European studies blog

22 May 2013

Opera crimes

Today is the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth. Our Music Blog is marking this with news of a digitisation project, but I make no excuse for blogging on the same topic on the same day. After all the many items in the media last week  have not only covered Wagner's music but also his cultural, political and literary influence. On 8-9 June the British Library will be hosting a "Wagner Weekend" featuring a seminar on Wagner as a writer and a dramatic reading of his tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen - both events with a literary rather than musical focus. Few other composers’ work would be examined (or performed) in this way!

In fact, there are few aspects of Wagner’s work which have gone unexplored over the years. One particularly strange little corner of Wagner studies is the legal analysis of the Ring Cycle. The writer Paul Lindau, in a review of the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876 [BL: 11794.c.17.], was perhaps the first to mention how many criminal offences are committed in the work, ranging from petty (unauthorised bathing by the Rhinemaidens) to severe (various murders).

Lindau had his tongue firmly in his cheek, but some writers have taken a more serious look at the legal side of the Ring Cycle. After all, the plot of Das Rheingold turns on a theft and a breach of contract, while oath-breaking and perjury loom large in Götterdämmerung. As critics from Bernard Shaw  onwards have recognised, Wagner was concerned in the Ring with power and its abuses, and the making, breaking and defying of laws form part of that theme. So trying to establish, to use the title of one essay, “Whose Gold? Whose Ring? Whose Helmet?” can be more than a mere parlour game for bored lawyers when analysing the complex political and moral world of the tetralogy.

Still, it’s the parlour game aspect that really catches the imagination, and its finest flowering is a work entitled Richard Wagners 'Ring des Nibelungen' im Lichte des deutschen Strafrechts (Richard Wagner’s 'Ring of the Nibelung' in the Light of German Criminal Law) [BL: YA.1994.a.10378]. Allegedly written in the 1930s by Ernst von Pidde, a provincial lawyer sacked by the Nazis for writing anti-Wagner polemics, this is in fact an anonymous spoof, first published in 1968 and occasionally reissued with updates taking into account changes in German law.

“Pidde” painstakingly analyses text (and sometimes music) to establish, for example, whether the hero Siegfried’s killing of giant-turned-dragon Fafner should be classed as homicide or cruelty to animals. At the end of the book he lists the relevant punishments for the guilty characters: I’ve always thought it unfair that the goddess Fricka gets life for incitement to murder while her husband Wotan, as accessory to the same murder (and killer, thief and arsonist), could be out in five years!Final scene of Götterdämmerung by Arthur Rackham

But for a truly obscure crime, we have to go back to Lindau. At the end of Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde rides her horse into Siegfried’s funeral pyre, and is thus guilty of “burning the carcase of an animal in close proximity to inhabited buildings”. As they might have said on The Sweeney, “Get yer breastplate on, you’re nicked!”. 

Susan Reed, Lead Curator, Germanic Studies

Brünnhilde rides into Siegfried's funeral pyre: technically illegal. 


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