Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which he began in 1848 and on which he worked over the next two decades, is a comprehensive re-working of Old Norse myths, as recounted in the Icelandic Eddas. In Wagner’s story, the Viking gods are situated in a German landscape, along with Siegfried, hero of the German medieval epic Nibelungenlied. The Ring Cycle is about the gods, but the gods as conceived by a modern artist, whose concern is to create a myth that will comprehend all the principles—moral, political and spiritual—by which the modern world is governed. It is a story of the gods for people who have no gods to believe in.
That is why the Ring Cycle is of ever-increasing importance to music-lovers in our times. Its theme is the death of the gods, and what the gods have bequeathed to us, namely, the knowledge of, and longing for, the sacred. Until we recognise sacred moments, Wagner implies in this monumental work, we cannot live fully as free beings. These moments are the foundation of all our attempts to endow human life with significance. Despite the controversies that have surrounded this great work—its vast length, its dubious later associations with Nazi thought—it constantly grows on the collective imagination. It is not the answer to life in a post-religious world, but it asks the real questions, and shows us one fruitful way of confronting them. We should not be surprised that the forthcoming Opera North production at the Southbank in London was sold out within the space of a day. . . .
During the course of writing the cycle, Wagner came to believe that there could be no political salvation from the ills of civilisation. Like his sometime friend the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, he saw resentment as the default position of human communities, and believed that each of us must achieve redemption for himself, gaining freedom and self-knowledge through our capacity for love. To take this path is difficult. Love condemns us to suffering on another’s behalf; this capacity for sympathetic suffering is the highest human virtue, and the only known justification for our existence. Wagner’s Ring Cycle, in its finished version, is an attempt to convey why we suffer. Seldom has an artistic intention of such magnitude been so convincingly pursued.
The cycle begins in the depths of the Rhine river and also in the depths of the human psyche. It is clear that the meaning of what we witness on the stage is contained also in the music. The sustained meditation on the tonal triad, representing the swirling waters in the depths, is also an invocation of the natural order—the order from which we humans have, both to our loss and our gain, departed. In the Ring tonal harmony is the sound of Eden: pure, unsullied, guiltless. As the cycle develops, dissonance, chromaticism and melodies full of tragic tension replace the pure triads and pentatonic tunes of this supremely beautiful opening. But the pure harmonies and melodies sound always in the background, constantly reminding us of the home that we have lost, and which could never have satisfied us in any case.I certainly hear something like this in the Ring: lovely, melodious sounds are always clashing with harsh, violent noise, battle contrasted with peace, hate with love. But I would say that only gets at the surface of the music, and much that happens flows from the relations of one sound to another, and Wagner' s joy at playing with pleasing or interesting sounds. Music can carry us away, but not necessarily direct us to any particular place.
Scruton's interpretation seems to me a remarkably bold statement to make about a massive work that has been interpreted in a million ways. But I agree that to Wagner, suffering was at the heart of what makes life worth living. He had, or at any rate put into his art, the Romantic hero's view of life. He taught that the freedom to choose was all important, especially when we choose some beautiful, never to be forgotten self-sacrifice. The love that matters most must be a defiance as much as an assertion; it must carry with it terrible risks that are willingly taken on by the lover. (Think Tristan and Isolde.) The best arias are sung by people either dying or making the choice that seals their dooms.
Which brings me to what I think is an important response to this whole Romantic conception of life and meaning. As a young man Nietzsche was very taken with Wagner's operas and thought they had re-awakened an ancient, pre-Christian path to finding meaning to life. He later decided that this was something of a sham; how do actors in medieval costume strutting around on the stage solve any problem for us, or add anything important to our world? What good does it do us to long for the sacred if we are incapable of finding it? Why is doomed love necessarily better than any other kind? Maybe anybody who searches so hard for meaning is fated never to find it, and the only real salvation is in setting aside these quests and making it for ourselves.
As usual I end up somewhere in the middle. I get much satisfaction from what is most ordinary, things like growing flowers and cooking dinner from my family. Passionate love is great but so is friendship. Sailing off to Greece to join their revolution might be exciting and noble, but there is a different and less troublesome nobility in doing simple work conscientiously and well.
And yet I need paths that reach beyond the ordinary. As much as I love my home, my friends, and my family, I would starve on a diet of 21st century suburban life. So I seek paths to other realities. Most importantly I find them in learning and art. If I had to give a simple explanation of what sort of art I love, I would say, it opens a path to somewhere else. It expands my world . And the farther I can see down these paths, the better. When I am in the mood, Wagner works very well, not as an answer but as a musical window to different realities. The most interesting science does the same for me, and the history and anthropology of other times, other places, other fates. For me, the best that an agnostic can do is to build a home life full of comfort and connection, and open as many windows as possible toward wonders far beyond.