‘How I learned to love The Ring Cycle’

Clemency Burton-Hill took her seat apprehensively for a 16-hour Wagner marathon – and found the experience a revelation. Here she describes her epic journey.

“I never dreamed of this and I never thought it would be possible,” said Daniel Barenboim recently, addressing the heroic BBC Proms audience after a week-long, 16-hour marathon of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It was a source of wonder for all who saw or heard it and has been widely acclaimed in the press as one of the greatest events in recent British musical history.

His words echo on in my mind. I never dreamed or thought it would be possible that all my reservations, assumptions and fears about the Ring Cycle could be demolished in one fell swoop. (Or at least, in four sweltering evenings during a single week in London this summer).

For I must admit I was a Ring Cycle virgin before Barenboim raised his baton at the Royal Albert Hall for the first installment of the four operas, Das Rheingold. And now I don’t know how – or why – I lived for so many years of my life without it.

It’s not that I didn’t like Wagner’s music. I have actually been lucky enough to play some of it under Barenboim, arguably the world’s supreme Wagnerian conductor – an experience which is to appreciate music, any music, on a whole new level. The Siegfried Idyll, Isolde’s Liebestod, the celebrated chorus from Act 3 of Tannhäuser: these are all works whose beauty and emotional heft hit you with such immediacy they explode the idea that Wagner’s music is difficult or requires special education to understand. The only requirement, as far as I can tell, is to be human: to have a heart, to have ever thought, felt, wondered or loved.

It’s not that I was even specifically put off by the man himself. Of course, like any sane, thinking person, I am deeply wary about aspects of Wagner’s philosophy – specifically, his anti-Semitism, as I have addressed previously on these pages. But Wagner was not a Nazi – he died before Hitler was even born – and I had read enough to be assured that the majority of academics and experts agree that the Ring Cycle itself is not anti-Semitic. Certainly not in the music, but not even – perhaps surprisingly – in the text, every word of which, including all the stage directions, Wagner wrote himself.

On the subject of that text, I admit I was a bit sceptical that Wagner could be anything like as fine a lyricist, poet and dramatist as he was a composer. But being omnivorously curious about all art forms and an ardent fan of cross-cultural-pollination, I had always been intrigued by Wagner’s embrace of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art”, in which all art forms come together.

Trainspotters and anoraks

So why did I resist so long? Perhaps due to a feeble and, looking back on it now, rather pathetic sense that I simply wouldn’t be able to stand night after five-hour night of an operatic series about dwarves, giants and Valkyries. That, where moments of the music might well slay me with their beauty, I might be maddeningly bored with much of the rest of it. That I’d lose the plot, both literally and figuratively.

But perhaps over and above all of this, I think I was subconsciously deterred by the attitudes of many of the Ring devotees I have met over the years. These are the Trekkies of the classical music world: the ultimate classical trainspotters and anoraks.

I’m sure they have a passion for Wagner’s Ring that is honest, inclusive, generous and simply enthusiastic, but sadly many that I have encountered have tended to exhibit some of my least favourite attitudes in classical music: elitism, snobbishness, exclusivity. The idea that somehow you can’t be part of the ‘club’ unless you too have seen every production of the Ring given at Bayreuth (Wagner’s own opera house) since you were in utero. That you have no right to enjoy this music drama at your own level or your own pace, but must be able to identify every single ‘leitmotif’ (Wagner’s recurring signature themes) before it appears, and proudly cross-reference them by bar number across the entire work. I have no truck with these attitudes, towards any music, so I gave these purists what they clearly wanted, which was to leave them to it.

Give me a Ring

But this summer I decided to get over myself and take the plunge. The prospect of Barenboim bringing his phenomenal Berlin Staatskapelle orchestra to my home town for the first time, not to mention the chance of seeing a brace of some of the greatest singers in the world (including my hero, Bryn Terfel, as Wotan) and the fact you could see a complete Ring Cycle for £20 ($30) – without doubt the best musical bargain in history – was too much for me to resist further.

And I don’t think ‘epiphany’ is too strong a word for what happened. First of all: the drama! I was not expecting to be moved at all; let alone as moved as I have often been by Shakespearean or Greek tragedy. Yet the twisting relationship between Wotan, king of the Gods, and his favourite daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde in the cycle’s second opera, Die Walküre, was as agonising as any great production of King Lear; Sieglinde and Siegfried’s coming together in the same opera as breathtaking as the ‘recognition’ scene between Electra and Orestes. I am not ashamed to say I shed tears on a number of occasions throughout the week; there were also some equally surprising moments when, to my shock, I heard myself laughing out loud.

And the story! As a kid I had devoured the battered, dog-eared, much-sellotaped family copy of The Lord of the Rings handed down to me by my elder brothers, so why I thought I wouldn’t be swept up in the fantasy and imagination of these teeming, magical worlds is beyond me. (Tolkien’s epic, for all his denials, has much in common with Wagner’s.) From one night to the next, I could not wait to find out what was going to happen, as the characters ceased to be silly giants, dwarves and Valkyries in my mind but instead powerful and passionate vessels for every universal concern– love, loss, grief, family, power, how to live, how to die.

But most of all: the music! I can only explain its wonder by saying it works on you like a potion: how over the course of the week, it seeps into you, into your blood, into your soul. At the beginning of the cycle I wondered if I’d ever be able to bear to hear another note of Wagner after the closing bars of Götterdämmerung, the final opera. Once I’d heard those closing bars, I couldn’t imagine listening to anything else for a very long time to come. Monday’s Wagnerless morning came as an empty, reverberating shock.

Wagner wanted to write music for the people that was culturally, socially and financially accessible to as wide an audience as possible. This is so far from our assumptions today about Wagner that I can only urge you to go and experience the work for yourself. It being the bicentenary, I guarantee that wherever you live in the world there is probably a Ring Cycle being staged around you somewhere soon – from Seattle to Melbourne, to say nothing of the Bayreuth production currently scandalising audiences and critics with its Route 66 gas stations settings and depictions of deity blow-jobs.

And if you’ve missed your local Ring for 2013, rest assured there’ll probably be another one next year. And the next, and the next. This simply staggering work shows no sign of going anywhere.

And finally, after all these years, I understand why.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.