Wagner fans know the story about the inspiration for the music of Das Rheingold. In the autumn of 1853, when Wagner was on holiday in La Spezia, he got dysentery and spent a lot of time in bed and on the toilet. One day, he claims in his robustly self-mythologizing autobiography Mein Leben, in a state of—delirium? Vision? Trance?—he heard the sound of rushing water. The water rushed and rushed but then eventually resolved itself into a stream of E-flat arpeggios which then became the music of Das Rheingold, the first of the four operas in Der Ring des Nibelungen, also known as the Ring cycle, which begins a run on August 4 at Seattle Opera. An aural hallucination from on high inspired him.
Probably fewer Wagner fanatics are aware of something I ran across when I was looking up Barry Millington, author of The New Grove Guide to Wagner and His Operas, which is that "most toilets flush in E-flat"... "a phenomenon of crucial concern to Wagnerians." "If toilets flush in E-flat," continues the Millington citation, "could the initial inspiration for the Ring actually have been the flushing of an Italian lavatory cistern?" This coexistence of the sublime with the ridiculous, otherworldly transcendence with the mundane and very human here-and-now, is always present in Wagner.
Unlike most composers, Wagner also wrote the words to his operas. He wanted his operas to be more than merely realistic, but also to convey great big political, philosophical, mythic, and religious ideas. He had worked on the story of Der Ring for years. In the early 1840s, he immersed himself in classical literature and myth. In the late 1840s, Western Europe erupted in revolutions that make the late 1960s look like Disneyland, and the Arab Spring almost tame. It was a time when young people, intellectuals, workers, and others fed up with the indifference of their rulers to social inequality rebelled, and lots and lots of them had hell to pay. Barricades were raised (like in Les Mis!), governments fell, people were slaughtered, exiled, liberated, and re-oppressed. For a while, Wagner was a wild-eyed radical and took part in the Dresden insurrection. He may have even made some hand grenades. A warrant was issued for his arrest, and he had to flee Germany. He lived in exile (Paris, Vienna, Zurich) for about a dozen years, during which time he wrote essays about politics, drama, and music (including the anti-Semitic Das Judentum in der Musik), and drafted plays and operas about culture-changing figures such as Parzival, Lohengrin, Emperor Barbarossa, and Jesus. Each of these dramas, to whatever degree, tells the story of a wounded old man or wounded old culture in desperate need of repair. Redemption arrives via supernatural things like magic rings or cloaks that can make the wearer disappear, or through a man who's different from others, a stranger who's from far away or been born in some eerie way and is a fool or innocent. He's given riddles to answer or tasks to perform, and he must also make a very difficult choice. These stories are about the conflict between good and evil, law and love, the corrupting power of power and the salvific heart. They end in tragedy or hope or sometimes both.
Shortly after he heard the water-rushing arpeggios, Wagner drafted the score for Das Rheingold. Over the next couple of years (1854–56), he drafted Die Walküre and continued, while composing other work, laboring over Der Ring. These same years, he was falling in and out of love with his first wife and then his second, battling debt collectors (he once fled from people he owed money to accompanied by his dog named Robber), and trawling around for patrons.
In other words, though Wagner wanted his operas to convey big philosophical ideas, they are also shot through with the more mundane concerns of money, greed, envy, lust, and the desire for revenge that figured so prominently in his life. They also contain, in terms of plot, a lot of completely ridiculous events (though not more ridiculous than most myths, fairy tales, or some of the stuff in his life, such as the time he and his wife lived with a wolf...). The plot of Der Ring, ridiculous or not, will sound extremely familiar if you have read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings or seen the movies.
Last week, I looked again at The Fellowship of the Ring DVD and noticed that the short little clip at the very start—the bit you see before it sets up the menu to "play movie" or "select scene" etc.—was of a hand dipping down into a river and pulling up a ring. The water gets stirred and cloudy; the ring is seductive gold. Though Tolkien denied his Ring was influenced by Wagner's, I find that a little hard to swallow. In an article in the New Yorker a few years back, Alex Ross claimed Tolkien had made an "informal study of Die Walküre not long before writing the novels." Like Wagner's, Tolkien's Ring is a story of good and evil, redemption and faith—and it contains a river at the start; a corrupting and powerful ring; a short, dark, creepy creature who possesses it; a magical sword; an invisibility garment; distinct and warring "races"; a tall, skinny, wandering wise man; an intense relationship between landscape and people; an innocent redeemer; people wearing awesome headgear; and flying animals.
Wagner's plot also contains some disturbing things that Tolkien's doesn't. In Wagner, there's incest (almost-savior Siegfried is the love child of siblings), men offering women as payment to other men (Wotan promises to pay the giants with Freia), and goddess-sized marital spats (Fricka nails Wotan). There's also more singing. Here are some of the highlights, both musical and otherwise.
Das Rheingold: The Rhinemaidens, whom Anna Russell, a Canadian-British singer-comedienne, calls "a kind of aquatic Andrews Sisters," sing.
Die Walküre contains "Ride of the Valkyries," which is what the guy is listening to in the helicopter in Apocalypse Now as he is flying off to bomb everyone to smithereens.
Siegfried: Roles in this one include a giant, a dragon, a forest bird, a sword, and a woman awakened with a kiss. Only one of the above doesn't sing.
Götterdämmerung: The river overflows, the ring is recovered (maybe... sort of?... for a while?), and there is a humongous great noisy consuming fire that either destroys or renews everything. Sometimes it's hard to tell, and I wonder which.
I bet Tolkien wondered, too.