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Wagner's "Ring" Cycle and the Greeks.

Wagner's "Ring" Cycle and the Greeks by Daniel H. Foster. Cambridge U. Press, 2010. Pp. xx + 377. $95.

In 1982 Faber and Faber published my Wagner and Aeschylus: The "Ring" and the "Oresteia." I argued that the Ring is indebted in many ways to Aeschylus's trilogy, from the whole concept of a festival theater through how the orchestra is used in these three "stage festival plays with preliminary evening" to important aspects of the actual content and musico-dramatic form of the four works. Daniel H. Foster notes that my "imaginative" book (I hope he means that as a compliment!) was "too much maligned" when it was published (19). He does not, however, note that in more recent years it has been rehabilitated, cited with approval by several important writers on Richard Wagner, and is now viewed as one of the first major books of what has since become the discipline of reception studies.

At any rate, I was eager to find out what a scholar of a younger generation, writing thirty years after my own work, has made of the topic of the Ring's relationship not to the Oresteia (which Foster mentions only occasionally and in passing) but to Greek culture as a whole. And the good news is that here is the most thorough examination to date not merely of which Greek authors Wagner read (and they were many and varied, reaching across all genres), but also of the recent classical scholarship which helped to shape Wagner's views of Greek culture. Foster writes in a lucid, readable style with extensive annotation, and the book has been handsomely designed and produced by Cambridge University Press.

There, alas, the positives in this review must end. Foster is in the grip of an idle fixe, and in pursuit of his hypothesis he overrides clear evidence which stands in its way. I believe that the hypothesis is false, principally because Foster (for all his extensive reading and scholarship) exhibits very little empathy with the actual ways in which the Ring dramas work as musico-dramatic wholes. This is not a theatrical book; it offers no insights into how the Ring works in performance, and the fourteen music examples simply demonstrate connections between some principal leitmotifs on a fairly elementary level.

Foster's hypothesis is that Wagner was influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Aesthetics, in which the philosopher postulated an evolution in Greek performance art from epic to lyric to tragedy; and that the Ring cycle is itself constructed on this model, in such a way as to exhibit an evolution from "early epic" (Das Rheingold) to later epic (Die Walkure) to lyric (Siegfried) to tragedy (G6tterdiimmerung). The obvious first objection to Foster's thesis is the fact that Wagner had a thorough distaste for what he read of Hegel, and that there is no evidence that he ever read the Aesthetics. Foster admits these facts, but simply overrides them (6-10). Foster also frequently cites Hegel as if the philosopher was right about Greek cultural matters, where few scholars of classical drama today would entertain Hegel's views for a moment (for example, 185 on Aristotle, 187 on the chorus in Greek tragedy, 189 on masking and the body, and 244 for two highly dubious propositions about Greek tragedy as a genre).

Most seriously, Foster disregards Wagner's known aversion to the genres of epic (46, 52), and lyric (122). In his prose writings Wagner does hold the view that Greek art progressed from epic to lyric to tragedy (as, with some overlaps, indeed it did), but pace Foster, I draw the conclusion from Wagner's genre preferences that the composer's admiration for the Oresteia, from 1847 when he first read it to the last day of his life, was due to the fact that he wanted to follow Aeschylus and write a cycle of three tragedies (with preliminary evening). Foster concedes the importance to Wagner of tragedy, but retreats from this for reasons (involving Peter Conrad on opera and the novel) which seem quite inadequate to me (16-18).

Foster has also been misled into accepting some typically exaggerated Wagnerian pronouncements. In a letter to August Rockel (23 August 1856) Wagner refers to the Ring as exhibiting "the very essence and meaning of the world itself in all its possible phases" (Foster cites a similar claim in a letter to Franz Liszt, 220). In a discarded draft of Brtinnhilde's closing soliloquy, she was to sing, "I saw the world end," which was tendentiously chosen by Deryck Cooke as the title of his unfinished study of the Ring. It is important to reject these grandiose claims; Das Rheingold is not a cosmogony, although Foster, misled by Wagner, thinks it is, and draws an analogy with Hesiod's Theogony (88). 3he Ring is, as Bernard Shaw realized, an allegory of nineteenth-century capitalism, in which the world is corrupted by the search for power by both Jews (the dwarves) and upper-class Gentiles (the gods)--a quest which in Wagner's symbolism inevitably leads to the renunciation of love, the most important element in his universe (cf. Tristan und Isolde). Even though Wotan possessed the ring which he stole from Alberich for less than half an hour, this corruption eventually leads, at the end of Gotterdammerung, to the burning of Valhalla, the haven which Wotan had caused to be built to protect the gods from the world. The destruction of gods, giants, and dwarves is complete after Brunnhilde's self-immolation (unless Alberich survives the cataclysm!). Far from ending, the world is left, as Wagner put the point in an important letter, to the Gesamtheit of mankind, represented on stage by the Gibichung vassals (237-38). The 1976-79 production of the cycle by Patrice Chdreau at Bayreuth brilliantly demonstrated the truth of Shaw's interpretation (see my two articles in The Richard Wagner Centenary in Australia [Miscellanea Musicologica, volume 14, ed. Peter Dennison, 1985]). Chereau's production was at first much maligned, but it has rightly now achieved classic status.

After reading and rereading Foster's book, it is difficult for me to see on what grounds the epic/lyric/tragedy evolution is grafted onto the four Ring dramas. Foster seems to believe that the presence of narrative is itself an epic feature, and he complains about the repetition involved in narrations in the Ring which go over past incidents which the audience has seen; this is to ignore the compelling power and deep meaning of the music in, for example, Wotan's or Waltraute's narratives (56). Nor does the fact that the characters of Das Rheingold are gods and goddesses, dwarves and giants make it an "epic" drama. I repeat the central point: Das Rheingold is not a cosmogony but an allegory of the ills of contemporary nineteenth-century society.

I find Foster's view that narrative is "epic" very flimsy. Narrative is an important part of tragedy, and has been so since its Greek origins ("messenger-speeches" are integral to Greek tragedy). Indeed, apart from Siegfried's death and funeral music there is nothing more "tragic" in the Ring, in any common-sense view of that word, than Wotan's anguished narrative to Brunnhilde in Die Walkure 2.2. Foster also claims that the role of the orchestra is different in Siegfried (as opposed to the first two dramas), no longer a detached narrator to which the characters on stage are deaf (138). This is not true. Siegfried's "hearing" of the forest murmurs in the orchestra actually continues a mode of musical discourse that has already been established in Die Walkure (see, for example, Siegmund's relationship with the sword Notung, with the springtime moonlight and with Sieglinde, in Die Walkure 1.3). Conversely the role of the leitmotif as undermining characters' visions and thoughts is just as much in evidence in the last two dramas as in the first two--see, for example, the stealing in of the attractive beckoning motif associated with the sleeping Brunnhilde when Mime tries to describe fear to Siegfried in Siegfried 1.3.

The biggest surprise in the book--and the greatest disappointment--lies in the interpretation of G6tterdiimmerung. While Shaw was right to interpret the Ring as an allegory of nineteenth-century capitalism, he was utterly wrong to complain that with G6tterdiimmerung the Ring reverts to Grand Opera--a term which to Shaw is highly pejorative. In the same spirit Foster agrees with Steinberg that G6tterdiirnmerung reverts to Italian means (202). It doesn't. In its use of ensembles it simply continues the formal practices of Tannhauser and Lohengrin, which is not surprising, since its text (at first entitled Siegfrieds Tod) was the first libretto which Wagner wrote after Lohengrin. It was written in 1848, before he had formulated, in the three major prose works of 1850, his new Aeschylus-based vision of an ensemble-free music drama in which the orchestra, acting analogously to a Greek chorus, is primary.

This book repeatedly describes Gutrune as "a French coquette" (201, etc.). (Fafner also is assimilated to French culture, in a very farfetched way.) In my view Gutrune's text and her music paint a very different picture, especially in the short scena (3.3) where she awaits Siegfried's return. It is indeed true that the scene of Hagen and the vassals (2.3) is a parody of the Grand Opera chorus (224). It is not, however, true that Gotterdammerung as a whole is parodistic (197), let alone that it possesses "unmusicality and conventional insipidness" (Steinberg, quoted with approval on 200). I imagine many other Wagnerians, as well as this reviewer, would disagree totally with this proposition about the most musically rich of the four Ring dramas. It would appear that Foster allows Gotterdammerung alone to be called "dramatic,' chiefly on the basis that its characters are (almost all) human (160). That is to deny the wealth of dramatic insight which the music has bestowed in the three earlier dramas of the Ring on the acts and feelings of gods, giants, dwarves, and heroes. As a recent translator and director of Aristophanes, I am also unconvinced by the attempt in chapters 11 and 12 to trace Aristophanic and New Comedy elements in Gotterdammerung.

Foster is absolutely right (149-50) in his analysis of Wagner's obsession about paternity (was his biological father a Jew, Ludwig Geyer?), which lies behind Siegfried. It is a great pity that excellent insights such as this are buried in a book which is fundamentally wrongheaded. In an appendix on Wagner's debt to the classical scholar and translator of Aeschylus, Johann Gustav Droysen (286), Foster virtually concedes that Wagner created the Ring to be a new Oresteia. Despite his attempt to argue a different hypothesis, that is true; the central relationship between Wagner's cycle and ancient Greek culture is the Ring's relationship with the Oresteia.

Michael Ewans

University of Newcastle, Australia
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Author:Ewans, Michael
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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