Thursday, September 13, 2012

Wagner's Ring: Turning the Sky Round, by M. Owen Lee

I resolved to spend the coming months immersing myself in Richard Wagner's Ring cycle.  I've never listened to it in full, and it's been long enough on my list of things to do. It's not a trivial project -- Lee describes it as a "cycle of four immense musical dramas, the vastest piece of music ever conceived by the mind of man -- what an experience it is first to discover, then to spend a lifetime exploring, those four parts, tracing their connective links, puzzling out their meanings, and listening through in wonder and awe to their shattering conclusion!"

Father M. Owen Lee is a classics professor who gave the intermission talks during a Texaco/Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast, and those talks form the basis of the book.  The limits of the intermission time enforced brevity, and he's expanded only slightly in the print version, resulting in a superb and compact 112-page guide that is a pleasure to read, whether or not you ever choose to listen to the operas.

The book's title is courtesy of C. S. Lewis who recalls the power of first hearing Wagner's Ring as a child. Lee quotes him at length:
"The sky had turned round," he remembered. "Pure 'Northernness' engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight... and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago... There arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country...  I stared round that dusty school-room like a man recovering from unconsciousness... and at once I knew (with fatal knowledge) that to have [that sense] again was the supreme and only important object of desire."
I have read Lewis' revelation a dozen times now, and it resonates on as many levels. First, the sense of 'pure Northernness':  I am someone of northern European descent living in Malaysia, and I had many long discussions with an English friend (who after two decades here has now resettled in Edinburgh) about the concept of northernness. Stark landscapes, frigid air and all the frozen precipitation, limited winter light... This ecology tends to produce people of a certain temperament, quite different from those who develop in the tropics. Obviously Wagner's operas touched some deep, innate chord  in Lewis, instantly spawning images of a primordial north.  Of course the power of the music may well move a Spaniard or a Malaysian to equal rapture, but will it trigger that visceral sense of connection to the mythical origins of the world that are, in Wagner's case, purely northern?  Will I also feel like a returning exile when I listen?

Next, 'the memory of Joy':  this of course reminds me of Beethoven and his rapturous Ode to Joy. I remember just as vividly hearing this piece as an adolescent and being transfixed by the memory of Joy -- a joy so sublime and transcendent that I had never experienced it before, and quite probably never will, yet I knew it at some deep intuitive level.

Lee provides 24 examples of thematic motifs in the book's appendix and of course frequently describes musical passages. The bulk of his commentary, though, is on the plots and the Norse myth, philosophy and politics that fed Wagner's imagination during his bursts of composition. Credit in turn goes to Wagner for feeding the later work of Jung and Freud, who later used much of the same imagery as they explored the collective unconscious.  The Ring presents us with the creation and destruction of the universe, and every phase of humanity's (and the gods') development in between. From the moment Alberich the dwarf renounces love in order to steal the Ring which confers power and wealth upon him to the destruction of Valhalla, the celestial palace of the gods, Wagner takes us from the birth to the death of existence itself.
It begins with a god [Wotan] newly established in power and ends with that god consumed in flames. That is to say, it begins with the emergence of man into consciousness, and ends with consciousness voluntarily yielding to -- the next evolutionary development in human nature. That, I suggest, is why Wagner couldn't put the end of the Ring into words, even in six separate attempts. As he labored over his mythic cycle, an intuitive idea kept hammering away at him, year after year -- perhaps the most important idea of his century, and not to be fulfilled for centuries to come, though man's myths knew, and had always known, it would someday happen: man was meant to evolve beyond his present state, even as he had evolved into it. But this step would require the death of his present consciousness, and its transformation into -- Wagner could only say what that was in music... 

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