- After the Revolution:The Ring in the Light of Wagner’s Dresden and Zurich Projects
In a fascinating piece of research last year, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that most toilets flush in E-flat.1 This is naturally a phenomenon of crucial concern to Wagnerians. The story related by Wagner in Mein Leben concerning the musical inspiration for the opening of the Ring is well known. Lodging in La Spezia in September 1853, Wagner took to his hotel bed, tired and debilitated by dysentery. He fell into a trance-like sleep and it was in that state that he thought he heard rushing water that gradually coalesced into E-flat arpeggios. This, he claimed, marked the inception of Das Rheingold, though scholarship has sometimes taken a more sceptical view.2 With the new American research we may perhaps be forced to revise our thinking. If toilets flush in E-flat, could the initial inspiration for the Ring actually have been the flushing of an Italian lavatory cistern?
Let us leave that thought to one side. Of more immediate concern is what happened before September 1853. In April 1848 Wagner had completed the score of Lohengrin; Rheingold was the next major work to be composed when, flushed with inspiration, he had the idea for it in La Spezia. So for five years, between 1848 and 1853, there was nothing - nothing, that is, except for a Polka and a Piano Sonata both written for Mathilde Wesendonck.
But if this was a period of musical silence, it was anything but barren. To begin with, Wagner used this period of reflection to write some of his most substantial and important theoretical essays: Art and Revolution, The Artwork of the Future and Opera and Drama, not to mention the notorious Jewishness in Music and the autobiographical Communication to My Friends.
What is not so well known is that Wagner also began a number of dramatic projects in these years that came to nothing, but which throw revealing light on the masterpieces that were still to come. I want to focus on these uncompleted projects - there are four of them, plus an essay - and try to show how their preoccupations feed into later Wagner works and especially the Ring. [End Page 677]
The years 1848-49 were of course the years of the revolutionary uprisings in Europe, and Wagner was right at the centre of things in Dresden, where he was active in the insurrection - something that did not go down well with his employers at the Royal Court of Saxony. Wagner made revolutionary speeches, wrote revolutionary pamphlets, and took to the streets with all the other rebels clamouring for constitutional and representative government and an end to the privileges enjoyed by the many petty German princes.3
Wagner's parrot, Papo, was loyal to the republican cause too. His favourite cry was 'Richard! Freedom!' To Wagner's chagrin, after his enforced departure from Dresden, he found that his long-suffering wife Minna had retrained Papo to squawk 'The wicked man! Poor Minna!'
The first of the uncompleted revolutionary projects was Friedrich i. (Frederick i), apparently intended to be an opera, in five acts. The first sketch for the work was made in October 1846, while Wagner was in the middle of Lohengrin, the subject being the twelfth-century Hohenstaufen emperor Friedrich Barbarossa. Wagner claimed that he abandoned the idea as soon as he realized that the Nibelung myth had more potential for an opera. But this is not quite true, because there is a second sketch, which is in Roman script rather than the traditional, old-fashioned Gothic script that Wagner had used up to then. Wagner did not abandon Gothic script until mid-December 1848, which dates the later sketch for Frederick ito after mid-December 1848 - in fact the winter of 1848-49, by which time of course he had already sketched out a complete scenario for what was to become the Ring.
Why was Wagner so interested in Frederick Barbarossa? Well, the legend of Barbarossa was a very powerful expression of German identity at a time of strong national feeling...