‘Mark well my new poem — it contains the beginning of the world and its destruction!’ Wagner wrote those words to Liszt in 1853, concerning the text that would become, with some modifications, the poem for the Ring. Such a project, if achieved with anything approaching success, would doubtless help explain its fascination for many ever since; indeed, in many respects, the Ring provides a complementary narrative for ‘the beginning of the world and its destruction’, to that presented by a great contemporary of Wagner’s, Karl Marx. Both men held many influences in common, and both present angry denunciations of the basis and practice of the nineteenth-century societies in which they lived, which continue to resonate today. Indeed, their warnings against, for instance, the corruption of capital – the Ring’s Alberich converting value-free gold into the ring of infinite power, which all wish to possess, and which yet will destroy them all – and, in Wagner’s case, mankind’s wanton despoliation of the natural world, have sometimes come to seem still more of our time than their own.
Wagner ultimately presents a devastating critique of all forms of power: political, economic, sexual, and ecological. Whether in the guise of Wotan’s fortress of political and religious power in Valhalla, Alberich’s parallel, competitor realm in Nibelheim, Hunding’s brutal marital subjugation of Sieglinde, Fafner’s hoarding of the golden hoard, Siegfried’s sword of revolution, or even Brünnhilde’s desire to perpetuate beyond its sell-by-date her relationship with the hero she believes she has married, it remains the ‘will to power’ – a term Friedrich Nietzsche was yet to coin, though Wagner – of one person over another that must be overcome, a viewpoint for which Wagner would later find confirmation in his reading of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Wagner, even after his disillusionment at the failure of actual European revolution in 1848-9, never entirely lost his faith in political change: some forms of power – Siegfried’s for instance – remained preferable to others. Yet a pessimistic strain, increasingly strong in Wagner’s thought, reminded him that forms of power they nevertheless remained, anathema as much to Wagner the anarchist comrade-in-arms of the Russian revolutionary, Mikhail Bakunin, as to Wagner the Schopenhauer-inspired reader of Eastern philosophy. Those with power rarely like to hear such challenges, and even those with none will often recoil from the difficult, even bewildering, implications.
The alchemy with which Wagner brings together, sometimes in contradiction, both a wide range of intellectual influences, ranging from Greek tragedy to French socialism, and an astonishingly complete picture of ‘the world and its destruction’, has by its very nature tended to inspire extreme devotion and extreme aversion. Many do not like to look in the mirror and find themselves; many do not believe that it is themselves they find; many would prefer to deal with ‘opera’ as entertainment rather than with Wagner’s idea of ‘music drama’ as an agent of personal and social transformation. So much of what we as modern citizens do and believe we find both portrayed and challenged in the Ring. However, it is also a matter of the means Wagner employs: those of music drama. His alchemy both of words and music, and of compositional method enable the twin power of both immediate response and of many years’ consideration. One always feels that one is discovering another aspect of the Ring for the first time – and almost certainly is.