Medieval Romance and Musical Narrative in Wagner’s Ring by J. P. E. Harper-Scott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Medieval Influence on the Libretto of the Ring
In some respects Wagner’s “medieval” practice has been well documented. Deryck Cooke offered a famously sensitive and detailed exploration of the literary and scholarly sources of the Ring in I Saw the World End. His findings on the central importance of the Poetic Edda to Wagner’s poems for the cycle have more recently been amplified by the literary scholar Stanley Hauer, who draws out in more detail Wagner’s metrical and lexical debt to the Scandinavian sources and his use of punning names.As a study of the origins of the libretto and of Wagner’s synthesis of narrative elements, Cooke’s chapter remains useful. But in focusing exclusively on details of plot and (to a much more limited extent) of verse forms, both Cooke and Hauer miss the remarkable – indeed arguably unique – underlying structural principle of medieval narrative: the interlace structure. It is this important but “hidden” detail of medieval prose and poetic narratives that, translated into musical terms, constitutes perhaps Wagner’s most fruitful contribution to the history of music.
Cooke and Hauer demonstrate the high level of Wagner’s scholarly involvement and establish the realistic possibility that, while finding ways to shape his sources’ narratives to suit his
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dramatic ends, Wagner also replicated certain aspects of his sources’ structure in his musical language. The sources in question are both literary and scholarly. The literary texts are the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, the German-inspired (but Old Norse) Þiðreks saga, and the Old Norse Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, and Völsunga saga. The scholarly studies Wagner owned and read include Karl Lachmann’s thesis on the Nibelungenlied (“Habilitationsschrift” über die ursprungliche Gestalt des Gedichts von der Nibelungen Noth), which more or less founded strictly philological research into the lay, and works by the Grimm brothers (Wilhelm Grimm, Die deutsche Heldensage and Jakob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie).
The Nibelungenlied (ca. 1200) came late in the day for tales of a broadly comparable sort, even discounting the very ancient epic poetic or prose narratives (Iliad and Odyssey and the Indian Mahabharata); the Old English Beowulf (possibly twelfth century, though there is doubt) and Welsh Mabinogion (before AD 1000) still predate it. The extent of the Nibelungenlied-poet’s knowledge of earlier Scandinavian archetypes is unknown, but Cooke suggests that the poem was to some extent an amalgam of earlier lays. For present purposes it does not matter whether the Nibelungenlied-poet knew the earlier sources; the poem’s style, particularly in relation to other medieval narratives, is what matters, because it was the style more than the detail of the literary hinterland that would manifest itself in Wagner’s stage works.
Many of the surviving examples of medieval Germanic heroic poetry, for example, Beowulf and the Poetic Edda, use alliterative verse. The Nibelungenlied, by contrast, adopts the then newfangled Romance end-rhymes; the poem is composed in 2,400 four-lined stanzas, each expressed in couplets. It is well known that Wagner ignored this model because it was less “authentically” Germanic than he wished (alliterative verse patterns come naturally to Germanic languages because of their tendency to stress the root syllable of a word). He wrote instead in a modified form of old German Stabreim, with densely packed alliterative lines. Insofar as we understand Wagner’s use of medieval aesthetic technique, we understand it in terms of his use and misuse of Stabreim. The broader matter of medieval narrative form has drawn little attention.
On the music of the cycle Hauer is silent. Cooke depends on the examination of leitmotifs (however subtly psychoanalyzed in the Donington tradition) and consequently has little to say beyond the superficial level of more or less immediate thematic reference. More analytically minded writers, meanwhile, are apt to give less attention to the literary sources even though they can explain more convincingly than Cooke and the leitmotifists exactly what composers who followed Wagner – whether they
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wrote operas or not – considered so potent in his musical style. It is Wagner’s use of “associative tonality” and the patient unfolding of gigantic tonal forms based on an almost endlessly deferred but ever-present sense of a tonal center or double-tonic complex that had the more fruitful influence on later music, as is variously demonstrated by the symphonies of Bruckner, Elgar, Mahler, and Sibelius, the symphonic poems of Strauss, and in opera by composers as aesthetically different as Strauss and Britten. As important and obvious as the use of leitmotif and alliterative verse may be in the context of Wagner’s own works, these fingerprints have not been as interestingly replicated by later composers as have the more complicated matters of his tonal process and use of associative tonality (both of which, I shall suggest, owe something to his digestion of medieval narrative).
To appreciate the richness of Wagner’s structural interlace procedure, we need first to understand his model. In what follows I do not mean to suggest that Wagner consciously saw in medieval literature what only began to be widely discussed in literary criticism in the twentieth century, although for a composer of such immensely broad intellectual and artistic interests and evident willingness to extrapolate sensitively from the material available to him, it would be plausible to do so. Instead of arguing for conscious and direct influence, this article has the modest aim of establishing some important points of contact between structural features of medieval narratives and the Ring, and the implications of this for Wagner’s view of human existence in a phenomenologically conceived time. In the process the article shows how some recent analytical studies have pointed in the medieval direction without noticing it (not that they should; there is nothing obvious about the conjunction) and seeks to establish the groundwork for future research linking literary study with music analysis.
Interlace in Medieval Narrative
The trope of interlace in medieval literature, and later work inspired by it, has received two main kinds of treatment in the last half century, one literary, another more interdiscipli-
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nary. Among the earliest examples in English of the first kind is a study of Edmund Spenser by C. S. Lewis. Defending The Faerie Queen from detractors puzzled by its “constantly shifting from one story and one set of characters to another, but with a ‘dovetail’ or liaison at the point where we change,” Lewis notes that the broad outlines of this narrative style may be found in Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso and perhaps derive ultimately from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Lewis calls the technique “interwoven” or “polyphonic” narrative, and although he generally prefers the latter I shall avoid confusion with Bakhtinian literary-critical uses of the word – irrelevant to my argument here – by using the favored term of most other studies, “interlace.”
Lewis suggests that interlace “dominated European fiction both in prose and verse from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century,” though other scholars, as we shall see, have found it earlier. Its principal function for Lewis and, I suggest, for Wagner is to enhance the sense of realism in the whole. Although switching from one tale to another, perhaps as a result of a chance encounter in the forest (the forest is a symbol of uncertain fate), may superficially seem both clumsy and confusing, “it is an effect particularly suitable to a tale of strange adventures” because it suggests that “adventures of this sort are going on all around us… . We lose the feeling that the stories we are shown were arbitrarily made up by the poet. On the contrary, we are sure there are plenty more which he has not time to show us. We are being given mere selections, specimens: instances of the normal life of that wooded, faerie world. The result of this is an astonishing sense of reality.”
The faerie land of Spenser’s story is no more “lifelike” in the ordinary sense of the world than the world of Wagner’s Ring, but like its counterpart in the Ring it is lifelike in a second sense as a result of the interlace structure. Although the introduction and indulgent telling of a new adventure may take us away – for hundreds of lines of a poem or an hour of Wagner’s music – from the “main” plot (if there is such a thing) or from the characters we have been concerned with, the episodes become lifelike in their consistency with their created world and the profligacy of the design has a positive artistic effect: “It is lifelike by its consistency – all the adventures bear the stamp of the world that produced them, have the right flavour, make each other probable; in its apparent planlessness – they collide, and get mixed up with one another and drift apart, just as events would in a real world; in its infinity – we can, so obviously, never get to the end of them, there are so obviously more and more, round the next corner… . There is forest, and more forest, wherever you look: you cannot see out of that world, just as you cannot see out of this.”
Lewis’s thoughts on Spenser are expanded into a more general theory in Eugène Vinaver’s The Rise of Romance. The theoretical basis for the late-medieval use of the interlace design, a usage with clear relevance to Wagner’s construction of a smooth plot from a piecemeal assembly of divergent sources, is the attempt to “forg[e] significant and tangible links between originally independent episodes … the scholastic principle of manifestatio.” In the nineteenth century, this model was condemned for its “uninspired prolixity,” reflecting some judgments, then as now, on Wagner’s own style. But criticisms then – and twentieth-century judgments like Cooke’s – are based on a modern aesthetic prejudice shaped partly by the influence of the novel and partly by a dependence on Aristotle’s famous definition of the
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classical unities of time, place, and action – essentially the requirement that the entire shape of a story, from beginning through middle to end, be constantly perspicuous. I shall return to the Aristotelian model in more detail below.
No story in a thirteenth-century narrative cycle like the “Lancelot-Grail” cycle is entirely self-contained. Adventures may come and go in any part of the work and the cumulative “unity” of the design is produced only by the careful managing of their interaction. Consequently a cycle is not a mosaic that would still be readable were a single stone to be removed, but a tapestry that would unravel if a single cut were made across it. A single example taken from Vinaver’s selection will suffice to show how this works in practice. In one version of the Arthurian romances, Lancelot recognizes Bors from the latter’s sword: it is the sword of Galehaut which, 600 pages earlier, in a different episode, Lancelot had sent to him as a present. The sword is a symbol of male love paralleling Excalibur (the gift from Arthur to Gawain, then Gawain to Lancelot). Yet in a later combat, Gawain fatally wounds himself while striking Lancelot with Excalibur, and the symbolism takes on a sadder note: “The reminder is, as always, merely implicit; but once the two events become simultaneously present in our minds, each acquires an added depth through the other and their interaction brings to the fore, as no other device could have done, the underlying tragic theme.”
A particularly potent Wagnerian example of this “implicit” reminder would be Hagen’s first greeting to Siegfried in Götterdämmerung, act I, announced to the motif sung by Alberich as he curses the Ring. The connection is not overstated by repetition or by further reference in the text or music (Hagen’s “Heil dir” is not followed by Gunther, in an undertone, singing “he really means curse you!”); it is enough for the listener to make the contact back over the span of the work to Rheingold, sc. 4. (Leitmotivic links like this one are not, then, irrelevant; they are simply not the irreducible basis of Wagnerian narrative design.) We need no textual reminder; we simply remember the connection and gain satisfaction from the memory of music heard perhaps eleven hours ago in the context of the musical work and almost certainly around seventy-two hours ago in real life (a span comparable to the 600 pages between episodes in the Vulgate version of the Arthurian romances).
Citing Giovambattista Strozzi’s definition of a unified work (on the Aristotelian model) as being “indivisible in itself, but divided from other things,” Vinaver shows that the medieval interlace structure presents a contrary model in which “any theme can reappear after an interval so as to stretch the whole fabric still further until the reader loses every sense of limitation in time or space.” Any theme, Vinaver adds, “is, of course, ‘indivisible’ both within itself and ‘from other things’: it is not even divisible from themes yet to be developed, from works yet to be written.” At neither the poetic nor musical level do Wagner’s designs exhibit the double character Strozzi demands, but they do seem related to Vinaver’s definition of interlace. There are obvious ways in which Wagner’s oeuvre in general echoes this generalized, unclassical indivisibility – think of the way that Lohengrin bleeds narratively into Parsifal, or that the Ring continually expands the bounds of mythic time (we think that “the origin” is in the Rhine until Wotan takes us into prehistory in Die Walküre, act II, sc. 2, and the Norns take us back still further in the Prelude to Götterdämmerung) – but there are less obvious ways too, which I shall examine later.
Despite these hints, we are not yet ready to make connections to Wagner’s mature music dramas. Two general problems appear obvious: geographical appropriateness and chronological generality. The works that interest Lewis and Vinaver are either French or later in origin than most of Wagner’s sources or both. Some scholars believe that this narrative method was not used in the far north of the Prose Edda or
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Þiðreks saga. If the interlace structure was restricted in geographical range to works that Wagner did not consult, he probably could not have encountered it, and even if he had he might not have regarded it as primordially German in spirit. Moreover it is not entirely clear what defends Lewis and Vinaver from Morton W. Bloomfield’s objection that because “the use of several narrative threads is a commonplace in literature of all periods and all countries,” there is no obvious reason why the medieval model should be regarded as significantly different. What exactly is unique about this method, and how can we be sure that Wagner is using it rather than the ordinary, historically and geographically omnipresent multiplication of narrative threads?
These twin problems of geography and chronology may be answered by reference to several studies: those by William W. Ryding and John Leyerle that extend Lewis’s and Vinaver’s historical range backwards, one by Carol Clover that examines Norse sagas in particular, and another by Sylvia Huot that treats manuscript organization as the establishment of a “performance space” distinct from a repository for oral performances. Ryding suggests that from the middle of the eleventh century to around 1200, “the writer normally carries his sequence of events to a perfectly satisfactory conclusion, then begins again and tells at considerable length matter neither implied nor necessitated within the framework of the first half of the story,” noting (with obvious relevance to Wagner) that works fitting this plan include the Nibelungenlied and Perceval. Leyerle, in a pioneering and influential study of Beowulf, demonstrates that the interlace technique was in use several centuries earlier than Lewis and Vinaver acknowledge.
Clover addresses the Norse family sagas in The Medieval Saga and rejects the commonly held view that they have a single-stranded narrative. She argues for a parallel between, on the one hand, the development from oral þættir (short stories) to sagas that do not conform to the Aristotelian model of unity but are “capable of infinite regression into impinging matter,” and, on the other hand, the process that transformed court stories into the Vulgate cycle. The aesthetic effect, she observes, is the same as the interlace within cycles. And in keeping with Vinaver’s observation that the Arthurian romances are “not even divisible from … works yet to be written,” she adds that the Norse sagas share characters and material “in a way that suggests that they were not conceived as self-contained wholes but as interrelated or interdependent members of a larger undertaking” – hence the development of encyclopedic cycles.
Clover does not treat the Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, or Völsunga saga, which Wagner used. Although her study demonstrates an Old Norse interest in interlace, it cannot be used to suggest that Wagner picked up the device directly from his Old Norse sources. There is less doubt about the fact that, as Ryding notes, there is interlace in the Nibelungenlied, and more generally in contemporaneous narratives from Northern Europe. Among the various sources Wagner drew on, interlace was at least available as one possibility among many, and one that he ultimately decided to work with. It is the cultural availability of the interlace design, and its aesthetic conception of the human, that I suggest finds a new venue in Wagner.
There is, however, some evidence that a prototypical narrative interlace operated even in manuscripts like the Codex regius, the source for the Poetic Edda. Sylvia Huot argues that the illuminated manuscripts that preserve
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French courtly lyric and lyrical narrative poetry from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries operated as a performance space in their own right, not simply as a repository for oral performances, and that the seeming arbitrariness of their organization veils an “authorial” narrative voice in the scribe. To support her claim, Huot examines the reasons why scribes chose to organize their manuscripts, whether as a sequence of didactic texts or as narratives, in the order they did. She detects a “thematic unity” to MS Bibl. Nat. fr. 24428, a collection including L’Image du monde, Li Volucraires, Li Bestiaire divin, an anonymous allegorical lapidary, and Marie de France’s Fables d’Ysopet. Following a straightforward discussion of the natural world in the first text, the later texts systematically expand the range of the potentially “open text” with which the collection begins. The manuscript organization “reflects the medieval system of fourfold exegesis: we begin with the literal reading of the world, progress to allegorical and tropological readings, and arrive finally at the anagogical reading, an unveiled explanation of the moral life of the human soul.” The Image provides the basis for the compilation, and the other components enhance its meaning. Each member benefits from its part in the juxtaposition; there is an “intimate relationship between poetic and scribal practices, between the microstructure of the individual text and the macrostructure of the anthology codex.” In other words, the manuscript acts like a visual “narrator” in “performing” seemingly heterogeneous contents within the unifying world of the (material) book.
In narrative collections, the resonances that build up are even more suggestive. MS Bibl. Nat. fr. 1447 collects the anonymous Floire et Blanchefleur, Adenet le Roi’s Berthe aus grans pies, and the anonymous Claris et Laris. Huot notes differences between them, but crucial similarities too. The first two concern the ancestry of Charlemagne: Floire and Blanchefleur are parents of Bertha, his mother, and so run into one another smoothly. But they also preface the third and set up a pairing of Christian and classical traditions that then infuse each story with added meaning. The Christian side is established by Floire’s conversion for the sake of his wife, as a result of which he becomes king of Hungary, father of Charlemagne, and a great hero of Christianized Europe. The classical thread is introduced – I am tempted to say “interlaced” – through the symbol of a cup for which Blanchefleur is traded. The cup had belonged to Aeneas, who gave it to Lavinia. After many generations it came to be stolen from the Caesars. Just as Aeneas and Lavinia were the ancestors of Romulus (who founded Rome), so Floire and Blanchefleur are the ancestors of Charlemagne (who founded the Holy Roman Empire). The subsequent Claris et Laris transplants Arthurian material onto a broad European stage, with Arthur fighting figures from France, Germany, Spain, and Hungary, and thus implicitly becoming associated with Charlemagne.
These texts are not associated in any other surviving manuscript, but the scribe for this particular manuscript evidently “saw in the personages, themes, and motifs shared among these works the possibility for a poetic conjointure that transcends the boundaries of individual texts… . Central to this picture of historical and cultural progression … is Charlemagne, the mythico-historical figure whose presence, both implicit and explicit, informs the entire book.” It may be that a narrative reading of the ordering of the mythic poems in the Codex regius could turn up an “interlaced” structure after all, and that the inter-
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lace Clover found in the Old Norse family sagas may have found its way into the mythic narratives of the Eddas and Völsunga saga, at least insofar as the scribal act of compilation acted as an implicit narrative voice within the “performing space” of the codex.
I return to Bloomfield’s problem with the difficulty of associating the ubiquitous interlace design with any particular time or place. Although it is indisputable that many narrative traditions employ a threadlike design, the medieval interlace narrative (and Wagner’s) is distinguished both by its emphasis on the illusion of reality and on its anti-Aristotelianism. Although a narrative as far from the tenor of Arthurian romance as that of the film Pulp Fiction may employ a complex series of apparently unrelated stories, during the course of the narrative the threads’ interrelationship clarifies to the extent that, although the whole is not presented straightforwardly, it ultimately coheres along familiar Aristotelian lines into a beginning-middle-end formation. The world closes in on itself and the narrative is unified. To recall a metaphor invoked a little earlier, this relatively commonplace use of narrative threads appears more like a mosaic (the total design is not obscured by the removal of one tile) than like an interwoven cloth. Accordingly, the design does not construct a plausible secondary reality. It does not need to; the events it portrays fit somehow into our own world and need no suggestion of infinite depth to give them a “lifelike” feel. Contrarily, for disbelief to be suspended successfully in a world of spears and magic helmets, there is a pressing need for a secondary reality to be constructed and maintained in plausibility by the implicitly infinite capacity of the interlace design. The answer to Bloomfield is that the medieval interlace narrative is distinguished from the rest because it uses threads to deny closure, not to make it inevitable, and that it does so because the denial of the kind of closure that makes a neat frame for a work is a pressing aesthetic requirement.
Interlace and Abstraction
My attempt to show how Wagner adapted the medieval interlace narrative for operatic ends
is not the first to draw parallels between the use of interlace in different art forms. Except for Lewis, all of the writers cited so far have made direct connections between literary interlace and decorative arts in Northern Europe. John Leyerle’s article on Beowulf started a tradition of explaining literary narrative in pictorial terms. Although the resulting parallels between the art forms are sometimes dubious, they can nonetheless be useful as metaphors.
Leyerle observes that interlace designs, common in seventhand eighth-century AngloSaxon art (but perhaps as old as prehistoric Mesopotamia), are characterized by bands “plaited together to form a braid or rope pattern.” Perhaps the most spectacular of these effects are found in the “carpet pages” of illuminated manuscripts. The designs are frequently zoomorphic, and as the “heads” of each lizard or serpent bite into their “tails,” they create a sense of infinite movement – the ancient symbol of ouroboros, the artistic as well as the mathematical sign for infinity. Leyerle explains the link between art and literature on etymological grounds: “The device is self-conscious and the poets describe their technique with the phrases fingera serta and texere serta, ‘to fashion or weave intertwinings.’ Serta (related to Sanskrit sarat, ‘thread,’ and to Greek seiro,*‘rope’) is from the participle of serere, ‘to interweave, entwine, or interlace.’ The past participle of texere, ‘to weave, braid, interlace,’ is textus, the etymon of our words text and textile. The connection is so obvious that no one
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thinks of it. In basic meaning, then, a poetic text is a weaving of words to form, in effect, a verbal carpet page.“ These observations apply equally well to musical ”texts“ or ”textures“ and with a slight variation, to ”contexts,“ the derivation of which is from the Latin contexere, ”to weave together.“
Deepening Leyerle’s foundations in art, Vinaver cites a discussion by the Lithuanian art historian Jurgis Baltrus˘aitis of the ”ribbon“ ornament in Romanesque art, which, because it has no beginning or center, has ”no ‘means of guidance’“ through the design; yet it remains coherent. What maintains coherence is not a closed Aristotelian ”unity“ but a non-Aristotelian abstraction. This is also the ”means of guidance“ of particular interest to the influential German art historian Wilhelm Worringer, in his doctoral dissertation Abstraktion und Einfühlung (1907). Worringer considers abstraction centrally important both to his rejection of any necessary connection between mimesis and art and to the authentic mode of artistic expression of the Germanic peoples. He criticizes the psychologist Theodor Lipps’s theory of empathy, the idea that we respond positively to art because we identify with its subject matter, saying that although this phenomenon is characteristic of classical and Renaissance art, in Egyptian, Byzantine, Gothic, and ”primitive“ art the focus is abstraction.
He explains this emphasis with reference to differing conceptions of reality and of our place in it. To the classical and Renaissance mind, humankind is secure in its understanding of the forms of nature, and it can empathize with straightforward representations of or from a unified self. Artists in the other traditions, however, have no such confidence in representations of reality; beset by a ”spiritual dread of space” (geistige Raumscheu), they experience their world as hostile and focus on the construction of geometric patterns they can order and control.
I shall return to the implications of this “spiritual dread of space” shortly. What makes Worringer’s reading particularly suggestive in the present context is that he considers abstraction “the decisive formula for the whole medieval North.” His is, in fact, the first important positively construed aesthetics of abstract art of any kind. Worringer’s theory helped transform the previously pejorative descriptor “abstract” (coined first in musical contexts, including that of Wagner’s claim that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony marked the transition from abstract music to the new genre of “music drama”) into an aesthetic virtue in much of the twentieth century’s art, literature, and music. Early twentieth-century musicologists such as the utopian philosopher Ernst
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Bloch, the analyst Ernst Kurth, the former art historian Curt Sachs, and the medievalist Rudolf von Ficker (who took Worringer’s terms “Romanesque” and “Gothic” over into musicology) found much to admire in Worringer.
The principles of Worringer’s theory are the same as those that Lewis (without artistic bias) identified as making interlaced literature “lifelike.” For Worringer, when “a continuously increasing activity without pauses or accents is set up, … repetition aims primarily at giving each particular motive a potential infinity.”
Art thus acquires the capacity to construct the alternative world that seemed a pressing social need to the modernists. That Worringer’s characteristic oppositions of North versus South, abstraction versus empathy, and Renaissance versus Gothic found echoes in Nazi theories of “pure” and “degenerate” art is deeply unfortunate, but it also situates Worringer in a German aesthetic continuum of which Wagner was an earlier part – and which, on Umberto Eco’s reading of the prevalence of medievalisms in popular culture, also includes us.
Angst and Repetition
Worringer felt that abstraction could be a means for the fractured modern self to withstand the inevitable alienation of the modern economic system. In the 1970s this view led William Spanos to draw parallels between two types of dialectical tension: on the one hand, between Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian readings of art and literature (of the sort we have been considering) and, on the other, between Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian understandings, in the history of Western philosophy, of the nature of human being. Spanos suggests that the modernists (his focus is literature, but his reading is apposite to visual art too) saw the entire history of literature since Sophocles as an expression of the Aristotelian vision of aesthetic unity, which was (as Worringer suggests) intended to provide existential comfort to humankind by overdetermining the individual as a fixed object that can be read like any other, as belonging to “the tradition, that is, which recent philosophers of existence call essentialism.” The organic plot of the Aristotelian literary tradition, “the sequence of events that develops causally from a beginning which generates discords through a middle which amplifies discords into crisis to an end which resolves the discords,” forms a direct parallel of the essentialist philosophy that interprets human existence as directed toward a goal or end that can be known beforehand, as if the entire course of a human life may be viewed from above by satellite and mapped electronically for the smoothest route.
Spanos suggests that this laying-out of time as a sequence of temporal “units” is a natural outcome of the modern scientific worldview, which might explain two things: first, why the medieval interlace narrative (a phenomenon Spanos does not mention) was replaced during the period of the rise of modern science by the end-focused narrative of the modern novel; and second, why ostensibly “interlaced” modern
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narratives ultimately resolve themselves along Aristotelian lines, despite appearances to the contrary. But Spanos’s critique is more ambitious and in fact depends on Heidegger’s parallel reading of the history of philosophy, principally his suggestions that, since Socrates, philosophy has forgotten the “question of being.” For Heidegger, there is an “ontological difference” between beings like trees (which, broadly, have an essence), pencil sharpeners (which are equipment for use within a meaningful network of interrelationships, not just a set of properties), and human beings (who define themselves according to interrelational contexts and either take or avoid responsibility for a self-definition that is ultimately groundless and “essenceless”). By focusing on essence rather than being, Heidegger suggests, Western philosophy has ignored the principle that the being of Dasein (his term for human being) cannot be expressed by its physical or chemical constituents, but only in terms of its engagement with and in the world. That is to say that Dasein is described not by its material essence but by the term “being-in-the-world” – the hyphens indicate the inseparability of Dasein from the context of its historical, cultural, and geographical involvements.
An identical level of confusion exists, Spanos argues, in the Aristotelian aesthetic model, thereby justifying Worringer’s veneration of abstraction. Although Aristotelian art (Worringer’s “empathetic” art) can provide balm to counteract geistige Raumscheu, it does so at a high human cost. Consciousness is not amenable to the kind of scientific measurement encouraged by the end-determination of the organic narrative model, and the human consciousness described by such a narrative strategy is therefore false. Indeed, the basis of human existence is the very Angst that Aristotelian art seeks to dull (this Angst is also Worringer’s or Marx’s “alienation”), the dread of what Heidegger calls “the Nothing,” that is, the groundlessness of human existence, the nothing of individual death that determines the limit of possibilities for an individual Dasein. Not to engage with the essential dread of human existence is to “flee in the face of death,” as Heidegger pungently expresses it, to retreat into the sheepish definition of human nature offered by “the They” (das Man), the mass of public opinion that essentializes individuals.
To “flee in the face of death” is to refuse to take an authentic existential stand on the facts that death is nonrelational and that one’s own individual death makes one’s choices meaningful. Indeed it is only death that makes anything meaningful at all: if life were eternal, then there would be no reason to choose to be one thing rather than another because with the possibility of an infinite time to do things one could eventually choose all options and find no nonrandom reason to choose between them. Or, as Wagner himself put it: “Only when a thing has been consummated in Life, can we grasp the necessity of its occurrence… . That action, therefore, must be the best fitted for dramatic art … which is rounded off together with the life of the chief person that evolved it, and whose denouement is none other than the conclusion of the life of this one man himself.”
Nevertheless, “fleeing” is tempting. Indeed it is inevitable, and it is so central to Heidegger’s reading that he gives it an involuntary sense by calling it Verfallen, “falling.” Aristotelian art sucks us into Verfallen by flattening out hu-
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man temporal experience and giving it an unrealistic inevitability, rather than laying stress on the essential randomness of experience and the unending need to choose between practically infinite possibilities. Using this Heideggerian analysis, Spanos notes that
in objectifying temporal flux, in transforming the contingencies of real human experience into a fiction that gives this experience a causal sequence “progressing” linearly from a beginning through a middle to a preconceived end, the “Aristotelian” play aids and abets the all too human impulse of audiences to transform the dread of Nothingness or absurd time into, at best (as in Oedipus or Hedda Gabler), an endurable or cathartic – because understandable – fear or (as in Scribe, Dumas fils, Pinero, Galsworthy, and even Arthur Miller, to say nothing about the deliberately canned products of television and the cinema) into a perverse sensuality.
For Spanos, the alternative to Aristotelian art is absurdist drama, but as Vinaver’s interpretation of Worringer suggests, the opposition of empathy and abstraction can be rearticulated as the opposition of Aristotelian narrative and medieval interlace narrative – the form that Wagner adapted and that exercised a long influence over the following century.
Abstract structuring devices like the interlace design begin to seem “lifelike” in a third sense unmentioned by Lewis: they underpin a mimesis of the temporal experience of human life. According to Heidegger’s analysis, Dasein exists temporally in a “thick” present. It constantly roams forward to its own death and uses its understanding of its own projects and situation to interpret the past in order to make decisions in the present. Clock time is alien to Dasein, and because Dasein can reach back into the past of its own life, the life of its country, or its culture, it follows that the being of Dasein is ultimately not bounded by the single human life span either, so the unity of the Aristotelian story is likewise alien. An interlace design, particularly one allied with that most temporal of art forms, tonal music, emphasizes this existential temporality and encourages realistic engagement with it in the experience of the artwork’s structure.
The temporal circularity of the interlace design, with threads returned to after long absences in which a richer understanding of context and interrelationship has been reached, also forms a narrative equivalent of the hermeneutic circle. Perhaps the returning influence of the medieval interlace structure in later artists such as Wagner may appear as an event in a long hermeneutic circling around a Western understanding of human nature, a particular thread in the textile of understandings that replaced the Aristotelian model of unity and was in turn, for a time, replaced by it again. Does this mean, then, that nineteenthand twentieth-century uses of narrative interlace are simply repeating the past, perhaps with a different (even impoverished) understanding of the original form? Eco, and any other opponents of “medievalism,” might say so.
This question brings us to a broader issue that should be addressed before homing in finally on Wagner: questions touching on historical authenticity and the implications of “repeating” the past. Once more Heidegger’s manner of re-posing the “question of being” is useful.
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The understanding of being that was lost with the ancient Greeks (and the Aristotelian narrative) must, he maintains, be regained through “repetition.” Heidegger plays with two senses of the German verb wiederholen, which in its separable form, capable of being expressed “holen … wieder,” means “to fetch or get back” (“Ich hole es wieder,” “I fetch it back”), and in its inseparable form means “to repeat, replay, or retake [an exam, etc.]” (“Ich wiederhole die Prüfung,” “I repeat the exam”). For an individual Dasein to shape an authentic existence it must “get back” an understanding of itself from das Man (principally by reflecting on the certainty of its own death) and “repeat” past possibilities from its own historical situation (these historical limitations have life-shaping significance: in the twenty-first century one can choose to be a surveyor but not a knight templar).
For artworks, Heidegger reinterprets repetition as “preservation,” which takes on an ethical dimension: “Preserving the work [of art] means: standing within the openness of beings that happens in the work. This ‘standing-within’ of preservation, however, is a knowing. Yet knowing does not consist in mere information and notions about something. He who truly knows what is, knows what he wills to do in the midst of what is.” The “openness of beings” is the clear understanding of the nature of a subject presented to us in an artwork. In the much-cited example of his study of van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes, Heidegger writes that the painting discloses the world of the peasant who wears them: the artwork “re-enchants” the shoes as revelations of aspects of truth that normally remain hidden (as when the peasant simply wears the shoes without reflection on existential questions). But “the openness of beings … is a knowing,” too, and specifically an ontological and ethical knowing because it is only when one understands the nature of a thing that one knows how to treat it (“He who truly knows what is, knows what he wills to do in the midst of what is”). This is a nontrivial observation. Next to a picture of a human embryo, the front page of the Independent on 26
March 2008 was dominated by the headline “Is this a clump of cells? Or a living being with a soul?” The questions were asked in relation to the U.K. Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill 2007–8, which includes provisions to allow for the creation of human-animal embryos for research. Taking a stand on whether a thing is a clump of cells or a soulful creature – that is, taking a stand on its being – makes a considerable difference to how one views research that depends on the ontological difference.
The ethical difference between understanding human temporality on an Aristotelian or interlaced narrative model may not be so vital to get right, but what is clear is that the models propose radically different ways of understanding lived human experience. In “repeating” the medieval understanding and initiating the modern one, Wagner is not being escapist (the accusation often leveled at Tolkien and implied by Eco). Being escapist means willing the carboncopy return of a generally imagined past simply to obliterate the problems of the present, a feeling common to conservatives of all times and places, and a desire to retreat into the past, as Heidegger puts it, “just in order that this, as something which was formerly actual, may recur.” Heideggerian “repetition,” unlike simple repetition, is future-orientated, a reflection on a shared past for the sake of a communal future that reflects the personal existential formation of each Dasein. I should not like to argue that there is a pressing ethical requirement for Wagner to read human nature in the way he did – although it is clear from his writings that he at least was certain there was – but the seriousness of his medievalist ambition as discernible in the observable presence of the interlace design for the Ring cannot fairly be doubted.
Wagnerian interlace therefore has a threefold significance. First, its derivation from medieval sources allows it to constitute a more aesthetically sensitive medievalism than is acknowledged by the dismissive judgments of
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writers such as Eco and John Haines; the latter suggests that Wagner did little more than recreate a naive sense of the Middle Ages as “the good old days” (the “formerly actual”). Second, the theorization of Wagner’s interlace design alongside Worringer’s “abstraction” clarifies the nature of Wagner’s influence on both the various artistic modernisms of the early twentieth century and the development of musicology. Third, the interlace narrative allows Wagner’s operas to propose a reading of human temporality at odds with the Enlightenment goal-directedness of Beethoven’s model (and with an orthodox reading of Schenker’s) and suggests that Wagner had some part, however indirect, in the development of twentieth-century philosophies of existence.
Interlace in the Plot of the Ring
The effect of interlace in Wagner’s libretto is readily apparent. An outline of the weaving of plot elements in Siegfried may sufficiently demonstrate the means Wagner uses to plot a compelling secondary reality in the whole cycle. Siegfried is, of course, the hero and the center of the action, but other characters are fed in to suggest the depths that his story traverses. Mime opens the opera with a retrospect that includes Siegfried’s youth, the relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde, Fafner’s killing of Fasolt, Mime’s own forging of the Ring and the Tarnhelm, and Alberich’s theft of the gold from the Rhine, the primal origin. Siegfried’s return from sport, hunting, or narcissistic staring into pools to recognize his own face suggests the rich symbolic resonance of the forest, where he can evidently talk to bears. When the Wanderer enters, he substantially expands the mythic time span, and his disquisition with Mime brings into play some of the races that populate the Ring: Nibelungs, gods, and giants.
In the second act, Alberich returns to the Ring, and his competitive fraternal relationship with Mime is filled out. Here is a character of some history, but as with Wotan the history is not provided in the narrative offered by the text. (Nor was it in the first scene of Das Rheingold, when we do not yet know the context in which this strange, lustful, love-renouncing dwarf operates, or what society he comes from, or his position in it.) Yet Alberich’s appearance invites speculation. Even those who have followed him through Das Rheingold and heard Wotan’s reported news of him in Die Walküre, act II, sc. 2, may wonder what adventures have befallen him since he bribed a woman into bearing him his heir Hagen (and when did that happen in relation to his humiliation in Rheingold, sc. 4?). Has he been living alone? Did he raise his son in a community? Where is his son now? Just offstage attending to business of his own, or lost to Alberich altogether? We catch sight of Alberich barely for a moment, yet there is enough to tantalize us in the narrative. We are also invited – it is the nature of the interlace design to invite speculation on the various interwoven “adventures” presented only in parts – to look forward to Götterdämmerung and ask how is it that Hagen manages to ingratiate himself with his half-siblings the Gibichungs and why his father is out of the picture. Has Alberich done the Gibichungs some untold wrong or was he simply absent from most of Hagen’s childhood so that the Gibichungs never had any need to spurn him?
Alberich is waiting with Mime outside Fafner’s lair, and there we encounter another set of riddles. When did Fafner transform himself into a dragon? Why? Surely he could guard his hoard successfully enough as a giant, especially since it is reported that he is the last of the race of giants, which would make bruteforce competition unlikely. Next, Siegfried’s conversation with the woodbird suggests an entire realm of storytelling that is otherwise closed off in the Ring: the possibility that nature itself, in the site of the enchanted forest and the “person” of the singing bird, has a narrative sentience of a type familiar from Ger-
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manic fairy-tale collections like that of the Grimms.
In the third act, the altercation between the Wanderer and Erda returns us to the mythic time frame that has been absent from the opera so far and that is now more explicitly opened up to the vanishing points of both past and future. Siegfried’s rejection of authority, otherwise perhaps no more than an adolescent moment of hubristic pique, acquires teleological force, and his rapturous embrace of Brünnhilde instigates a new age of human predominance. The result is a world of two people only, a world we have not previously encountered in Siegfried or anywhere else in the Ring, but the other worlds and characters have not disappeared; their narrative threads have merely been overlaid for the moment. The nature of this design insures that we lose none of the sense of depth that has been built up so far, but neither are loose ends ever neatly tied up.
Many of the narrative details added to the bare bones of the plot of Siegfried are familiar from earlier parts of the cycle, but those parts too are distended by narrative digressions that cultivate mysteries in soil seeming to have no need of them – up to a certain point, that is, after which we are invited to use our own knowledge of how our world goes, and how people are motivated within it, to guess at what is happening from outside the world of the Ring. By virtue of the interlace technique, that world grows more “lifelike” with each speculative thought we are encouraged to have. As interesting as this narrative world-making is, Wagner’s achievement in borrowing the interlace technique from his medieval sources is not limited to creating structurally “baggy” tales. His most decisive artistic response to this precedent was, of course, in his music.
Three Ways into Wagner’s Musical Interlace
Wagner’s use of interlace in the Ring is much too complex to be dealt with adequately in the concluding portion of a single article. Instead of attempting comprehensiveness I shall offer, in three unequal sections, thoughts that open up some recent studies into an interlace context, to show what I take to be a latent explanation of Wagner’s medievalism and to mark out possibilities for future research. The three studies in question traverse the “foreground” (David Lewin’s and Graham G. Hunt’s neo-Riemannian studies of leitmotivic transformation), “middleground” (Barbara Eichner’s essay on transition scenes in Götterdämmerung and Parsifal, exemplifying a German/Abbatean analytical tradition with a particular interest in structural oddities, structural punctuation, and the famous “art of transition”), and “background” (Patrick McCreless’s account of associative tonality and long-range tonal structures, challenging and transcending the “poetic-musical period”). Taken together, these three ways of examining Wagner’s interlace demonstrate the richness of his response to the medieval precedent, and by extension show us more about his understanding of reality and its relation to human being.
1. Leitmotif. For a narrative interlace to have any hope of achieving its aesthetic effects, the threads must alternate while somehow “remaining constantly present in the author’s and the reader’s mind.” No matter how observant and retentive his audience, it behooves Wagner to infuse the musical fabric with material that can both remind them of events and contexts previously heard and show them through combination and confrontation how these referents change in function, interrelationship, and character over time. Wagner’s most famous and obvious tool for this purpose, though not his most developed, is the leitmotif.
Wagner studies have moved on from the early days of Lorenzian motivic analysis – Carolyn Abbate helped to accelerate the motion – but
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it would be a curious response to Wagner that ignored the identifying themes altogether. The notion of thematic threads (conceived as dramatic rather than musical) seems, from the evidence presented by Thomas Grey, to have been something of a commonplace in the midnineteenth century. Grey, echoing Bloomfield’s point about interlace narratives, notes that “a story in which such threads are entirely absent or invisible is hardly a story at all,” but he shows how the popular contemporary conception of “secret threads” or a “red thread” allowed for a connection of past and present, perhaps influenced most immediately by the recall of the love theme in the tomb scene of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette.
Increasingly as the Ring cycle proceeds, the development and interaction of these threads or leitmotifs become so intensely complicated that it would be folly to attempt any straightforward mapping of them. When three or four may be piled on top of one another in the space of a measure or two, such “threads” would bear no resemblance to the much more expanded and discrete threads of narrative in medieval romance. But as aids to connection between more expansive “threads” and part of Wagner’s incremental filling-out of his picture of the “world” of the Ring, they are an essential foreground tool.
The intricacies of the particular neo-Riemannian transformations traced in articles by Lewin and Hunt do not concern me here. What is interesting is the way their studies, and particularly Hunt’s, demonstrate the means by which Wagner keeps a complex of ideas active and developing through the cycle. The shared focus is the transformation of the Valhalla motive into the Tarnhelm motive. Lewin analyzes the “harmonic corruption” of the Valhalla motive during Wotan’s Monologue in Die Walküre, act II, sc. 2, showing its derivation via three neo-Riemannian transformations from its original form in Rheingold, sc. 2, and thence through a further neo-Riemannian transformation into the Tarnhelm motive. Hunt adds a “Leittonwechsel split” (maintaining the minor third in a triad and moving the fifth in both directions to produce a diminished chord) to the traditional battery of transformations, uses it to explain the crucial series of motivic corruptions in the poignant dialogue between Waltraute and Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung, act I, sc. 3, and traces its connection with the magic potion motive.
The conclusion that emerges from thus tracing the development of a single leitmotif through a large segment of the cycle is that “Valhalla was ultimately the source of the corruption throughout the Ring.” Although Alberich’s theft of the gold and creation (via Mime) of the Tarnhelm and Hagen’s Alberichinspired drugging of Siegfried are among the most obvious movers of the tragic culmination
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of one thread of the cycle – the Siegfried thread – Wagner shows in musical terms how the primordial transgression, the root of the tragedy, is Wotan’s crooked bargain for the building of Valhalla. And although other parts of the drama, in particular the Norns’ scene in the Götterdämmerung Prologue and Wotan’s Monologue (the scene on the wildes Felsengebirg, the wild, rocky mountain, that introduces the corrupted form of the Valhalla motive), make clear that Wotan’s violation of nature in making his spear from the Weltesche long before the cycle begins is the true source of the tragedy, this discovery does not invalidate Hunt’s analysis. Although we do not have a specific motive for the primordial offense, the musical process exemplified by the transformations of the Valhalla motive may be understood to incorporate an implicit reminiscence of what is otherwise unheard.
In uniting two of the principal motives of the Ring, the signs of Wotan’s pride and of the ultimate outcome of Alberich’s cunning (for the Tarnhelm will lead to Brünnhilde’s rape and Siegfried’s death), Wagner plays out slowly and on the most immediately accessible surface level of the music drama the interweaving of two of the threads that are otherwise independently developed. If either of those threads were removed, the whole design would fall apart. Siegfried’s tragedy occurs not just because Wotan errs, and not just because Alberich schemes, but for both reasons, separately (insofar as the leitmotifs distinguish themselves from one another) and together (insofar as the leitmotifs are used contrapuntally, in other combinations or juxtapositions, or have a transformational relationship to one another). It is in the way that they intermingle the larger threads of the plot – in Götterdämmerung reaching such a degree of diffusion that it often becomes virtually impossible to tell what a motive may “mean” at any given point – that Wagner’s leitmotifs make their singular contribution to the creation of a medievalist interlace in the cycle.
The two fundamental reasons for Siegfried’s death, each sufficient in itself, form a simple Wagnerian example of the over-saturation of motivation typical of medieval interlace. Vinaver notes that, in general, thirteenth-cen-
tury cyclic romances offer more than one fatalistic justification for an outcome. In the Arthurian romances, for instance, divine protection is lifted from Arthur after the completion of the Grail quest, and although “by Classical standards this would have been an adequate explanation, … in a thirteenth-century cyclic romance there was room for more.” The “more” includes the Wheel of Fortune (Arthur’s rise had been excessive, and the wheel balances it out), the presence of divided loyalties (there are two conflicting “goods”: Lancelot’s allegiance to Guinevere and his fidelity to Arthur and Gawain), and Mordred’s retributive vengeance for being “the child of [Arthur’s] incest.” The ultimate commingling of these motivations reflects the complex play of interactions that moves events in our own world to one provisional culmination after another, and thus comports with Heidegger’s understanding of human temporality as the projection of a future not known beforehand.
If there is any doubt that Wagner’s dramas operate in the same way, one need only consider another bad outcome of the Ring, the end of the gods. To justify their downfall, it would have been enough for Wotan simply to have stolen the Ring and so broken the laws that gave him his power. Yet in addition to that considerable transgression he betrays Freia, starts the Wälsung race, supports their incest, lays Brünnhilde defenselessly open to rape, tries to interfere in the rearing of Siegfried, and quarrels for a second time with Erda before destroying the Weltesche altogether and piling it up as faggots around Valhalla. (Meanwhile Siegfried, Brünnhilde, and Hagen all have their intricate and motive-overloading involvement in the gods’ downfall, which nonetheless could have been brought about in a few minutes after Erda’s first prediction at the end of Rheingold.) The Ring could have been constructed satisfactorily as a fable that opens with a pure nature that, corrupted by greed, is betrayed by a watching god who has a chance to return the stolen gold but chooses not to and thus engenders the end of the world. Wagner, though, introduces such a superfluity of motives that by the end of
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the cycle one wonders whether there has been a unifying “story” to these four nights at all. By carefully setting up his threads as distinct spheres of dramatic development, while also intertwining them so that the mechanics of the plot begin to liquefy, Wagner uses the leitmotif system he created in this highly developed form to effect a weave of perplexing and dazzling beauty.
2. Transition. Wagner’s treatment of narrative threads also becomes prominent during the transformation scenes that occur several times in the Ring. In these junctions between different areas of narrative activity, we see how Wagner distinguishes one thread from another. In a reading of four transformation scenes in the Ring (“Hagen’s Watch” and “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” from Götterdämmerung and the second and third transformations of Das Rheingold) and others in Parsifal (the journeys to the Grail realm), Eichner challenges traditional understandings of Wagner’s “art of transition” and demonstrates that even Wagner’s boldest transformation scenes do not actually achieve a gradual progression from one tonal area to the next. Rather they continue the motivic argument of the preceding section and then abruptly shift into the new scene. Wagner’s model of modulation in the Ring – not slow and careful, as one might expect, but constructed around abrupt juxtapositions – is another way that we see the interlace in practice.
Wagner’s interest in transition was theatrical as well as musical, and Eichner sees a close link between the two. Sometimes, as with the shift from the Venusberg to Wartburg in Tannhäuser or the destruction of Klingsor’s magic castle in Parsifal, the transition happens so fast that it needs no transformation music; other changes of scene require little more than the pulling up or letting fall of a backdrop for an “interior” or “exterior.” In the more elaborate transformation scenes, such as Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, there has long been a temptation, condemned by both Abbate and Eichner, to propagate the myth of Wagner the Symphonist – a myth he cultivated with great enthusiasm – to explain the musical form. Eichner argues that, since Wagner explicitly said that the transformation scenes were meant to accord with the “poetic intention” (“dichterische Absicht”; he also gave them in dramatic context even when performing bleeding chunks in concerts in Vienna and Budapest in 1875), we should try to explain them dramatically, not symphonically. In the simplest musical terms, the function of transformation scenes is to modulate tonally from one scene to the next. The first instance Eichner considers, “Hagen’s Watch,” forms the model for her other analyses and shows how Wagner’s artful transitions work. This scene modulates dramatically from Hagen’s hate-filled broodings to Brünnhilde’s affectionate memories of Siegfried. It makes extensive use of two motives, the “Rheingold/ Weh” motive and the “Goldherrschaft” motive, underlining the connection between Alberich and Hagen by recalling the combination of the motives in the third and fourth scenes of Rheingold, where Alberich exercises his dominion over the hoard. The scene opens
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with the characteristically dark, half-diminished sonorities associated with Hagen, the end of whose monologue (87/1/3) promises a closure in E♭ honored by neither voice nor orchestra. At this point the curtain falls and the interlude begins with a B♭ pedal, which together with the “Rheingold” and “Goldherrschaft” motives both suspends tonal closure and continues the thought from the previous scene. A brass rumination on Hagen’s arch valediction, “Ihr freien Söhne … segelt nur lustig dahin” (“you free sons … now sail merrily on”), appears sequentially on E, G, and B♭, still the components of Hagen’s tonal space (88/1/3–88/2/4). The way to Brünnhilde is opened, suddenly, only when a G♭ – in context, a seventh over the dominant of D♭, a semitone down from the G♮ of the preceding measures – emerges from the texture and stands alone (88/3/3). In the next measure, the G♭ is respelled enharmonically as an F# that can now function as a dominant pedal beneath Brünnhilde’s love theme (which enters at 88/3/8). Brünnhilde’s high woodwind setting contrasts as strongly with the deep setting of Hagen’s music as her tonal center, thanks to this sudden key change, contrasts with his.
This is the process that Eichner observes again and again in the transformation scenes. “The construction of multi-measure ‘building blocks’ from semantically meaningful combinations of motives, their repetition and sequencing, and finally the diminishing of the entire orchestral matter into a single ‘pivot tone’ makes possible an enharmonic reinterpretation or simple upward or downward displacement that leads straight into the next section as well as into the next scene [or set].” We are not presented here with a musical equivalent for handing over a baton in the course of a race, but with sudden shifts of scene comparable to jump cuts in a film. The transitions form a marriage of convenience between sections that is meant to emphasize the abruptness of a shift between them. Eichner’s essential insight is that purposeful modulation (“zielgerichteten Modulation”) from one scene to another is rare. The transformation scenes are more interested in dramatically extending the motivic interplay of the preceding scene than in symphonically modulating to the next. Wagner is satisfied to reduce the texture to a single pivot tone by sudden semitone step. A purely symphonic explanation of these passages is almost meaningless. Eichner’s article overturns the supposition (again, one begun by Wagner) that the Ring’s connective orchestral tissue serves the purpose of smoothing over the connections between scenes. We need no longer entertain the idea of “unending melody” that gives the music an unparalleled “unity,” either by removing caesuras or by making them redundant in a situation where “every note has meaning” and where cadences “express nothing and are therefore to be avoided or concealed” (Dahlhaus’s reading).
In an act that is already long, Eichner notes, Wagner must have had a good reason for inserting a transformation after Hagen’s monologue. She suggests that the transformation served both the dramatic purpose of exposing Hagen’s dark character (previously hidden behind good advice to Gunther and Siegfried) and, through the choice of leitmotifs, his connection to Alberich, and the musical purpose of providing a counterbalance to Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, thereby breaking the act into three almost equal parts.
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I would suggest that in this transformation, as in many others, Wagner uses the orchestral “parenthesis” (his own term for the interlude after Hagen’s monologue) to demonstrate the possibility of extending this narrative thread much further into the future. Nothing structural shuts off Hagen’s tone color or tonality; the action moves to Brünnhilde not because Hagen’s story is exhausted or because there has been a smooth and magical metamorphosis of one tonality and one scene into another, but simply because another thread is competing for attention. Hagen, we presume, sits brooding gloomily for hours afterwards, just as we presume that Brünnhilde has been relishing her good fortune for hours before we hear her love theme. Their two threads run into one another in the mythic space of Wagner’s secondary reality.
These orchestral passages exist not to trace an organic connection between two scenes but to demonstrate the scenes’ joint habitation of a world built realistically on chance encounters. We should not imagine a smooth journey between one location and another, but a brooding stare contemplating the massiveness of the world, the mysterious unknowableness of the outside: a stare undertaken in the knowledge that at any time a sudden intrusion from outside the immediate bounds of individual concern might sweep us away from a previously intriguing figure (Alberich, absent for almost two whole works, or Wotan, absent from the last night) without giving any indication when we might return to familiar territory – if ever. The transformation reveals the seam.
3. Tonal structure. The component of Wagner’s musical language that demonstrates his adaptation of the interlace technique better than any other is his use of associative tonality combined with an antagonistic relationship to monotonalism to shape large tonal areas. The concept of tonal association, developed mainly by Robert Bailey and some of his students, preeminently Patrick McCreless, is in essence a simple one: persons and ideas may be associated with keys as well as with tunes. But a focus on tonality rather than on theme draws attention to structure rather than to form: to the gradual building up of distinctively Wagnerian, usually massive shapes, whether they are immediately audible or accessible only to later reflection. For Carolyn Abbate, this sort of analysis may be an invitation to get excited about monumentality at the expense of responding to the works on their own terms. But in the most sensitive hands, analysis of Wagner does not uncritically demonstrate a Schenkerian or any other quasi-Aristotelian model of tonal unity but instead provides a means of critiquing such models in terms that show how Wagner’s structures are distinctive, interesting, and influential, and, most important, how they give the ultimate foundation to his view of the shape of human existence to the same extent that Beethoven’s goal-directed monotonal structures show up his.
Just as the eyes of a viewer of a work of interlaced art do not travel along the threads it is made of, so no listener hears – in the evanescent act of listening – the entire tonal shape unfolding at the background, carefully charting with the ears the interaction of different tonal threads. Schenker’s biggest public-relations error was to claim that one can hear music properly only if one hears the unfolding of a tonal shape at the background and deep middleground levels. Yet his method remains a credible observation of the motions of tonal music, almost in spite of him. Oppositions to Schenkerian method on the grounds that nobody can actually hear the slow composing-out of a tonic triad over the course of a symphonic movement (let alone an act of Wagner) falter because they cling to the notion that music can only (or best) be appreciated by listening – a notion that has taken hold only since the invention of the
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phonograph, before which it was quite clear that there was more to music than sound and more to its appreciation than simply hearing it. The readers of this article are not necessarily listening to the parts of the Ring under discussion, yet it would seem strange to say that those readers are not engaging with the Ring as music. It is not a large or precarious side-step from thinking or writing about music to undertaking a Schenkerian analysis and finding pointers in the music toward structural features that may be as indubitably there as are the unattended motions of a driver operating a steering wheel and stick shift.
Contemplating a Schenkerian analysis of an act of a Wagner opera is a different experience from listening to it, but not qualitatively different from reading or writing about it, and certainly not something to be dismissed out of hand simply because it does not directly correspond to what for the last century has been counted the most “ordinary” way of engaging with music. Properly understood, analysis is a mode of performance, every bit as spontaneous and as studied. And contemplating a Schenkerian analysis allows one access, not available during listening but still valuable aesthetically and intellectually, to all parts of a musical interlace at the same time, so that one may see it as a whole as one might see a painting before considering the individual narrative elements, the composition, aerial perspective, and other formal properties. More important to the context of this article, to ignore these aspects of the music that are not directly accessible to listening alone is to miss almost entirely what Wagner took from his medieval sources and translated into late-tonal musical terms.
An example of the sensitive analytical reading of associative tonality is Patrick McCreless’s “Schenker and the Norns,” which demonstrates how Wagner’s tonal processes in the Prologue to Götterdämmerung tend toward a linear formation, the structure of which hinges on the tonally undermining effects of the Third Norn whom, he says, Schenker would not like. The analysis proceeds in two stages, first an associative-tonal interpretation developed from the work of Bailey and McCreless himself, and then a Schenkerian reading. McCreless focuses on the symbol of the rope of time, which for the Norns’ scene must be split into three “rounds” that broadly follow the analysis of Alfred Lorenz. The first two rounds deal with the history of the Weltesche (Wotan’s violation, then Loge’s role as his redeemer-through-fire); the third begins with history but is overtaken by the present when the rope snaps and the Norns lose their ability to predict the future. The scene is articulated by tonal associations. It depends on a counterpoise between E♭ minor, associated with the primordial Rhine but now tinged by association with the still more primordial Weltesche, and B minor, the key of Alberich’s curse and of Nibelheim, both crucial referents for the action to follow and a foretaste of the close of the act.
The first round works closely with these tonal associations but the second constructs a
more abstract relationship between E♭ and B. Where the first round had treated E as an upper neighbor note, the second treats it as a passing note to F and F#, with the goal G being picked up in the transition and leading thence to B for the third round. The rope of time and the Weltesche, on E♭, weave their way through the texture, but the tear (“Es riss!”) is symbolized by the Curse key, B minor. Wagner therefore has things both ways: the form makes musical sense, but it also responds to the needs of the drama. It makes little sense to map motion like this in orthodox Schenkerian terms because it
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does not prolong a single tonic chord. Nevertheless, as McCreless notes, Schenker’s method allows for an explication of the role of the Third Norn in musical terms that reveal her temporal character. Her most important addition to the musical texture is the prolongation of a chord, F–A♭–C♭–E♭, that has been heard in Rheingold at the introduction of the Ring motive (“Wer aus dem Rheingold shüfe den Ring,” Rheingold 42/1/2) and again in Walküre in Hunding’s “Heilig ist mein Herd” (17/2/4–5). The chord represents “a kind of pure harmonic essence of danger and disaster.” The Third Norn uses it at various stages in the Prologue. It works its way most crucially into the general texture of the third round at the shift from E♭ to the cursed, destructive tearing of B minor, where with the shift upwards of a semitone “a chord that could once function as diatonic II7 in E♭ minor [Götterdämmerung 17/2/1–2] is transposed and, in the last second of the denouement, becomes part of a harmonic gesture toward the dominant of B minor” (18/1/1). In Schenkerian terms the Third Norn is a disruptive force because she encourages the prolongation of a dominant seventh; in dramatic terms she is disruptive because, unlike her sisters who see the past and present respectively and who are, broadly speaking, given monotonal functional music, she sees the dissonance-prolonging future that will end the world and the Norns’ part in what is left of it.
McCreless’s analysis, with the open-minded analytical system it exemplifies, shows us that, while the Norns set an enormous temporal canvas before us, Wagner takes us continuously around a hermeneutic circle that redefines the tonal background by which, paradoxically, it is shaped from moment to moment. In the music up to the third act of Siegfried, tonality generally corresponds at the local level to the poetic-musical period. Over the course of an act, tonal motion, generally by a fifth, proceeds according to the dictates of the dramatic action. From the third act of Siegfried on, associative tonality overtakes the poetic-musical period, and root motion in the prolonged harmonies is more often by second or third than by fifth. The effect on the shape of an act is that, whereas in the early stages of the Ring tonal motion comprises scenes split into periods, each functioning in more or less orthodox tonal terms, in the later stages the dramatic division by scene is sometimes contradicted by a musical segmentation into “movements” joined together by transition themes.
Like Abbate, I find unpersuasive the suggestion that the acts thus become “symphonies,” not least because the transitions are too abrupt – dramatic, not symphonic – to support the idea. If Wagner had wanted to write symphonies, the transitions would be more fully motivated by “purely musical” considerations. Nevertheless, whether Wagner writes in periods or “movements,” the continuous musical forms that develop during the course of an act, and that may not be consciously appreciated in the moment of listening but may reveal themselves to later study, demonstrate more clearly than any other aspect of his musical style what makes him significant as a thinker about human life.
As the Norns brood and weave, the tonal structure moves and weaves beneath them; the same thing happens while Wotan communes with Brünnhilde in Walküre, act II, sc. 2, or when Brünnhilde achieves the sequence of redemptions that closes the cycle. The interlace weaves keys associated with discrete characters or themes into the broader tonal unfolding, largely through the use of the leitmotif system that preserves the motives but also transforms as it repeats them. In the process of interweaving, the envisioned end is constantly being re-
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thought, just as the end that the Norns foresee is constantly limited and redrawn by the position (and ultimately the destruction) of the rope of fate on Brünnhilde’s Rock.
Each reconfigured “end” in the Ring can be brought about in a way consistent with the character of tonal music. Thus when Brünnhilde weaves Valhalla’s D♭ into the structure of her Immolation Scene leitmotivically and then closurally, she does so by unfolding down a tritone from the F# of the fire (when she commands the construction of a pyre) to the C of love (as she contemplates the corpse of Siegfried), incorporating both tones, as compo-
nent parts of its dominant seventh, into D♭. She does not undermine the concept of
monotonal projection; she simply realigns the Ursatz, which previously had a different focus, so as to point toward a new basis for the middleground functions of her music. This is what happens throughout the Ring, and the technique was picked up by Mahler and Strauss, among others, in the next generation. It is one of Wagner’s most vital contributions to early modernist musical language, and it is closely bound up with his operatic presentation of both medieval interlace and the unfolding of life at the level of the individual human being.
In the Ring, from a certain point of view it is immaterial whether an act (let alone the cycle) ends on the chord with which it began. To that extent any analytical focus on the Ursatz in relation to this music is wrong. But the music always functions with a tonal closure potentially in mind, as if an Ursatz might be composed out, and it is appropriate, indeed essential, for a sensitive analysis to proceed in the same spirit. Only by holding up the Ursatz as a possibility can Wagner substitute an alternative when the dramatic situation is changed by the interaction of interlaced threads. This procedure is, finally, what marks out this music, and the early modernist music that followed it, as articulating an existentialist, not essentialist, view of human nature. It departs from the Beethovenian paradigm of musical form and, with it, a mapping of human agency that knows the conclusion at the start of the journey. It substitutes the medieval interlace for the Aristotelian model of unity. By shifting the tonal ground beneath us, it puts us face to face with the anxious but always moldable Nothing at the core of existence and proposes a vision of our future possibilities that is unsettling but exciting. It is more “realistic” than the pat unity of the classical conception. Perhaps the provisional nature of Wagner’s tonal motions, all internally consistent but all by definition susceptible to yet more sidesteps and diversions, is a welcome dismissal, for a world that no longer believes in infinite progress, of the single-minded confidence of the Beethovenian sonata.
The interplay of associative tonality with monotonally end-directed shapes enables Wagner to create a philosophical space in music that can accommodate the Will-denying philosophy of Schopenhauer, the endless recurrence that Nietzsche took over from him, and the authentic self-projection that Heidegger and the existentialists built up from Nietzsche’s view of life as artistic self-fashioning. Wagner looks most resolutely forward by digging deeply into his cultural history and, in the Heideggerian sense, “repeating” a medieval view of human existence for the benefit of the modern
world he so powerfully desired to shape.
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 inter-
lace 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.
I am grateful to Barbara Eichner, Lawrence Kramer, Elizabeth Eva Leach, Patrick McCreless, Bernard O’Donoghue, Heather O’Donoghue, and Arnold Whittall for generous assistance and in several cases extensive comments on earlier drafts of this article.
- Deryck Cooke, I Saw the World End: A Study of Wagner’s Ring (London: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 88–131; and Stanley R. Hauer, “Wagner and the Völospá,” this journal 15 (1991), 52–63. Elizabeth Magee’s comprehensive treatment of Wagner’s research for his libretto is more rigorous than Cooke’s, but lays more stress on Wagner’s borrowing from his sources than it does on his critical engagement with them. Magee, Richard Wagner and the Nibelungs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). ↩
- Magee demonstrates that Wagner did not in fact have access to this material before he wrote the libretto, but it may still have influenced him later. ↩
- Karl Lachmann, Über die ursprüngliche Gestalt des Gedichts von der Nibelungen Noth (Berlin: Ferdinand Dümmler, 1816); Wilhelm Grimm, Die deutsche Heldensage (Göttingen: Dietrichschen Buchhandlung, 1829); and Jacob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie (Göttingen: Dieterichschen Buchhandlung, 1835). To these may be added works by Lachmann that Wagner specified in a letter to Franz Müller on 9 January 1856 (Karl Lachmann, Der Nibelungen Noth und die Klage, nach der ältesten Überlieferung mit Bezeichnung des Unechten und mit den Abweichungen der gemeinen Lesart [Berlin: G. Reimer, 1841] and Karl Lachmann, Zu den Nibelungen und zur Klage [Berlin: G. Reimer, 1836]). Hauer suggests that this list may be amplified by “fairly easily another dozen titles, for Wagner, though not a professional scholar, was amazingly well informed in virtually every aspect of Nibelung literature” (Hauer, “Wagner and the Völospá,” p. 52). ↩
- Winder McConnell, introduction, in A Companion to the Nibelungenlied, ed. Winder McConnell (Woodbridge: Camden House, 1998), pp. 1–17, at p. 3. ↩
- Ibid., p. 3, and Cooke, I Saw the World End, p. 95. ↩
- Wagner encountered these forms directly; he read the poems in the original with the help of German translations (Cooke, I Saw the World End, p. 75). ↩
- See Richard Wagner, Opera and Drama, trans. William Ashton Ellis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995; orig. edn. 1851), p. 227; and Cooke, I Saw the World End, pp. 74–78. ↩
- In addition to the studies by Cooke and Hauer, see Jeffrey Buller, “The Thematic Role of Stabreim in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen,” Opera Quarterly 11/4 (1995), 59–76, for a study of Wagner’s leitmotivic use of Stabreim. Following Hermann Wiessner, Der Stabreimvers in Richard Wagners “Ring des Nibelungen” (Berlin: E. Ebering, 1924), Hauer suggests that Wagner’s failures in respect to Stabreim are due to the Edda translation of Ernst Moritz Ludwig Ettmüller (Hauer, “Wagner and the Völospá,” p. 54). ↩
- On associative tonality and double-tonic complexes, see Robert Bailey, “The Structure of the Ring and Its Evolution,” this journal 1 (1977), 48–61; Patrick McCreless, Wagner’s “Siegfried”: Its Drama, History, and Music (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982); and McCreless, “Schenker and the Norns,” in Analyzing Opera: Verdi and Wagner, ed. Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 276–97. Interesting neo-Riemannian studies that point toward (without attaining) a blend of leitmotivic and deeper structural analysis are David Lewin, “Some Notes on Analyzing Wagner: The Ring and Parsifal,” this journal 16 (1992), 49–58; and Graham G. Hunt, “David Lewin and Valhalla Revisited: New Approaches to Motivic Corruption in Wagner’s Ring Cycle,” Music Theory Spectrum 29 (2007), 177–96. I shall draw on these texts later in explaining Wagner’s method of structural interlace. ↩
- Among many studies of Strauss’s operas that examine his associative tonality (explicitly or not), see Craig Ayrey, “Salome’s Final Monologue,” in Richard Strauss: Salome, ed. Derrick Puffett, Cambridge Opera Handbooks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 109–30; and Tethys Carpenter, “Tonal and Dramatic Structure,” ibid., pp. 88–108. Extensive discussion of key symbolism in Britten is given in Peter Evans, The Music of Benjamin Britten (London: J. M. Dent, 1979); on the practice in Elgar, see J. P. E. Harper-Scott, Edward Elgar, Modernist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), and in Strauss’s symphonic music, see James A. Hepokoski, “Fiery-Pulsed Libertine or Domestic Hero? Strauss’s Don Juan Reinvestigated,” in Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work, ed. Bryan Gilliam (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992), pp. 135–75. On the various extensions of Wagnerian tonal forms in symphonic music, see, among many other studies, Christopher Orlo Lewis, Tonal Coherence in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984) (on the sophisticated use of double-tonic complexes and directional tonality), and idem, “The Mind’s Chronology: Narrative Times and Harmonic Disruption in Post-Romantic Music,” in The Second Practice of Nineteenth-Century Tonality, ed. William Kinderman and Harald Krebs (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), pp. 114–49 (on a sub-Wagnerian use of temporal interweaving). Strauss’s operas are, perhaps surprisingly, excluded from this general list because they do not function structurally at all like Wagner’s. Strauss’s harmony is more mercurial than Wagner’s and consequently resorts much more frequently to unambiguous cadences at the surface, while at the background one is less likely to encounter a slow Wagnerian unfolding of a single tonal shape over the span of an act (frequently encountered after the third act of Siegfried) than a stark opposition of keys (consider the C/C# polarity of Salome, which cannot readily be read in Schenkerian terms to be prolonging either one). Strauss’s operas, despite their superficial resemblances to Wagner’s, tend to use his associative-tonality technique (which for Wagner was an equal blend of foreground and background process) solely as a foreground feature that acts not as an overarching structuring device, but simply as a hermeneutically resonant antagonism. ↩
- C. S. Lewis, “Edmund Spenser, 1552–99,” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 121–45. Lewis seems likely to have been influenced by an earlier French study, Ferdinand Lot, Étude sur le Lancelot en prose (Paris: É. Champion, 1918). ↩
- Lewis, “Edmund Spenser,” p. 133. ↩
- Ibid., p. 135. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 135–36. ↩
- Eugène Vinaver, The Rise of Romance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971). ↩
- Ibid., pp. 68, 69. ↩
- The thirteenth-century romance developed by stages through the short fifteenth-century French nouvelle (which simplified the narrative design, creating self-contained stories rather than the unfinished bijous of the earlier style) until it became the modern novel (whose length is greatly increased relative to the nouvelle, but whose narrative simplicity it retains). Ibid., pp. 95–96. ↩
- “Si l’on tente d’y pratiquer une coupure, tout part en morceaux” (Lot, Étude sur le Lancelot en prose, p. 28, cited in Vinaver, The Rise of Romance, p. 72). ↩
- H. Oskar Sommer, The Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances, 8 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution, 1908). ↩
- Vinaver, The Rise of Romance, p. 85. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 73, 76. ↩
- Morton W. Bloomfield, “‘Interlace’ as a Medieval Narrative Technique with Special Reference to ‘Beowulf’,” in Magister regis: Studies in Honor of Robert Earl Kaske, ed. Arthur Groos (New York: Fordham University Press, 1986), pp. 49–59, at p. 54. ↩
- William W. Ryding, Structure in Medieval Narrative (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), p. 117. ↩
- See John Leyerle, “The Interlace Structure of Beowulf,” University of Toronto Quarterly 37 (1967), 1–17 (rpt. as “The Interlace Structure of Beowulf,” in Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney, ed. Daniel Donoghue [New York: Norton, 2001], pp. 130–52); Lewis E. Nicholson, “The Art of Interlace in Beowulf,” Studia Neophilologica 52 (1980), 237–49; Pauline E. Head, Representation and Design: Tracing a Hermeneutics of Old English Poetry (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997). ↩
- Carol J. Clover, The Medieval Saga (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), pp. 26, 41. ↩
- Sylvia Huot, From Song to Book: The Poetics of Writing in Old French Lyric and Lyrical Narrative Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987). For more recent studies that draw on Huot’s insights, see Emma Dillon, Medieval Music-Making and the “Roman de Fauvel” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), esp. chap. 2, and The Whole Book: Cultural Perspectives on the Medieval Miscellany, ed. Stephen G. Nichols and Siegfried Wenzel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996). ↩
- Huot, From Song to Book, p. 14. ↩
- Ibid., p. 15. A parallel here with the accumulation of Romantic “fragments” in, for instance, a song cycle, such as Schumann’s Dichterliebe, or the Preludes of Chopin is suggestive. It is even possible to read apparently miscellaneous collections of piano pieces as parts of larger forms; see Nicholas Marston, “Trifles or a Multitrifle? Beethoven’s Bagatelles, op. 119, nos. 7–11,” Music Analysis 15 (1996), 192–206. ↩
- Huot, From Song to Book, p. 20. ↩
- Nor is it the first to read the influence of interlace into much later centuries. Recent work on Joyce and Tolkien, two authors concerned in different ways with experimenting in new forms of language (in Tolkien extending to the creation of entirely new syntactic and morphological systems for invented peoples), has explored the way they draw directly on this medieval practice. See Guillemette Bolens, “Milly’s Dream, Bloom’s Body and the Medieval Technique of Interlace,” in Medieval Joyce, ed. Lucia Boldrini (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), pp. 117–42; T. A. Shippey, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (London: HarperCollins, 2000), and idem, The Road to Middle-earth, 2nd edn. (London: HarperCollins, 2005; orig. edn. 1982). ↩
- The motivation for making the connection in the first place seems to me unnecessarily positivistic. There is no need to give a provenance for everything; the literary narrative interlace could easily have been as autochthonous as “primitive” interlace in art. ↩
- Leyerle, “The Interlace Structure of Beowulf,” p. 131. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 139–40. ↩
- Jurgis Baltrus˘ aitis, La Stylistique ornamentale dans la sculpture romane (Paris: Leroux, 1931), esp. chap. 3, “La technique ornamentale.” ↩
- Vinaver, The Rise of Romance, p. 77. ↩
- Translated as Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style, trans. Michael Bullock (New York: International Universities Press, 1953). ↩
- Although Worringer is sometimes represented as if he considers abstraction peculiarly “primitive,” his stress on its importance to Egyptian and Byzantine art, as well as to the work of some ultramoderns, shows this to be a misunderstanding. His reading of abstraction in general is somewhat ambivalent; although he does not suggest that abstraction, being “primitive,” is always historically replaced by naturalism, neither is he clear that abstraction and naturalism – i.e., empathy – are constantly available. See W. Wolfgang Holdheim, “Wilhelm Worringer and the Polarity of Understanding,” boundary 2, 8 (1979), 339–58, at
- Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy, p. 15. ↩
- Ibid., p. 77. ↩
- See, for instance, Wagner’s Eine Pilgerfahrt zu Beethoven (1840), trans. as Richard Wagner, A Pilgrimage to Beethoven, trans. Otto W. Weyer (Chicago: Open Court,
1897). The first artistic use of “abstract” cited in the Oxford English Dictionary (sense 4.e.) is by George Bernard Shaw in 1877 (Bernard Shaw, How to Become a Musical Critic [London: R. Hart Davis, 1960], p. 14); the first mention of “abstract art” (sense 4.d.) is in 1915, and of poetry and ballet (sense 4.e.) in 1957 and 1958 respectively. ↩
- Worringer’s theories influenced Kirchner and Kandinsky, among others: see Wassily Kandinsky, Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Munich: R. Piper, 1912), trans. as Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. M. T. H. Sadler (New York: Dover, 1977). On Worringer’s influence on literature, see Holdheim, “Wilhelm Worringer and the Polarity of Understanding.” For a wide-ranging reading of the position of Worringer’s theory in the Oriental “otherization” of the “primitive,” see Mary Gluck, “Interpreting Primitivism, Mass Culture and Modernism: The Making of Wilhelm Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy,” New German Critique 80 (2000), 149–69. Worringer’s philosophical influence is admitted by the author in T. E. Hulme, Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner/Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1924). ↩
- See Susanne Fontaine, “Der ‘nordische Wille zum Liniengewirr’: Wilhelm Worringers Theorie der Gotik im Spiegel musikhistorischer Entwürfe,” in MittelalterSehnsucht? Texte des interdisziplinären Symposions zur musikalischen Mittelalterrezeption an der Universität Heidelberg, April 1998, ed. Annette Kreutziger-Herr and Dorothea Redepenning (Kiel: Wissenschaftsverlag Vauk Kiel, 2000), pp. 87–102. ↩
- Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy, cited in Vinaver, The Rise of Romance, p. 78. ↩
- “The avalanche of pseudo-medieval pulp in paperbacks [is] midway between Nazi nostalgia and occultism,” of which “Wagner’s parsifalization of the universe” is a symptom (Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality: Essays, trans. William Weaver [London: Picador, 1987], pp. 62, 67). He suggests that the Ring enacts a dream of the Middle Ages as barbaric and itself “belongs to this dramatic sunset of reason. With only a slight distortion, one is asked to celebrate, on this earth of virile, brute force, the glories of a new Aryanism” (Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, p. 69). More recent German studies of this can be found in KreutzigerHerr and Redepenning, Mittelalter-Sehnsucht? ↩
- See William V. Spanos, “Modern Literary Criticism and the Spatialization of Time: An Existential Critique,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 29 (1970), 87–104; “Modern Drama and the Aristotelian Tradition: The Formal Imperatives of Absurd Time,” Contemporary Literature 12 (1971), 345–72; “Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and the Hermeneutic Circle: Towards a Postmodern Theory of Interpretation as Dis-Closure,” boundary 2, 4 (1976), 455–88; “Breaking the Circle: Hermeneutics as Dis-Closure,” boundary 2, 5 (1977), 421–60; and “Repetition in The Waste Land: A Phenomenological De-struction,” boundary 2, 7 (1979), 225–85. ↩
- Spanos, “Modern Drama and the Aristotelian Tradition: The Formal Imperatives of Absurd Time,” p. 346. ↩
- The principal formulation of the “question of being,” which motivates all of Heidegger’s thought, is Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962; orig. edn. 1927). ↩
- For a discussion of fleeing in the face of death, see Being and Time §50 “Preliminary Sketch of the Existential-ontological Structure of Death,” pp. 293–96. ↩
- The full quotation reads: “Only when a thing has been consummated in Life, can we grasp the necessity of its occurrence, the harmony of its separate movements. But an episode is not completed, until the Man who brought it about – who stood in the focus of a series of events which, as a feeling, thinking, will-ing person, he guided by the force of his own innate character, – until this man is likewise no longer subject to our arbitrary assumptions as to his possible doings. Now, every man is subject to these so long as he lives: by Death is he first freed from this subjection, for then we know All that he did, and that he was. That action, therefore, must be the best fitted for dramatic art – and the worthiest object of its rendering – which is rounded off together with the life of the chief person that evolved it, and whose denouement is none other than the conclusion of the life of this one man himself.” (Richard Wagner, The Art-Work of the Future and Other Works, trans. William Ashton Ellis [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994], p. 198). ↩
- Spanos, “Modern Drama and the Aristotelian Tradition,” p. 361. ↩
- Lewis’s two senses of “lifelike” are the ordinary sense, defined by the OED as “like or resembling life,” and the sense in which the interlace design creates the illusion of reality by exclusion: as characters come and go we feel that the poet is telling us less than the full story of their lives, just as we do not know the full story of the lives of people we meet in real life. ↩
- The interlace design might seem to fit particularly well with Schenker’s conception of tonal music as the multileveled composing-out of the triad, though on Schenker’s view at least this was not a model that Wagner typically followed. But Schenker’s Ursatz unfortunately invites an Aristotelian reading of music by insisting on an always already known telos for every piece of music. To release tonal music from the limitations of a structure that may have limited reality beyond the music of Beethoven, and to develop this argument for music as mimesis of human temporality, I argue elsewhere for the replacement of the Ursatz by the Heideggerian Augenblick, the authentic temporal “moment” in which Dasein clearly sees its ownmost possibilities (Harper-Scott, Edward Elgar, Modernist, especially chaps. 2, 3, and 5). By finding alternatives for the Ursatz it is possible to retain the valuable insights of Schenker’s otherwise soundly constructed phenomenology of tonal music’s temporal mimesis of human being. Analytical readings of Wagner would likewise benefit from an attempt to find Augenblicke to counteract the distorting effects of the Ursatz, and although I do not offer any here, I return to this point later. ↩
- See Heidegger, Being and Time §1 for repetition and the “question of being,” and §71 on repetition as “the temporal meaning of Dasein’s everydayness.” ↩
- Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” trans. Albert Hofstadter in Poetry, Language, Thought, ed. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), pp. 15–87, at p. 67. ↩
- Heidegger, Being and Time, pp. 437–38. ↩
- John Haines, Eight Centuries of Troubadours and Trouvères: The Changing Identity of Medieval Music, Musical Performance and Reception (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 276. ↩
- The illusion of temporal depth here was enhanced by the revival of Keith Warner’s production at Covent Garden (2007, originally staged in installments from December
2005 to April 2006), which staged several vignettes of sword-forging and -testing with Siegfried first in a pram, then a child, then an adolescent, before Mime’s cry of “Zwangvolle Plage!” ↩
- Lewin, “Some Notes on Analyzing Wagner: The Ring and Parsifal”; Hunt, “David Lewin and Valhalla Revisited”; Barbara Eichner, “In träumerischer Entrückung auf pfadlosen Wegen: Verwandlungsmusiken in Der Ring des Nibelungen und Parsifal,” in Verwandlungsmusik: Über komponierte Transfigurationen, ed. Andreas Dorschel, Studien zur Wertungsforschung 48 (Vienna: Universal Edition, 2007), pp. 273–307; and McCreless, “Schenker and the Norns.” ↩
- Vinaver, The Rise of Romance, p. 76. ↩
- Carolyn Abbate, “Wagner, ‘On Modulation,’ and Tristan,” Cambridge Opera Journal 1 (1989), 33–58 and idem, “Opera as Symphony, a Wagnerian Myth,” in Analyzing Opera: Verdi and Wagner, ed. Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 92–124. ↩
- See Thomas S. Grey, *Wagner’s Musical Prose: Texts and Contexts *(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 349–56 and idem, “‘… wie ein rother Faden’: On the Origins of ‘Leitmotif’ as Critical Construct and Musical Practice,” in *Music Theory in the Age of Romanticism, *ed. Ian Bent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 187–210. ↩
- Grey, Wagner’s Musical Prose, pp. 350, 353, 350. The most astonishing of Wagner’s attempts to summon up a past tense is Siegfried’s death in Götterdämmerung. William Kinderman argues compellingly that in recalling the music that accompanied his awakening of Brünnhilde at the end of Siegfried, Siegfried does not merely remember the past: he returns to it. Wagner emphasizes this timetravel by setting the death scene off as a parenthesis in the stage action: the stabbing and the death (the opening material of the following Funeral Music) are in the C minor that frames Siegfried’s E/C section. The tonal action of the stage present is thus arrested while Siegfried slips into the past. See William Kinderman, “Dramatic Recapitulation in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung,” this journal 4 (1980), 101–12, esp. 109–10. ↩
- Aside from providing a pseudoscientific nomenclature for the most obvious thing about Wagner’s post-Tristan style – that chords move chromatically – I am not sure what neo-Riemannian theory as a distinct body of knowledge has to contribute to the kinds of analytical questions that I find interesting. It is very good at explaining how a composer may move from chromatic space x to chromatic space y, but says nothing about why, and since the only sensible reason to pick apart a piece of music is to see how its workings help to achieve its effect, the system quickly begins to seem idle. ↩
- Lewin, “Some Notes on Analyzing Wagner: The Ring and Parsifal,” p. 54, reproduced in simplified form in Hunt, “David Lewin and Valhalla Revisited,” p. 178. ↩
- Proceeding from a different theoretical starting point, Warren Darcy traces the compositional history of the connections between the Rheingold Prelude and the music for the Norns and Erda in his Wagner’s ‘Das Rheingold’ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 66–70. ↩
- Hunt, “David Lewin and Valhalla Revisited,” p. 195. ↩
- Vinaver, The Rise of Romance, p. 89. ↩
- One leitmotif that seems potentially puzzling from this perspective is that sung by Brünnhilde at the end, first heard from the lips of Sieglinde in the final act of Die Walküre and unheard since. For Grey, this riddle can be labeled as “the glorification of the ewig Weibliche,” though Wagner’s own words to Cosima suggest that it was “a hymn to heroes” (Grey, Wagner’s Musical Prose: Texts and Contexts, p. 369. See also Lawrence Kramer, Opera and Modern Culture: Wagner and Strauss, pp. 94–106.) Whatever the motive is precisely, it seems to me that in general terms it is, like counterparts associated with Erda and the Rhinemaidens, an “eternal” theme. Its elaborate sequential use at this eschatological moment at the end of the cycle is one indication of its potential infinity; the possibility that both Sieglinde and Brünnhilde are drawing on a trope of heroism that predates them as a component of their society is a real one. ↩
- In a recent extended study of orchestral interludes in Wagner and others, Christopher Morris suggests in contradistinction to Eichner (and, I think, wrongly) that they offer an “escape to a presymbolic form of meaning,” a characterization that, for all its interesting gendering (not to mention Lacanization) of the aesthetic, tends toward the old-fashioned view of Wagner as symphonist. See Christopher Morris, Reading Opera Between the Lines: Orchestral Interludes and Cultural Meaning from Wagner to Berg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 169. ↩
- Eichner, “Verwandlungsmusiken in Der Ring des Nibelungen und Parsifal,” p. 277. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 276 and 286. ↩
- Her full analysis is given in Eichner, “Verwandlungsmusiken in Der Ring des Nibelungen und Parsifal,” pp. 279–82. ↩
- Ibid., p. 280. ↩
- References are given to the Schirmer vocal score in the form page/system/measure. ↩
- Eichner, “Verwandlungsmusiken in Der Ring des Nibelungen und Parsifal,” p. 281. The failure of the orchestra to close in support of a vocal cadence is a familiar feature of Wagner’s mature style, reaching its apogee at the end of the love duet in Tristan, act II, where the lovers’ aspirational tonic B (a key that can only be achieved in the Schopenhauerian oblivion of the Transfiguration at the conclusion) is underpinned by a colossal orchestral dissonance. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., p. 282. “Die Bildung von mehrtaktigen ‘Bausteinen’ aus der semantisch sinnfälligen Kombination von Motiven, deren Wiederholung und Sequenzierung, und schließlich die Reduktion des gesamten Orchestersatzes auf einen ‘Gelenkton,’ der durch enharmonische Umdeutung oder einfache Verrückung nach oben oder unten den Übertritt zum nächsten formalen Großabschnitt wie zum nächsten Szenenbild ermöglicht.” ↩
- Ibid., p. 299. ↩
- Carl Dahlhaus, Between Romanticism and Modernism: Four Studies in the Music of the Later Nineteenth Century, trans. Mary Whittall and Arnold Whittall (1974; rpt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 56. ↩
- Eichner, “Verwandlungsmusiken in Der Ring des Nibelungen und Parsifal,” p. 282. ↩
- On the seam as revelation, see David Lewin, “Amfortas’s Prayer to Titurel and the Role of D in Parsifal: The Tonal Spaces of the Drama and the Enharmonic C♭/B,” this journal 7 (1983), 336–49 at 347; and Lawrence Kramer, “The Talking Wound and the Foolish Question: Symbolization in Parsifal,” Opera Quarterly 22 (2006), 208–29. ↩
- Abbate, “Wagner, ‘On Modulation,’ and Tristan,” p. 36. Abbate’s remarks are not specifically directed toward analysis of tonal association, but toward analysis per se, particularly of large forms; they ridicule mostly North American “robust and manly rhapsodies to largeness, vastness, immensity” (p. 41). ↩
- Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy, p. 78. ↩
- For a persuasive expression of this argument, which needs to be taken up by musicologists in all subdisciplinary fields, see Elizabeth Eva Leach, Sung Birds: Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007), chap. 6. ↩
- By “pointers in the music” I mean the notated text as realized in performance and heard by an engaged listener in the context of his or her sociohistorical preoccupations. ↩
- Even now, listening to music may not be the most ordinary way of engaging with it. Statistics are not at hand, but I would suppose that by far the most usual engagement with music is in the form of an internal mental fixation on a snippet of melody, the “earworm” that can come from nowhere and, through merciless repetition, drive one to despair. If my suspicion is correct, then the privileging of the listening experience over other forms of musical engagement is doubly undermined. ↩
- McCreless, “Schenker and the Norns,” pp. 290, 277. ↩
- Ibid., p. 284. ↩
- Ibid., p. 285. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 288, 289–90. ↩
- As with the transformation music that is the subject of Eichner’s study, we may note that the end of the Norns’ scene aims at modulating from their E♭ minor/B minor polarity to the E♭ major of the next scene with Brünnhilde and Siegfried. The switch is again achieved suddenly by the fading of the orchestral texture to a single note (a G♭ at 19/4/5–6), which then slips down a semitone to form the root of V/V/E♭ for a conventional II–V–I cadence into that key by 21/1/1. ↩
- The following account of tonal forms in the Ring is an extremely brief digest of the observations made in McCreless, Wagner’s “Siegfried.” ↩
- See Warren Darcy, “The Metaphysics of Annihilation: Wagner, Schopenhauer, and the Ending of the Ring,” Music Theory Spectrum 16 (1994), 1–40, at 12. ↩
- Whether Wagner’s groundless map of the future is comfortable to scientists, perhaps the last group in the academy that bases its work on the pursuit of progress, I do not know. In truth, I think that even the conclusion of the Ring has, in a logical sense, a sense of incompleteness. If the Ursatz that is the music’s goal has shifted so many times before reaching this moment, what is to stop a member of the crowd watching the bonfire from stepping forward and starting a new B-minor thread? Is not the drama open to the possibility of the Musical Times hoax – the fifth part of the cycle, The Morning After – and the ending merely the last cadence we come to when Wagner decides to call it a day? The brave new world born in the “happy ending” of Siegfried is, after all, followed by this sudden bad turn of events. The cycle is infinitely extendable in both directions, as Wagner’s handling of tonality demonstrates, and more so than is the case with ordinary stories, because few other tales dramatize their provisionality and incompleteness in the way Wagner does. That is what makes him more realistic. ↩
- 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 (http://caliber.ucpress.net/) or directly with the Copyright Clearance Center, http://www.copyright.com.