It is difficult to separate the allegory of the Ring from events in post-Napoleonic Europe when rival forces were attempting, on the one hand, to restore reactionary systems of government (think of them as the gods) and, on the other hand, to establish new systems of capital ushered in by the Industrial Revolution (think of Alberich and his ilk). The result was a chain of political uprisings throughout Europe in the 1830s and ’40s—and incredible intellectual and creative ferment. Goethe and Beethoven were alive when Wagner was a teenager, Charles Darwin was four years his senior, and Karl Marx was five years his junior. The philosophers Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche were his contemporaries, and Sigmund Freud was born when Wagner was in his 40s. We are still, in many ways, heirs to that seminal period in European thought. In that context, Wagner’s eagerness to throw his own, often provocative ideas into the arena reflected his need to join the debate, and the Ring is, first and foremost, a drama of ideas.
As a young radical, Wagner argued that the basic goodness of human beings had been subverted by the property-owning classes and the selfish interests of the state. In this he was echoing the ideas of the French philosopher and socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–65) who famously asserted that property is theft. And “what a thief steals, you steal from the thief,” advises Loge in the second scene of Das Rheingold. But whereas Marx and Engels saw the future of human society in terms of the emancipation of the proletariat, Wagner saw it in terms of the redeeming power of love. This was a worldview that owed much to the writings of German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72), to whom Wagner dedicated his important essay of 1849, “The Artwork of the Future.”
People who knew the young Wagner in his Dresden years were impressed by his passion and high-mindedness. In March 1849, for instance, the actor Edward Devrient made the following entry in his diary: “Met Kapellmeister Wagner on the Terrace; another discussion about his theories for changing the world. He still thinks that only by destroying property is it possible to civilize mankind…. He thinks of putting an end to all deficiencies, believes in the absolute and original perfection of the human race—a perfection lost only as a result of the state…. Finally, he had to agree with me that only moral amelioration can put an end to our misery and that this would produce the right types of state, based on the law of love.”
The link to Rheingold is remarkably clear. The absolute original perfection of the human race? Well, that is the opening prelude and the naiveté of the Rhinemaidens. A perfection lost only as a result of the state? That is the coming of feudal rulers like Wotan, and powerful plutocrats like Alberich. And the solution? The right types of state, based on the law of love. It is all there in a single diary entry by someone who knew Wagner intimately.
Three months earlier, in December 1848, Devrient had written: “Kapellmeister Wagner read me his completed opera poem Siegfried’s Death. The fellow’s a poet through and through. A beautiful piece of work. Alliteration, as used by him, is a real find for opera poems; it ought to be raised to the level of general principle. I consider this poem to be his best and most dramatic. Afterwards we spoke at length about language, instruction of the people, Christian development, and, of course, we got on to the state, at which point he again mounted his favorite hobby-horse, the destruction of capital. But there’s no doubt his is the most original mind of all the people I know in Dresden.”
The Industrial Revolution had, after all, been a golden opportunity for some and a hell on earth for others, just as Wagner depicted it in the third scene of Rheingold with the hellish hammerings of anvils and the screams of the tormented Nibelungs. The Victorians themselves recognized that this unprecedented social transformation had a dark side: the mind-numbing toiling of men and the servitude of women and children in the workhouses, factories, and mines. And behind everything stood, as it were, Alberich, who was prepared to renounce love in order to acquire power and wealth.
Wagner had no doubt at all who Alberich symbolized: the tyrant, the overlord, the power-hungry invader. Six years after the failure of the Dresden revolution of 1849, Wagner’s despair at the apparent triumph of the forces of greed, materialism, and artistic shallowness caused him to write to Liszt: “Let us treat the world only with contempt, for it deserves no better; but let no hope be placed in it, so that our hearts be not deluded! It is evil, evil, fundamentally evil… it belongs to Alberich: no one else!! Away with it!”
A century before George Orwell wrote his novel 1984, Wagner was warning of the rise of totalitarianism and the pursuit of power at the expense of love. We know this from several sources, and especially from his essay “The Artwork of the Future” in which he expressed the view that the earliest societies arose naturally out of humanity's instinctive need for mutual love and fellowship. But later, he said, authoritarian states arose unnaturally, out of none of humanity's instinctive needs, being imposed by the few on the many. The authoritarian state was, he said, a crime against human nature, and therefore against nature itself. “A crime against nature,” which is the starting point for Rheingold. These ideas weren’t expressed in an essay called “The Politics of the Future” or “The Society of the Future” but “The Artwork of the Future.” Wagner wanted to go to the very heart of what made humans “human.”
We find similar ideas contained in his sketches and commentaries for two unfinished operas planned in early 1849: Jesus of Nazareth, whose central theme is that one does not overcome lovelessness by being loveless, or overcome violence by using violence; and Achilles, in which the “hero“ is identified as a fully developed human being, free from obligations to so-called gods. “Man is god perfected,” wrote Wagner, and we see in the Ring a progression from human beings constrained by their belief in gods, to those who are free to build a new order based on love. That is why we witness Wotan giving way to Siegfried in the third act of Siegfried, and why the gods play no role at all in Götterdämmerung, being merely figments of memory and imagination, represented by altars and empty rituals. Wagner owed many of these ideas to Feuerbach who loomed large in his thinking when he began work on the libretto of Siegfried’s Death which eventually evolved into The Ring of the Nibelung.
Another idea postulated by Feuerbach was that the “glorious necessity of love” should take precedence over the law. This became Wagner’s motto in his early sketches for the Ring, and he never entirely abandoned it. He once told Franz Liszt: “The state of lovelessness is the state of suffering for the human race … we recognize the glorious necessity of love … and so, in this way we acquire a strength of which natural man had no inkling, and this strength – increased to embrace the whole of humanity—will one day lay the foundations for a state on earth where no one need yearn for the other world, for they will be happy— to live and to love. For where is the man who yearns to escape from life when he is in love?”
Who is Alberich, renouncer of love, maker of the all-powerful ring and tormentor of his people if not an early version of Orwell’s Big Brother? A hundred years earlier, Wagner had captured exactly this vision in Rheingold, when Alberich, brandishing his ring, extracts the helmet of invisibility from his cowering “little brother,” Mime, and puts it to use. He has many chilling passages, but few are more chilling than what he has planned for the gods once he has acquired absolute power. When the men are subjugated, he will force himself on their women who shun his attentions and reject his love. They should beware of the nocturnal army when the Nibelung hoard rises from silent depths! We can almost see the torchlit processions and hear the tread of marching feet.
Into a world of bountiful nature has come the lust for power, with which love can never coexist, and we are plunged into moral darkness. But the supreme irony is that Alberich, who renounces love in order to acquire power, ends up with neither. That tends to be the fate of dictators. The old authoritarian order of Wotan and the other gods had also benefited at the expense of nature. Wotan had torn a branch from the tree of life to fashion a spear, the instrument of his power and symbol of the laws and contracts on which that power rested. Like many leaders, he makes agreements of convenience that he has no intention of keeping. Then he resorts to cunning and dishonesty to escape his obligations and, in doing so, undermines the very basis of his own authority. It is an old story and also a very modern one. The law-maker becomes law-breaker.
Wotan, too, has, in a sense, renounced love by trading the goddess of love, Freia, as the price for the great fortress Valhalla. Loge’s suggestion of substituting the Nibelung hoard for Freia offers Wotan the tantalizing prospect of having his cake and eating it, of having both love and power. But the two prove incompatible. In what is really the only music in Rheingold to come close to being an aria in any recognizable sense, Loge tells of his search throughout the world for something—anything—that is valued more highly than love. He had heard of one man who was prepared to renounce love in return for bright gold, and a ring of power that had been fashioned from the stolen Rhinegold. Wotan had heard of this gold and his interest is aroused. Could gold be the answer to all his problems? Ah, how many men in a tricky spot have thought that!
Thus Wotan, too, becomes a thief, wrenching the ring from Alberich's finger. But the Nibelung strikes back, cursing the ring and all who hanker after it. This is the curse of power without love. Having acquired the ring illegally and immorally, Wotan is also destined to lose it. In order to satisfy the contractual claims of the giants, Fasolt and Fafner, builders of Valhalla, he reluctantly parts with the ring, doing so at the behest of the earth goddess Erda, a figure drawn not from Norse mythology but from the classical world. Interestingly, she doesn’t say: “Give back the ring and the gods will be saved.” It’s already too late for that. Instead, she says: “All that exists will end”—have nothing to do with the ring. So now Wotan has been warned, the wheel of destiny is turning. In the third act of Siegfried, he will ask Erda directly how to stop this turning wheel, but she will have no answer.
By the mid-1850s, Wagner had become a very different man from the starry-eyed revolutionary of his Dresden years. He encountered the writings of Schopenhauer which matched his mood perfectly and gave him an intellectual framework for the remainder of his life’s work (see accompanying sidebar). This radically changed perspective took hold in the second act of Die Walküre, especially with the character of Wotan. But Der Ring des Nibelungen remains a drama of human frailty, its message a universal one of love and life. By the end of Rheingold, the stage is set for a struggle involving passionate love and, ultimately, compassionate love which, in Götterdämmerung and Parsifal, will be revealed as humanity’s last best hope.