III. Richard Wagner

Wagner and the Greeks

 Wagner set out to compose a cycle of operas about the traditional civilization of Europe threatened by19th century industrialization and greed; he ended up after 26 years with something much more complex. Something more like an artistic summation of the evolution of the western psyche at the end of the 19th century. To construct the Ring he drew on many sources, Wagner had an extensive library, and was in touch with some the best minds of his day, including Friedrich Nietzsche. Although the cycle was influenced by Norse and Germanic myth and legend, Wagner came to draw more and more of his inspiration and story from the Classical Greeks. Brunnhilde is the Nordic Valkyrie who rides over the battlefield and takes heroes off to Valhalla and she is also Athena, Greek goddess of holy wisdom.

The Greeks originally had six female deities and six male deities in the Olympic pantheon, but with the arrival of Dionysus, Hestia, goddess of the hearth, lost her place to him. Dionysus was given sanctuary at Delphi, where Apollo, god of reason, ruled. Dionysus, the god of the vine, died on the first day of winter and was resurrected on the first day of spring. Beneath the temple of Apollo was a room, said to be the tomb of Dionysus. His annual resurrection at Delphi was welcomed by his followers, the Bacchae. ** 

Worship of the pagan gods died out with the advent of Christianity. Some of the religious practices were absorbed by the new religion (The Christians incorporate the idea of a dying god/hero - one who is resurrected after three days rather than three months), but the old places of worship fell into ruin. Delphi, the most important religious site in the Greek world, where both Apollo and Dionysus were honored, was closed in 394.AD. The Emperor Julian, who tried to revive the old religions, sent an emissary to consult the Pythia, she gave her last oracle:

"Tell ye the King: the carven hall is fallen into decay;
Apollo has no temple left, no prophesying bay,
No talking spring.
The stream is dry that had so much to say"


Theatre of Dionysus and below is the remains of the Temple of Apollo, Delphi.

The bleached bones of Greek and Roman architecture and civilization lay scattered around the Mediterranean; unnoticed until the middle of the 15th century, when there was a rediscovery of classical culture. The Renaissance, a cultural movement beginning in Florence about 1450, encompassed an innovative rediscovery of the classical world, vernacular literatures, the development of techniques of rendering a more natural reality in painting, and gradual educational reform. Historians often argue this intellectual transformation was a bridge between the Middle Ages and the Modern era.

One of the greatest achievements of Renaissance scholars was to bring this entire class of Greek cultural works back into Western Europe for the first time since late antiquity. But there is debate about the extent to which the Renaissance improved on the culture of the Middle Ages. Jacob Burckhardt described the progress made in the Renaissance towards the modern age and likened the change to a veil being removed from man's eyes, allowing him to see clearly.  On the other hand, Johan Huizinga questioned whether it was a positive change. In his book The Waning of the Middle Ages, he argued that the Renaissance was a period of decline from the High Middle Ages, destroying much that was important. Latin had evolved greatly from the classical period and was a living language used in the church and elsewhere. The Renaissance obsession with classical purity halted its further evolution and saw Latin revert to its classical form.

Classicism to some never seems to go away, it gained a second wind in the so called, Neo-Renaissance or Neoclassical movement in Germany and elsewhere. This movement was greatly influenced by 18th century Hellenist, Johann Winkelmann who first articulated the difference between Greek, Greco-Roman and Roman art.  His writings influenced not only a new science of archaeology and art history but western painting, sculpture, literature and even philosophy. Winckelmann's History of Ancient Art (1764) was one of the first books written in German to become a classic of European literature. His subsequent influence on Goethe, Heine, Nietzsche, and Spengler has been called the "Tyranny of Greece over Germany."

As Winkelmann influenced Neitzsche, so Nietzsche influenced Wagner. The two spent many hours in Wagner's home on Lake Lucerne discussing Greek drama and  Nietzsche dedicated his first book, "The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music," to Wagner. The main insight of the book was that Greek drama (and indirectly Greek civilization) was a synthesis of the rational and the irrational, of Apollo and Dionysus; today better know as "left brain/right brain."  Nietzsche also championed another idea which probably influenced Wagner: the amor fati, the eternal return.*** This eastern concept  posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a like form, an infinite  number of times across infinite time or space. In other words, it is a circle, need I say, a ring. The good news is it never ends, the bad news is it never ends. With that we segue to The Ring.

Wagner Festspielhaus - Bayreuth

Der Ring des Nibelungen

 The Ring of the Nibelung, or simply The Ring is a cycle of four epic operas, or dramas, by Richard Wagner. The cycle is based on figures from Greek, Norse, and German mythology. Wagner wrote the  libretto and music over the course of about twenty-six years. The four operas that constitute the Ring cycle are: Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walkure (The Valkyrie), Siegfreid, and finally, Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods), which premiered at Bayreuth in 1876, as part of the first complete performance of the Ring.

The story and the operas are common knowledge to music lovers all over the world, so I shall skip a summary of the plot. Instead focus here is only on one part of  Act II of Die Walkure. Here is just a bit of the background (the character names are also  noted with a Greek counterpart) of that act:

Wotan (Zeus) is standing on a rocky mountainside with Brunnhilde (Athena), his daughter. He instructs Brunnhilde to protect Siegmund (his human son) in his coming battle with Hunding.  Frika, (Hera) Wotan's wife and the guardian of  marriage, arrives demanding the punishment of Siegmund and Sieglinde (Wotan's daughter), who have committed adultery and incest. She knows that Wotan, disguised as the mortal man Walse, fathered Siegmund and Sieglinde. Wotan protests that he requires a free hero (i.e., one not ruled by him) to aid his plans, but Fricka retorts that Siegmund is not a free hero but Wotan's creature and unwitting pawn. (Wotan once took a branch from the world ash tree and cut  from it his spear. On this spear Wotan engraved the laws which govern the world. Wotan's power stands or falls with these laws.) Wotan, in accordance with these laws  is force to promise Fricka that Siegmund will die.****  Bitterly, Wotan orders Brunnhilde to obey Fricka and ensure the death of his beloved child Siegmund.

 Having fled Hunding's hall, Siegmund and Sieglinde enter the mountain pass, where Sieglinde faints in guilt and exhaustion. Brunnhilde approaches Siegmund and tells him of his impending death. Siegmund refuses to follow Brunnhilde to Valhalla when she tells him Sieglinde cannot accompany him there. He draws his sword and threatens to kill both Sieglinde and himself.

Impressed by his love, Brunnhilde relents and agrees to grant victory to Siegmund instead of Hunding. Hunding arrives and attacks Siegmund. Blessed by Brunnhilde, Siegmund begins to overpower Hunding, but Wotan appears and shatters Nothung (Siegmund's sword) with his spear. While Siegmund is thus disarmed and helpless, Hunding stabs him to death. Wotan looks down on Siegmund's body, grieving, and Brunnhilde gathers up the fragments of Nothung and flees on horseback with Sieglinde. Wotan strikes Hunding dead with a contemptuous gesture, and angrily sets out in pursuit of his disobedient daughter.


  • Below is a portion of the scene  with Athena/Brunnhilde and the  Hero.

    look at me.
    I am she
    whom you will follow soon.

    Tell me, who are you
    who, so fair and grave, appear before me?

    Only those doomed to die
    see my gaze.
    Whoever looks on me
    must leave life and its light.
    I only appear to heroes
    on the battlefield.
    The man who sees me
    is my victim in battle.

    If I follow you
    whither will you lead your hero?

    To the Lord of battles
    who chose you
    I shall lead you.
    You will follow me to Valhalla.

    You are wonderful
    and I recognize the holy
    daughter of Wotan.
    But tell me one thing, Immortal:
    can this brother take with him
    his sister and bride?
    May Siegmund embrace
    Sieglinde there?

    She must still breathe
    the air of earth.
    You will not see Sieglinde
    there, Siegmund.

    Then greet Valhalla for me,
    greet Wotan too,
    greet Volsa for me
    and all the heroes,
    greet the lovely
    wishmaidens too.
    I will not follow you to them.

    You have seen the Valkyrie's
    searing glance.
    Now you must go with her

    Wherever Sieglinde lives,
    in pleasure or sorrow,
    Siegmund will also stay.
    Your gaze has not yet made me
    grow pale.
    It will never force me from here.

    As long as you live,
    nothing can force you.
    But death, you fool, will force you.
    I have come here
    to tell you of it.

    Where might the hero be
    to whom I should fall today?

    Hunding will kill you in battleYou, Volsung -
    listen well to me -
    you have been chosen by fate.

    Be quiet, and do not terrify
    the sleeping woman.

    Oh! Oh!
    Sweetest wife,
    saddest of all faithful women.
    The whole world rages
    against you in arms.
    And I who am your only trust,
    for whom alone you defied it,
    may I not shield you
    with my protection,
    must I betray a heroine in battle?
    O shame upon him
    who made my sword,
    if he decreed shame for me, not victory.
    If I must die
    I shall not go to Valhalla.
    Let Hell hold me fast!

    So little do you value
    everlasting bliss?

    Is she everything to you,
    this poor woman
    who, tired and sorrowful,
    lies limp in your lap?
    Do you think nothing else glorious?

    So young and fair
    and dazzling you look,
    but how cold and hard
    my heart knows you must be.
    If you can only scoff
    then take yourself away,
    you cruel, unfeeling maiden.
    Yet if you must gloat
    on my misery,
    then let my sufferings comfort you,
    my distress delight
    your jealous heart.
    But of Valhalla's frigid joys
    please do not speak to me.
    (Two lives
    smile on you here:
    take them, Notung,
    precious sword,
    take them with one blow)

    Stop, Volsung,
    hear what I say.
    Sieglinde shall live
    and Siegmund live with her.
    It is decided:
    I'll change the fight's outcome;
    for you, Siegmund,
    I'll procure favour and victory.

    Do you hear the call?
    Now prepare, hero.
    Rely on your sword
    and wield it boldly.
    The weapon will be true to you,
    just as the Valkyrie will truly protect you.
    Farewell, Siegmund,
    beloved hero.
    On the battlefield I shall see you again.
    Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde) et Bryn Terfel (Wotan)

    Deborah Voigt (Brunnhilde) and Bryn Terfel (Wotan) 2010-11 Met production.
    The actors were buoyed and tossed about on giant piano keys, which distracted from the opera, and at one point broke down. The Met had forgotten that Hephaestus, Greek god of technology, is lame and subject to glitches.

    Wagner closely read The Eumenides, so he was fully aware of the dramatic conclusion; Athena heals Orestes and transforms the Furies, through music, to the Kind Ones. Now we find a new take on the old theme

     In the scene above, the goddess is so moved by the love Siegmund has for his wife, she breaks her fathers command. Thus:

                                                                          Human love, inspires and changes deity. Gods become compassionate, because humans are loyal to one another.

     However, her compassion does not save this hero, Wontan enters and permits Hunding to kill Siegmund. Next he must punish his daughter and this leads to a split in the cosmic male and female principles. Athena looses her godhead, her divinity, and Wotan looses not only his beloved daughter, but half of his psyche. The god's decline continues and the yet unborn hero, Siegfreid, like Oedipus is doomed to failure even before he enters the world and the next opera.