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Handsomely bound in screenprinted blocked cloth, presented in a beautiful hard slipcase and illustrated with 17 black-and- white integrated illustrations plus eight pages of black-and-white integrated images, on a purely visual level this is surely the sleekest edition of the libretto of Wagner’s Ring.

It is announced as a ‘companion’, since although Wagner’s words are the centrepiece, there are six articles (plus an introduction) examining various aspects of the text. A chronology of Wagner’s life contextualises the composer’s magnum opus within his output, while a fascinating 11-page selection of cross-referenced ‘Rejected Versions’ forms an appendix, including passages from what Spencer calls Brünnhilde’s ‘peroration’. There are copious notes on the translation itself, while a Glossary of Names helpfully outlines derivations from, for example, Middle High German or Old Norse, before a bibliography specific to those texts mentioned in the present volume, with writers from Abbate to Zurmühl via Whittall, Tanner, Dahlhaus and Deathridge, to mention but few distinguished scholars. Synopses are supplied, prefacing each music-drama.

It is as important to appreciate the background of the Ring’s libretto as it is to realise the philosophical influences (Schopenhauer and Feuerbach featuring prominently in the latter). The accompanying articles are brief but useful, and invaluable in pointing forwards further investigation. Barry Millington on Wagner’s Revolutionary Musical Reforms includes the elevation of the importance of the Leitmotif in the Ring and an examination of Wagner’s ‘hybrid mode of arioso’ all in the context of Wagner’s revolution of intent – the Artwork of the Future – and construction, plus a ‘Thematic Guide’. Millington’s What shall we do for a Ring? traces the history of Ring productions from the first in Bayreuth in 1876 and the ‘Bayreuth style’ to the anti-naturalism of Adolphe Appia in Switzerland in the 1920s, through the impact of Siegfried Wagner, the thorny problem of Hitler, the reign of Wieland Wagner, Ralph Koltai’s futuristic Ring in England in the early 1970s, culminating in the ground-breaking productions of Chéreau and Lehnhoff. Illutrations and photographs flesh out the picture, including Götz Friedrich’s cycle at Covent Garden and Chéreau, Hall, Kupfer and Ruth Berghaus, all at Bayreuth. Elizabeth Magee traces literary sources from the Nibelingenlied and Scandinavian sources such as the Edda and the Volsunga saga.

One of the most useful essays is Roger Hollindrake’s Epiphany and Apocalypse in the Ring, which includes a fine exposition of the influence of Feuerbach (particularly in regards to humanism) and, later, Schopenhauer. Finally, we have Warren Darcy in ‘The World belongs to Alberich!’: Wagner’s changing attitude towards the Ring, an exploration of the Ring’s genesis and the journey to its final form.

The centrepiece is Stewart Spencer’s translation of the Ring text itself. Although not new (first published in 1993), shrouding it in a combination of lavish presentation and academic rigour accords a gravitas it so richly deserves. Coming in a distinguished line which started with Alfred Forman’s awkward first- ever translation, via Andrew Porter’s well-loved 1976 offering, it also comes into close competition with John Deathridge’s 2018 translation.

Spencer’s translation effectively walks a tightrope between meaning and poetry, attempting maintain the ‘Hebungen’ (lifts) and ‘Senkungen’ (dips) of the text, taking those terms from Ludwig Entmüller (of Die Lieder der Edda von den Nibelungen, Zürich, 1837). In practice, the experience of following the text works beautifully (as it does reading it as a poem). Occasional archaic words (‘Helpmeet’, p176) seem to link an earlier English, something Deathridge in his translation is at pains to avoid.

In response to the sheer enormity of Spencer’s achievement it seems churlish to niggle, but when there is a slip one does feel it all the more. So when on page 166 the text implies that Wotan sings ‘Heervater / harret dein’ (rather than Fricka) but the stage indication then states ‘She drives quickly away’ (my emphasis) it does rather drag one out of the moment (I haven’t seen a cross-dressing Wotan – yet). I wonder, too, if the descriptions of Wotan’s entrance in Act II is meant to be an ‘excess’ rather than an ‘access’ of fury (p198). Stage directions are in English only.

Inserted into the centre of the page are the numbers of Leitmotifs, while superscripts take us to Spencer’s ‘Notes on the translation’ – full, fascinating, inviting further research. As to the Leitmotifs themselves, laudably only a few are labelled. Segmentation is a little inconsistent, though: the ‘Sword’ motif (a C-major arpeggiation) is segmented within its two bars into ‘a’, ‘b’, and ‘c’; while his Leitmotif 32 is two related themes [32a] and [32b], one an expansion of the other.

Whether one calls the Ring a tetralogy (Darcy) or trilogy with preludial evening (Vorabend: Hollindrake), it remains a magnificent achievement. This edition invites us to read the text sans music as well as then enjoying the alchemical synthesis with music that results in an other greater than both.

The 17 fine-line drawings by veteran illustrator John Vernon Lord, which concentrate on ‘concrete’ elements (spear, sword, ring, gold) work well with his idea that illustrations act as a ‘type of visual index’ (p59); there are two exceptions: a dragon and a woodbird. The front of the slipcase is a composite image of Wotan’s spear, Siegfried’s sword, the Ring itself and the Norns’ rope. The binding design shows the golden ring (Lord’s explanations are unscholastic and all the more delightful for it: ‘The dead man’s arm rose into the air, which spooked everybody,’ p61).

As Spencer says, ‘in one sense the poem of the Ring is untranslatable, since it manifests a degree of linguistic purity which no other language can hope to match’ (p26). And yet he then goes on to produce something akin to the impossible, a readable translation which retains the shape as well as the meaning of the original. The presentation is beautiful; ‘Vollendet das ewige Werk’, one might say; if it were not for the academic gold within. To follow up on only a handful of references in the bibliography would increase appreciation of Wagner’s Ring cycle enormously. This invaluable tome is a beginning, not an end.

Colin Clarke Read the full review on Agora Classica


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