This book is unusual,
even in the crowded field of Wagner
scholarship. . As John Deathridge notes,
"despite the intellectual challenge
Wagner’s many-sided personality poses,
scholars who can bridge interdisciplinary
boundaries have been surprisingly rare".
Berry is a historian whose knowledge
of the social, political and philosophic
background is panoramic. Since Wagner
was something of a polymath and extremely
widely read, this is an achievement
in itself. What makes this book outstanding,
though, is that Berry is also a very
gifted musician. He understands how
music can evoke feeling and concept.
Wagner saw music as being a non-verbal
way in which he could express his "most
profound intuitions". Berry brings
detailed musical analysis to support
his themes. He understands that "the
relative autonomy of art, with its prophetic
gifts, its sublimated flashes of insight,
its formal yet authentic discontinuities,
provides richer pickings than the "scientific"
security of archives." One needs
to be something of an artist oneself
to be able to write so instinctively
Just as materialism
had demeaned society, theatre had descended
from Greek ideals to superficial artifice.
Beethoven’s music communicated so deeply
that Wagner called it "involuntary
attempts to construct a language",
poems without words. Integrated with
the human expression of feelings and
ideas, instrumental music could become
a "truly living organism".
As Berry puts it, music "as a ‘language
above language’… can achieve the ‘completion’
of verse". The thrust behind Wagner’s
music-drama was therefore fundamentally
conceptual, encompassing a limitless,
highly integrated world-view. Because
what he was doing was so innovative,
he had to create his own means of expression.
His opera fused the motivic sophistication
of the symphony after Beethoven with
drama based on ideas. Instinctively,
he turned to mythical archetypes as
symbolic images, long before Jung found
them therapeutic emotive. Yet, his characters
are so cannily filled out by background
and music that they are psychologically
convincing, making the drama work on
a profoundly emotional as well as intellectual
Berry is crucially
aware of the importance of this deeper
level, and of the way music can express
that which cannot be articulated. Indeed,
Wagner’s leitmotivs create the complex
architecture of the saga, linking past
and future, linking theme and counter-theme,
like unseen and influential commentary.
Berry’s innate musicality infuses his
analysis of the relationship between
music and dramatic concept. His exegesis
is built, theme by theme, on a detailed
analysis of the score and how it progresses
Wagner’s thoughts. This is a level beyond
mere textual awareness. Music is a powerful
means of communication, but this communication
can be so subtle that it allows for
informed interpretation. Berry’s appreciation
of performance issues means that he
respects what conductors and musicians
have learned from living with the Ring.
He quotes Furtwängler sensing the
menace behind the ideas. In particular
he refers to Boulez, who studied the
Ring both as conductor and composer.
Boulez ‘s musical and intellectual insights
are striking, and it is good to see
Berry giving them their due. For Boulez,
Wagner’s music reaches the deepest levels
of the psyche, "counterpointing
… a multiplicity of things that are
not visible … bearing the watermark
of the limitless theatre of the imagination".
It is an observation that helps explain
why the Ring is so endlessly fascinating,
and sparks such challenging interpretation.
Thus follow detailed
analyses, theme by theme, demonstrating
how the saga is developed, and how it
is intensified by music. This is lucidly
intense, concentrated writing that repays
thoughtful reading. Meticulously logical,
the arguments follow a tightly organised
structure, and are models of clarity.
Yet Berry’s ideas are so fertile that
they raise many tantalising tangents
that could themselves be developed into
whole chapters. This is a book to be
read many times over, savouring its
insights to the full, the music ringing
in your ears. The elegance of the prose
is like music itself, well cadenced
Doing justice to the
detailed analyses is difficult. There
is a masterly account of the symbolism
of the forest and Rhine, positioning
Wagner in the context not just in terms
of his well known philosophic influences
but in the widest flow of Germanic thought.
Berry’s knowledge of the intricacies
of nineteenth century socio-economic
thought is superb. Wagner’s intuitive
linking of economic forces with tyranny
makes his views worryingly prescient.
Alberich and Hagen would only have to
don the Tarnhelm "to transport
the German people to 1933". The
Ring, with its sweeping vision of relationships,
and the "treacherous bonds"
that being part of society entails,
presents a worldview that goes beyond
its time and is still prescient about
the challenges of our technological,
information based age.
Wagner, who knew state
suppression at first hand, believed
that unlimited, all controlling power
was a kind of theft. "The necessity
of free self-determination of the individual,
which is common to all organs of society,
amounts to the destruction of the state".
Those who hold the Ring come under its
thrall, and are destroyed. Wotan’s frustration
is played out in his music as demonstrated
through quotes from the score, libretto
and stage directions. Thus Valhalla,
as the material symbol of the gods’
power, is "fantastical, parasitical
reflection of social, political and
economic reality". As Berry wryly
demonstrates, "Wotan’s Burg
is not fest", despite the
sonority with which it is depicted.
Nonetheless, from the idea of redemption
through god-made-man, grew the seeds
of Wagner’s resolution of the conflict
between individual and the state. Hence
the role of Loge, whose music wavers
between keys and tonalities, restless
and mocking. Berry observes that Gerhard
Stolze’s controversial near-Sprechgesang
playing of the role highlighted Loge’s
fundamental alienation from either god
or man. He provides the fire that will
protect Brünnhilde, but his very
nature is a challenge to the complacency
of the gods.
observed of Alberich, "the will
to power" can only be achieved
if "the imagination, joy in life
(is) anathematised". It leads "to
the authoritarian state and finally
to the atom bomb". No surprise
that the "frenetic chromatic frustration"
of Alberich’s music degenerates into
distortion as he tells Hagen to "hate
the happy". Happiness, then, is
the alternative and can be achieved
at least temporarily, through love.
The ecstatic orchestral lyricism in
Act One of Die Walküre heralds
the bond between the outsiders, Siegmund
and Sieglinde. It is "the revolutionary
novelty and power of the Volsungs’ love"
that so impresses Brünnhilde that
leads her to defy the rules of the gods.
Berry’s critique of Wagner’s socio-political
ideas on love could be expanded to analyse
the operas as a group.
ideas on the role of outsiders as agents
for change apply to Parsifal, Stolzing
and the Flying Dutchman as well as to
Siegmund and Siegfried. But "Taten"
(deeds) without "Philosophie"
(understanding and purpose) cannot achieve
real change. As Boulez said, Siegfried’s
music is "essentially movement
and action …. all light and colour":
Siegfried disregards fear, but does
understand it. Berry studies the "extraordinary
leitmotivic genealogy, both intellectual
and human" in the funeral music,
and then goes on to discuss Wotan’s
renunciation of power and Will. Since
man (and by extension God) could not
exist solely for himself, Berry says,
"not only could he endure nothingness,
it might even represent the ultimate
hope". Brünnhilde’s benediction,
"Rest, rest, you God" takes
the form of a rocking lullaby, a far
cry from the angry counterpoint in Wotan’s
dismissal of Erda.
Brünnhilde translates personal
love into compassion. "The possibility
of conscious suffering", as Berry
paraphrases Wagner, "brings recognition
of the oneness of the human species".
Acting through the purest, selfless
form of love, Brünnhilde annuls
the "treacherous bonds" that
have compromised the world. Returning
the Ring restores the natural balance
as the Rhine waters flood and cleanse.
But is this a simple ending? As Berry
notes, where’s Alberich? And the men
and women watching Valhalla go up in
flames, will they simply gawp or will
they learn? Will they create a new world
without gods? Will they have learned,
from Brünnhilde’s example, to live
with compassion instead of false gods
and laws? Where does Parsifal stand
in relation to the Ring? Herein lie
some of Berry’s most provocative insights.
He quotes Wagner writing as early as
1849, "whereas the spirit of the
isolated man remains eternally buried
in deepest night, it is awakened in
the combination of men". Do the
watchers provide a counterbalance to
the nihilism of Loge’s cleansing fire?
Berry examines the final, wordless,
equivocal ending with its echoes of
the past. Just as the Greek oracles
were deliberately ambiguous, listening
to the final bars of the Ring may tell
us, as Boulez said, "to renounce
easy illusion and create in ourselves
the void from which a new genesis may
spring". Wagner has released us
from the concept of fixed endings, just
as he throws us the responsibility of
thinking and searching creatively.
Just as coming to terms
with the Ring is a commitment in time
and imagination, this book will repay
dividends in terms of insights into
the music and the worldview it represents.