Siegfried, Wotan and Tannhäuser: it is the male heroes who seem to leave their mark on Wagner’s music dramas. But closer inspection reveals that it is the female characters who guide events, through their resolute actions and farsightedness, often preventing the worst from happening.
“For me the spirit of art can exist only in love,” Wagner wrote in 1851. Although the plots of his music dramas may be steeped in myth, love between men and women is their principal theme, along with the tension between instinct and loyalty and the determination never to give up, no matter how often we may fail. An egomaniac driven by erotomania, Wagner was well aware how difficult it is to reconcile the need for constancy with the desire for novelty. In the Ring he puts these words in the mouth of his god Wotan: “All who live love renewal and change. […] I longed in my heart for power […] yet I did not like to give up love.” The same was true of the composer.
Although his first marriage to the actress Minna Planer lasted until her death, it soon became a tempestuous, on-off relationship. In 1854 Wagner admitted to his mentor and friend Franz Liszt that he sought refuge in work and in affairs with other women: “As a result of a hasty marriage at the age of twenty-three to a woman whom I respect but who is totally unsuited to me, I have become an outlaw for life. […] In truth I reached the age of thirty-six before I became fully aware of that terrible emptiness: until then my nature had been held in a state of balance between two conflicting elements of desire within me, one of which I sought to appease by means of my art, while periodically giving vent to the other by means of passionate, fantastical and sensual extravagances.”
In this, Wagner remained true to himself throughout his life. Before and after his separation from Minna, he had a series of romantic affairs, and even during his second marriage to Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, he was repeatedly consumed by desire for other women.
Based on personal experience?
Many scenes in Wagner’s operas can be interpreted as a reflection of his own experiences and as a sublimation of his own weaknesses. Nor should we forget that until Wagner, no composer had given musical expression to physical love in such joyous, uninhibited and unbridled terms. This is especially true of the end of Act One of Die Walküre and of the Bacchanal in Tannhäuser. But despite the patriarchal tone of some of his comments in his writings and letters, the lords of creation come off relatively badly in his works in comparison to the women.
In 1854 Wagner wrote to his friend August Röckel to acquaint him with the intellectual foundations of the Ring, stressing in particular the relationship between the sexes: “Whenever we speak nowadays of ‘humankind’, it must be admitted that we are so insensately stupid that we always think involuntarily only of men. But it is the union of man and woman, in other words, love, that creates (physically and metaphysically) the human being.”
Women recognize the problems
The German writer on music Paul Bekker drew attention to this point when he observed that “Curiously enough, Wagner’s world of ideas has been seen as primarily male and heroic, but commentators have failed to see that the heroism of the man is merely an aftereffect, a reaction to the woman’s guiding force. It is in this force that the real lifeline of Wagner’s art lies.”
Although his works generally take their titles from men, it is mostly the women who recognize the problems that need solving - sooner than their male counterparts. Take Tannhäuser: here our hero travels to the Wartburg in order to marry the landgrave’s niece, Elisabeth. First, however, he has to win a singing contest in the course of which he is provoked into singing a hymn in praise of Venus, in the process revealing that he has spent some time in the Venusberg. This is a sacrilege and a crime that spells the end of his hopes for Elisabeth’s hand in marriage.
Braving death, she prevents the outraged knights at the Wartburg court from lynching Tannhäuser and, carefully arguing her case, persuades them to accept the Christian demand for forgiveness. In this way she saves Tannhäuser’s life, opening up his path to redemption.
Driven by instinct, in thrall to illusion or simply stupid
In the Ring, too, women show insight where men are initially deluded. Women are wise and far-seeing, while the men are driven by instinct, in thrall to illusion or simply too stupid to notice that they are stumbling from one mess to another. We already find an example of this in Das Rheingold, the preliminary evening of the four-part Ring, when Wotan miscalculates a relatively straightforward point. He has had a citadel built by the two giants Fasolt and Fafner; in return, he promises to give them his sister-in-law Freia. But he has no intention of keeping his word.
Instead, he relies on his sidekick Loge to find a solution to his problem. Wotan’s wife, Fricka, has warned him about this from the outset and, needless to say, she is proved right. In his attempt to extricate his neck from the noose, Wotan becomes more and more inextricably enmeshed in his own intrigues. Only on the most superficial level can Fricka be seen as a jealous wife and conservative advocate of marriage and of the law; in fact, Wagner has given her some of his most seductive melodies and a razor-sharp intellect.
Even greater insight is granted to the earth goddess Erda, who appears at a critical juncture in Das Rheingold and tells Wotan to shun the powerful but accursed ring that belongs to the Nibelung Alberich. Almost immediately afterwards we are given vivid proof of the accuracy of her prediction, when Fafner kills his brother while trying to take the ring for himself. Wotan will later father a daughter, Brünnhilde, with Erda. He raises her to play the part of a war-like helpmeet, only for her to outgrow the role that he had allotted her. At the end of the Ring, she will help to ensure that, following the collapse of the gods’ world order, humankind will have an opportunity to create a new constitution.
Brünnhilde breaks the curse
When Siegmund, fleeing from his attackers, seeks shelter in Sieglinde’s house, it is Sieglinde who first realizes who he really is. On the day she was married against her will, an elderly stranger who reminded her of her own lost father had turned up at the wedding and thrust a sword into the trunk of an ash tree. Since then, she has suspected that someone will come to rescue her. When the nameless warrior stumbles into her house, she sees his similarity to the old man. Her visitor is soon consumed by desire for her. She carefully tries to set him straight, but shortly before the end of the act, she is obliged to tell him his name and explain who he is.
The love between Siegmund and Sieglinde is short-lived. Fricka is implacable in making it clear to Wotan that if he is to uphold the law and do what is right, he has no choice but to take the powerful sword from his son, even though in doing so he is condemning Siegmund to death. But Brünnhilde sides with love and rescues Sieglinde and her still unborn son, Siegfried. Labelled “stupid” from the outset, Siegfried is incapable of returning the ring to the Rhinedaughters and of breaking its curse. This is a task that Brünnhilde ultimately takes upon herself, thereby providing yet further proof of women’s inherent superiority.