Wagner according to Anna Russel

Ever since I watched Melancholia, with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde playing in the background, I seem to be surrounded by German Romanticism. Just this morning I finished reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther with my AP European History class, yesterday morning I  wrote about Ernst Haeckel and his links to German Romanticism, and last night I fell asleep reading a little Schiller.

Now German Romanticism can be a relatively dark and foreboding place, with themes of longing prevailing, and happy endings incredibly rare. Isaiah Berlin, in his Roots of Romanticism describes the German Romantics’ embracing this atmosphere of “sturm und drang” because of the belief that there exists an “insoluble conflict” in the world, where “conflict, collision, tragedy, death – all kinds of horrors – are inevitably involved in the nature of the universe.”   He later writes,

This sudden passion for action as such, this hatred of any established order, hatred of any kind view of the universe as having a structure which calm (or even unclam) perception is able to understand, contemplate, classify, describe, and finally use – this is unique to the Germans.

From the 2009 performance of the Ring Cycle by the Seattle Opera.

Then just the other night at our faculty post-holiday party, I got into a conversation about Wagner’s the Ring Cycle (best known for its “Ride of the Valkyries”) with the school’s choral director. Der Ring des Nibelungen is a four-part trilogy that is truly epic in its scope. A typical performance normally unfolds over the course of four nights at the theatre, and takes approximately 15 hours to complete. It’s a story of heroes, gods, and other mythical beings in a narrative that can rival anything written by Tolkien. It epitomizes yet another part of German Romanticism, namely pull of mythical heroes and nationalism.

During the course of that conversation with the music teacher, Anna Russel’s brilliant comedy routine about the opera came up. I remember first hearing it on NPR years ago and staying in my car to listen to it in its entirety, despite the fact that I’d already arrived at my destination. She took one of the most lengthy and complex operas and laid it bare with incomparable wit and style.

So here she is, removing some of the “sturm” from the German Romantics.


The second and third parts of her performance can be found here.


12 thoughts on “Wagner according to Anna Russel

  1. “This… hatred of any established order, hatred of any kind view of the universe as having a structure which calm (or even uncalm) perception is able to understand, contemplate, classify, describe, and finally use – this is unique to the Germans.”

    This explains an awful lot about my family!

    Thanks for the clip!

  2. My parents were Anna Russell fans; I grew up listening to her LPs. I’m really loving the Met’s Ring Cycle on HD Live simulcast in my local movie theater…3 out of 4 done; set design by Cirque du Soleil director Robert Lepage. I recommend it, even if you only catch the last one!

  3. A brilliant, thoughtful, intelligent post. I suspect the Anglo-saxons (who were of course Germans) also had similar beliefs, although much of their mythology disappeared with the Norman invasion, something which Tolkien recognised. So perhaps their is a latent ‘sturm und drang’ in the English psyche too?
    I am also a Wagner fan and remember ‘The Ring of the Nibelungs’ being serialised in a comic when I was a boy.
    Thank you!

  4. Wonderful post. You always do such a great job of tying loads of information together in a cogent and swift way.

    I’ve always loved Goethe and the German Romanticism in general — probably because I am a pessimist through and through. Something about the sadness latent in all beauty really speaks to me. Oh well!

    • Thank you!

      There is something about the German Romanticists that I think speaks to something universal. We all, at one point or another, experience longing and “insoluble” situations. There were moments while reading “Werther” with my students that it felt all too real and too personal. And I’m not a pessimist at all!

  5. I have enjoyed reading this post about Wagner and your other posts regarding German Romantics. My mother is German and with this heritage I am ashamed to say that I don’t know a great deal about the German romantics – my Great-Grandmother used to have a beautiful bust of Goethe in her living room, no-one seems to know what happened to it after she died. My knowledge of German literature, having studied it between the ages of 16 & 18 is confined to post-war writing. My mother often suggests I read a translation of the “Niblungenlied”, the epic German poem of unknown or various writers. Tristan and Isolde is based partly on some of the myths of the Niblungenlied. Have you ever read it? I have to admit that I have avoided epic poetry since my school days (Milton and Chaucer are enough for a lifetime!!), but I am currently reading a simplified version of the Illiad to my son and am quietly enjoying it more than he is. If I wanted to start somewhere with the German romantics, where would you recommend? Thanks

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