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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > July 2016 > A Valhalla state of mind

A Valhalla state of mind

Richard Wagner’s monumental Ring Cycle dramatises the eternal conflict between political power and human love

At the end of June, Opera North brings its acclaimed production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle to London’s Southbank Centre. It is the near-climax of an ambitious five-year project that saw the whole Cycle toured round the UK. To mark this rare and highly anticipated performance, philosopher Roger Scruton reflects on the revolutionary ideas about power and love that drove Wagner to compose one of the most astonishing music dramas in the western canon.

Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which he began in 1848 and on which he worked over the next two decades, is a comprehensive re-working of Old Norse myths, as recounted in the Icelandic Eddas. In Wagner’s story, the Viking gods are situated in a German landscape, along with Siegfried, hero of the German medieval epic Nibelungenlied. The Ring Cycle is about the gods, but the gods as conceived by a modern artist, whose concern is to create a myth that will comprehend all the principles—moral, political and spiritual—by which the modern world is governed. It is a story of the gods for people who have no gods to believe in.

World without end: a production of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the last opera in the Ring Cycle, at the China National Opera House in Beijing in 2015
© JIN LIANGKUAI/XINHUA/ALAMY LIVE NEWS

That is why the Ring Cycle is of ever-increasing importance to music-lovers in our times. Its theme is the death of the gods, and what the gods have bequeathed to us, namely, the knowledge of, and longing for, the sacred. Until we recognise sacred moments, Wagner implies in this monumental work, we cannot live fully as free beings. These moments are the foundation of all our attempts to endow human life with significance. Despite the controversies that have surrounded this great work—its vast length, its dubious later associations with Nazi thought—it constantly grows on the collective imagination. It is not the answer to life in a post-religious world, but it asks the real questions, and shows us one fruitful way of confronting them. We should not be surprised that the forthcoming Opera North production at the Southbank in London was sold out within the space of a day.

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In Prospect’s July issue: In her final issue as Editor Bronwen Maddox explores the legacy of former Prime Minister Tony Blair having spoken with him at a Prospect event on 24th May. She examines his domestic policy, the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan and what the future holds for the Labour Party. The Chancellor George Osborne lays down his view on why the public should to “Remain” in the EU, and Ian Hargreaves takes a close look at what is happening at the BBC. Also in this issue: Former Conservative leader David Davis suggests he can see a very narrow set of circumstances that might push him towards running for the party leadership again, William Skidelsky writes about why tennis is the best sport and Vanora Bennett looks at Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary work recording Russia’s lost voices.
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