned and his sister kidnapped. After this, father and son lived a wild, dangerous life on the run trying to escape their (unspecified) enemies.
Where is Wotan, possessed as he is of great powers, going with all this, we ask? Well, he obviously has some idea of his daughter’s fate because he makes a mysterious, incognito guest appearance at her wedding. He also sticks a large sword in a tree that grows in Hunding’s hall – rather inconveniently one might think. Certainly Hunding and his guests think so because they all try and pull it out and – you guessed it! – without success. Why Hunding just doesn’t cut down the tree and chop it into firewood, thus freeing the sword, is anyone’s guess…maybe he thought it added a certain something to the décor. Anyway, the tree – and the sword – remain until the beginning of Die Valkure.
We don’t know much about Sieglinde except that she’s unhappy in her marriage. For all his apparent wealth Hunding’s place is a sort of stone hall-cum hunting lodge without a lot of comforts and stuck in the middle of a large forest. They don’t even appear to have any servants, just a lot of rowdy vassals who seem to do nothing except blokey things such as huntin’, shootin’ and (probably) fishin’. So Sieglinde is very lonely. Then, one night during a terrible storm (accompanied by some typically Wagnerian storm music) a young fugitive appears, seeking shelter. The twins, after so long, don’t at first recognise each other and Siegmund doesn’t help by concealing his real name. Hunding, conveniently, is from home, giving brother and sister time enough to finally realise their relationship – and also fall in love. Which, as Anna Russell once pointed out, is not only immoral but illegal. When Hunding returns he isn’t happy to find a handsome young stranger in his home, particularly when he realises that the guest to whom he is obliged to offer at least basic hospitality is, in fact, one of the very enemies whom he has been hunting. Siegmund can have a meal and a night’s rest but in the morning he must face his host in mortal combat is Hunding’s message, before stomping off to bed. Whereupon Sieglinde drugs him. It’s possible she does this a lot, to keep him from having his husbandly way with her. In any case, she now lets Siegmund have HIS way with her, which is understandable even though he is her brother. We shouldn’t blame them too much for this; neither has had much moral guidance in their young lives, nor the opportunity to meet suitable partners – small wonder they mistake innocent sibling affection for grand passion.
And where is Wotan, when all this pot of potential tragedy is coming to the boil? Hanging about outside, is where, waiting to see what happens. You’d think, in the interest of good parenting, that he’d step in and stop things going too far. You’d think he’d be outraged. But no, this most unnatural of fathers (think what he’s soon going to do to poor Brunnhilde!) has A Plan. Apparently, he wants Siegmund, whom he has (though Siegmund doesn’t seem to know it) raised to be a hero, to take back the Ring of Power from Fafner the Dragon (and former Giant). And return it to the Rhinemaidens from whom it was first stolen by Alberic the Dwarf, from whom it was in turn stolen by Wotan himself, thus bringing down Alberic’s curse on Wotan, all the other Gods, their nice new home Valhalla and just about everything and everyone else in the Norse universe. If you’ve seen/listened to The Ring Cycle operas, read my book Ringtones and also read the other articles in this series then you’ll know all this and can skip to the next par.
Okay, so that’s Wotan’s main plan for Siegmund. He also has some scatty notion that the twins can mate and produce the first in a line of half-gods half-humans who will improve the overall gene-pool. Sure enough, having cuckolded Hunding, the twins run away together (Siegmund having first grabbed the sword from the tree without much effort) and in an amazingly short time Sieglinde is pregnant. (With Wagner this appears to be a matter of hours, in Ringtones a more conventional time period is allowed). Hunding, of course, sets off in furious pursuit. But first he does a rather sneaky thing – he appeals to Fricka, Goddess of Marriage and Wotan’s wife and consort. Fricka, a considerable power in her own right, is outraged not only by the twins’ adultery but also by their incest, and can’t understand why Wotan doesn’t feel the same. I mean he’s a GOD for God’s sake! He’s supposed to set an example! Sadly accustomed as she is to his philandering, condoning his childrens’ flagrant immorality is going too far!
And of course Wotan, like any other bloke married to a forceful woman with right on her side, gives in. The result of this is that Siegmund, despite possessing the powerful sword Nothung which his father had forged especially so he could slay Dragon Fafner, is killed by Hunding. No doubt the pregnant and grief-stricken Sieglinde would have met a similar fate except that her half-sister Brunnhilde the Valkyrie, defying their mutual father, grabs the girl and the two halves of the shattered sword and bears them away to safety. Not that there is any happy ending in store for Sieglinde: she dies giving birth to Siegfried and you can learn all about HIM in this series of articles. Or read Ringtones. Or, best of all, listen to and watch the Ring Cycle operas.
So really, it’s all a terrible waste of time. Young Siegmund is dead without ever having done anything particularly heroic. Sieglinde is dead, after a brief and wretched life, and Horrible Hunding is dead, having been slain in a fit of pique by Wotan. Even though, horrible as he is, he hasn’t really done anything wrong. True, he’s killed Siegmund but then that hardly constituted a crime in those lawless days – a man, after all, has gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Or all those vassals won’t have any respect for him at all. Wagnerian scholars often interpret The Ring thus: Brunnhilde is an expression of Wotan’s will (so presumably when she’s lying comatose on a rock all those years the Head God is without any will of his own); Siegfried signifies the true spirit of Art as well as Heroism with a capital H. So what do Siegmund and his unfortunate sister signify?
Well, this second opera in the cycle takes us, in one large leap, from the seminal events of the first opera (Das Rheingold – actually written but always performed first to give the story a historical context) to the main story with its themes and characters. So the doomed twins can be seen as serving as a link – albeit a somewhat pointless one it seems to me – by reminding us that Wotan is still trying to get that troublesome Ring back to its rightful owners. Why he doesn’t just get the whole Valkyrie team led by Brunnhilde to go into Fafner’s cave and grab it back is anyone’s guess – these girls ought to be equal to a drowsy dragon, surely? But no, Wotan wants a Hero. Okay, so why not get one of the other young and heroic Norse gods to go and do the deed? Would this be any more of a breech of faith than manipulating things so that one of his offspring does it? But no, Wotan apparently only trusts those of his own blood to take the ring – even though he well knows its dangerously seductive power. When poor Siegmund comes to a bad end, Wotan soon transfers his ambitions to his grandson Siegfried. Who of course also comes to a bad end. As does just about everyone else in The Ring. And it’s a moot point who is most responsible for this – the purported villain of the piece, Dwarf Alberic, or the bumbling CEO of Teutonic Gods Inc.
So as far as I’m concerned, Siegmund and Sieglinde have no real significance at all in The Ring story except to illustrate what happens when flawed ambition (Wotan’s!) meets bad planning (also Wotan’s) – with a dash of moral laxity thrown in. And THAT, my friends, is why I find Wotan the least admirable character in The Ring – give me dwarf or a dragon any day!