Watch Wagner’s Ring Cycle: A Complete 15-Hour Performance Is Now Free Online Thanks to the BBC

The word “Wag­ner­ian” as a syn­onym for oper­at­ic bom­bast may have fall­en out of favor in recent years, as has the rep­u­ta­tion of Ger­man com­pos­er Richard Wag­n­er. He has been regard­ed as “the most repug­nant of musi­cal nation­al­ists,” writes David P. Gold­man at Tablet—a sen­ti­ment wide­ly shared giv­en Wagner’s per­ma­nent asso­ci­a­tion with Nazism. His music has long been banned in Israel, though “every so often a promi­nent musi­cian makes a point of sneak­ing Wag­n­er into a pub­lic con­cert.” And just as phi­los­o­phy depart­ments across the world have strug­gled with Mar­tin Heidegger’s Nazism, so the clas­si­cal music and opera worlds have wres­tled with Wag­n­er.

What’s odd, how­ev­er, in this case, is that Wag­n­er died in 1883. He tow­ered over 19th-cen­tu­ry Ger­man cul­ture, a con­tem­po­rary of Niet­zsche rather than Hitler, who claimed him after the composer’s death.

Yet those who know the sto­ry of Wag­n­er’s tur­bu­lent friend­ship with Niet­zsche know that the philoso­pher vio­lent­ly reject­ed his for­mer idol and father fig­ure in part because, as Robert Hol­ub argues, Niet­zsche “was unequiv­o­cal­ly antag­o­nis­tic toward what he under­stood as anti-Semi­tism and anti-Semi­tes.” Niet­zsche saw the writ­ing on the wall in views Wag­n­er expressed in essays like 1850’s “Judaism in Music.”

Wagner—musicologists and his­to­ri­ans would say—also saw the future, and helped design it through his unwit­ting posthu­mous influ­ence on Hitler. The com­poser’s famed the­o­ry and prac­tice of what he called Gesamtkunst­werk, the “total work of art,” antic­i­pate the mas­sive spec­ta­cles of 20th cen­tu­ry total­i­tar­i­an aes­thet­ics and the mytho­log­i­cal dimen­sions of 20th cen­tu­ry fas­cism. Wag­n­er called his work the “Music of the Future,” hap­pi­ly appro­pri­at­ing a term crit­ics used to deride his Roman­tic nation­al­ism. But Wagner’s cul­tur­al influ­ence is much, much broad­er than its most damn­ing asso­ci­a­tion, includ­ing his for­ma­tive influ­ence on Niet­zsche.

Wagner’s great­est achieve­ment, Der Ring des Nibelun­gen—referred to as the Ring Cycle—inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and scored the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene in Apoc­a­lypse Now. Loony Tunes’ “Kill the Wab­bit” spoofed the Ring Cycle, and became an entire generation’s “first, and often only expo­sure to opera,” as Ayun Hal­l­i­day not­ed here recent­ly. The Ring Cycle’s over­whelm­ing demon­stra­tion of the Gesamtkunst­werk is a thing to behold, and you can see it here per­formed in full, all four parts, “15 hours of epic opera” cour­tesy of BBC Arts and The Space. The film here, by Opera North, comes from live per­for­mances in Leeds in 2016. At the top, see Das Rhein­gold, below it Die Walküre, just above Siegfried, and below Göt­ter­däm­merung (“Twi­light of the Gods”).

So what should we make of Wagner’s music, giv­en its unavoid­able rela­tion­ship to wars of dom­i­na­tion (against even “Wab­bits”)? If we are to heed some of his crit­ics, we might think of him as a 19th cen­tu­ry Michael Bay. Mark Twain is rumored to have called Wagner’s music “bet­ter than it sounds”—though it turns out the quote actu­al­ly comes from humorist Edgar Wil­son. Twain did write that he enjoyed “the first act of every­thing Wag­n­er cre­at­ed,” but “after two acts I have gone away phys­i­cal­ly exhaust­ed.” Samuel Beck­ett, in a gem of a para­graph, called Wagner’s work “clouds on wheels.” But Wag­n­er is also incred­i­bly pow­er­ful and often sub­lime, and his music does inspire the kind of awe that Tolkien and Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la drew on for their own awe-inspir­ing work.

< Appre­ci­at­ing Wag­n­er may indeed be an endurance exer­cise. His boom­ing tales of dwarfs and giants, gods and riv­er-maid­ens, heroes and, yes, Valkyries, can seem to rum­ble along sev­er­al miles above us. The exer­cise is not for the faint of heart. How­ev­er, the tech­nol­o­gy of stream­ing video can save us from Twain’s fate—you can return here, or to the BBC’s site—as many times as you like with­out hav­ing to take in the mas­sive Der Ring des Nibelun­gen all in one sit­ting. And as is always help­ful in opera of any length, you can peruse summaries—like this one—when you feel a bit lost in the clouds. Or, for a tru­ly sur­re­al con­densed Wag­ner­ian expe­ri­ence, watch the video above of “four and a half hours of opera in one minute.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

New Web Site, “The Opera Plat­form,” Lets You Watch La Travi­a­ta and Oth­er First-Class Operas Free Online

Stephen Fry Hosts “The Sci­ence of Opera,” a Dis­cus­sion of How Music Moves Us Phys­i­cal­ly to Tears

Kill the Wab­bit!: How the 1957 Bugs Bun­ny Car­toon, “What’s Opera, Doc?,” Inspired Today’s Opera Singers to First Get Into Opera

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Kurdistan says:

    I know more. Thank you for men­tion­ing authors’ thoughts on Wag­n­er’s oeu­vre Josh.

  • Charlotte says:

    think­ing of Anna Rus­sell…
    thank you

  • Brian says:

    Where are Acts 2 & 3 from Göt­ter­däm­merung? Is there a link(s) else­where to watch those?

  • Roger White says:

    I don’t wish to see mytho­log­i­cal char­ac­ters dressed in mod­ern suits, cock­tail gowns and vests for he same rea­son I don’t want to see Mimi and Rodol­fo in fur with shields and spears:it’s ridicu­lous.
    How about respect­ing the com­poser’s wish­es and the audi­ence’s intel­li­gence?

  • Diana Bell says:

    Please tell me how do I sign for the Ring Cycle opera and oth­er oper­at­ic per­for­mances.
    This is great and I will be donat­ing to the orga­ni­za­tion for their gen­eros­i­ty.
    Ms. Diana Bell

  • Ricky says:

    These per­for­mances were very emo­tion­al!!! Thank you!!

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