The Ring of Truth: Wisdom of Wagner by Sir Roger Scruton takes us on a philosophical and technical journey through Wagner’s masterful tetralogy, The Ring of the Nibelung. Scruton offers us his insights and critique on what has, sadly, become an often undervalued and misjudged opera. It is a story of mythic figures and heroes, full of characters that offer us allegorical and symbolic pictures of redemption through self-sacrifice, the corruption that power brings, whose will shall have authority, and more. Wagner does not rely only on words, however, to transmit such a captivating narrative; words alone are insufficient (though often texts are considered the chief vehicle of meaning). The true genius of Wagner’s Ring, Sir Roger helps us understand, is the incorporation of all operatic elements to make the whole effect on listeners that much more compelling and rich. The words are supported by the setting, and both are thematically and emotionally conveyed by the glorious music.
But not all who listen to this masterpiece perceive the meaning Wagner meant to convey: why? The Ring of Truth addresses the fact that for many, an artist’s personal life merges with his creations. Virtue and theme are then shadowed by what one perceives of the artist’s life–in the case of Wagner, his openly anti-semitic views, now frequently interpreted in and assigned to his operas. Interestingly, Scruton points us to the testament of a personal friend and disciple of Wagner, Heinrich Porges, a Jew himself, who in his own writings addresses Wagner’s flaw as separate from the root musician, composer, and artistic genius that he was (though grave indeed). Scruton also traces the rise of psychoanalysis in the early twentieth century, and its efforts to explain The Ring based on what people perceived of Wagner’s character and flaws, particularly in the realm of his sexual conduct.
Sir Roger offers and develops a different paradigm, one which acknowledges the context that Wagner drew from, that of old pre-Napoleonic Germany, with its rich mythic lore. Wagner utilizes the archetype of the folk tale in which a lost child returns and rediscovers his father-figure (this theme embodied in the composer’s relationship with his own stepfather). Wagner instilled the ideals and vision for the drama of man’s struggle between law and love, redemption through death, and other themes, while still accommodating a quickly modernizing world. Religious thinking and perception were on the wane in the wake of rising materialism, and Wagner employed mythos, legend, and fantastic creatures to allow allegorical and symbolic caricatures in his narrative to mirror the religious nature of the subjects he chose.
If we are to ask how to discern Wagner’s actual meaning in The Ring, we must deal with all aspects of his work. The words, action, context, and music all play their role in communicating their author’s intentions. Modern analysis, Sir Roger points out, has given the music its most grievous slight. In fact, it is the musical development, especially Wagner’s famous leitmotifs (recurrent melodic themes linked to a character or situation), that lifts the symbolism and vision to its full potency, working to focus, enhance, and bind the work. The characters themselves–Wagner’s cast of deities, fey and mythic figures–are most appropriately and fully appreciated in their symbolic roles, despite the convenience of an allegorical reading. When we consider all the facets of their symbolic roles in Wagner’s vision for morals, ideals, and ubiquitous principles, the story and meaning are enriched.
Sir Roger Scruton’s book offers insight into Wagner’s meaning and theme, as well as some technical analysis of The Ring of the Nibelung–a work of genius often discredited by assuming Wagner’s personal life and character had to permeate his art. We should understand that the man’s character did not vitiate his recognition and transmission of virtues, religious principles, and deeply human struggles. Neither did his flaws prevent his genius, inventiveness, and musical insight from creating the masterpiece that still entrances multitudes today.