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Richard Wagner: He saw art as expressing and completing our religious emotions

There used to be a Guinness advertisement in which the gag was along the lines: “I’ve never tried Guinness, because I don’t like the taste.” Something similar happens from time to time when you talk to otherwise curious people about the music dramas of Wagner, and The Ring of the Nibelung in particular. Ask one of these types which parts of Wagner’s work they particularly dislike, and you will be met with a glowering and scandalised “All of it!”, a response designed to forestall potentially embarrassing further inquiry.

Roger Scruton, however, starts from the barely disputable premise that The Ring is one of the most important works of art produced in the last 200 years. Those whose minds are definitively closed to what it has to say, how it says it, and to the vastness of Wagner’s significance in the modernist movement (a topic explored, for example, in Bryan Magee’s claim that the Wagnerian orchestra is the origin of the stream-of-consciousness literature of Woolf and Joyce) — these are beyond even Scruton’s reach. But for those determined at last to become acquainted with this masterpiece, as well as for those who already know it, The Ring of Truth is both a notable contribution and a piece of writing whose eloquence is worthy of its great theme. 

There is of course already a vast literature on the subject. And Scruton is conscious of the inevitable question: “Why another book on The Ring?” He answers it decisively, by writing a book on this inexhaustible work unlike any other. The greatest musical scholar who has ever written about The Ring was Deryck Cooke. But he did not seek to penetrate as deeply into the philosophical ramifications of the work as into the musical and textual aspects, and in any event his book was never anywhere near completed. (And he would have been glad to have some of Scruton’s original musical insights to his own name.) Those of a more philosophic cast of mind often tend to be hampered by single-issue viewpoints: George Bernard Shaw notoriously saw The Ring as an allegory for Fabian socio-economic truths; Robert Donington imposed a tediously Procrustean post-Jungian psychology onto the work; Paul Heise (at huge length, and only online) constructs a complex and eventually over-literal allegorical reading (e.g. Siegfried equals poetry; Brünnhilde equals music) which depends heavily on the admittedly profound influence on the younger Wagner of the philosophy of Feuerbach. The best modern philosophical treatment of Wagner is Magee’s Wagner and Philosophy, but this exceptionally readable book makes no claim to profound musical analysis.

The fact is that in order to write compellingly on The Ring, a blend of two skills is required, and Scruton amply possesses both. For The Ring, to put it so concisely as inevitably to distort, is a work of philosophy in which the discourse is conducted primarily in music. It has this in common with Tristan and Isolde, though both the philosophical concerns and the musical materials are far broader in scope. Who better than a writer who is both a philosopher and a composer to take on the tasks (which Scruton separates) of what meaning inheres in the drama and what meaning we should ascribe to it? Indeed Scruton is one of the finest philosopher-musicians since Schopenhauer, whose name naturally crops up in these pages as the thinker who, after Feuerbach, most influenced Wagner and at least the later stages of the composition of the music of The Ring

Wagner’s music dramas were concerned with mythic truth, and the myths — rediscovered by Jakob Grimm and others — are those which expressed the deep identity of the German peoples at its deepest level. Wagner elaborated these myths for his own purposes. As Scruton shows: “Wagner’s works are . . . more than mere dramas: they are revelations, attempts to penetrate to the mysterious core of human existence. They are not unique in this: Aeschylus and Shakespeare (to both of whom Wagner was greatly indebted) also present dramas that are shaped as religious epiphanies. But Wagner worked in another medium, which enabled him to present the conscious and individual passions of his characters simultaneously with their universal and unconscious archetypes. The orchestra does not merely accompany Wagner’s singers, nor are they merely singers. The orchestra does not merely accompany Wagner’s singers, nor are the singers merely singers. The orchestra fills in the space beneath the revealed emotions with all the ancestral longings of our species, irresistibly transforming these individual passions into symbols of a common destiny that can be sensed but not told. Wagner acquaints us with our lot, and makes available to an age without religious belief the core religious experience.”

The Ring
explores deep general preoccupations of Scruton’s, which have been thought through with lucidity in his earlier writings. The roles of the sacred, the sacramental and the sacrifice, especially self-sacrifice — as ways of gathering meaning from and ascribing meaning to life — feature for example in his superlative book on Tristan and Isolde, Death-Devoted Heart. What he has to tell us therefore emerges naturally from the works, rather than being imposed on them, because he shares or is willing to assume the truth of Wagner’s belief that the core religious phenomenon is not the idea of God, but the sense of the sacred. 

Scruton explains Wagner’s recognition that the need for religion in man was inherent, but had outlived any possible belief in God. Art was thus to be the medium whereby the authentic religious urges of man were to find expression. As Wagner famously wrote: “It is reserved to art to salvage the kernel of religion, inasmuch as the mythical images which religion would wish to be believed as true are apprehended in art for their symbolic value, and through ideal representation of those symbols art reveals the concealed deep truth within them.” Wagner presents the sacred as a purely human phenomenon, one that might be looked upon by a god with envy and awe, as in The Ring, but which needs no god to complete it. Art expresses and completes our religious emotions or, as Scruton puts it with a characteristic aphorism, art shows the believable moral realities behind the unbelievable metaphysics.

The project of The Ring is to show in poetic form that man creates gods out of his own need, but in the end must live without them, with bleak consequences. The cycle presents a crepuscular hunter-gatherer world on the edge of a more organised society, in which the exercise of power, even where well-intentioned, rests on an illegitimate arrogation. Love and sacrifice emerge as the only means of opposing this power and as the sole path to redemption, so that the only valid response to the original sin of existence is renunciation. Meanwhile, the gods’ departure carries with it the loss of the framework of bargains which they have imposed: Siegfried’s betrayal of Brünnhilde is a consequence of the breaking of Wotan’s spear.

As Scruton writes of the celebrated Funeral March: “freedom, individuality, ambition and law must run their course and nothing will sound of thereafter save the distant lullaby of nature.” Love, in its most noble and sacrificial form, may transfigure us along the way, but cannot in the end rescue us from a godless and purely tragic condition, which we can only meet by willed self-abnegation. Thus the enthusiastic discipleship of Feuerbach gives way to the orientalist pessimism of Schopenhauer.

There is a poet inside Scruton, and some of his writing contains a lambent quality which casts familiar moments in a new light. He is surely right to focus especial attention on the two most sacred episodes in the cycle. First, in Act Three of Die Walküre, Wotan consigns to sleep and kisses away the godhead of his daughter Brünnhilde, who has followed the way of love forbidden to the immortals, and to their president in particular, with “the good-night kiss in which a parent feels with a melting tenderness the absolute value of the mortal being who is escaping into sleep and who will one day escape into nothingness”. This is a moment of incarnation, in which a god chooses humanity with the intention of saving it, but the outcome of this sacrificial act is to render the immortals redundant by granting them the experience of love. For the love and grief in which Wotan punishes his daughter mean that his godhead, in Scruton’s apt citation from Shakespeare, is “subdued to what it works in, like the dyer’s hand”, and Wotan himself is reduced by Brünnhilde’s purity to a subject in his own sovereign space. No one before Scruton has shown just how and in what detail this is reflected in the music. The ultimate consequence of the renunciation which ensues is the second moment of supreme transcendence in The Ring, and it is a reflection of the first. At the close of the cycle, in Act Three of Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde releases her father from the existential anxiety that has haunted his noble spirit, and puts him finally and definitively to rest. Scruton’s analysis of the musical motives and allusions against the background of which this occurs rises to the unspeakable poignancy of what is shown us: this is (among many other things) nothing less than the end of religion. “Never has something so mighty been laid so gently to rest.”

The chapter on how the music works deserves particular praise. Scruton exposes how Wagner uses the basic structures of music — in particular the diatonic, pentatonic scales and the chromatic melodies that occupy the gaps in between these scales — to make important dramatic and philosophical assertions about (for example) the emergence of consciousness from the natural state, and the price that must be paid in suffering — by men and ultimately by gods — for love. The discussion of the leitmotiv, a topic of much superficial or misguided comment in the literature, rightly takes Deryck Cooke’s work as its point of departure but achieves a depth of insight that alone makes this book required reading for anyone who wants to understand the interrelationship between music and drama in The Ring.

The ensuing chapters answer all the difficult questions: what does the drama mean; where does its meaning reside; are we to understand it through allegory or symbolism (or neither); what do the characters stand for (not least, why is Siegfried such a difficult hero for the modern listener to digest); what is the philosophy of The Ring; where do we find it; is The Ring worth the effort and if so why? These questions are answered in a way which corresponds with Scruton’s deep prior convictions, and also in accordance with his habits of clear writing and direct confrontation of the most difficult of issues.

What the reader will not find in The Ring of Truth is any further lengthy contribution to the topic of Wagner and the Nazis. For some, this is an inescapable issue, and any book that does not at least attempt a rehabilitation of Wagner (in the light of his supposed responsibility for events 50 years and more after his death) evades a key issue. Scruton touches on this question in his introductory chapter, but only in order to dismiss it. (He perhaps does not help himself by the unfortunate use of the word “mistakes” to describe Wagner’s gross character defects, including his anti-Semitism. He might better have assumed the tone of Magee’s magisterial opening remark in his definitive treatment of that subject: “The repellent nature of Wagner’s anti-Semitism is not a licence to misrepresent it”). There is an enormous body of writing on all of this, and on the extent if at all to which Wagner’s attitudes towards Jews infects his work. There is no obligation for every writer on the composer and his music dramas to be drawn into the debate. Scruton seeks instead to demonstrate that Wagner’s odious prejudices are simply not what The Ring is about, nor relevant to understanding it, and he makes that negative case positively — by explaining, with tremendous intellectual, musical and philosophical grip, what it means.

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January 10th, 2017
1:01 AM
All Siegfried's problems evaporate just as Hamlet's do, if they are both brilliant but surly teenagers. (PACE Melchior and Burbage...)

December 14th, 2016
8:12 PM
For anyone interested in the question of Wagner's anti-Semitism, Nathan Schields' 2015 essay "Wagner and the Jews" in Mosaic is highly recommended. It uncovers new and unexpected aspects of the topic.

August 29th, 2016
11:08 PM
"They are not unique in this: Aeschylus and Shakespeare (to both of whom Wagner was greatly indebted) also present dramas that are shaped as religious epiphanies." Oh really. After some sixty years of experiencing Shakespeare's work, I am still astonished -- given the time and place he wrote in -- how there is a *dearth* of God and particularly of the Christian God in any of his work. The odd admonition to "Pray thee" is the vernacular of the time and it doesn't count. Shaped as a "religious epiphanies"? Wow, only in those absolutely predisposition to impose that scheme on Will's work. Were we having a beer I would demand that you name one of his works that fits the religious epiphany scenario, and then I would dismantle your assertion line-by-line.

John Borstlap
August 29th, 2016
1:08 PM
No doubt, Scruton is one of the most profound thinkers of our time, not only for philosophy but (I would say, especially) for music (his Aesthetics of Music is a superlative standard work). But he also appears to be a pessimist, and if Scruton's analyses of the Ring are true, they reveal the contradiction of non-spirituality in a work suffused with the spirituality of music. I greatly admire much of Wagner's music, but what Scruton seems to show in his book, has been achieved as well, and sometimes better, in other works of the 19th century, but purely in terms of music, and in a much more concise form: Beethoven, Brahms. And in the works of these two composers, there is no denial of the possibility of a spiritual realm (and thus of the existence of a 'god'), while the contradictions of the human condition are treated and exposed as painfully true as in Wagner, but without the load of mythical material which hinders Wagner's 'message' in the Ring. Sometimes I have the suspicion that Wagner merely demonstrated his philosophical ideas in his stage works to create fascinating drama for its own sake - like theatre plays are supposed to be enlivened by strongly emotional effects like murder, betrayal, tragic love etc. etc. to offer an attractive evening at the theatre. There is a contradiction between the requirements of the theatre and those of philosophy, something Nietzsche had already noticed, a contradiction which does not exist in the form of absolute music because such music is non-conceptual, but 'about' meaning nonetheless. It seems to me that works like Beethoven's symphonies and quartets, Brahms' two piano concertos and violin concerto, and his four symphonies and lots of chamber music, 'say' the same things that Wagner tried to put in his elephantine creations, but in a much more clear way. That Scruton hardly treats Wagner's antisemitism, is right. W's obsession about Jewry was a cultural critique, clothed in racist terms. Racism was a 'normal' part of 19C discourse (think of colonialism); seeing the calamities brought-about by early industrialism and wild capitalism, and observing that on those fronts it were often people from Jewish descent who held the reigns, he connected the one with the other. It is like thinking that if you see a lot of communists with red hair, that it is their hair colour that makes them communists. A bad banker from Jewish descent is a bad banker 'an sich', not because of his descent. Thus, because of 20C history, W's antisemitism has been blown-up out of proportion. And the hatred in his writing about the subject is not more intense than the emotional intensity he put in everything else he did.

Paul Heise
August 28th, 2016
7:08 PM
Dear Jonathan Gaisman: Thank you for your astute review of Dr. Roger Scruton's new book on Wagner's "Ring," "The Ring of Truth." In it you wrote: "Paul Heise (at huge length, and only online) constructs a complex and eventually over-literal allegorical reading (e.g. Siegfried equals poetry; Brünnhilde equals music) which depends heavily on the admittedly profound influence on the younger Wagner of the philosophy of Feuerbach." Would I be mistaken in assuming you haven't read my online book posted at which you reference here? I ask, because Dr. Jean-Jacques Nattiez's book "Wagner Androgyne" was the first published book (besides Wagner's own theoretical writings and Cosima's Diaries) to make the case that Siegfried is Wagner's metaphor for drama, and Bruennhilde his metaphor for music. My unique contribution (arrived at by me independently during the same period, the early 80's, when Dr. Nattiez was first lecturing on this subject) was that Siegfried is Wagner's metaphor for the archetypal artist, specifically the music-dramatist, who falls heir to religious feeling when religion (the Valhallan gods) is dying as a faith, who is inspired by his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, Bruennhilde, who is also Wotan's unconscious mind. I'm not sure what you mean when you say my allegorical reading is over-literal. My 900-plus page online book is indeed lengthy, but I suggest you read it (at least read the 16 page intro and enough of the book itself to gain an understanding of what I've undertaken) in order to grasp precisely how and why my study is original. It is by far the most comprehensive study of the "Ring" libretto and music, and the other documentary evidence in Wagner's writings and recorded remarks, and in Feuerbach's writings which influenced Wagner, in the literature, and in my view by far the most conceptually coherent. I have advanced the ball on literally dozens of fronts in Wagner scholarship. I hope you will take a closer look. Your friend from, Paul Brian Heise

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