Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Total Works of Art

Those of you who are opera fans may have heard of Richard Wagner. Those of you who are masochists may even enjoy his music. (If you do, the beer’s on me, we’re not alone!) Wagner’s influence on music is long-lasting and of vast importance (and interest) and most likely I will bring up his name in future blog posts as there is a lot to gain from his scholarship, but let’s stay on topic.

Wagner’s conception of the Ring Cycle does not seem very much radically out of key with his usual repertoire. His other works include Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, etc. All of them are works that deal with a mythological past important to German identity. Being a “nationalist” was important to Wagner, which is why he wanted to write opera that emphasized being German. But the Ring Cycle was different from his other works in the sense that it was not one opera, but four interconnected operas with a strange way of avoiding a main character. Was it Wotan? Siegfried? Even Brünnhilde? Wagner appropriated the mythos of his culture and set it to music. He focused on certain themes and symbols, Nothung, the sword, the Ring of the Nibelung, themes of love and green and the consequences of human (or divine) error.

Then he changed things up. His music for the Ring was dramatically different from music that came before it. He even had instruments invented so that they could play the low notes he wanted them to play (they’re known today, quite appropriately, as Wagner tubas). He abandoned time-old conventions and broke the mold, taking his talents to next level. Instead of splitting up his operas into recitatives and arias (like the difference between talking and singing in a musical only slightly different as recitatives still are musical and are “sung” but aren’t a song), he basically just one really long piece music. It would be similar to writing sentences without periods or painting with only one brushstroke.

The Gesamtkunstwerk

The final and most important thing for our purposes was Wagner’s total-work-of-art theory. Wagner was, of course, too good to write normal operas. Instead, he broke convention and called what he wrote “Dramas.” The intent was to combine a number of arts together and create a major work that fused poetry, architecture, music, and art. The opera house, libretto, score, and landscape paintings were to serve those purposes respectively.

In the end, Wagner used those to build The Ring cycle, a series of four operas so vast that it could not be staged exactly as Wagner wanted at the time. Even now, we struggle to match his vision (Read about a recent production by Robert Lepage here: https://bachtrack.com/appraisal-wagner-ring-cycle-robert-lepage-metropolitan-opera, and his fascinating attempt to match Wagner’s dream).

The point of this is that Wagner realized that the full extent of his nationalist-saga could not be realized without the use of extra elements, elements foreign to his particular talents as a composer. He needed to use other arts to complete his vision of the powerful nationalistic saga he reimagined using the mythos of his German past.

Think about a fantasy novel, many of the most fantastic elements of fantasy may be impossible to redact. Motion can never truly be drawn. But nevertheless, imagine a plethora of artistic drawings, like a comic book, or illustrations that add to the fantasy novel. Think about the book as an object. What does it look like? How does it function? Can you use it as something other than a book? Does it have three dimensional elements?

The other tradeoff is that less is left to the reader’s imagination to create, which is something authors and readers alike enjoy. Nevertheless, there can be beneficial aspects of adding to the creative atmosphere. Perhaps it would be easier for the reader to imagine the characters if the world of the characters had more detail to it? Food for thought.

Or what about music? What if someone had a soundtrack for reading? What if on one’s kindle, music played at certain key moments of the book to replicate the atmosphere the book should be read? Should the book be played in certain places at certain times of day? Night? Morning? Mid-afternoon? In the snow? In the summertime?

This is, of course, pure speculation up to the writer/reader to consider, but nevertheless, may be worth thinking about and discussing. How can the writer enhance the experience of the reader?

Update: Always forget this part, but please don’t forget to check out my book! Best way to learn fantasy is to read it! You can find it at the official website, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble!

P.S. In a couple of weeks I’ll probably return to this topic in a way, discussing Alexandre Scriabin, also the composer; but a man with fascinating ideas which I think can be chewed upon in our imagination’s stomachs…



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