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1 COMPABATIVE i ama Volume 28Fall 1994Number 3 Wagner's Ring as Nineteenth-Century Artifact Herbert Lindenberger Suppose that Wagner had died in 1853, exactly thirty years before his actual death. At this point he would have left behind at least three operas that count for us as major works, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin. Most important for the ideas I hope to develop in this paper, he would also have left behind the libretto for another set of operas, namely the Ring. Early in 1853 he had had fifty copies of this libretto printed privately for friends. Had he died at the time it would surely have been necessary for some propagandist to enter the scene and call attention to the importance of Richard Wagner as a cultural phenomenon. After all, throughout the thirty years of which we have just deprived him, Wagner, among other activities, himself assumed the role of propagandist for his own works—and, one might add, with the most considerable success. If, let us say, someone other than Wagner had convinced the world of the worth of Wagner's completed operas,1 scholars would no doubt have made a big thing of the Ring text—to the point, surely, of trying to extrapolate what might have happened musically in those unfortunately never-to-be composed works. At least they would have found the musical sketches that Wagner had made early during the composition of the text—though it is unlikely they could have reconstructed the musical style we now 285 286Comparative Drama associate with Wagnerian music-drama.2 Certainly Wagner would have left a number of tantalizing theoretical writings, above all The Artwork of the Future and Opera and Drama, from which one might have made some informed guesses about the direction in which the composer was going. Indeed, these writings possess such suggestive power that they might well have goaded some other composer to move in this particular direction. Yet one still wonders what posterity might have made of the 1853 Ring text. This text, let me explain, is very close to the Ring libretto that the real-life Wagner subsequently set to music. Except for minor verbal changes here and there, along with some rewriting of the first act of Siegfried, the only substantive change that Wagner made, as I shall point out later, was in the ending. But my concern at the moment is what we would make of the text if we did not have the completed musical score. Would the text be taken seriously by literary scholars? Would those ordinary readers who enjoy reading plays want to include Der Ring des Nibelungen among the pile of Shakespeare, Racine, and Ibsen dramas they make their way through? Even more telling, would theaters, even those state-subsidized German theaters not subject to the financial risks experienced by companies in the English-speaking world, be tempted to realize Wagner's text on the stage? It would be hard, I admit, to answer these questions in the affirmative. Without the musical dimension that Wagner intended for his text, the Ring would excite little interest for readers or playgoers. I make this statement in full knowledge that Wagner doubtless attributed a literary value to his text in addition to its role as part of the whole musical-dramatic complex in which it was eventually to take part. After all, he saw fit to print it for his friends and to give occasional readings of it. Although it is unlikely (if we lacked the music) that we would appreciate the text today for its literary value, we might still recognize this text as a strange curiosity, something unlike any other opera libretto. Indeed , I can well imagine that the Ring libretto might retain a minor place in German literary history simply because it seeks a new linguistic mode to recapture the spirit of a lost national past. Whereas Wagner's earlier operas used a fairly conventional language, with the rhyme, meters and diction characteristic of the poetry of their day, even a cursory look at any page of the Ring text tells us we are facing what must be called a serious literary experiment...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 285-310
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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