An introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen with extracts from the complete recording (Deryck Cooke/Vienna PO/Georg Solti)
Most acts have subconscious motives. Wagner's are no exception; so he has never lacked analysts, whether on Jungian lines (like Robert Donington) or Marxian lines (like Bernard Shaw) -and now on straightforward music lines by Deryck Cooke. We know that music lectures nowadays can come as well from discs as from desks-better, if Gerald Moore on accompaniment is any guide. But the three-disc set, or musicological box, seems novel. It might be (a) advertisement (make it a decca Ring, solid value at £42); (6) exegetics (the leading motives and how far they take us); (e) commentary (how they interact to make the music drama); (d) analysis (how their sound is cognate with their sense); or (e) deeper analysis (how Wagner’s expressions are subconsciously composed of the language of music).
No doubt (e) goes too deep for sound to plummet. But a book would go down very well. So would Mr Cooke write one; none better. I for one thirst to hear how in Wagner the idea of “water” turns on an arpeggio (just as in Schubert). So, it seems, does “nature” (just as in Schumann), while “mystery” juxtaposes unrelated tonalities (just as in Wolf). The leading motive may be the Lieder motive writ large.
On (d) too Mr Cooke provides food for thought. He dispels the dull notion that Wagner's motives are merely arbitrary. As he says, the Ring motive is ring-shaped; as we can hear, the Sword is a pointed contrast. There are other penetrating points. Thus the motive usually called Flight is aptly reclassified as Freia and compassion (the Pursuit of Love, one might perhaps still call it).
But all this is mainly a bonus to the declared purpose of (6) and (c) – “as brief an introduction as possible to the thematic structure of the Ring as it relates to the symbolic structure of the stage drama”. From the watery depths of the first page to the burning heights of the last, these elements are analysed in a way that could hardly be bettered for depth of insight or clarity of presentation. I can't imagine any Wagnerite so perfect that he won't learn something from this discourse (or disc-course) on how to master the language.
There is a vocabulary of nearly 200 musical examples; the sixth side offers further texts for study (the Siegfried Idyll and the Kinderkatechismus); a reference booklet reproduces the talk and indicates the motives, with a detailed index showing where they occur in the scores. And the general excellence of both precept and example brings us full circle back to (a) above. This set provides the best possible advertisement, in the best possible sense, for Wagner's genius, Mr Cooke's talents, and Decca's enterprise.
The Musical Times, Oct. 1969 (p. 1050) © the estate of eric sams, 1969