Not all great works of art live on beyond their time. No one today reads Spenser’s Faerie Queene or Tasso’s Orlando Furioso for pleasure even though both poems were for a while hugely influential, spawning popular operas and famous paintings. But, from Homer to Jane Austen many great works do live on – being continually reinterpreted – giving the lie to any idea that only the screenplay or novel written last month can speak to us in the twenty-first century
When it comes to timeless durability, few works rival Richard Wagner’s four-part Ring Cycle, one of the greatest nineteenth century works of art. It’s also one of the longest, a sequence of four operas which if listened to without breaks would last over 17 hours. But The Ring, as it is commonly known, is hugely relevant to anyone who has ever tried to set up and run a business. Look beyond the magic and the immortal gods, the flying horses and talking birds, and Wagner’s tetralogy about the rise and fall of a powerful family business makes just as much sense to us today as it did to audiences in 1876 when it was first performed.
In the twenty-first century Richard Wagner is recognised as an establishment figure in the music world (albeit a composer tainted by association with the Nazis who appropriated his music after his death in 1883). But when he conceived his Ring, Wagner was a in fact a left-wing polemicist who, after the populist revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 and 1849 literally had to flee Dresden with a price on his head
“In the twenty-first century Richard Wagner is recognised as an establishment figure in the music world (albeit a composer tainted by association with the Nazis who appropriated his music after his death in 1883). But when he conceived his Ring, Wagner was a in fact a left-wing polemicist who, after the populist revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 and 1849 literally had to flee Dresden with a price on his head.
Written at this time of great turbulence, Wagner’s huge, sprawling narrative about the rise of Nordic gods and their eventual self-destruction can be seen as a parable of doomed capitalism. At the centre of The Ring is the leader of the gods, a figure with whom many entrepreneurs can identify. Wotan (known in Scandinavian mythology as Odin) is the chief executive officer of a group of immortals – most of them relatives of his wife Fricka. He has established spheres of influence over various other mythical creatures – giants, talking birds, dragons, dwarves known as Niebelungs and merpeople here called Rhinemaidens. There are also mortal men in these operas, Hunding, one of a number of Neiding warriors slain in the second opera Die Walküre and Gunther, king of the Gibichungs who doesn’t appear until the final
At the beginning of Wagner’s first opera, Das Rhinegold, Wotan, as CEO of the gods is about to celebrate the consolidation of his power. Wagner describes Wotan as the God of Battles but also the God of Contracts. The ascendancy that this restless, questing figure has created for his immortal inlaws owes little to armed conflict and everything to the deals he has done with many power groups within this period of pre-history. Included in these deals are two mighty giants, Fasolt and Fafner who have built him a stronghold, Valhalla from which he hopes to rule this Teutonic Middle Earth.
However, Wotan’s big problem is that he has overpromised. He has made the classic managerial mistake of telling everyone what they want to hear. Wotan doesn’t have the money to pay the giants, Fasolt and Fafner. Instead, he has agreed to hand over to them his sister-in-law, Freia, the goddess of eternal youth in lieu of payment. However, to his in-laws (the relatives of Freia and Fricka) Wotan has also promised this will never happen.
Wotan has pinned his hopes on his mercurial adviser, Loge (Loki) the God of Fire who will tell him to get out of this problematic debt. Loge who is quick-witted but not entirely trustworthy – replies that he only Adrian Mourby The Ring Cycle [email protected] 2 promised to think about a solution, but he hasn’t come up with one. Fuming at his own impotence Wotan watches as the giants drag away Freia. The only alternative they are willing to accept in lieu of her is the vast wealth of Alberich the Nibelung which Wotan does not possess. Without magical Freia, the immortal gods begin visibly to age. His deals unravelling, Wotan sees the new golden age that he had promised everyone turning sour before it has even begun.
Desperate, Wotan decides to raid Niebelheim where the Alberich, tyrant leader of the dwarves has secreted the sacred gold of the Rhine that he stole from the Rhinemaidens. Having renounced love and happiness in favour of precious gold the mis-shapen dwarf is bent on mining more ore out of the earth and creating a powerbase for himself, an army of dwarves who may one day dethrone Wotan in Valhalla.
Wotan, having already compromised himself by promising to pay what he cannot deliver now takes the next step on his path to destruction. Having hitherto built his authority on watertight and honourable contracts Wotan is reduced to kidnapping Alberich. With the dwarf captive he uses force to demand the Niebelung hands over all of his gold – including a magic ring that Alberich has fashioned from the stolen Rhine gold – as ransom. This ring will prove Wotan’s downfall and bring the other gods down with him.
When the giants are summoned back to Valhalla to surrender Freia in exchange for the Niebelung hoard, Fasolt, the more sentimental of the two, will only agree to accept the gold if it is piled up so high he can no longer see the goddess (whom he genuinely loves). But a small chink still exists through which Fasolt can view his beloved. After much verbal wrangling Wotan is obliged to give up Alberich’s ring – to which he is already irrationally attached (shades of JRR Tolkien) – to plug the gap. Alberich, escaping his bonds curses the ring forever. And as soon as the gold is handed over to the giants they begin to fight over it and Fafner kills his brother. The last Wotan sees of the Rhine gold and Alberich’s ring is Fafner dragging away his
The next opera, set about twenty years later, is Die Walküre. Suddenly we are suddenly in a much darker world. Wotan’s brave, new golden age of mutually beneficial contracts has deteriorated as mortal men fight and feud. Obsessed with recovering the Ring, Wotan has abandoned Valhalla and given up ruling the world. Disguised under the name of Wolf, he has sired two mortal twins, one of whom is Siegmund whom Wotan hopes to train as a warrior great enough to take on Alberich.
Obsessed with the ring Wotan has wholly lost his sense of proportion. He is convinced that the embittered dwarf will soon storm Valhalla and depose him. With this in mind, he has also fathered nine warrior daughters – Valkyrs – who are immortal like him. Their job is to gather dead heroes from the battlefield and transport them to Valhalla. Wotan wants the living ghosts of these dead heroes to help defend his citadel.
In amongst the anxiety-driven tempi of the first act of this opera – one of the longest first acts ever written – Wotan’s mortal son Siegmund enjoys a night of incestuous adultery on rediscovering his missing twin sister, Sieglinde.
This double outrage brings forth Wotan’s wife Fricka, the goddess of marriage who is wholly on the warpath. She reminds her husband that Sieglinde is married to the warlord, Hunding who has now prayed to her for revenge. Out of Fricka’s earshot, Wotan tells his favourite Valkyrie Brünnhilde that she must protect the incestuous pair because he believes their child will one day prove the fearless warrior he needs to seize the Niebelung ring and return it to him. But Wotan is berated by his wife -who insists that his incestuous, illegitimate progeny are undermining her role as goddess of the hearth and marriage. So Wotan changes his mind and tells Brünnhilde that Siegmund must die in the upcoming battle. Wotan has got himself into another bind. On the one hand he is CEO of the gods and they are all answerable to him. But his championing of Siegmund and Sigelinde undermines the uxorious role he has delegated to his queen (Fricka). The man in charge is finding that you can’t make the rules and then break them yourself, especially if you have spirited colleagues like Fricka holding you to account.
Worse is to come however. Brünnhilde, Wotan’s favourite daughter believes she understands her father better than he understands himself. She intervenes on Siegmund’s side in the battle with Hunding. A furious Wotan then either kills Siegmund himself to fulfil his obligation to Fricka or allows Hunding to slay him (productions vary). Wotan then kills Hunding in revenge for what he has been made to do. Finally, he exacts a terrible punishment on his chief supporter, Brünnhilde for simply doing what he really wanted all along (aiding Siegmund’s survival). Brünnhilde is condemned to lose her immortality and become the subjugated wife of the first mortal man to discover her.
By the end of Die Walküre Wotan’s mismanagement has damaged and destroyed so many lives (Sieglinde destined to die alone in childbirth, Brünnhilde stripped of her immortality and position of father’s favourite, and Siegmund and Hunding, dead). He’s also soured his relationship with his queen, Fricka with whom he hitherto was working in partnership.
This mess is classic mismanagement of the kind you get when a CEO sees himself above the rules of his own company, has favourites whom he capriciously punishes if they disappoint him and is left humiliated by those who enforce his own rules.
It also happens that Wotan is heartbroken: He has now destroyed his own son (Siegmund) and cast out
his beloved daughter (Brünnhilde). Adrian Mourby The Ring Cycle [email protected]. In the next opera in the tetralogy, Siegfried, Wotan appears but will not even say his own name. Disillusioned with the mess he is making of his formerly bold new world of mutually beneficial contracts, he introduces himself simply as “Wanderer”.
With Siegfried we meet the eponymous son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, born from an incestuous and adulterous union that left both his parents dead. Siegfried is the most difficult of Wagner’s 34 Ring characters to comprehend today. As a hero he is unbearably bumptious and very noisy. To quote the current Prime Minister of Britain, Siegfried believes he is born to be “King of the World”.
Wagner – who named his own son Siegfried – believed that power comes from total self-belief and a total lack of fear. Wagner’s hero marauds his way through the two last operas of the Ring. He slays Fafner the giant (who has now become a dragon), wins the ring as part of Fafner’s hoard and begins the cycle’s second incestuous affair, with his aunt Brünnhilde, whom he discovers in her Wotan-induced sleep on a rock surrounded by flames.
Siegfried is so pumped up on his own levels of self-belief that he easily breaches the wall of flame and claims Brünnhilde as his bride. She immediately falls in love with him and the opera ends with happiness all round. Siegfried even defeats Wotan, breaking the old man’s spear when “Wanderer” challenges him in the hope of getting the Niebelung’s ring back.
A new hero has emerged to take Wotan’s place at the centre of The Ring Cycle. Unlike his grandfather, Siegfried is wholly uncompromised by deals that contradict each other or by conflicting loyalties to son and wife. He is a one-man success story, too blinkered by his own self-belief to recognise that he could get anything wrong. As Götterdämmerung opens he rises from having happily bedded Brünnhilde and given her the cursed ring as a token of affection (Siegfried is too deaf to the warnings of others to recognise the danger of the ring). He then heads off down the Rhine Valley into the world of men to fulfil his destiny and prove what a total alpha-male he is (in today’s parlance).
Götterdämmerung is The Ring’s final instalment (in English it translates as Twilight of the Gods). This is the story of how the short-lived achievements of such a blinkered individualist are quickly undone. To cut a very, very long opera short, Siegfried forgets Brünnhilde and agrees to marry the sister of King Gunther of the nearby kingdom of Gibichungs. A magic potion is blamed for Siegfried forgetting his previous betrothal to Brünnhilde but Wagner had a tendency to use magic potions to explain why men give in to lust at the first opportunity (see Tristan und Isolde). Embittered by her betrayal Brünhilde confides to Hagen, the son of the furious dwarf Alberich (see Rhinegold) how to kill Siegfried and the brief reign of the blond wunderkind is brought to an abrupt end with Hagen plunging a spear into his back. With Siegfried dead, a distraught Brünnhilde lights her lover’s funeral pyre and then throws herself upon it. Hagen tries to seize the ring from her finger but – in a complex series of stage directions that Wagner devised (but no director has ever achieved) – the flames from the pyre get out of control and set fire to Valhalla where the gods – including Wotan – are miserably awaiting their end. Simultaneously the River Rhine bursts its banks – and the Rhine maidens swim forth and reclaim the ring and their gold. Fortunately, the music at the end of Götterdämmerung is so powerful that the audience – and the plot holes Adrian Mourby The Ring Cycle [email protected] 5 – are overwhelmed. No production has ever been able to achieve Wagner’s vision. Maybe it will take Peter Jackson one day. But as a critique of capitalism and of management techniques the opera sequence holds up very well. Out of a world where everyone had their own sphere of influence and autonomy Wotan positioned himself and his fellow Norse gods in pole position by doing individual deals that would only hold true if he never had to deliver them. Wotan was then seduced by power/wealth (the ring) and ended up destroying everything he had worked for in pursuit of it. In the meantime, his longed-for successor – a total loose cannon – lasted an even shorter time at the top because his own phenomenal self-belief blinded him to the need for flexibility and perspicacity if one is ever going to be in charge of anything
It has to be noted that Richard Wagner himself, having written a superb guide about how not be in charge of anything ended his days as the most powerful composer of the nineteenth century (eclipsing even Verdi) and creating an opera festival in Bayreuth for him and his wife to run and which his descendants – uniquely – still run today.
Wagner achieved this supremacy because even if the characters in his Ring had no idea how to build and sustain an empire, he and his children and grandchildren knew exactly how to form alliances with kings and governments.
If you can, do listen or watch The Ring and then read the history of Richard Wagner and Bayreuth. If one is a superb critique of what capitalism gets wrong, the family saga is about how the Wagner clan have gone from strength to strength.