A Classical-Music Philistine Experiences Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle for the First Time | National Review

A Classical-Music Philistine Experiences Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle for the First Time | National Review

From Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen (Wikipedia )

The New Year’s resolution is a capricious thing, often arbitrarily made, haltingly followed, and quickly abandoned. Perhaps that will be the case for my New Year’s resolution to increase my exposure to and knowledge of classical music, which I know embarrassingly little about. I have set about remedying this deficiency in classic amateur fashion: i.e., haphazardly, guided by what little knowledge I do have. Which is why, not long into my resolution, I decided to jump into the deep end and listen to all of Richard Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Yes, that’s right: Over the past few days, I attempted to absorb the entirety of the epic operas the famed 19th-century German composer labored for 26 years to complete. The version available on Spotify, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic and conducted by Herbert von Karajan, runs about eleven hours long. I listened to it fully aware that operas are typically not meant simply to be listened to; that this one, in particular, demands to be experienced as a “total work of art”; and that, every year, people fall over themselves to do so at the Beyreuth Festival in Germany. Add to the deficiency of my listening that I do not know German, and so even reading a summary of the story didn’t help me much (broadly speaking, it’s about an intergenerational struggle over a powerful Ring — but not that one).

Ergo, much of my listening experience was just sort of letting the impressive array of instrumentation wash over me while some Germanic babbling occasionally interrupted. People who actually know what they’re talking about are probably having heart attacks reading this right now, so my advance apologies to them. And yet, even so stunted a musical mind as my own was still capable of appreciating the work. This was easiest when a famous individual composition made its glorious appearance, such as the “Ride of the Valkyries” (famously used in Apocalypse Now, and elsewhere), or “Siegfried’s Funeral March” (which bookends John Boorman’s Excalibur).

These were not the only parts of what I listened to that I enjoyed, however; despite my not fully grasping their import, many others stirred up sentiments in me that I simply do not encounter in popular music (though progressive rock gets close). I also noticed how these compositions and others are teased in leitmotif form before they make their full debuts, and then referred back to after, throughout the entirety of the work as a whole. The anticipation and recursion were both very rewarding.

And they served to demonstrate how influential Wagner has been in music. Again, stunted mind here, so I am most equipped to recognize this in terms of film scores. Many of the best scores with which I am familiar seem strikingly Wagnerian in their structure and intent. Indeed, Wagner’s own work here seems like a score to a film that does not exist (and that would of course be prohibitively long if it did). So give him credit for that.

I was probably foolish, in neophyte fashion, to dive headfirst into Wagner. But I don’t regret doing it anyway. I will now likely proceed along my resolution in a more systematic fashion, following advice offered to me from someone at National Review who understands this world much better than I.

Jack Butler is submissions editor at National Review Online.

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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.