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The Music of The Ring


To be able to follow the music of The Ring, all that is necessary
is to become familiar enough with the brief musical phrases out
of which it is built to recognize them and attach a certain
definite significance to them, exactly as any ordinary Englishman
recognizes and attaches a definite significance to the opening
bars of God Save the King. There is no difficulty here: every
soldier is expected to learn and distinguish between different
bugle calls and trumpet calls; and anyone who can do this can
learn and distinguish between the representative themes or
"leading motives" (Leitmotifs) of The Ring. They are the easier
to learn because they are repeated again and again; and the main
ones are so emphatically impressed on the ear whilst the
spectator is looking for the first time at the objects, or
witnessing the first strong dramatic expression of the ideas they
denote, that the requisite association is formed unconsciously.
The themes are neither long, nor complicated, nor difficult.
Whoever can pick up the flourish of a coach-horn, the note of a
bird, the rhythm of the postman's knock or of a horse's gallop,
will be at no loss in picking up the themes of The Ring. No
doubt, when it comes to forming the necessary mental association
with the theme, it may happen that the spectator may find his ear
conquering the tune more easily than his mind conquers the
thought. But for the most part the themes do not denote thoughts
at all, but either emotions of a quite simple universal kind, or
the sights, sounds and fancies common enough to be familiar to
children. Indeed some of them are as frankly childish as any of
the funny little orchestral interludes which, in Haydn's
Creation, introduce the horse, the deer, or the worm. We have
both the horse and the worm in The Ring, treated exactly in
Haydn's manner, and with an effect not a whit less ridiculous
to superior people who decline to take it good-humoredly. Even
the complaisance of good Wagnerites is occasionally rather
overstrained by the way in which Brynhild's allusions to her
charger Grani elicit from the band a little rum-ti-tum triplet
which by itself is in no way suggestive of a horse, although a
continuous rush of such triplets makes a very exciting musical

Other themes denote objects which cannot be imitatively suggested
by music: for instance, music cannot suggest a ring, and cannot
suggest gold; yet each of these has a representative theme which
pervades the score in all directions. In the case of the gold the
association is established by the very salient way in which the
orchestra breaks into the pretty theme in the first act of The
Rhine Gold at the moment when the sunrays strike down through the
water and light up the glittering treasure, hitherto invisible.
The reference of the strange little theme of the wishing cap is
equally manifest from the first, since the spectator's attention
is wholly taken up with the Tarnhelm and its magic when the theme
is first pointedly uttered by the orchestra. The sword theme is
introduced at the end of The Rhine Gold to express Wotan's hero
inspiration; and I have already mentioned that Wagner, unable,
when it came to practical stage management, to forego the appeal
to the eye as well as to the thought, here made Wotan pick up a
sword and brandish it, though no such instruction appears in the
printed score. When this sacrifice to Wagner's scepticism as to
the reality of any appeal to an audience that is not made through
their bodily sense is omitted, the association of the theme with
the sword is not formed until that point in the first act of The
Valkyries at which Siegmund is left alone by Hunding's hearth,
weaponless, with the assurance that he will have to fight for his
life at dawn with his host. He recalls then how his father
promised him a sword for his hour of need; and as he does so, a
flicker from the dying fire is caught by the golden hilt of the
sword in the tree, when the theme immediately begins to gleam
through the quiver of sound from the orchestra, and only dies
out as the fire sinks and the sword is once more hidden by the
darkness. Later on, this theme, which is never silent whilst
Sieglinda is dwelling on the story of the sword, leaps out into
the most dazzling splendor the band can give it when Siegmund
triumphantly draws the weapon from the tree. As it consists of
seven notes only, with a very marked measure, and a melody like
a simple flourish on a trumpet or post horn, nobody capable of
catching a tune can easily miss it.

The Valhalla theme, sounded with solemn grandeur as the home of
the gods first appears to us and to Wotan at the beginning of the
second scene of The Rhine Gold, also cannot be mistaken. It, too,
has a memorable rhythm; and its majestic harmonies, far from
presenting those novel or curious problems in polyphony of which
Wagner still stands suspected by superstitious people, are just
those three simple chords which festive students who vamp
accompaniments to comic songs "by ear" soon find sufficient for
nearly all the popular tunes in the world.

On the other hand, the ring theme, when it begins to hurtle
through the third scene of The Rhine Gold, cannot possibly be
referred to any special feature in the general gloom and turmoil
of the den of the dwarfs. It is not a melody, but merely the
displaced metric accent which musicians call syncopation, rung on
the notes of the familiar chord formed by piling three minor
thirds on top of one another (technically, the chord of the minor
ninth, ci-devant diminished seventh). One soon picks it up and
identifies it; but it does not get introduced in the
unequivocally clear fashion of the themes described above, or of
that malignant monstrosity, the theme which denotes the curse on
the gold. Consequently it cannot be said that the musical design
of the work is perfectly clear at the first hearing as regards
all the themes; but it is so as regards most of them, the main
lines being laid down as emphatically and intelligibly as the
dramatic motives in a Shakespearean play. As to the coyer
subtleties of the score, their discovery provides fresh interest
for repeated hearings, giving The Ring a Beethovenian
inexhaustibility and toughness of wear.

The themes associated with the individual characters get stamped
on the memory easily by the simple association of the sound of
the theme with the appearance of the person indicated. Its
appropriateness is generally pretty obvious. Thus, the entry of
the giants is made to a vigorous stumping, tramping measure.
Mimmy, being a quaint, weird old creature, has a quaint, weird
theme of two thin chords that creep down eerily one to the other.
Gutrune's theme is pretty and caressing: Gunther's bold, rough,
and commonplace. It is a favorite trick of Wagner's, when one of
his characters is killed on the stage, to make the theme attached
to that character weaken, fail, and fade away with a broken echo
into silence.


All this, however, is the mere child's play of theme work. The
more complex characters, instead of having a simple musical label
attached to them, have their characteristic ideas and aspirations
identified with special representative themes as they come into
play in the drama; and the chief merit of the thematic structure
of The Ring is the mastery with which the dramatic play of the
ideas is reflected in the contrapuntal play of the themes. We do
not find Wotan, like the dragon or the horse, or, for the matter
of that, like the stage demon in Weber's Freischutz or
Meyerbeer's Robert the Devil, with one fixed theme attached to
him like a name plate to an umbrella, blaring unaltered from the
orchestra whenever he steps on the stage. Sometimes we have the
Valhalla theme used to express the greatness of the gods as an
idea of Wotan's. Again, we have his spear, the symbol of his
power, identified with another theme, on which Wagner finally
exercises his favorite device by making it break and fail, cut
through, as it were, by the tearing sound of the theme identified
with the sword, when Siegfried shivers the spear with the stroke
of Nothung. Yet another theme connected with Wotan is the
Wanderer music which breaks with such a majestic reassurance on
the nightmare terror of Mimmy when Wotan appears at the mouth of
his cave in the scene of the three riddles. Thus not only are
there several Wotan themes, but each varies in its inflexions and
shades of tone color according to its dramatic circumstances. So,
too, the merry ham tune of the young Siegfried changes its
measure, loads itself with massive harmonies, and becomes an
exordium of the most imposing splendor when it heralds his entry
as full-fledged hero in the prologue to Night Falls On The Gods.
Even Mimmy has his two or three themes: the weird one already
described; the little one in triple measure imitating the tap of
his hammer, and fiercely mocked in the savage laugh of Alberic at
his death; and finally the crooning tune in which he details all
his motherly kindnesses to the little foundling Siegfried.
Besides this there are all manner of little musical blinkings and
shamblings and whinings, the least hint of which from the
orchestra at any moment instantly brings Mimmy to mind, whether
he is on the stage at the time or not.

In truth, dramatic characterization in music cannot be carried
very far by the use of representative themes. Mozart, the
greatest of all masters of this art, never dreamt of employing
them; and, extensively as they are used in The Ring, they do not
enable Wagner to dispense with the Mozartian method. Apart from
the themes, Siegfried and Mimmy are still as sharply
distinguished from one another by the character of their music as
Don Giovanni from Leporello, Wotan from Gutrune as Sarastro from
Papagena. It is true that the themes attached to the characters
have the same musical appropriateness as the rest of the music:
for example, neither the Valhalla nor the spear themes could,
without the most ludicrous incongruity, be used for the forest
bird or the unstable, delusive Loki; but for all that the musical
characterization must be regarded as independent of the specific
themes, since the entire elimination of the thematic system from
the score would leave the characters as well distinguished
musically as they are at present.

One more illustration of the way in which the thematic system is
worked. There are two themes connected with Loki. One is a rapid,
sinuous, twisting, shifty semiquaver figure suggested by the
unsubstantial, elusive logic-spinning of the clever one's
braincraft. The other is the fire theme. In the first act of
Siegfried, Mimmy makes his unavailing attempt to explain fear
to Siegfried. With the horror fresh upon him of the sort of
nightmare into which he has fallen after the departure of the
Wanderer, and which has taken the form, at once fanciful and
symbolic, of a delirious dread of light, he asks Siegfried
whether he has never, whilst wandering in the forest, had his
heart set hammering in frantic dread by the mysterious lights of
the gloaming. To this, Siegfried, greatly astonished, replies
that on such occasions his heart is altogether healthy and his
sensations perfectly normal. Here Mimmy's question is accompanied
by the tremulous sounding of the fire theme with its harmonies
most oppressively disturbed and troubled; whereas with
Siegfried's reply they become quite clear and straightforward,
making the theme sound bold, brilliant, and serene. This is a
typical instance of the way in which the themes are used.

The thematic system gives symphonic interest, reasonableness, and
unity to the music, enabling the composer to exhaust every aspect
and quality of his melodic material, and, in Beethoven's manner,
to work miracles of beauty, expression and significance with the
briefest phrases. As a set-off against this, it has led Wagner to
indulge in repetitions that would be intolerable in a purely
dramatic work. Almost the first thing that a dramatist has to
learn in constructing a play is that the persons must not come on
the stage in the second act and tell one another at great length
what the audience has already seen pass before its eyes in the
first act. The extent to which Wagner has been seduced into
violating this rule by his affection for his themes is startling
to a practiced playwright. Siegfried inherits from Wotan a mania
for autobiography which leads him to inflict on every one he
meets the story of Mimmy and the dragon, although the audience
have spent a whole evening witnessing the events he is narrating.
Hagen tells the story to Gunther; and that same night Alberic's
ghost tells it over again to Hagen, who knows it already as well
as the audience. Siegfried tells the Rhine maidens as much of it
as they will listen to, and then keeps telling it to his hunting
companions until they kill him. Wotan's autobiography on the
second evening becomes his biography in the mouths of the Norns
on the fourth. The little that the Norns add to it is repeated an
hour later by Valtrauta. How far all this repetition is tolerable
is a matter of individual taste. A good story will bear
repetition; and if it has woven into it such pretty tunes as the
Rhine maidens' yodel, Mimmy's tinkling anvil beat, the note of
the forest bird, the call of Siegfried's horn, and so on, it will
bear a good deal of rehearing. Those who have but newly learnt
their way through The Ring will not readily admit that there is
a bar too much repetition.

But how if you find some anti-Wagnerite raising the question
whether the thematic system does not enable the composer to
produce a music drama with much less musical fertility than was
required from his predecessors for the composition of operas
under the old system!

Such discussions are not within the scope of this little book.
But as the book is now finished (for really nothing more need be
said about The Ring), I am quite willing to add a few pages of
ordinary musical criticism, partly to please the amateurs who
enjoy that sort of reading, and partly for the guidance of those
who wish to obtain some hints to help them through such critical
small talk about Wagner and Bayreuth as may be forced upon them
at the dinner table or between the acts.

George Bernard Shaw