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English National Opera Guide : Wagner :…

English National Opera Guide : Wagner : Götterdämmerung (1985)

by English National Opera, Nicholas John (Series Editor), Richard Wagner (Librettist)

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Richard Wagner

Twilight of the Gods

English National Opera 31

Calder, Paperback, 1985.

8vo. 128 pp.

First published, 1985.


List of Illustrations

An Introduction to the End Michael Tanner
Motif, Memory and Meaning in ‘Twilight of the Gods’ Robin Holloway
The Questionable Lightness of Being: Brünnhilde's Peroration to ‘The Ring’ Christopher Wintle

Thematic Guide Lionel Friend

‘Götterdämmerung’ poem by Richard Wagner
‘Twilight of the Gods’ English translation by Andrew Porter

Act One
Act Two
Act Three

Discography Cathy Peterson


In one his sillier moods, Bernard Shaw called Götterdämmerung “a thorough grand opera”, a very different thing from the Wagnerian music drama that we have witnessed until Act 3 of Siegfried, and lamented that it contained a death song for the tenor, a death song for the prima donna and a chorus “not, after all, so very different from, or at all less absurd than the choruses of courtiers in La Favorita or "Per te immenso giubilo" in Lucia.”[1] All this is certainly silly. It’s enough to compare the chorus in Lucia, which contains a complete bass aria and hardly advances the action, with Hagen’s baleful “Hoiho” dominating the perfectly integrated male chorus, and you will know what a vast abyss lies between Donizetti and Wagner. Yet Bernard Shaw, even in his silliest moments, is not entirely wide of the mark. Götterdämmerung is by far the most operatic, musically as well as dramatically, part of The Ring. Sublime as the music is, the links of the text with the rest of the cycle are often tenuous and feel contrived, as if they were afterthoughts. This isn’t so wide of the mark, either.

Michael Tanner elegantly bypasses the complicated history of composition and sensibly concentrates on the final result. He writes remarkably well for a modern philosopher and has some fascinating things to say about the major contradiction of The Ring.

August Roeckel, an old revolutionary friend of Wagner’s, famously summarised this in a letter to the composer. Why the gods perish after the Ring is returned to the Rhinemaidens? Wagner’s answer was typically verbose and muddled. Every good performance, he said, will make this clear to every person of average intelligence if the latter responds by feeling (Wagner’s emphasis). He seems to imply, if he implies anything at all, that the gods were doomed from the beginning, ring or no ring. This doesn’t sound like a satisfactory explanation. Mr Tanner wittily agrees:

Wagner’s claim that all will be clear if one simply responds by feeling is valid to the extent that the music of the whole scene [Brünnhilde’s Immolation] is of such transfiguring splendour as to preclude thought at all, at least for the time being. He has achieved an interweaving of motifs so brilliant, and in the last five minutes a counterpoint of crucial themes which, like all successful counterpoint, seems to have all the rigour of a formal argument, that to raise questions immediately seems merely pusillanimous. Yet not to raise them a decent time afterwards would be to take the work less seriously than it deserves.

Then again, this is not an entirely unsatisfactory explanation, either. It is a rather chilling conclusion that all of us, gods and common mortals, are doomed to perish one day. Mr Tanner elaborates on that in the context of The Ring, and Wagner’s work on the whole, in a rather stimulating manner. Wotan and Brünnhilde come to realise the same tragic truth, he states, namely that both are part of an “irredeemably corrupted” world. Neither Brünnhilde’s love, nor Siegfried’s free will, both of them illusions, and still less Wotan’s thirst for power of course, can save it. Mr Tanner hails the compassion of Parsifal, Wagner’s last work, as the composer’s final answer, but I would add the resignation of Die Meistersinger from his penultimate work (excluding Götterdämmerung).

There is an obvious explanation, of course, but it is so pedestrian that nobody would accept it. The gods and the world would have been saved if the Ring had been returned in time. It was simply returned too late. There can be countless reasons for that, from Alberich’s thwarted amours and Wotan’s greed for power in the beginning to Brünnhilde’s sentimental attachment to the Ring and the sheer stupidity of Siegfried in the end. I don’t see how this version is less satisfactory than the other one. It does lack the grand metaphysical sweep that we are all doomed, etc., etc., but it opens up some rather tantalising alleys of idle speculation. Indeed, this interpretation does make sense of Waltraute’s curious confession to Brünnhilde, wisely remembered by Mr Tanner, that if the Ring is returned to the Rhinemaidens, even at this rather late time (Götterdämmerung, I.3.), both the gods and the world would be saved. Either this episode supports my hypothesis, or it was one of the glaring inconsistencies which Wagner overlooked.

Somewhat disappointingly, Mr Tanner fails to provide a definite answer of The Ring conundrum. But then again, so did Wagner. The philosopher is certainly right that the composer cannot be accused of wilful obscurity. Wagner was at pains to explain everything in his works with their music and libretti, or more generally in his voluminous non-fiction writings. If he failed to make The Ring consistent, maybe it is because he couldn’t do better. Perhaps nobody could grasp better the ambiguous relevance of our existence. Mr Tanner insists on parallels with Shakespeare, but I would reverse his laudatory attitude. If Shakespeare failed to make the motivation of Hamlet or Iago consistent and plausible, maybe, just maybe, he just couldn’t do better. Maybe he didn’t aim at some grand psychological analysis of human irrationality: he simply couldn’t do better.

Anyway, Mr Tanner concludes that the journey is worthwhile in spite of the inconsistencies, which indeed we should expect in really complex works, and that’s what makes the great tragic art relevant to our existence. I think that’s a pretty good conclusion, though I don’t necessarily agree with everything in it:

The closing pages of his other works suggest that a cycle of existence has been completed, and that even if the characters in them have died from making too great demands on life, as the central characters of The Ring certainly do, we can be exhilarated by the insight that Wagner imparts to us through them. It may be that some of that exhilaration comes from the sense we get that we can wipe the slate clean thanks to the thoroughness of the purging. If so, it’s as much of a mistake as that idea always is. But reflecting on both the excessiveness and the attraction of Wagner’s doomed heroes and heroines may help us, as much as art ever can, to check some impulses in ourselves and encourage others. The sense of enormous potential misdirected is a central feature in all the greatest tragic art, and it is here that Shakespeare and Wagner are most comparable.


A response to life from someone who felt so intensely and deeply about as much of it as Wagner did would be suspicious if it is issued in something tidy and coherent, and the last bars of Twilight of the Gods convey both a sense of the whole tortuous drama being over, but also seem to convey a promise – not one that anybody in the drama survives to fulfil, but one which we, the spectators, are expected to take over and honour.

Mr Holloway’s essay is extremely long and in spite of some charming bits of humour – a “doped and duped” Siegfried for instance – uncommonly dull. He begins with a discussion of the ever-fascinating leitmotifs of The Ring, but all he has to say is that they are many and their relationships complex. We all know that. Then Mr Holloway begins from the beginning and follows the music and the plot of the whole drama in excruciating detail. Much of all of this is simply beyond the poor lay reader, for example “the famous dawn-music that follows lingers suspiciously long upon the dominant, but the F# inaudibly turns to Gb which descends to F over which Siegfried’s horn-call sounds forth [64], soft, but with grand full harmony like a chorale, in Bb major.” If you find this enlightening, you have my awestruck admiration. The number in square brackets refers to the Thematic Guide where you can find the music in question.

The comprehensible part of this commentary is either trite description or very superficial analysis. If Mr Holloway says anything that you can’t learn from reading the complete text and listening to a complete recording, I’m not aware of it. Siegfried’s coming in Act One, Scene Two, is a classic example. “The words here are simply the necessary formalities; the leitmotif tells the truth” is Mr Holloway’s brilliant comment, adding that Hagen’s greeting is set to “a lurid, rhetorical statement of the curse-motif”. We can hear that. We know who Hagen is, or if we don’t we’ll learn in the first scene of the next act, and we can see through his matchmaking schemes about Gunther and Gutrune. We know Siegfried’s death is being arranged at this moment. We know the “music says so”. We remember the so-called “curse-motif” from the fourth scene of Das Rheingold where Alberich curses Wotan that the Ring should bring him misfortune.

I can only repeat my surprise at how little essays like this say that the music and the text don’t to the careful reader-listener. Here is my advice to greater newcomers to The Ring than myself, and mark it well for it is good advice. Read the text and listen to the music carefully, completely and repeatedly. That’s all you need. Once you have formed your personal conception of the work, then and only then turn to commentators like Mr Holloway. You may find him more useful than I did.

Mr Wintle’s essay is relatively short but very dense. Much of it is inaccessible to readers without advanced knowledge of music theory. The little I understand is interesting if not always convincing. In between music examples that run to nearly one full page, Mr Wintle talks about three types of laughter in the cycle and a biblical allegory with Wotan representing the Old Testament and Siegfried the New One (“it is harder to think of Siegfried as the Redeemer of man”, Mr Wintle somewhat sheepishly admits). Less convincingly, The Ring is supposed to be an attempt to regain a lost paradise (Valhalla), a failed attempt, needless to add, on Wotan’s part, though a briefly successful one when Siegfried and Brünnhilde are united in their love. This is a rather fantastical notion, but it makes sense of the couple as no free agents but “as much an extension of Wotan’s all-too-human eugenic fantasy as they are of his loins.” Now and then, Mr Wintle, a rather pretentious writer as you can tell from the title of his essay, comes with a nice turn of phrase.

The libretto is excellent. Wagner’s complete text is given, including the parts he didn’t set to music but retained in the printed version, and Andrew Porter’s translation is a joy to sing if you feel perverse enough to sing Wagner in English. All stage directions appear only in English, in the middle of the page, but they are complete, too. This is important. Wagner’s stage directions are extensive and an essential part of his librettos.

The illustrations are unusually good. Even those as big, or as small, as quarter of a page are printed, with but a few exceptions, is fine resolution that enables you to appreciate a good deal of detail. Not unusually, all are black-and-white and mostly concerned with British productions, but they go back to the world premiere in Bayreuth 140 years ago.

[1] George Bernard Shaw, The Perfect Wagnerite, “Back to Opera Again”, Dover, 1967, p. 54-55. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Sep 27, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
English National Operaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
John, NicholasSeries Editormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Wagner, RichardLibrettistmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Porter, AndrewTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Tanner, MichaelContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wintle, ChristopherContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Friend, LionelContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Holloway, RobinContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Peterson, CathyContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0714540633, Paperback)

The English National Opera Guides were originally conceived in partnership with the English National Opera and edited by Nicholas John, the ENO's dramaturg, who died tragically in an accident in the Alps. Most of the guides are devoted to a single opera, which is described in detail—with many articles that cover its history and information about the composer and his times. The complete libretto is included in both the original language and in a modern singing translation—except where the opera was written in English. Each has a thematic guide to the most important musical themes in musical notation and each guide is lavishly illustrated. They also contain a bibliography and a discography which is updated at each reprint. The ENO guides are widely regarded as the best series of their kind and excellent value.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:29 -0400)

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