28 April 2016, The Tablet

A journey towards becoming human


Poor old Richard Wagner! You spend a third of your life constructing The Ring of the Nibelung – surely the biggest one-man artwork in history – and a mere 150 years later most even of the culturally literate have only a dim (and probably contemptuous) awareness of it as some peculiar, possibly proto-Nazi manifesto stuffed with elves, dragons and gigantic blondes in horned helmets. Oh, and the “Ride of the Valkyries”.

Sure, this is mostly a reflection on classical music’s loss of prestige, a pervasive musical ignorance and Wagner’s unfortunate historical fan club, with added skewings from The Ring’s unasked-for progeny: the teen entertainments of Tolkien, the spin-off games of sorcery and dungeons, the fantasies of Game of Thrones.

But the choice of a sort of panopticon of Nordic mythology to convey a revolutionary critique of modern civilisation and an ecstatic vision of the world’s redemption – for that is what The Ring is – always risked misinterpretation. There are oddities in the work, too: internal contradictions, unanswered questions, a peculiar sense at the end of it that nothing has really been solved.

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