Wagner and how a woman saved the world

Brünnhilde (Kathleen Broderick) in the Phyllida Lloyd (ENO) production of the Ring

By Jane West

It can hardly have escaped even the most committed Wagnerphobe that this year is a centenary celebration.

Alongside concert performances of all his major operas at the Proms, radio and TV broadcasts there are countless assessments of his life, politics, opinions and their relationship to his work.

His political journey from progressive German nationalism, influenced by Feuerbach’s (inconsistent) materialism and Bakunin’s radicalism, through the defeat of the revolutionary attempt of 1848, political demoralisation and his turn to obsessive fascination with Schopenhauer’s pessimism are all well-picked over.

As is his unavoidable and unforgiveable anti-Semitism. The common proposed exoneration – that this was just a reflection of the general mood of the times – is no excuse. And it is belied by the unequivocal stand of Brahms, his near contemporary in Vienna, against the ugly anti-Semitic turn in the life and politics of the city in the late 19th century. Wagner was not ‘influenced’ by that general anti-Semitic turn. He helped create it.

However, that culpability underlined, it is hard to find any outward expression of this anti-Semitism in his works, apart from the usual trope that the ‘dwarves’ in the Ring cycle – Alberich and Mime – or Kundry in Parsifal and Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger are ciphers for Jewish people. But Wagner himself never acknowledged these as a theme – and he was not shy of propagating his anti-Semitic views. Nor is there any overt suggestion of this in the text of the Ring. Whether such an analogy would have been evident to a late 19th century German audience is hard to say, but no such audience reaction is recorded.

Certainly, to a modern audience, without prior knowledge of the alleged link or a production that deliberately makes this connection, such a meaning or inference is not apparent.

However, whether it is or isn’t reflected in the depiction of Alberich or Kundry, Wagner’s personal anti-Semitism is beyond dispute. As is the fact that his music was beloved by Hitler.

Clearly Hitler’s liking for Wagner – and his choice of the Meistersingers as the theme tune of the Third Reich – is linked to the evident German nationalist and patriotic ideas running through this and other of his works.

But Wagner cannot be held responsible for who liked his music. And Wagner’s early German nationalism – like Marx’s – was progressive in its anti-feudal aim and project for a modernised unified Germany. The defeat of the revolutionary attempt to achieve this in 1848 meant a quite different course for Germany and German nationalism. German unification was achieved on a perverted semi-feudal authoritarian basis under Bismarck, with a state based on a strengthened Prussian absolutism.

If Wagner’s gods in the Ring stand for anything it is for this decaying feudal class, whose venial sins, louche incapacity to grasp the demands of their leadership role and flouting of their own laws, render them incapable of taking Germany – or human society forward. And certainly meant they cannot defeat the rising power of money – capital – which Alberich can be taken to represent, and which Wagner also rejects.

Although by the time of writing the Meistersingers, Wagner’s hopes for German national culture had reverted to this reactionary feudal class, the Ring of the Nibelungen poses the issue of who can save the world from both feudalism and capitalism.

We Marxists have an answer of course – but Wagner’s early political radicalism was destroyed by the defeat of the revolutions of 1848 and he did not come to rest his hopes in socialism or the revolutionary role of the working class.

While Feuerbach’s notion of a new society based on the power of love retained its force with Wagner, it was embellished by various petit bourgeois, individualistic solutions of the type proposed by Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s idea of the ‘ubermensch’ – some kind of transcendentally advanced collective humankind – whose role is to overcome the old gods and establish new social values is clearly reflected in the character of Siegfried. But in the end Wagner felt he had no answer to the pessimism and passivity of Schopenhauer, to whom all of human existence is futile and illogical and therefore, by extension, all human action is by its nature directionless and hopeless.

So, to return to the Ring, Siegfried fails. The hero created – or willed – by Wotan to return the gold to the Rhine and allow the victory of love as the basis for society is naively tricked and deceived, and dies without understanding his task, cockily and childishly refusing to return the Rhinemaidens’ gold despite caring nothing for it.

But the world is saved at the end of the Ring, and love does triumph over money, gold and the old gods. The gold is returned to the Rhine, Alberich’s son Hagan is dragged to his death and Valhalla and the gods are consumed in flames. But it is no superhero who achieves this. It is the work in the end of a mortal woman who has shared every oppression suffered by women through time, but whose love and courage defeat the gods and Mammon.

Brunnhilde is a startling creation: an immortal warrior maid, who defies her father, the god, in an attempt to save an incestuous human couple and their unborn child; who is punished by losing her immortality and condemned to a life of subordination to the first man who finds and beds her; who instead embarks on ecstatic mutual love with a heroic and awestruck man; is betrayed, violated, takes revenge, sees the truth, reclaims an echo of her lost powers and destroys her oppressors through her own courageous sacrifice in the name of love.

When Wotan pronounces Brunnhilde’s punishment, Wagner summons up a telling image of the life that awaits her: ‘The flower of her youth will wither away. A husband will win her womanly favours. To this domineering man she will belong thenceforward. She will sit by the fire and spin, the topic and butt of all jokers.’

Brunnhilde also understands the debasement implied by the life of an ordinary human woman: ‘Was it so shameful what I did that you punish my misdeed so shamefully? Was it so base what I did to you that you so profoundly debase me? Was it so dishonourable what I did that my offence now robs me of honour?’

Few productions of the Ring effectively draw out this aggressive masculine threat implied in the punishment of Brunnhilde.

The pain Wotan’s parting from his favourite daughter, his ‘wish maiden’, is powerfully portrayed in many performances. As is Brunnhilde’s loss of the heroic life of the gods: ‘I will never again send you from Valhalla, never again instruct you to fetch heroes from the wars. You’ll never again bring victors into my hall. At the gods’ solemn banquets you will never hand the drinking horn graciously to me again… From the company of gods you are cut off, exiled from the band of immortals.’

But Wagner’s grasp and depiction of the reality of the socially oppressed position of all women that Brunnhilde is condemned is less often drawn out.

This is why it is a great shame that the Phyllida Lloyd production of the Ring for the English National Opera in 2002-05 has not been revived or recorded. One of the few productions of a Ring cycle conceived by a woman, it had many shortcomings – soloists that were not quite up to the score, weakness in the orchestra especially the brass – but it presented the Ring unremittingly from a woman’s point of view and drew out brilliantly every nuance of Wagner’s vision of both the oppression and the power of women.

It was universally panned by the serried ranks of Wagner critics, universally male, who failed to understand the irony of Brunnhilde transformed into a frilly pink-clad wife for Siegfried or that – when abducted to be forced into marriage with Gunther – she is dragged in dressed in a full-blown meringue-style white wedding dress and veil. And consequently also failed to see why – when in fury she finally takes her revenge – she dresses as a Rambo-style commando vigilante in suicide-vest.

This – it was claimed – turned the holy Ring into a ‘soap opera’ – which, of course, it is not in productions where Brunnhilde marches around in a winged helmet waving a sword and spear or is dragged into the Gibichings’ palace in a tastefully torn robe!

A feminist Ring is not the only valid interpretation of Wagner’s masterwork. There have been eco-Rings, class struggle Rings, anti-fascist Rings and many others. One of the reasons that the Ring endlessly fascinates is that it is so rich in ideas and observations – that like all great art it is open to constant reinterpretations in light of the changing times.

But no one should miss – in this year of Wagner celebrations – a consideration of his most powerful female characters. From the raw sexuality of Tannhauser’s Venus, the erotic power of Isolde, the sinuous evil of Lohengrin’s Ortrud, the wisdom of Erda, but above all Brunnhilde, the woman who saves the world.