- Wagner and the Romantic Hero
In this short book on heroes in Richard Wagner's operas, Simon Williams addresses a substantial subject. The bulk of his study (pp. 37–141) concentrates on a few central [End Page 399] male characters who tend to dominate the ten canonic music dramas, beginning with Der fliegende Holländer. The path such a figure traverses through the action, the connections he makes with his social surroundings, and his success in achieving his goals are recurring points of inquiry. By probing the hero's response to daunting challenges, the themes and structure of the whole work are brought into focus.
A literary-critical approach prevails, yet at the same time certain tangential matters enter in; relevant biographical information appears along with glimpses of the contemporary cultural, philosophical, theatrical, and operatic environment. Two pleasing traits strengthen Williams's discourse. He turns to writers, reaching from Nietzsche to scholars of today, who provide apt references and quotations that enrich his prose, as do the thoughts and words of the composer himself. And at a deeper level, Williams steers clear of the polemical attitudes that have entrapped many previous commentators on Wagner's oeuvre.
As a start, a pair of preparatory chapters offers basic ideas and situations. Working within an early nineteenth-century historical context, chapter 1 describes the nature of three contrasting modes of heroism: a romantic type, embodied in a self-absorbed and rootless Byronic wanderer; an epic type, a man endowed with strength and courage and possessed by a drive to outdo others; and a messianic type, destined "to lead society to utopia" (p. 18). Chapter 2 closely concentrates on Wagner, especially on the writings and operas he composed before the 1840s. Die Feen and Rienzi are seen as exhibiting an early Wagnerian treatment of romantic and epic heroism respectively.
Then the post-Rienzi operas pass more slowly in review. For each work Williams establishes a perspective that discloses the qualities of the hero and his ability or inability to transcend the trials that beset him. Nine characters receive intensive evaluation, and here the chronological progress roughly matches the earlier schematic survey: the Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin are romantic heroes; Wotan, Siegmund, and Siegfried are epic; and Tristan, Walther, and Parsifal are messianic. Helping to define their activities as heroic, Williams portrays the constellation of characters they live among and the plot circumstances they confront. Furthermore, the discussions not only repeatedly draw telling comparisons among the music dramas; they also seek out parallels in dramatic content between these works and operas by other composers, linking for instance Tannhäuser with Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le diable, Lohengrin with Heinrich Marschner's Hans Heiling, and Tristan und Isolde with Vincenzo Bellini's Norma.
Proceeding through Wagner's output, readers will find themselves enmeshed in his evolving world of thought as they begin to grasp the works as stageworthy realizations of concepts. So, for example, one comes to understand Wagner's sense of community by tracking its manifestions in the operas. Yet his often abstruse essays and tracts are called into play as well. Overall, Williams is remarkably effective in presenting Wagner's intellectual positions—and in a much more coherent and accessible form than the writer-composer gave them. So close is Williams to Wagner's thinking that among the music dramas he discerns a serious flaw only in Tannhäuser, which of course is the one work that left its maker unsatisfied.
Significant plot parallels in the music dramas gain Williams's attention, and no pattern is more pivotal than that involving the shared fates of the hero and the woman who puts his interests above all. What transpires is "the death of the hero and the self-sacrifice of the redeeming woman" (p. 141). Williams finds that two of Wagner's operas vary this model. The closing scene of Götterdämmerung, in which Brünnhilde perishes, "is suffused with the ambience of the heroic" (p. 98). She actually outclasses Wotan, Siegmund, and Siegfried, showing them...