Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Answer

Last Wednesday night I left a riddle on the blog.

The answer?

Each of those item that I listed owes a direct or indirect debt to Richard Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" cycle of operas, commonly known as "The Ring Cycle."

Why do I bring this up?

Because I was delighted to listen to the New Year's Day podcast of RadioLab that delved into the importance and impact of Wagner's "Ring."

Unlettered though I may be on many things, I am not unfamiliar with the importance of Wagner and his cycle of four operas. As fate would have it, I enrolled in a year-long, detailed study of this topic while attending Georgia Southern University many years ago. Dr. Michael Braz taught the course over the fall, winter, and spring quarters of my sophomore year. In that class I learned about Wagner and a great deal about the Ring cycle.

The class operated as follows: We went through each of the operas in the Ring Cycle, watching a video performance of the entire affair over the course of the year. We stopped to discuss the language being sung by the actors and especially focusing on the musical components that augmented the story.

Most illuminating of all, we discussed Wagner's use of leitmotif--a musical theme/sequence of notes that he assigned to characters, important objects, significant actions. The operatic score, therefore, helped tell the human story through music. In one of Wagner's most significant innovations, he used musical leitmotifs to foreshadow events that had not yet occurred. Those musically in-the-know would get tonal clues to spur the story on.

(Really, the RadioLab podcast does a much better job of getting across what I'm trying to say here . . . and it allows you to listen to examples. Do yourself a favor and give it a listen.)

So, enough with the general answer. In specific--

1. J.R.R. Tolkien utilized the same Norse mythology that Wagner mined for his own Rings trilogy. And when Peter Jackson filmed the movies, composer Howard Shore (as do almost all composers today) utilized the idea of leitmotif. The Shire has a theme, the Nazgul have a theme, heck the Ring has multiple themes.

2. Jaws is a great example of the use of leitmotif foreshadowing. I am borrowing this specific example from the podcast, but you all know that when you hear the two note cello theme starting to build up, the shark is on the way, even if he's nowhere to be seen on film. Apocalypse Now, of course, made Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries" a fanfare for the common soldier.

3. One of Elmer Fudd's greatest cartoon moments was when he donned the horned viking helmet and breastplate to try and "Kill the Wabbit." Directly lifted from opera #2, Die Walkure.

4. Another example of leitmotifs, more modernly expressed is John Williams Luke and Leia themes from the original Star Wars trilogies.

5. Hitler was a famous fan of Wagner, believing his German opera told the historical truth of the origins of the true, pure Germanic race. Wagner (and everyone after him) used mythology to tell their own versions of stories. Hitler twisted it around as well.

6. As mentioned above, Dr. Braz conceived of the course that introduced me to it all and I was in the first class to experience it. Sorry his original link was broken.

7. The painting displayed below was given to me by my brother Muleskinner when he was dabbling in the art form while I was in college. Since I got the flames as a Christmas gift the year that I was taking the class, I chose to name the image "Morning at Fafnirs," a nod to the moment in opera 3 (Siegfried) when he is trying to sneak up on the dragon named Fafnir. The flames are self-explanatory and the darker/lighter colors on the edge of the canvas made me think of sunrise.

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