Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung is a work that invites superlatives. More than a quarter of a century elapsed between its conception in 1848 and its first complete performance in 1876. The four parts (The Rhinegold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried, Twilight of the Gods) take between fifteen and seventeen hours to perform, depending on the conductor. It requires a dozen main soloists and a huge orchestra. Yet, despite the demands it makes on even the best-funded opera houses, not to mention audiences, its appeal has never waned. Indeed, today it is probably performed more often and in more places around the world than ever before.
Durability and universality are not the worst aesthetic criteria. Many other operas, of course, pass the same test with flying colours – The Merry Widow, for example – but very few deal with the fundamental issues of life and death. As Stephen Hawking observed in a BBC interview some twenty years ago, Wagner’s music goes deeper than anyone else’s. In this demanding but highly original and penetrating new study of The Ring, Roger Scruton explains how. He is wonderfully well equipped to do so: he has spent a lifetime immersed in the work and knows it back to front and upside down; he appears to have mastered the colossal amount of previous scholarship on the subject; he writes about the music authoritatively but comprehensibly; and, for the most part, he writes lucidly, cogently and even entertainingly (although we could do without words such as ‘stichomythic’).
Perhaps most important of all, he brings a philosopher’s toolkit to the task of reaching the heart of what he sees as an essentially philosophical work. At the outset he announces, ‘This is a work of criticism and also of philosophy’, adding that he is going to use it ‘as