- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

The second and most popular of the four operas in the famed Ring Cycle of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), “Die Walkure” (“The Valkyries”) highlights the secret origins of the composer’s hero Siegfried and introduces the fallen warrior-goddess Brunnhilde, perhaps the most famous soprano role of all time. The breadth, scope and sheer artistic audacity of Wagner’s musical epic has yet to be equaled even in our own high-tech times.

In his already controversial new book, “Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950,” Charles Murray largely credits the West’s emphasis on rugged individualism, leavened with Christianity, for its cultural predominance since 1400. If Mr. Murray’s theory is true, Wagner would certainly win this competitive arts sweepstakes hands down. For he attempted nothing less than uniting music, drama, and poetry with his own idiosyncratic theology to create a new artistic universe with himself as its new god.

Being mounted in Washington this fall as a stand-alone opera, “Die Walkure” packs plenty of punch and great special effects. This is particularly true in its fiery finale, which foretells of the divine catastrophe that is yet to come in the final opera, “Die Gotterdammerung” (“The Twilight of the Gods”). The first full-length opera after the cycle’s one-act prequel, “Das Rheingold” (“The Rhine Gold”), “Die Walkure” parallels the love story of Siegfried’s parents, Siegmund and Sieglinde, with the rebellion of Brunnhilde against her father, Wotan, the king of the gods.

The opera boasts perhaps the greatest of Wagner’s greatest hits, the swashbuckling “Ride of the Valkyries,” which has been pilfered for TV commercials and immortalized in such films as “Apocalypse Now.” Perhaps most famously, the theme was parodied in the funniest musical cartoon of all time, “What’s Opera, Doc?” In that Warner Brothers’ classic, Elmer Fudd, in helmet and spear, vows to “kill the wabbit,” chasing Bugs Bunny to the strains of Wagner’s triumphal tune.

However, the Ring, for Wagner, was serious stuff. As a composer, he had started out rather late in life. An indifferent university student, he was first addicted to Romantic literature and poetry. He largely discovered musical composition on his own, but he soon seized upon it as his destiny, perfecting his techniques largely without recourse to universities or teachers. He became convinced in his own mind that it was his destiny to become the greatest composer that the world had ever known. What would eventually become the Ring would be the fulfillment of that destiny.

It seemed to many that Wagner was completely delusional. His early compositions and operas were disastrous failures, hardly a harbinger of immortality. A monomaniac, a womanizer, and a spendthrift, he hopped from country to country evading creditors and furious husbands and breaking the heart of his unfortunate first wife, Minna. He finally got himself exiled from the principalities that then constituted Germany for engaging in revolutionary activities in 1848.

Wagner was simply not a nice guy. The late critic Deems Taylor, called him a “monster.” Throughout his life he had far more enemies than friends — although he chose his friends well and used them cunningly.

But between adventures and intrigues, he always found time to compose, and he had already begun to sketch out the poetry and the music of what would eventually become the Ring Cycle.

His fortunes as a composer gradually improved. He scored a success with his largely derivative opera, “Rienzi,” in 1842.

After painful openings, his operas “Tannhauser” (1845) and “Lohengrin” (1850) won a measure of acclaim, but it was not until the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria bailed him out of his financial misery in the 1860s that he began to achieve a level of comfort.

His mood was further improved by his happy, though scandalous, marriage to Cosima von Bulow after the death of poor Minna. Their torrid affair had begun years earlier. Cosima was the wife of Klaus von Bulow, a brilliant conductor who had championed the composer’s work, and the daughter of renowned pianist-composer Franz Liszt. However, social niceties rarely mattered to Wagner, who eventually cheated even on his beloved Cosima.

It was in the Ring Cycle that Wagner’s monomania — and sheer genius — reached its zenith. Convinced that he was already the world’s greatest composer, Wagner decided to become the world’s greatest living artist by creating unaided an epic mythology that united opera, symphony, poetry, and drama into a seamless whole.

Wagner was eventually forced by reality to break his concept into four works. The resulting tetralogy’s music, libretto, stage directions, and considerable array of special effects are still mind-boggling even in today’s digital age. Wagner’s theatrical innovations ranged from tuned musical anvils and a giant, fire-breathing dragon to realistic underwater scenes and the conflagration of heaven itself — all etched not on film but performed, as if by magic, on a live stage. (It seems Wagner was a bit of an engineer, as well.)

Musically, Wagner’s Ring was also radical, marking a dramatic departure from the tune fests so popular in Italian opera.

Wagner regarded the opera primarily as sung drama, with music meant to convey the narrative line established by the poetry of his own huge libretto. Instead of lilting arias, he substituted a complex set of “leitmotifs,” or symbolic themes, linked to a person or event. These themes then mixed and mutated throughout the four operas.

For example, “Die Walkure’s” famous concluding “Fire Music” morphs into the explosive climax of the concluding “Die Gotterdammerung” (“Twilight of the Gods”). In addition, Wagner’s music itself was bombastic, chromatic, and shockingly dissonant. The composer’s Romantic edginess and gigantism was approached only by Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler before collapsing into the 20th century’s near-fatal experimentation with atonality.

While Wagner’s musical innovations seem less radical today, his underlying philosophy is still the subject of passionate disagreement.

Some have interpreted the Ring as Wagner’s revolutionary call for socialism and brotherhood among men. Others, most notably Adolf Hitler, saw Wagner as longing for a “master race” to replace the old corrupt aristocracy symbolized by Wotan and the gods, a controversy that still dogs these operas to this day.

Wagner will never be free from detractors. He was his own worst enemy. His self-absorption was disgusting and legendary. His philosophy, while in some ways socially progressive and thoroughly late-Romantic, was also infused with some nasty tics, unsavory reflections of a composer who really liked no one but himself, and sometimes Cosima.

Yet, whatever Wagner’s flaws, we still have the glorious, heroic music of these operas that has kept them in front of audiences around the world for over a century, controversy and all.

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