Richard Wagner’s operas and the law: Myth, Covenant, and Religion

Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln IV

Table of Contents


I. Myth, Covenant, and Religion

II. Contract and The Flying Dutchman

III. A Nietzschean Influence on Law and Wagner


  • Introduction

It has long been observed that Richard Wagner’s Operas track the fundamental conflicts and discord between the Old and New Covenants of Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Christian Israel. Indeed, comparing D.H. Lawrence and Wagner, critic Hugh Stevens has bifurcated it as “[i]n the Bible, we can think of a patriarchy leading from God to Adam through many masculine generations to Mary and Jesus, or of a matriarchy leading from Eve to Anne, Mary and the Christ-child, who has no legitimate biological father. In Richard Wagner’s ‘stage-festival drama for three days and a preliminary evening’ The Ring of the Nibelung, Siegfried, the masculine redeemer, is son of Siegmund [sic] and grandson of Wotan, ruler of the Gods.”

The connection of law and Wagner’s operas — over other operas — is notable. Not in the least, because “[m]id-nineteenth-century Italian opera was not particularly daring harmonically, at least in comparison to contemporaries like Richard Wagner or Franz Liszt, much less later composers like Claude Debussy or Arnold Schoenberg.” Indeed, “Verdi’s musical palate did not employ the complex rhythms, blues notes, or harmonies of mid-twentieth-century American jazz. In a Duke Ellington composition a final C major chord can have a D on top because it is a ninth. One could also have an F-sharp in a serial composition of the early twentieth century, or as part of a chord with an augmented fourth (or a diminished fifth) in a Wagnerian opera.”

The concept of “viewing Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde as a turning point in the development of western harmony, leading to the “‘total chromaticism’ of the 20th century,” the experimentalism of composers like Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Béla Bartók, and Igor Stravinsky, and, in Arnold Schoenberg, a “chromaticism [that] goes beyond tonality altogether;” can in turn be compared to “Verdi’s IlTrovatore [which] premiered in 1853, six years before Wagner finished Tristan und Isolde, and some twelve years before Tristan’s first performance in 1865.”

  • I. Myth, Covenant, and Religion

Indeed, there have been many comparisons of Hebrew mythology and Wagner’s — and generally Nordic mythology — evoking Biblical imagery. Scholar H.C. Washington has described the comparison and even gone as far to suggest that Biblical imagery has inspired Nordic myths, “a wide-ranging ethnographic argument for the universality of sacral warfare among Neolithic cultures, and draws parallels between Hebrew sacral war motifs and those of Old Germanic mythology. The Hebrew celestial hosts, צבאות‎, who accompany Yhwh in battle are compared to the wild heavenly army of Wotan, to the ghostly troops of the war-god Skanda, and to the Valkyries. Schwally likens the Hebrew military banners, דִּגְל֤וֹ (Num. 2:2; Ps. 74:4,9), or הוָ֥ה (Num. 10:14), to those of the Old Germans who, because they also “knew no divine images,” used an attribute like Wotan’s spear or Thor’s hammer to depict the divinity on the battle flag. He compares the rampages of Samson to those of the Berzekers in Nordic lore.”

In the Bible, first (after Adam & Eve’s original disobedience, at least), the Abrahamic covenant was one of ecclesiological identity, a promise that one old man’s Adamic descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky or the sands by the seashore, in exchange for a simple promise of obedience and devotion (the very covenant which Adam and Eve had broken). Next, the Mosaic Covenant shaped his descendants into a nation with a strong foundation in fundamental law (the ten commandments + Leviticus 19) and an elaborated law of social and economic relations stated throughout Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and Numbers. Following the Christian theological story, Christ came to relieve the people of Israel and the world of both covenants (the Abrahamic Covenant and the “Absolutism of Law” inherent in the Mosaic Covenant), by and through the power of love and forgiveness. Covenants such as these can inform international covenants and even set up the basis for modern contract law.

In Wagnerian Opera, reflections of the Abrahamic Covenant of Identity manifest themselves most directly in the ethno-genesis of the four beings identified and described in Rheingold and Siegfried (namely the Gods, Giants, Men, and Dwarves). Up to a point, identity is destiny, in Wagner as in the Bible, but the individual’s role in choosing and shaping his own identity is the countervailing theme.

Comparing this Abrahamic covenant to the early laws of the United States may shed light on why the Constitution of the United States could illuminate Wagnerian opera — because as on, “June 12, 1683, the day the City of London opinion came down, the King ordered his attorney general to file a quo warranto against the self-described commonwealth in New England — the second since the one in 1637.3 He also sent Edward Randolph to serve the quo warranto on the Massachusetts Bay Company along with two hundred copies of the opinion.” Still, even at that point, “if the King hoped Randolph could convince the company to surrender its charter voluntarily, he didn’t understand the connection the New Englanders had made between their charter and the Abrahamic covenant.” Echoing the covenant, “Do not sin in giving away the inheritance of your fathers,” an anonymous pamphleteer wrote in Boston, citing the examples of 1637 and 1664 when the company’s leaders were “firm and faithful in asserting and standing by their civil and religious liberties.” Such was the concept of inheritance and identify that “Increase Mather, perhaps the most famous minister in New England at the time, similarly reminded a group of Boston shareholders of the biblical story of Naboth, a man who refused to sell his inherited vineyard to a king where such a sale would violate the law of Moses.”

However, ultimately, the concept of government of the King as the most powerful government changed in Massachusetts Bay Colony “where the corporation was the most powerful government in any New Englander’s daily life, it became clear that without the charter, the government in Boston had begun “palpably to dye.” … [ultimately] [m]embers of the new government addressed Simon Bradstreet and the outgoing directors “not as a Go[ver]nor & Company, but []as … some of the principall gentlemen and chiefe of the inhabitants of the severall tounes of the Massachusetts.” In other words, the company was no more.”

Such an accounting of the early history and law of the Massachusetts Bay Colony reflects the Abrahamic Covenant of Identify as divergent and changing over time. But as identified in Das Rheingold and Siegfried, destiny, in a Wagnerian interpretation of the Biblical stories, is represented as individuals — much like the Massachusetts Bay Colony — as choosing and shaping its own identify as a theme of progress.

  • II. Contract and The Flying Dutchman

In the earliest “canonical” Wagnerian Opera, namely Der Fliegende Hollander, the Dutchman’s identity is not stated, but it is clearly implied: he is an immortal “undead” being, a vampire, a man condemned to eternal life for a particular act of blasphemy, often compared to “the Wandering Jew” Ahasueras, whose blasphemy was to have taunted Christ on the Cross. Like Ahasueras, wandering on land, Captain Hendrick van Wanderdecken (as the Dutchman is known in some of Wagner’s predecessors’ and antecedent works, though never specifically so named by Wagner; a possible historical antecedent was the 17th Century Dutch Captain Bernard Fokke), was condemned to sail the seas until the second coming of Christ.

And here we come to the interesting relationship between contracts and curses: “Faustian Bargains” as they are sometimes called. It seems that, in Richard Wagner’s mind, all contracts were at least potentially, if not inevitably curses. All contracts, it is to be supposed, contain the seeds of their self-destruction by breach. The direct breach of a direct supernatural contract, as God had with Adam and Eve, as the people of Israel had with God through the mediation of Abraham and Moses, is likely to cause death or at least prolonged misery or both (in the case of Adam and Eve, who were never “liable” to either so long as they obeyed God’s commandments in the Garden).

Indeed, the Flying Dutchman has been compared to admiralty law — “[i]n perhaps the most bizarre example of supernatural admiralty law … a Dutch sea captain who has uttered a blasphemous oath is condemned to sail the seas until judgement day. Once every seven years, this “Flying Dutchman” is allowed ashore to search for a woman who will love him faithfully until death. If he is successful in this quest, the curse will be broken and he will be allowed to die.”

In the first part of the opera, “the Dutchman comes on land and, while showing Daland, a Norwegian sea captain, a large fortune, tells him that he is looking for a wife. Daland, unable to resist the promise of riches, informs the Dutchman that he has a daughter who he is sure will be willing to marry him.” In the second part of the opera, the audience is introduced to “Daland’s daughter, Senta, who remarks that she would love the Dutchman faithfully until death if given the chance. As will happen only in an opera, in the next moment whom does her father bring home for dinner but the Dutchman himself? A marriage is swiftly arranged, but a former lover, Erik, tries to persuade Senta to reject the Dutchman.” However, when the Dutchman overhears the conversation “between Erik and Senta, the Dutchman concludes that he has been betrayed and returns to his ship to continue his wanderings. Accompanied by much fanfare, Senta, ever faithful, declares her love for the Dutchman and then throws herself off a cliff to her own death. The play ends, of course, with Senta and the Dutchman embracing and seen ascending to heaven.”

Indeed, taken literally, the ship that can not moor at any location could incur a large liability. One court analogized such a similar situation to where a supertanker had to unload off shore, where would the jurisdiction to file suit be? The Pennsylvania Eastern District federal court stated, “In Wagner’s opera, The Flying Dutchman, the hero, a ship captain, is consigned by fate to sail the seas in virtual perpetuity and may land only once every seven years. Wagner’s opera sets to music an ancient legend; its modern incarnation are the ocean-going supertankers, which are so large, they cannot dock in any port.”

The legend in Das Rehingold “opens with Niberlund dwarf Alberich chasing the Rhinemaidens lustily through the waters of the Rhine. As the clouds part and the sun casts its rays on the water, Alberich sees, glittering at the bottom, the splendors of the Rheingold. Legend is, were someone to claim the gold for himself and forge a ring of it, it would grant him immeasurable power over the world.4 Such a power, though, would come at a price — he must forever forswear love, and be cursed to a life devoid of fulfillment.”

What could be more prescient? Indeed, nothing other than ““Götterdämmerung,” the title of the final opera in Richard Wagner’s four-opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” depicts “Ragnarok,” the end of the world in the Norse mythology on which the operas are based.”

In Lohengrin, contract and law manifests itself “[w]hen a duke’s daughter is accused of murder, a mysterious stranger appears to defend her in trial by combat. Comparison to Lohengrin should not be welcome to advocates of broad use of the Act. When Lohengrin’s identity and origin are eventually revealed, he sails away, never to be seen again.”

In true Wagnerian fashion, “the Dutchman’s fate of continual years at sea has become a benefit for the modern supertanker. As the opera ends, the Dutchman’s yearning for dry land has brought him romance and redemption, but he then drowns in the arms of his beloved. However, the modern, perpetually ocean-roaming supertanker has neither the physical ability, nor the legal desire, to touch land. If the limits of the jurisdiction of U.S. courts do not allow the owner or operator of these ships to be subject to process in the United States, then the only recourse for someone who was injured by the operation of this ship is to seek redress in and under the laws of the country in which the ship’s owners or managers are based.

Perhaps, the analogy to the Flying Dutchman is not apt if relief is not seen. Judge Learned Hand in a dissenting opinion wrote “fairly bluntly described the situation of excluded aliens to that of the “Flying Dutchman” — alluding not only to the legend but to Richard Wagner’s opera of that name-condemned to sail the sea forever; and Hand saw no entitlement to relief for them just because of that unfortunate status, and saw no Constitutional problem with allowing the executive branch so to do without effective judicial review-”if that society chooses to flinch when its principles are put to the test, courts are not set up to give it derringdo.”” Indeed, “Hand’s rather glib and hard-hearted view of executive power was called into “forceful” question by Justice Jackson’s tour-de-force dissent; for even though Mezei lost 5–4 in the Supreme Court, Jackson wrote against the outcome espoused in Hand’s dissent, concluding “no one can make me believe that we are that far gone.” Jackson’s writing in this dissent is a model of cognitive organization in which the principles identified by Terrell and Armstrong are used to create, from the perspective of reader cognition, a far more compelling opinion than Hand’s dissent or the Supreme Court’s majority opinion. 345 U.S. at 228 (Jackson, J., dissenting).””

  • III. A Nietzschean Influence on Law and Wagner

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as first had a strong connection with Wagner personally, but later that connection broke — in large part over philosophical contentions. Nietzsche states that “Nietzsche goes on to indicate that the break with Wagner (on the occasion of the first performance of Parsifal) came upon him unexpectedly and precipitated the approach to life that Human-All-Too-Human contains. He sees this as the danger of romanticism.” However, “Nietzsche speaks of this as “taking sides against himself, and for everything painful and difficult precisely to me.” He forbade himself the experience of romantic music. By doing so, he says, he learned the “art of appearance,” that is, he learned to defend life against pain. Nietzsche is not saying that he rejected Wagner, romanticism and so forth; rather, he says that his previous adherence to it was false because he behaved as if he had a right to the suffering that he felt.”

In relation to law, literature, and music Nietzsche writes:

Not every music so far has required a literature: one ought to look for a sufficient reason here. Is it that Wagner’s music is too difficult to understand? Or is he afraid of the opposite, that it might be understood too easily — that one will not find it difficult enough to understand?

As a matter of fact, he repeated a single proposition all his life long: that his music did not mean mere music. But more. But infinitely more. — “Not mere music” — no musician would say that. To say it once more, Wagner was unable to create from a totality; he had no choice, he had to make a patchwork, “motifs,” gestures, formulas, doing things double and even a hundredfold — he therefore had to move his “it means” into the foreground as a matter of principle. “Music is always a mere means”: that was his theory, that above all the only practice open to him. But no musician would think that way.

Wagner required literature to persuade all the world to take his music seriously, to take it as profound “because its meaning was infinite”

Conceptually, “Wagner’s theory of music thus reveals him as the ultimate Christian romantic, a man whose self-aggrandizing subjectivity denies the possibility that there is any meaning but his own, a true antinomian who, like Hamlet, believes that “there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”” But at the same time, “Wagner is not only a musical revolutionary against the noble order of classical form but equally a moral revolutionary against the countless misfortunes he believes arise from “old contracts,… from laws, moralities, institutions, from everything on which the old world, the old society rests,”118 and which must all eventually give way before the new law, the new world, the music of the future. But, as Nietzsche said, a music that cannot speak of itself except ambiguously has no future.”

Ultimately, “[a]n art, whether music or law, whose figurations are rich with mystery is not condemned here. The forms of ambiguity, whether symbols, tones, or words, are not to be disdained as synecdochical unrealities simply because they represent uncertainty.” Simultaneously, “[r]ather, precisely because they cannot by definition express the ineffable should they be accepted — rather, venerated — for what they are. The body, the word, the sign, these and these alone are the “real,” and the desire to plumb the infinite they so elegantly caparison is, to speak as Nietzsche would, not only immoral but indecent.” Whereas, however, “the Wagnerian desire to reduce the sign to a “mere means” or to “mere meaning,” as Nietzsche said above, conceals a cacoëthes of ressentiment, the lust of an empty, an impoverished soul to eradicate the meaning that others have created, a meaning that he lacks in himself. As St. Basil also remarked (quoting St. Paul, it should be noted), it is the shame of the lesser man’s incapacities which prompts the resentful derogation of the literal.”

The basic themes of Wagner are that love, and what Nietzsche might call “Ubermenchligkeit” should triumph over law and normalcy — as in Tristan und Isolde (rejection of Isolde’s marital vows and Tristan’s knightly fealty in favor of love); as in Der Ring des Niebelungen — almost everything that happens from beginning to end…but especially love should triumph over the incest taboo (siblings brother Siegmund & sister Sieglinde in Die Walkure; Siegfried and his Aunt Brunhilde in Siegfried), renunciation of love leading to crime — -the theft and re-theft of the Ring as bringing on curses at the same time as achieving divine power and purpose [which are themselves antithetical to love]; love vs. vengeance in Gotterdammerung, “All that you are, you are because of your laws and contracts — -says the Giant Fafnir to Wotan, as part of the prediction of Wotan’s doom being related to his “staff of the laws”; Lohengrin (Trademark and trade secrets, secret societies and restraints on trade, all as both sources of divine strength and power parallel to love — -but sometimes supportive of love); Tannhauser: eternal damnation of lust of the lawless Venusberg cannot compete with the divine agape of Elizabeth and God’s forgiveness of the errant night.

In the end of Götterdämmerung, “[b]efore riding her horse into a bonfire, Brünnhilde releases Wotan’s ravens to spread the flames, thus completing Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” Brünnhilde’s aria ends with her self-immolation, as the funeral pyre engulfs all of Valhalla and its gods, bringing the end of the world.”

Contrast Brünnhilde’s aria with the idea that redemption through love is always possible. No one is ever redeemed through law, though law is a greater or lesser curse in different works: Law is an absolute curse in Tristan und Isolde and all four operas of the Ring Tetralogy, it is merely confusing in Lohengrin although there is the Levitical crime of Witchcraft definitive of Ortrud von Radbod and Friedrich Graf von Telramund; irrelevant in Meistersinger, both confusing and antithetical in Parzifal; highly ambiguous in Tannhauser; and that leaves Der Fliegenden Hollander: here what’s at issue are social norms and the laws of nature — God’s law from the Ten Commandments and Deuteronomy against Blasphemy is hidden way back in the background.

In relation to Wagnerian opera and Die Walkure’s connection with originalism, even “someone who does not care for Wagner’s (so-called) bombast might nevertheless note that Die Walküre is a “good Wagnerian opera.” In doing so, she would not be commending Wagner herself, but rather alluding to the judgments of those who appreciate Wagner.” But if this parable is applied to Constitutional law, it does not hold:

“hunding: Ich weiss ein wildes Geschlecht,

nicht heilig ist ihm, was andren hehr:

verhasst ist es allen und mir.

[I know of a savage race,

It does not hold holy what others revere:

It is hated by all and me.]”

But if we take this to the logical conclusion, “Hunding’s logic makes sense. Not holding holy what others revere makes one a savage. It is a kind of treason against the moral order. Hunding’s error consists in his thinking that the moral order with which he is familiar is the only possible moral order. As with Hobbes, the sovereign’s identity is less important than his undisputed authority.”

Returning to the idea of symbol and ideology of law and fiction, philosopher and social critic, perhaps has the best summation of Wagner and the law: “An exemplary case of this opposition between symbolic authority and spectral invisible Master is provided by Wagner’s The Rhinegold, in the guise of opposition between Wotan and Alberich: Wotan is clearly a figure of symbolic authority, he is “the God of contracts,” his will is bound by the Word, the symbolic pact.” As Zizek explains, this is because, as in relation to contact law, “[t]he giant Fasolt tells him: “What you are, / you are through contracts only,” Richard Wagner, The Ring of the Nibelung 24 (Andrew Porter trans., 1977) (my translation), whereas Alberich is the all-powerful, because invisible agents not bound by any law: “Nibelungs all, / bow down to Alberich! / He is everywhere, / watching you! / … / You must work for him, / though you cannot see him! / When you don’t think he’s there, / You’d better expect him! / You’re subject to him for ever!”

Ultimately, “difference between (symbolic) fiction and fantasy is of crucial importance for the psychoanalytical theory of ideology. In his recent book on Marx, Jacques Derrida brought into play the term “spectre” in order to indicate the elusive pseudomateriality that subverts the classic ontological oppositions of reality and illusion.”

This article outlined a theory of contract law existing in Wagner’s operas and compares that theory of contract law to the philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche’s theory of law and music — in particular focusing on the concept of Wagnerian psychoanalysis as symbolic of law.

The idea of symbol and ideology of law and fiction, philosopher and social critic, perhaps has the best summation of Wagner and the law.

* * *

Charlie Lincoln is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Groningen (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen). He has an LL.M. in Tax Law from Boston University (2018), an Advanced LL.M. in International Tax Law from the University of Amsterdam (Universiteit van Amsterdam) (2017), and a J.D. from Texas A&M University School of Law (2016).

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© Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln IV



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