Medieval Romance and Musical Narrative in Wagner’s Ring

Medieval Romance and Musical Narrative in Wagner’s ‘Ring’

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Published as J. P. E. Harper-Scott. ‘Medieval Romance and Musical Narrative in Wagner’s Ring’. 19th-Century Music 32, no. 3 (2009): 211–34. © 2009 by the Regents of the University of California. Copying and permissions notice: Authorization to copy this content beyond fair use (as specified in Sections 107 and 108 of the U. S. Copyright Law) for internal or personal use, or the internal or personal use of specific clients, is granted by the Regents of the University of California for libraries and other users, provided that they are registered with and pay the specified fee via Rightslink® on Caliber ( or directly with the Copyright Clearance Center,

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Abstract and summary


My second article to be published in 19th-Century Music is a study of Wagner’s music for the Ring which traces connexions back to the medieval literary sources he worked with. Ranging across recent studies in music theory, medieval music and literature, and philosophy, it aims to show how the narrative form that Wagner translated into musical terms reflects a difference of opinion on the nature of human experience. Wagner’s conception, like the medieval one, is radically disjointed and non-teleological, uncertain of its ends. The article suggests new ways of fitting music-analytic methods to the complex musical structures of the Ring. This is the abstract published in the journal:

Wagner’s engagement with medieval sources like the Nibelungenlied has generally been examined in relation to poetic style in his librettos. One of the defining structural features of his literary inspirations is the narrative interlace structure, which is common to literature, art, and even manuscript organization in the Middle Ages. In place of the classical Aristotelian unity of time, place, and action, the interlace design sets up a literary form based on sudden disjunctions, mysterious failures of explanation, and multiplicities of motive. These formal models propose radically different views of reality and the self: one suggests that human experience is shaped by a culmination that can already be known, the other more contingent, fractured, and paradoxically ‘modern’. Wagner’s incorporation of the interlace design operates in the libretto and, more significantly and complexly, in the music. Wagner’s structural and philosophical engagement with his medieval sources in the Ring may be elucidated via a combination of neo-Riemannian and modified Schenkerian analytical approaches and a sensitivity to Wagner’s tendency to highlight the structural joints between his massive interlaced threads (rather than smoothly modulating, as the prevalent view suggests). The work is seen to have an existentialist, not an essentialist, view of human nature that provided an intellectual model for the artists and thinkers that grew up in Wagner’s considerable intellectual shadow.


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