Theosophy – September 1897

RICHARD WAGNER'S MUSIC DRAMAS: VI-4b — Basil Crump

VI. — THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG.

PART IV. — THE DUSK OF THE GODS (continued.

Pure, and with the tender yearning of peace, sounds out to us the cry of Nature, fearless hopeful, and world-redeeming. The soul of mankind, united by this cry, becomes conscious through it of its high office of the redemption of the whole of Nature, that had suffered together with it; it soars from the abyss of appearances, and, freed from the terrible Category of Cause and Effect, the restless Will feels itself bound by itself alone, by itself set free. — Wagner's "Religion and Art"

These beautiful words give us the keynote to the tragic ending of this drama. The Will which we saw self-bound in Wotan is self-liberated in the death of Siegfried, and the renunciation and self-immolation of the glorious Valkyrie Brynhild.

This third and last act opens on the banks of the Rhine, where the three Rhinemaidens are singing:

Fair Sun-God,
Send to us the hero
Who again our gold will give us!

Presently Siegfried appears on the heights above in full armor, and the maidens ask him to give them the Ring, warning him of the Curse it holds:

Siegfried! Siegfried! Siegfried!
Sorrow waits thee, we know.
To nought but ill
Thou wardest the Ring.
It was wrought from gold
That in Rhine once glowed: —
He who shaped it with labor
And lost it in shame,
Laid a curse on it,
To cause that to
All time its possessor
Should be slain.
Nought but this stream
Breaketh the spell!

But Siegfried, the fearless, is contemptuous of danger to himself. What he would freely relinquish for love he keeps when threatened by fear:

For limbs and life
— Should without love
They be fettered
In fear's strong bonds, —
My limbs and my life
See! —— so
Freely I'd fling away!

So saying, he picks up a clod of earth and flings it over his shoulder. Now, the Rhine maidens know that it remains for the "suffering, self-offering," Brynliild to perform this final and alone-redeeming act of renunciation; and so swimming away from the hero, they sing:

Farewell. Siegfried!
A stately woman
To day your hoop will inherit.
Our bidding better she'll do.

image

     SO ART THOU SIEGFRIED AND BRYNHILD
          Prelude

Designed for THEOSOPHY by R. W. Machell. The original drawing has been presented by the artist to Mrs. K. A. Tingley.

Here we may pause again to quote Wagner's comment (from the letter to Roeckel) on this incident. "However, my hero is not to give the impression of an entirely unconscious being. In Siegfried, I have rather sought to portray the completest man I could conceive, whose highest utterance of consciousness always takes the form of most immediate life and action. How immensely high I rate this consciousness, that well nigh never may be spoken out, you will gather from the scene between Siegfried and the Rhine daughters: here we find Siegfried's knowledge infinite, for he knows the highest, that death is better than a life of dread; he, too, knows the power of the ring, but regards it not, as he has something better to do; he keeps it merely as a token — that he has not learnt to fear."

Hunting horns are now heard in the valley, and Siegfried is rejoined by the rest of the hunting party, including Gunther and Hagen. While preparations are being made for a meal Siegfried recounts his meeting with the Rhine maidens; and, as he tells of their warning that he shall die ere wane of day, Gunther starts and looks gloomily at Hagen, for he has no heart for the dark plot that is now to be put into execution. While the drinking-horns are passed around Siegfried begins to tell some of his past deeds: how he forged the sword, "Nothung," slew the Dragon and gained the Hoard, Tarnhelm and Ring: how, tasting the Dragon's blood, his inner hearing was opened and the woodbird told him of Mime's murderous intent:

With death-dealing drink
He drew to my side,
Pale and stammering,
He showed his vile purpose:
"Nothung" settled the scamp.

But at this point his memory failed him until Hagen squeezes the juice of an herb into his horn and the remembrance of the winning of Brynhild comes back to him. As he concludes the narrative Wotan's two ravens rise from a hush, circle over his head and fly away across the Rhine. At Hagen's question, "Canst read the speech of those ravens aright?" Siegfried starts up to look after them, turning his back on his unsuspected enemy, who immediately thrusts the fateful spear-point into the only vulnerable part of the hero's body. With the one word "Retribution," the murderer turns coolly away and disappears over the hills, while Gunther kneels in anguish by the dying hero's side. Now in his last moments the remembrance of his holy love comes back to him and he dies with Brynhild's name upon his lips:

Brynhilde!
Heavenly bride!
Look up!
Open thine eyelids!
Thrice blessed ending —
Thrill that dismays not —!
Brynhild beckons to me! —

Then to the solemn strains of the most beautiful and impressive Death March that was ever written, the body is borne away to the Hall of the Gibichungs.

There, while Gutrune weeps over the corpse, Gunther and Hagen flight for the possession of the Ring. Hagen slays Gunther and attempts to seize the Ring: but the dead hand raises itself threateningly, and as all fall back in terror, Brynhild is seen approaching with solemn and stately mien. Turning to Gutrune, who accuses her of bringing about the disaster, she tells her the truth: "The oath of our union was sworn, ere Siegfried thy face had seen!" Then the hapless Gntrune realizes that she has been the unconscious agent of a base plot, and cries out in despair:

Accursed Hagen!
Woe's me! Woe's me!
Thou gavest the hateful philtre
To make her husband play false!

Brynhild, who has stood alone in silent contemplation of Siegfried's body, first convulsed with horror and then overpowered with grief, now turns with solemn exultation to the attendants and directs the building of a huge funeral pyre on which she also will find her flaming end. Her vision, too, is now clear, for the power of the Curse is at length spent; the dread cycle of evil is at an end, and to her father in Valhalla she announces the approach of the reign of peace:

All things, all things,
     All know I now:
All at once is made clear!
     Even thy ravens
     I hear rustling:
To tell the longed-for tidings,
Let them return to their home.
Rest thee! Rest thee, O God!

Signing to the men to place the body on the pyre she removes the Ring and places it on her own finger while she addresses the expectant Rhinemaidens:

     What ye would gain
     I give to you;
     Out from my ashes
     Take it for ever!
The red flame that burneth me
Cleanseth the Ring from its Curse.
     Ye in the Rhine
     Melt it away
     And merely preserve
     The metal bright
Whose theft has thrown you in grief.

Taking a huge firebrand from one of the attendants she continues:

     Fly home, ye ravens!
     Tell it in Valhalla
What here on the Rhine ye have heard!
     To Brynhilde's rock
     Go round about.
     Yet Loki burns there:
Valhall' bid him revisit!
     Draweth near in gloom
     The Dusk of the Gods.
Thus, casting my torch,
I kindle Valhalla's tow'rs.

As she thrusts the brand into the pyre the two ravens again fly up from the river bank and disappear. Leaping upon Grane, Brynhild rides at one bound into the midst of the pyre and is instantly enveloped in a sea of flame. Suddenly it falls together, leaving a mass of smoke which forms a cloud bank on the horizon. The Rhine swells up and sweeps over the fire. The Rhine maidens are seen swimming close to the embers, and Hagen, plunging madly forward in a last despairing effort to gain the Ring, is drawn by them beneath its waves, while one of them joyously holds the recovered prize aloft. As the Rhine waters subside, a bright glow breaks through the cloud bank, revealing Valhalla with its gods and heroes enveloped in Loki's fiery embrace.

More than once Wagner wrote and altered Brynhild's parting words, finally leaving the music alone to express that which he felt to be unspeakable. Yet, as the music cannot be given here, it may be well to give these words in the form in which they were finally discarded by him:

     Know ye whither I fare?
From home-of-wishes speed I hence;
Home-of-dreams I flee for ever;
The open door of change eternal
     I shut behind me:
To wishless, dreamless, holiest country,
To the goal of world-wandering,
Redeemed from re-birth,
     The witting one goes.
Blest end of all that's endless,
Know ye how it I won?
Deepest woe of sorrowing
Love set open my eyes:
     End saw I the world.

On such words as these no possible comment can be made; they indicate a state of consciousness which must be felt rather than understood, and hence the poet-composer knew that music alone could bring it home to the intuition.

The psychological process by which he arrived at the final setting of the end of this great masterpiece is deeply interesting and throws a most important light upon his whole life-work and Schopenhauer's influence thereon. He lays it bare with wonderful selflessness and unerring self-criticism in the letter to Roeckel already quoted from:

"Seldom, perhaps, have a man's ideas and intuitions been at such marvellous variance as mine; for I must confess that only lately have I learnt truly to understand my own artworks, and that by aid of another man, who has supplied with ideas in perfect concord with my intuitions, and thus enabled me to read those Art works with my Reason too. The period since which I have wrought from my inner intuition began with the Flying Dutchman; Tannhauser and Lohengrin followed, and if any poetic principle is expressed in them it is the high tragedy of Renunciation, of well-motived, at last imperative and alone-redeeming Denial of the Will. It is this deep trait that gave my poetry, my music, the consecration without which they could never have possessed any truly stirring power they now may exercise.

"But nothing is more surprising than the fact that all my speculative thoughts, addressed to the mastery of an understanding of Life, were plodding in a diametrically opposite direction to the intuition lying at the bottom of those works. Whilst as artist my intuition was so certain and peremptory that all my fashionings were governed by it, as philosopher I sought to provide myself with an entirely opposite explanation of the world; an explanation held upright by main force, but constantly thrown down again, to my own surprise, by my instinctive, artistic intuition. My most startling experience, in this connection, I made at last with my Nibelungen-poem: I framed it at a time when my conscious ideas had simply built a Hellenistic-optimistic world, whose realization I deemed quite possible if only human beings would; as to the problem why they wouldn't, I tried to evade it pretty artfully. I remember that in this deliberate sense I carved the individuality of my Siegfried, with the intention of creating a sorrowless being; still more plainly did 1 believe I was expressing myself in my presentation of the whole Nibelungen-myth, with its exposure of the first wrong-doing, from which a whole world of wrong arises and goes to ground for sake of teaching us to recognize the wrong, to root it up, and finally to found a right world in its stead.

"Now I scarcely remarked that, with the carrying out, ay, at bottom with the very drafting of my plan, I was unconsciously following an altogether different, far deeper intuition; that in lieu of painting one phase of the world's evolution I had seen the essence of the world itself, in all conceivable phases, and recognized its nullity: whence of course, as I remained true to my intuition and not to my ideas, something quite other came to light than I had proposed. Yet I remember that I closed my work by forcing my Aim for once — though only once — to direct utterance, in the sententious parting words addressed by Brynhild to those around her; words which brand all ownership as despicable and point to Love as solitary blessing,(1) without (alas!) their speaker having really plumbed the nature of this "love" herself, — for in course of the myth we have always seen it enter as a devastator. So blind was I made in this one passage by interposition of my deliberate aim. Well, strange to say, that passage kept on torturing me; and indeed it needed a great subversion of my formulas of thought, such as was brought about at last by Schopenhauer, to bare to me the reason of my torment and supply me with the fitting keystone to my poem; which keystone consists in a candid recognition of the true state of things, without the smallest endeavor to preach a moral."

Nothing could reveal more clearly than the above extract how faithful Wagner was to his "inner self," and it further shows how one great mind may help another, thus pointing the way to that union of arts, sciences, religions, and philosophies which Wagner's many-sided genius foreshadows, and which it is the aim of the Theosophical Movement to bring about.

In the fiery end of the "Ring" drama we see an old order of things with all its evils and limitations purged away in the fire of the higher nature — the purified Will — and, from the ashes of that funeral pyre, to the vision of the inner eye there rises phoenix-like a glorious new form, bright promise of a grander destiny for the soul of man.

Following our Tone-Poet's own lines we have shown the application of this majestic myth to the consciousness of each one of us; but as Wagner himself says, it also compasses "the whole relations of a world, and it is in this latter sense that some beautiful remarks by a fellow Theosophist, (2) working in the same field, will make a fitting conclusion to this interpretation:

"Thus through Siegfried, the offspring of the God-created Volsungs, — through Siegfried, the peerless Hero and Knight whose very name signifies "Peace through Victory," is the cycle of the Curse accomplished and the World delivered and set free. But the price of that Deliverance is death: the price of that sojourn upon earth of Wotan-Erda as Siegfried-Brynhild is disaster and temporary blindness with all the sorrow that that blindness entailed. Let none think, however, that the lot of such an hero was the lot of one who in any wise failed, neither that his effort was tentative or partial; it was not so. The Ring dramas set forth the beginnings of Heroic life on this planet. In those stormy times when the inhabitants of the three worlds (Vallhalla, Riesenheim, Nibelheim) knew each other and warred against each other, the selfless hero Siegfried-Brynhild accomplished a redemption which would illumine the earth for all time: through that Hero spoke the "Great Sacrifice" the Lord Compassion; but ages were required for the work which he did to fully show itself on this earth. And since that first great Hero the pages of history, remembered and unremembered, are filled with the lives of similar but lesser Heroes. The lot of each was death and the reviling of the multitude whom they benefited; and until the cycle of this Dark Age of "Necessity" has run its course it will continue to be so. But though the cycle be heavy and the suffering hours leaden-winged, we are yet assured that for the World there comes Peace through Victory."

FOOTNOTES:

1. These words were; "Blessed in weal or woe, let Love reign alone!" They were changed afterwards to the lines above quoted. (return to text)

2. Mr. A. Gordon Rowe of the Bow Branch, T. S. E. (Eng.) (return to text)


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