- Brünnhilde’s Lament: The Mourning Play of the Gods
Reading Wagner’s Musical Dramas with Benjamin’s Theory of Music
It was Brünnhilde’s long, final song in the last scene of Götterdämmerung, in Achim Freyer’s and James Conlon’s Los Angeles Ring cycle of 2010, that prompted me to consider possible correspondences between tragedy and musical drama and, in addition, to ask how recognizing such correspondences affects the commonplace derivation of musical drama from myth1 or Greek tragedy2 and tying Wagner to Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. The impression I had gained from Linda Watson’s rendition of the song did not fit a reading in terms of apotheosis: the way the downfall of the world of the gods is usually staged, when, at the end of the cycle, Brünnhilde kindles the conflagration and follows murdered Siegfried into death. It seemed to me much more that what we heard was a long-extended lament.
This performance did not seem to match the prevailing characterization of the scene as “solid and solemn” (fest und feierlich), as Peter Wapnewski has put it, speaking of an “apotheotic finale” and a “solemn-pathetic accusation.” In his words, “Now Brünnhilde sings forth the end. In the powerful scene of lonely grandeur that demands the singer-actress’s dramatic power to their limits—and beyond.”3 In Freyer’s and Conlon’s Götterdämmerung, tones of lament rather than the pathos of accusation could be heard in Brünnhilde’s final song. It seemed that the verse “Hear my lament, / you august god” (act 3, scene 3) had been extended into an entire dirge; that this time the Ring cycle itself was dying out with Brünnhilde’s lament. In listening to this, a sentence by the young Walter Benjamin came into my mind, namely: “The mourning play. . . describes the path from natural sound via lament to music” (Selected Writings, 1:60).4 And just afterward it occurred to me that Benjamin’s book On the Origin of German Mourning Plays5 contains a section on opera—a section that has been neglected along with Benjamin’s musical theory in general.6
The Passage de l’Opéra in the Book on Mourning Plays
In this short passage from Benjamin’s study—it takes up roughly two pages—he approaches opera from two differing perspectives that intersect like two lines. One line follows the history of genre, the “dissolution of the Trauerspiel into opera” at the [End Page 53] end of the Baroque period (The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 12),7 while a second line is concerned, in a much more fundamental way, with music in its relationship to signification. The first line, within which individual elements of mourning plays are characterized as “operatic,” describes the transition from such drama to opera. For example: “Also pressing toward opera was the musical overture, which preceded the play for Jesuits and Protestants.” Hence the historical transition to opera was accompanied by dissolution of the mourning play. Thus far, Benjamin’s schema corresponds to the familiar narrative. And while in the chapter on “Trauerspiel and Tragedy” he criticizes Nietzsche’s theory of tragedy on account of its “eschewal of a historico-philosophical perception of myth” under the spell of a “Wagnerian metaphysics” (The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 102), he here invokes The Birth of Tragedy. At this point the name Wagner briefly surfaces: Nietzsche, Benjamin observes, contrasted “Wagner’s ‘tragic’ Gesamtkunstwerk with the playful opera, whose emergence was being prepared in the Baroque.” To the latter Wagner “threw down the gauntlet with his condemnation of recitative” (The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 212). However brief the comment is, it is a remarkable statement. For whereas Benjamin here follows Nietzsche’s juxtaposition between Wagner and the opera, he simultaneously distances himself, through the use of quotation marks, from Nietzsche’s concept of the tragic, thus signaling he does not view Wagner as belonging under the tragic rubric. But as regards Nietzsche’s consent with Wagner’s critique of the opera emerging from the...