A couple of weekends ago, I had the great privilege of attending a rather special musical event in Inverness: the first Highland performance of any part of Richard Wagner’s epic cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen. While extraordinary in and of itself, this concert in Inverness Cathedral gave me plenty to ponder. In a similar way as my visit to Timespan’s Walter Rodney exhibition earlier in the summer, hearing Act I of Die Walküre performed with such vim and vigour by the Mahler Players and three outstanding singers got me contemplating how we can use Wagner to think about the Highlands.
Of course, the very fact that an Act from Wagner’s Ring can be performed in the Highlands demonstrates Jim Hunter’s argument about the cultural connectedness of the region to the rest of the world. Wagner in Inverness? Why not? And it’s to the great credit of the Mahler Players and their inspirational conductor, Tomas Leakey, that they have embarked on this ambitious Wagner Project, which seeks to perform parts of The Ring and other operas in miniature, using specially-commissioned arrangements by composers Matthew Long and Peter Longworth.
There are also interesting ways in which the culture of the Highlands influenced Wagner. While not as obviously shaped by the European-wide cult of Ossian that was so important to the evolution of Romanticism during the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there are still some intriguing links between Wagner and James Macpherson’s collections of Ossianic poetry. For example, in his most recent book, Beyond Fingal’s Cave: Ossian in the Musical Imagination, James Porter argues that Wagner’s concept of ‘the work of total art’ (Gesamtkuntswerk) was inspired by an earlier strand of German Romantic thought that had arisen as a response to Ossian.
However, reversing the telescope, as it were, and thinking about how Wagner’s music and ideas might help us to work through some of the issues facing the Highlands in the twentieth century, is a more fruitful approach. The Ring takes Norse sagas and the medieval German Nibelungenlied and works them into a parable of the rise and fall of industrial capitalism. The eponymous ring over which gods, giants and humans fight for control is a metaphor for the de-humanizing greed that had been given unfettered dominion over the newly-industrialising world of the mid-nineteenth century in which Wagner was writing. Once Brünnhilde destroys the ring and its curse by throwing it into the Rhine at the end of Götterdämmerung, human love can once more return to its rightful place in society.
Seeing The Ring as a critique of capitalism has been a useful way of making sense of the world around us, from George Bernard Shaw in 1908 to Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 centennial production of The Ring at Bayreuth (see Carmel Raz’s steampunk interpretation for example). And the same is true of these recent performances of Wagner in 2019.
Hearing Wagner in the Highlands helps us to imagine alternative futures for the region, beyond hegemonic capitalism. Wagner’s critique of industrial society and his plea for the supremacy of love has significant resonance in this region. Since the seventeenth century, the forces of capitalism and colonialism (and its attendant features of race and class) have transformed the Highlands and Islands, leaving us with problems of de-population, housing, health care, energy, land and economic precarity. In seeking to tackle these issues, the de-growth movement in Scotland (led by the Enough! collective and others) challenges the assumption that perpetual economic growth is a desirable (and inevitable) condition of the modern world. Instead, just like Wagner, such thinking seeks to promote an alternative society in which bonds of human relations – looking after each other with care and love – are more important than growth and consumption.
Wagner (inspired, of course, by Ossian) shows us the way in the Highlands – we have to throw away the ring of contemporary neo-liberal capitalism and imagine a better future. And here, art, music, literature and poetry have a key role to play in creating new stories about the region that, like Wagner, make us think and do things differently.