All of Wagner’s operas from Das Rheingold onwards are investigations, Wagner directing the unique array of artistic resources that constituted his genius into the questions: What makes civilisation possible? What price is it necessary for us to pay to be members of a civilised community? After the abortive revolution of 1849, he spent the next 12 years in exile, so quickly realised that the decadent society in which he felt he lived wasn’t to be easily overthrown.
For the first four years of exile he wrote no music, but he did produce an immense amount of theoretical writing – not least his essays Artwork and the Future and Judaism in Music (see right) – in which he tried to work out the relationship between art and society, and found himself driven to producing the text of a work which was originally going to be a single drama, but which ended up as four, as he worked backwards and realised the extent of his subject. And so began the Ring cycle.
The first drama is Das Rheingold, in which Nature, in its calm and sometimes stormy grandeur, is depicted at the extraordinary opening by music evoking the depths of the Rhine, 156 bars beginning with an almost inaudibly low and quiet note, and gradually becoming the majestically flowing river. This idyll of peace is soon disrupted by the dwarf Alberich’s attempted seduction of the Rhinemaidens, and when they elude him, he steals the Rhine gold, which, made into the Ring, would give him world power. Alberich is Desire at its crudest and least attractive, while his chief opponents are the gods, who already possess power, but are hopelessly morally compromised, the chief one, Wotan, having struck a bargain which he can’t possibly keep.
Das Rheingold, we soon see, is a bitter and often compassionate satire on politics, in which Wotan is shown, like many politicians, to have high ideals but to be unable to realise them without violating the rules by which he governs the world, or would like to. There are long debates among Rheingold’s antagonists, set to a kind of music previously unheard, in which what Wagner called ‘unending melody’ is underpinned by ‘leading motifs’ – short thematic fragments which can be endlessly varied and combined, and many of which can safely be named as, for instance, the Ring, the Rhine, the power of love.
Das Rheingold remains, at two and a half hours, the longest single stretch of unbroken music in the Western world, where Wagner sets out all the basic issues which the rest of the Ring will explore. Michael Tanner