Wagner Notes

The Annotated Ring Cycle, translated and annotated, by Frederick Paul Walter, 4 vols. Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield, 2021 & 2022 (each volume is sold separately).

The Annotated Ring Cycle, translated and annotated, by Frederick Paul Walter

Over the last several decades, interpretations of the Ring have become so various that it is difficult to find any scholarly analysis or staged production that has not been touched by the countless philosophies, ideologies, and beliefs that characterize the artistic life of our time. This is, of course, greatly to the credit of Wagner’s tetralogy, as we tend to attribute the infinite capacity to absorb changing interpretations as being distinctive only of the greatest works of art. The Ring has accumulated a mighty tradition of social, political, and philosophical polemic.

Under these circumstances, it can be salutary, every now and then, to engage in an “originalist” endeavor, to re-examine the text as written and composed by its creator. This has been attempted by Frederick Paul Walter in his new annotated translation of the four music dramas. In his introduction he refers to the contemporary abundance of stagings and “the countless opinions of critics and scholars” as “amazing and befuddling” and proposes that The Annotated Ring Cycle will act as an antidote to all of this by going “back to the basics – the work’s lyrics, stage directions, and plotline, what’s actually happening in the narrative.” This is a mighty claim and one that is not entirely met.

The main element of Walter’s project, the translation of Wagner’s poem, succeeds in its principal aim, which is “to provide a clear rendering of Wagner’s libretto in modern English” and to give some idea of its alliteration, colloquialism, and humor. This is a tricky undertaking. Wagner’s language in the Ring was not that of “modern German” even in his own time, while the layers of irony that are built into the action, from the opening scene of Das Rheingold on, can often instill complex and ambiguous meanings into his words, which deliberately cloud clarity. Alliteration is, of course, always a challenge for a translator, but in the case of the Ring it cannot be avoided. Overall, Walter does well with the alliteration. English does not alliterate well and in general English-speakers are trained to avoid it when writing. In the Ring, alliteration often dominates, at times heavily so, but Walter often employs it to give a light lyricism to the lines, so that they read easily. Take, for example, the opening lines of Siegmund’s Spring song in Act I of Die Walküre: while Wagner alliterates fourteen of the first twenty-one words with only two letters, “W” and “L”, Walter alliterates ten words with five letters, to produce: “Winter’s storms gave way / to the Maytime moon, / and its gentle sparkle / means spring is here; / his breezes are so balmy, / light, and loving, / they work wonders / as they blow.”  There would, of course, be problems fitting this to the music, but the translation is for reading only. Not only is it easy and fluent; the action emerges clearly throughout. However, without the music, it is impossible to determine the full meaning of the words alone and therefore to ascertain the degree to which they can be trusted. As a result, the clarity Walter seeks may often be deceptive.

Whether the translation will attract new admirers to Wagner is difficult to tell. In his introduction to each drama, Walter emphasizes that the Ring is akin to epics of our own time, specifically The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and the Harry Potter novels. This assertion, an interesting one, could itself be the subject of a fascinating book, but in The Annotated Ring it is just presented and then forgotten. The formatting of the publication seems to be aimed at an audience unfamiliar with the Ring. Each music drama is presented in a separate volume, and both the cover and the formatting for Das Rheingold and Die Walküre suggest that this might be a graphic novel, in which sex and derring-do abound. The German with the English translation is only printed on the verso pages, while the recto is used for annotations, for pop art representations of scenes from the action, and for neo-Romantic illustrations, notably by Arthur Rackham and late 19th-century German painters. In the Siegfried and Götterdämmerung volumes, the pop art has vanished, and the neo-Romantic illustrations have survived, but only in murkily registered black and white, not in color, as in the first two volumes.

It is on these recto spaces that the publication misses its opportunity. The pop art illustrations by Cliff Mott tend to trivialize the action, keeping it solely within the realm of folklore, while the neo-Romantic pictures may, I fear, be wearyingly familiar to aficionados of Wagner. Above all, the annotations are disappointing. Scholarship on major artists as complex and influential as Wagner should regularly provide up-dated annotated versions of major works, to reflect both new discoveries about the origins and history of the work as well as its significance to consequent generations. Walter has only promised to provide “the basics,” so one assumes that should involve observations and commentary on the poem and other primary material on the first performance, as well as the insights of subsequent scholars into that basic material. But he does none of this. Instead, the annotations are scattershot. He comments on issues, some major, some incredibly minor, without any discernible pattern. There are some very informative notes, especially in Act II of Die Walküre, when it comes to defining the underlying causes of the tragic dilemma in which Wotan finds himself, but such passages are all too rare. Too often the annotations are trivial, without use, either for the seasoned Wagnerite or for the Wagnerian neophyte.

“Originalism” has its value, but it needs to be more coherently presented than in this publication.

© Wagner Notes, July 2022, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Simon Williams,

Professor Emeritus in the Department of Theater and Dance, University of California at Santa Barbara, lectures widely on theater and opera and was the Society’s Bayreuth lecturer from 1998 to 2000.