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Archive for June, 2014

securedownload-1A while back, I purchased a new wallet. Cleaning out my old one, I removed my no-longer-used laminated cards for video rental shops. I felt sad doing so, as I recalled our many trips to rent tapes and DVDs.

I looked online and learned that the first rental shop opened in 1977. The first time Beth and I used such a store was several years later, after we had left graduate work and worked at our first teaching jobs. The shop was in Flagstaff, AZ and was a cozy little place to the right of our Safeway grocery store and near our favorite local restaurant. I think they carried both VHS and Betamax tapes. I remember noticing the movie “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” and I wondered (rightly, in this case) whether it was risky to anticipate so boldly that a movie would result in sequels.

By the time we moved to Kentucky our daughter was young, and our movie watching became more kid-centered. There was a Roadrunner Video store in the nearby grocery store plaza. We frequented the place, especially in summertime. I had made the decision to stay home with our daughter during her grade school summers. At least once, we visited Roadrunner barefoot. We got all kinds of shows and videos over the years. I remember one called “The Brave Frog,” which I thought was horrible. When I looked the movie up on imdb.com, I realized that my opinion was pretty much the critical concensus! Of course, we also got the Disney classics, some cartoon shows on video, and straight-to-video movies that were more enjoyable than the frog one.

A Hollywood Video place opened down the street, which we also used, but the Roadrunner eventually closed. I was sad to see it go, with all the associations I had of “field trips” with our daughter. My parents also figure into all this nostalgia. Before they became too infirm to travel, they visited us in Kentucky. I still worked on a church staff then. My parents loved Westerns, so I rented “Unforgiven” for them to watch while we were at church all morning. They had wanted to see the movie and loved it, but Mom thought the language was awfully strong. True, you probably never heard John Wayne (their favorite Western star) use words like “shit hole,” etc.

Blockbuster stores predominated in the 00s, but now they’ve all closed as of January 2014. The three of us were happy to discover a little place called Family Video near our house. It operates in conjunction with a pizza store, which is a smart combination. We rented the Blu-Ray for “Silver Linings Playbook” not too long ago. There is still something very enjoyable about going to the rental place, which you don’t get from the (admittedly convenient) services Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video.

I found a short feature on YouTube that expresses the pleasures of renting movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26eQ3QpNB6Q

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Here is a talk that I gave last month to our local interfaith breakfast group. My theme was sacred places in religious traditions.

A few years ago I wrote this book of Christian devotional theology: You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Upper Room Books, 2006). The subject is the spirituality of the sense of place. I began with the observation that, although I received quite a bit of religious instruction as a kid, attending Sunday school at our small town church in Vandalia, IL, my most ongoing sense of religious feeling that rooted everything else was the physical space of our small church. I wondered about how the sense of place informs our religious feelings.

The title comes from Psalm 18, and my explorations had to do with ways that God creates spiritual place in our lives in the context of specific physical places.

I asked several friends to share places in their lives that they specially associate with religious growth or religious insight, whether or not it was a “big” spiritual experience. One friend talked about her college dorm room being a special place of religious growth and reorientation following her brother’s suicide. Several people recalled family farms and rural places, and several remembered places of particular beauty, like the ocean and the mountains. Another friend even talked about the way she hid under her bed as a child to get away from her loud brothers and began to feel God’s presence in the comfort of that room.

I also talked about difficult places, like accident sites or places associated with some disaster, like battlefields and the like. Cemeteries generally can be sacred places in this informal scene, but of tragedy and comfort.

For this group, I decided to dig a little more into the subject before coming back around to personal sacred places.

There are a number of “big” spiritual places,” which I didn’t really consider in this book but which are part of our religious heritage.

In his article “The Temple Mount as Sacred Space,” Tzi Freeman notes that the Bible contains what he calls “dual systems,” like Heaven and earth, G-d and humans, Creator and created, etc. Sometimes they meet, and these we might call the sacred places beloved in different world religions.

In Judaism, for instance, there is the Temple Mount, said to be the location of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, Jacob’s dream, the threshing floor that David purchased from Araunah the Jebusite, and the site of the two Temples. It is the place where where God chose the divine Presence in the Temple’s Holy of Holies. Of course, the Temple’s destruction is mourned on Tisha B’Av, and Jews do not walk on the Mount itself. There are also four holy cities associated with different times in Jewish life: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberius.

In Christianity, sacred sites include those in Jerusalem and Israel associated with Jesus’ life.

The holiest sites common to all Muslims are Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Specific holy places are the Grand Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca, the Prophet’s Mosque (Al-Masjid al-Nabawi) in Medina, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The site on which the Al-Aqsa Mosque sites, along with the Dome of the Rock, is also called the Noble Sanctuary and is the Temple Mount in Jewish heritage. The holiest sites in Shia Islam are the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, and the Imam Husayn Shrine with the Al Abbas Mosque in Karbala.

The most sacred place in Sikhism is the Sir Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple in Amritsar, India.

For Baha’is, the shrine of Bah’u’llah in Mahji near Acre Israel is the holiest site and the Qiblih, that is, the direction of prayer. The second holiest is the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa.

In Neo-Druidism, Stonehenge is a key holy site, and also Glastonbury.

In Hinduism there are tirthas, or places of pilgrimage. Benares (Varanasi) is the most famous and sone of several holy towns. There are seven ancient holy towns: Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, and Sabarimala, Kerala are said to be the most major Pilgrim cities in Hinduism. Of these, Varanasi (also known as Benares) in Uttar Pradesh is considered the Holiest ancient site and it is considered by many to be the most sacred place of pilgrimage for Hindus irrespective of denomination.

Among Buddhist sacred places are sites associated with Gautama Buddha: the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India; Kushinagar, India; Lumbini, Nepal; and Sarnath, India. There are also stupa, a mound-like structure that contains relics like the ashes of a monk. These are places of meditation.

In the LDS Church, there are several sacred places in history: the grove where Joseph Smith experienced the presence of God and Christ; the Hill Cumorah where the sacred records were hidden, locations of other of Smith’s spiritual experiences, and LDS Temples.

Theology about Places

Even though we identify sacred places among reliigous traditions, the theological distinctions about their sanctity differ.

In Judaism, the Tabernacle was a holy place which was safeguarded by limiting access to it, only priests entered it, and after the Temple was built, only the High Priest could enter the innermost place, and only on Yom Kippur.

There is of course no longer a Jerusalem Temple, and synagogues do not replace it. Synagogues are consecrated spaces that can be used only for the purpose of prayer, but a synagogue is not necessary for worship. Worship can be carried out alone or with less than a minyan, and communal Jewish worship can be carried out wherever ten Jews (a minyan) assemble. Worship can also be carried out alone or with fewer than ten people assembled together. However there are certain prayers that are communal prayers and therefore can be recited only by a minyan.

But Judaism also considers Shabbat a sacred place in time, an inherently holy place that does not exist in space.

In Islam, what is called the Bayt al-Ma`mur (the Much-frequented House) is located in the seventh firmament, which is the House around which those in the heavens circumambulate. This heavenly House is directly above the earthly Ka’ba and is the template for the Ka’ba, so that the Ka’ba is in turn a replica of the heavenly house where angels circumambulate, providing an important “axis mundi”. Yet this is not the place of direct communication with God nor the place of only a select few, but is rather the axis mundi and, of course, the qibla for prayer.

In Christianity, although places associated with Jesus’ life are often called holy places, there are not requirements for Christians to visit these, as there is in Islam with the pillar of the hajj. You could say that in Christianity, Jesus himself is the holy “place,” present in the sacraments. For instance, when Catholics have eucharistic adoration, they affirm that Christ is right here and present in this place.

In Hinduism, temples are sacred because human have access to the gods, who are present there. At the center of the temple is the murti, or the physical image of the deity, which in turn is considered to be and treated as the living god who is attended to by worshipers. Believers can thus behold, or take darshan, of the deity, because the diety can be simulaneously and fully present in many and possibly an infinite number of different places.

Legendarily, Ashoka divided the ashes of Siddhartha and distributed them to 84,000 stupas through his realm, so that the land of Buddhism is filled with these holy places. Some believed that the enlightened mind of the person enshrined there continued at that place. Over the years, stupas were themselves ocnsidered manifestations of the sacred world. The Great Temple at Borobudur in Java, Inonesia is a series of stupas, where pilgrims circumambulate.

In the LDS Church, LDS temples are the fullest expression of sacred space, into which only church members in good standing and with a temple recommend may enter. But LDS chapels are also places of saccred ritual, without restriction of entry, and family homes are also places where the Holy Ghost can be present.

Religion as unconnected to a particular place.

As I was working on this talk, I was very intrigued by the thesis of Yi Fu Tuan, who argues that, in a very strong sense that religion is antithetical, to sacred places. (Religion: From Place to Placelessness. Text by Yi-Fu Tuan. Photographs and Essays by Martha A. Strawn. Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2009.)

One way that religion is antithetical to sacred space, is the prohibition against idolatry, which would include any notion of localizing the presence of God. Certainly a major aspect of the Ka’ba is that the Prophet Muhammad removed all idolatry from the place so that it could be wholly devoted to Allah who is never identified with any earthly thing.

Another sense of religion’s opposition to sacred place is the theological assertion that God encompasses all places. For instance, in Chinese religion, there is specification of levels of heaven and of Pure Lands. But the vastness of the universe in Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions aren’t necessarily plotted. For instance, Tuan notes, in the Comedy of Dante, Hell is geographical but Heaven is not.

In Native spirituality, too, is a belief in balance and mutuality among beings, which includes the sun and moon, meteorological phenomena, and features of the earth. “All these beings are imbued with power; all are alive in some sense.” Many locations can be sacred places, “filled with numinous aura…. alive by virtue of the narratives nad the rituals that may accompany them.” Likewise, common to the Chinese, there is a notion of cardinal points. Chinese, however, have less stress on narrative.

In Europe, however, we do not have this “clear notion of cosmic space demarcated by the cardinal points,” but rather a universe created by God in which God still acts. Thus churches can be built anywhere, because no particular natural places are specifically sacred.

Interestingly, Tuan notes that although Christianity places great stress upon the life story of Jesus, there is less stress than in Native spirituality upon the landscape, since he was always moving around. (Also, one might add, there isn’t necessarily unanimity of conviction about sites. For instance there are two traditional sites of Jesus’ tomb.)

In Christianity, too, worshipers focus not so much on places but upon worshiping “the Father in spirit and truth,” as Jesus puts it in the Gospel of John. Thus, the community is broadened to encompass many places—but also to transcend time and space, since the community of Christ includes the dead as well as the living. And, like Jesus, early Christians moved around and were not very localized. Christians were called “pilgrims” in early antiquity, people who were literally or figuratively on the move, dis-placed.” One could draw a comparison with arhats in Theravada Buddhism: monks who are rootless rather than rooted to a specific place.

Judaism of coruse has no place of intrinsic holiness: that was the Temple, destroyed in 70 AD. Now, any clean room that contains Torah scrools and in which a minyan can worship becomes Makom Kadosh, or Holy Space. I began my little book with the observation that the Bible refers metaphorically to God in place-terms. God is our machseh, that is, “dwelling place” (Deut. 33:27, RSV), or “refuge” (KJV and NIV). Psalm 46:1 calls God “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In Genesis 28:17, God is maqom, “How awesome is this place!” During the rabbinical period the word maqom became a metaphorical name for God, as in Philo writes, “God … is called place, for He encompasses all things, but is not encompassed by anything.” Also, a midrash refers to God as “place” because God is “the place of the world.” A scripture like Psalm 139:7-10 shows how God comes to every place where we are and is not limited to our circumstances.

Sacred Space As Many Places

The author Peter Knobel writes, “Sacred Space is where God dwells and hearts are moved.” There is the Holy Place (mikdash) of the Temple where God dwelled, and also there is the holy space in the hearts of people who are moved to zedaqah. He points to ways that Jews can create “a whole space so that God can dwell among us, perhaps in ways that create Jewish identity and community via streaming services and online education, a “synagogue without borders”

Knobel raises a different understanding of sacred space: Holy Place as the site of good deeds. But this understanding verifies Tuan’s thesis that religion is antithetical to place, for (as in Quran 2:177), piety can happen anywhere, not just in specific places, and piety can possibly be anonymous and private, known only to God.

There is also a sense that story-telling facilitates the drive toward placelessness. We may not go to a specific place with intrinsic holiness, but we can retell the story. In important ways that shifts the “location” of sacredness” to time over place, analogous to the Jewish sabbath. In my Upper Room Books study, I discussed how personal locations become “sacred”: our own sacred places become personal locations that are in turn connected to the narratives of our religious traditions. These locations are identifiable in place terms but also temporal terms: for instance, the way I experienced a deep spiritual experience of peace and healing in the summer of 1996 in a particular but very mundane location.

So our contemporary understanding of sacred space/place are complex. (1) There are locations in religious traditions that are very key within the narrative and historical existence of those traditions, and that narrative-historical existence in turn points us to, or intersects with, the spiritual world in ways understood differently in each tradition. And (2) there can be an infinite variety of more personal and communal sacred places, because they are not only connected to the sacred religious narratives but also the personal narrative of each believer’s heart.

(At this point I opened for questions from our group. Several people, reflecting a spectrum of religious traditions, commented on their own understandings of sacred place. The idea of Sabbath as a “place” lead to some interesting discussions. Connected to Knobel’s idea, we also thought about how the internet can create “virtual sacred places” “without borders,” for instance @Virtual_Abbey on Twitter, and others.)
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S. R. Burge, “Angels, Ritual and Sacred Space in Islam.” Comparative Islamic Studies 5.2. (209) 221-245. Accessed at equinoxonline.

Peter S. Knobel, “Sacred Space is Where God Dwells and Hearts are Moved.” http://www.reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/trumah/sacred-space-where-god-dwells-and-hearts-are-moved

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355_31627078518_1197_nWhen I was a little boy, one old gravestone in our family cemetery fascinated me. The lettering was archaic and concentrated at the top of the stone. The inscription read “SACRED to the Memory of Comfort Williams, Who Died March 30, 1847, Aged 54 Years.” I knew we had Williams cousins in and around the area. When I was a VERY small child we attended the Williams family reunion in a nearby park.

But when I became interested in genealogy in 1970, when I was thirteen, I began to put family information together. I soon realized that I was related to Comfort (a woman’s name, I learned) and in fact, she is my 3-great-grandmother.

I don’t remember how I connected with an older, distant cousin named Helen Jacoby Dickes, but she provided me her genealogy of Comfort’s family. I still have her photocopy, with its faint type and slick paper common to photocopies of that time. Her genealogy was a terrific gift. I learned so much about the family. Comfort’s second son Josiah, who was buried nearby in the little cemetery, was my grandfather Josiah Crawford’s material grandfather.

Furthermore, I learned that Comfort had come to our home area (Fayette County, Illinois) with her five children, in around 1840, and that her family were buried in Obetz, Ohio, just south of Columbus. Buried there were were husband Josiah, her parents John and Margaret Weatherington, and her sister Rebecca and her husband, George Washington Williams. I would love to know more about her decision to go west. All these relatives buried in Obetz were dead by 1840; did she feel like she had no reason to stay in that area? Why did she come to Fayette County, Illinois?

At some point my parents took me to Obetz (I was stil young at the time). We found a row of graves: the bronze marker for John and Margaret Weatheringon, a grave-sized stone slab for George Washington Williams, and a bronze marker for him and his wife Rebecca Weatherington, and unmarked place, and then the grave of a relative named O.H. Perry Williams. According to Helen’s genealogy, the original gravestones were replaced with bronze markers in 1938—but there was supposed to be one for Josiah, and there was none. I’ve always surmised that the unmarked place to the right of George and Rebecca was Josiah’s grave, though I don’t know that for sure.

So Comfort’s husband Josiah Williams (his life dates are 1786-1826) has many descendants 230 miles to the west of his burial place. What about his family? Helen knew only that his parents were John Williams, married to a woman named Rebecca. In 1786, when Josiah was born, they lived in Kent County, Maryland. In 1790, they lived in Hampshire Co. Virginia (now West Virginia), where John appears in county records. Rebecca alone is found in the 1800 census with small children, so John may have died in the 1790s. In other records, Helen found three children of her’s:

George Washington Williams. His Find-a-Grave memorial is here.

John Williams. His Find-a-Grave memorial, with a link to his wife’s, is here.

Josiah Williams, born September 22, 1786.

“All these sons married Weatherington sisters,” writes Helen. And that brings us to Comfort (Weatherington) Williams’ family.

The Weatheringtons (or Worthington: the name is written differently in different sources) were descended from Nicolas Worthington who came from England to Maryland in 1650, or possibly from Capt. John Worthington, who also came to the colonies in the seventeenth century.

John Weatherington—Comfort’s father—was born in Hampshire Counity Virginia. and moved to Hamilton Weatheringontownship, Franklin Co. Ohio by 1805. His wife’s name was Margaret. Their bronze marker in Obetz reads: “Erected to the Memory of John Weatherington, Born June 23, 1755, Died in the Year 1831. Margaret Weatherington, Consort of John, Born Oct 23, 1759, Died Sept. 29, 1828.” As Helen lists them, their children were:

Isaac, born 1772, died August 18, 1837, married Elizabeth Hornbecker.

John, born 1774, died April 18, 1848

William, born 1778, died Feb. 2, 1862. Married Magdalena, born 1793, April 28, 1859

Rebecca, born 1781, died June 18, 1859. Married George Washington Williams

Margaret, married John Williams on June 7, 1807

Elizabeth, married Archibald Smith

Sarah, married John R. Delashmut

Comfort, married Josiah Williams.

Josiah served in the War of 1812 as a sergeant in Capt. Andrew Dill’s Company, 1st Regiment (McArthur’s Ohio Volunteers and Militia. His service commenced May 1, 1812 and ended April 30, 1813. He married Comfort Weatherington (or Worthington) in 1813. She was born in Virginia in 1793 and died in Fayette Co., IL March 30, 1847. Their children were:

Josiah and Margaret Williams

Josiah and Margaret
Williams

Margaret Williams, Nov. 15, 1815 to Jan 1, 1885, married Daniel Jacoby. Six children

John Williams, Aug. 29, 1817 to Apr. 17, 1867. Married Sarah Taverner. Nine children

Josiah Williams, Sept. 17, 1819. Married to Winneford A. Brown (with whom he had three children) and Margaret Adaline Brown (with whom they had eleven children. Josiah and Margaret are my great-great-grandparents: my material grandfather’s material grandparents. Here is a link to the history of the local Brown family.

Cordelia Williams, born about 1821, date of death unknown but probably before 1860. She married Benjamin Powell and then Dudley H. Mabry with whom she had one child.

Edmonson M. Williams, born 1824, date of death unknown. Married Barbara Crawford, with whom he had ten children, married a second time and had one more child. “Later he deparated from [his second] wfe, went West and homesteaded [in Kansas],” writes Helen. Barbara is my great-great-great-aunt through the Crawfords.

Rebecca Comfort Williams, born Feb. 25, 1827 to March 20, 1878. Married Robert James Pilcher. Four children. Robert is my great-great-great-uncle through the Pilchers (Grandma Crawford’s family).

When my daughter was 600 miles away in college near Pittsburgh, I stopped by Obetz a few times while traveling I-70. I’d visited the place three or four other times since first coming here about 40 years ago. The cemetery is a large and pretty churchyard at the outskirts of the village. I can only imagine how beautiful were the virgin woodlands and prairie in that area when Josiah died in 1826, how different the scene would have looked compared to today’s small-town scene. I was a couple days too early for Obetz’s Zucchini Festival.

Now that we’ve moved to St. Louis, I’m close to some local cousins who are also descended from this side of the family. A few weeks ago a cousin-couple here in town wrote me through Facebook and invited my wife Beth and me to an evening church event with them and another cousin-couple.

Say what you will about online networking sites, but thanks to Facebook I’ve been able to reconnect not only with old friends but also with several cousins with whom I hadn’t seen or contacted for ages! We can chat a bit, offer encouraging words, and stay connected.

It’s cliche to say, but what would Comfort have thought about the ability of her descendants to communicate? When she died in 1847, communication and travel were still pretty much identical; telegraphy was in its earliest days and limited to a few areas.

 

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I’m driving across the American Midwest, on flat interstate highways for twelve hours….

arthur-rackham-die-rheintoechter-necken-alberich-von-das-rheingold-und-die-walkuere-von-richard-wagner-147464

Arthur Rankham made several illustrations of scenes from the Ring.

Three maidens sing and play deep within the river Rhine. They are also guarding the gold of the Rhine, which if made into a ring will allow its wearer to rule the earth–but only if that person renounces love. As the maidens swim, a Nibelung dwarf named Alberich tries to woo and play with them, but they mock his ugliness. Hearing the story of the gold from the maidens, who don’t realize his evil potential, Alberich renounces love, makes off with the gold, and sets himself up as ruler of his land Nibelheim.

Meanwhile, the gods in their own realm have a problem. The chief god Wotan has authorized construction of their castle, Valhalla, and the giants who have built the castle demand the goddess Freia as payment. Without Freia’s golden apples, however, the gods will age and die. Realizing that the Rhine gold is now in Nibelheim, Wotan and the fire god Loge descend to the dwarf land, seize Alberich and the gold, and gives the giants the gold and the ring.

But Alberich curses the ring, so that its owners will eventually be killed and robbed of the ring. Sure enough, the giants fight for its ownership and one is killed.

Both Loge and the earth goddess Erda warn Wotan that the ring should be returned to the Rhine maidens, but Wotan (who rules through treaties carved onto the shaft of his spear) is bound to forgo the gold as per the authorization of Valhall’s construction.

The gods proceed into Valhalla (all but Loge, who believes he may someday destroy the gods for their deceit and acquisitions, but he’s still not sure). Wotan, however, is haunted by Erda’s prophecies and begins a relationship with her (reluctantly tolerated by his wife Fricka) to gain more information. The resultant offspring of Erda and Wotan are the Valkyries, immortal warrior women who take the souls of fallen heroes to form Valhalla’s army. Wotan also fathered offspring by a mortal woman, so that an offspring (who unlike Wotan is not bound by treaty to the surviving giant, Fafner) may someday seize the ring.

Years later, the home of warrior Hunding and his wife Sieglinde are visited by a fleeing man, who identifies himself as Wehwalt. They give Wehwalt hospitality, and he tells his story. He has been wandering ever since discovering his mother dead and his twin sister abducted. Circumstances have left him pursued by enemies but without suitable weapons for himself. Hunding identifies himself as one of his pursuers and, although he is obliged to give him hospitality, they must fight in the morning. As Hunding sleeps, however, Sieglinde expresses her hope for a hero to save her from their awful marriage. Falling in love with each other, they realize that a sword, left in the ash tree at Sieglinde’s house, was in fact left by his father years before. Further, they realize they are the separated twins and that he is Siegmund. He pulls the sword from the tree (something no one else had been able to do) and they escape the house.

A little later, the goddess Fricka informs Wotan of this situation and demands that Siegmund must die for his crime of incest and adultery. Wotan confides in his favorite Valkyrie daughter, Brünnhilde, the whole story of the gold, the giant, and his bitterness at having to kill Siegmund. Wotan is at an impasse, because of his treaty with the giants he cannot just steal the ring, but the ring can only be taken by “a free hero,” and Siegmund (Wotan realizes) is just as much as servant of the gods as the Valkyries.

Wotan orders Brünnhilde to assist in Siegmund’s death and take him to Valhalla. But when Brünnhilde meet the fleeing twins, Siegmund refuses to go because Sieglinde cannot accompany him. In fact, he swears to kill both himself and Sieglinde, which causes a moved and impressed Brünnhilde to take his side.

When Hunding arrives, however, Wotan shatters Siegmund’s sword and allows Hunding to kill him. Disobeying the god, Brünnhilde takes both Sieglinde and the shattered sword and escapes.

When Wotan catches up to her, he punishes Brünnhilde by declaring she must become mortal, placed in a magic sleep on the mountainside, and thus be available to any man who discovers her. She challenges that she disobeyed Wotan because she actually understood his true desire–she acted according to his own secret will. In sorrow, he carries out his judgment but summons Loge to surround her with magic fire. She will be mortal but will not be victim to any passerby: “Whoever fears the point of my spear,” declares the god, “shall not pass through the fire.”

Hidden away, Sieglinde is pregnant by Siegmund’s child, who is named Siegfried. (The name, combinations of words for “freedom” and “victory,” signals that he is the hero—unattached to Wotan through any treaties or subservient relationships—on whom Wotan has pinned his hopes).

0ba841f532f446e72581cb0d6b36f0caWe haven’t heard from the Nibelung dwarfs for a while, but now we return to them. Sieglinde is cared for by Mime, the brother of Alberich. She dies in childbirth, and Alberich raises Siegfried. But his motives aren’t altruistic; understanding Siegfried’s significance, Mime hopes the boy will slay the giant Fafner, who guards the magic ring. Mime wants the ring for himself. Once the boy understands his own background story, he takes the remains of his father’s sword, recasts it (which Mime had been unable to do), and sets out.

The giant Fafner, sleeping in a cave in the form of a dragon, is awakened by Siegfried’s horn. Unafraid (because he has never learned fear), Siegfried soon slays the dragon and takes the ring. Mime tries to take the ring for himself by poisoning Siegfried, but Siegfried understands the dwarf’s plans and slays him, too.

A songbird tells Siegfried of a woman sleeping on a rock on the mountainside. Meanwhile, Wotan–who has been close by all this time–meets earth goddess Erda and informs him he no longer dreads the prophesied end of the gods. He believes that Siegfriend and Brünnhilde will eventually be able to bring about the world’s redemption after the gods’ ends.

Siegfried arrives, and Wotan tries to block his way. But Siegfried shatters Wotan’s spear, ending the god’s power and authority. He sadly tells Siegfried, “Zieh hin! Ich kann dich nicht halten!” (Forward then, I cannot stop you) and vanishes. Uncomprehending, Siegfried wonders aloud where “the coward” went and proceeds toward the ring of fire. Having proved his fearlessness of Wotan’s spear, he enters the fire easily and discovers Brünnhilde in her magic sleep. Realizing she is a woman—and he has never seen a woman before—he instinctively knows to kiss her, though he is for the first time in his life filled with fear.

Brünnhilde awakes, and they fall in love. They go on their way, but soon Siegfried sets off on an adventure but first gives Brünnhilde the ring as a pledge of faithfulness. (At this point I want to yell at her: “You’re his aunt, you better watch out for him! He’s not very bright.”) Unfortunately, Siegfried ends up among the Gibichungs, dwellers by the Rhine, who are up to no good thanks to the king’s advisor, Hagan, who is the son of Alberich and the king’s mother. Hagen plots with the king Gunther to take Brünnhilde for his wife and to give Siegfried to Gunther’s sister, Gutrune. Thus, Hagen will seize the ring for himself and his father Alberich.

640px-Siegfried_and_the_Twilight_of_the_Gods_p_130When Siegfried arrives, they give him a potion which makes him fall in love with Gutrune and to lose memory of Brünnhilde. He sets out to gain her for Gunther.

Meanwhile, Brünnhilde receives a surprise visit from her Valkyrie sister, Waltraute. The Valkyrie warns Brunnhilde that Wotan’s spear, with its extensive record of his covenants and bargains, is destroyed and thus his power. Furthermore he has ordered the wood of the World Tree to be gathered around Valhalla so that the kingdom can eventually be set ablaze and the days of the gods brought to an end. Because the ring’s curse is behind the doom of the gods, Waltraute begs her sister to return the ring to the maidens of the Rine. But Brünnhilde will not lose the ring which is also her lover’s pledge to her.

Waltraute leaves. Soon Siegfried arrives, but he is magically disguised as Gunther. He seizes her, takes the ring, and brings her to the Gibichungs. Gunther sounds the alarm and brings his vassals to the hall for a wedding party. Brünnhilde sees Siegfried in his natural form and, realizing she has been fooled, denounces him. Siegfried, still under the sway of the potion, swears on Hagen’s spear that she is lying, but she also swears on the spear that she tells the truth.

Unfortunately, a vow made on a weapon means that the person speaking falsely will be killed by that weapon. Assuming his treachery, Brünnhilde tells Hagen that Siegfried’s back is his vulnerable place. Hagen uses this fact to carry out the rest of his plot. He gives Siegfried a potion that restores his memory, and as Siegfried sings the praises of Brünnhilde, Hagen claims that Siegfried has shown himself a liar and stabs him.
Siegfried’s body is returned to the Gibichung Hall. In the resulting conflicts, Hagen kills Gunther and Gutrune dies of grief, but Hagen is unable to gain the ring from Siegfried’s finger. Brünnhilde, however, takes the ring herself and orders a funeral pyre for 483fe0eb0bf69d6f971d8acbe4f4a3cdSiegfried. She lights the fire and summons Wotan’s ravens to inform him of the end of the gods. Then she calls to the maidens of the nearby Rhine to regain the ring once the fire purifies it from Alberich’s curse—and with the ring in hand, she rides into the flames.

The fire blazes, igniting the Gibichung’s hall. The Rhine rises, floods, and covers the fire, allowing the maidens to regain the ring. They drown Hagen as he attempts to reclaim it. But as calm is restored to the earth and water, Valhalla can be seen engulfed in flames. The gods and heroes are no more, and all the trouble brought about by the ring’s curse are over. The earth is redeemed for a new era (although Alberich is still at large….).

******

During a recent solitary car trip lasting twelve hours, I decided to listen straight through to Der Ring des Nibelungen of Richard Wagner, specifically the 1955 recording from the Bayreuth festival, conducted by Joseph Keilberth. This recording features some of the greatest Wagnerian singers of all time: Hans Hotter as Wotan, Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried, Astrid Varnay as Brünnhilde, and others like Paul Kuen, Gustav Neidlinger, Gré Brouwenstijn, Ramon VInay, Joseph Greindl, and Hermann Uhde, among others. This was also the period of the great post-war Bayreuth productions by Wagner’s grandsons Wolfgang and Wieland, as reflected in the CD sets’ photographs of the original sets and singers.

As many people know, Wagner’s Ring cycle is four operas, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). Although Alberich as an on-stage character is not prominent after Das Rheingold, he is the Nibelung dwarf of the title and his influence is everywhere. His renunciation of love, allowing him to steal the Rhine gold, sets in motion the whole drama. But his theft inspires a greater wrong: the theft of the same gold from Alberich by Wotan and Loge, so that Wotan can pay for his realm Valhalla and save the gods’ youth and power by buying back Freia from the giants.

After these crimes are established in Das Rheingold, the three primary operas of the cycle dramatize the unfolding of the consequences of Wotan’s wrongdoing, his attempts to deal with the situation, his eventual acceptance of the end of the gods (“das Ende” he cries in Act 2 of the second opera), and the manner in which that ending plays out. The consequences the gold’s theft are too vast even for the god.

Theft and rape are two related themes that permeate the whole drama. Alberich wants to make love to the Rhine maidens but, rejected, he steals their gold. Wotan steals the gold from Alberich to prevent the abduction/rape of Freia. But he himself compounds his problems via his illicit relationships with the Earth Mother and the mortal mother of the twins. Siegmund, in turn, carries off Sieglinde from her husband and impregnates her, and Brünnhilde’s punishment for taking the twin’s side (Wotan’s first judgment against her) is to be placed into sleep and taken by whoever passes by. And then, of course, Siegfried is deceived into delivering Brünnhilde to another man in marriage. Only when the gold—figuratively raped from the maidens—is returned, can all be well again. That Wotan is the father or grandfather of all these characters deepens the awfulness of the several tragedies.

But love and redemption are two other related themes for the drama. The redemption of the situation—which is the redemption of the world—must happen because of two people who are more free than Wotan: Siegfried, who is a generation removed from being subject to his authority, and Brünnhilde, who can violate his authority because from the love of parent and child she acts from his own heart, not from his deals and treaties. So the opera begins with the renunciation of love and ends, sixteen hours later, with the redemption through love, which is the final leitmotif of the instrumental conclusion.

I had not listened to Wagner’s Ring cycle straight through for a long time. When I was a single pastor living in a rural parsonage, I liked to listen to the 11-LP Wilhelm Furtwängler La Scalia set (with Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde), playing in the background as I worked. At the time, I also collected the famous Georg Solti Ring, and the 1953 Bayreuth Ring conducted by Clemens Krauss. (Krauss was known as a Strauss conductor but the year before he died he conducted this classic recording of the Ring.) This was a period of my life, about which I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, when I collected classical LPs and delighted in many musical discoveries.

A few years ago, when my wife Beth and I were in New York on her business trip, I walked up to Lincoln Center to browse its gift shop. Splurging a bit (actually more than a bit!) I bought the then-newly-released 1955 Bayreuth Ring. It had been the very first stereo recording but was never properly released because of contractual difficulties between Columbia/EMI and Decca (Decca had planned the first studio recording of the Ring, but the best Wagnerian singers of the era were signed to EMI), and because the Solti Ring (commenced in 1958) superseded the 1955 recording as not only a stereo recording but as the first studio recording.

The Solti Ring is an exciting production for listening to Wagner in one’s home (Solti’s dramatic tempos, real cattle horns instead of trombones, actual anvils being struck, the audio manipulation of Siegfried’s tenor into the baritone range when he disguises himself as Gunther). But the great singers of 1955, notably Hotter and Windgassen, were past their prime for Solti. On the other hand, they are in full splendor on that earlier recording. Finally, in the mid 00s, the Testament label released the 1955 Ring—the true first stereo recording of the epic—to great fanfare in the music press. Looking over reviews on Amazon and in print, the consensus of listeners seem to be that the 1953 Krauss Ring and the 1955 stereo Keilberth Ring are “the best” for overall interpretation and the performances of that great post-war generation of Wagnerian singers.

I love the 1953 Krauss ring but decided to listen to the Keilberth Ring for my 12-hour car trip. I hadn’t done the set justice since I splurged on it a while back. I listened to Das Rheingold before I left town, but I still didn’t have time to play the whole cycle before arriving home. I listened to Das Rheingold and then Die Walküre, which got me from northeast Ohio to eastern Indiana. Then I listened to most of Siegfried through Indiana; Siegfried forged his sword as I was approaching Indy. Then I skipped through long passages of Götterdämmerung—the entire, very long prelude, to which I’ve listened many times–and through sections of the other acts. I tend to listen most often to this last opera of the cycle, so it was no loss to the overall “concert” if I skipped through this one.

Hearing all the operas straight through, you get a good sense of the different “sound worlds” of each. Siegfried isn’t pastoral, exactly, but it “feels” more woodland and outdoors than Die Walküre, which more than the others runs you through a gamut of emotions from anguish to joy to bitter regret to danger and flight and back to regret, though with a glimmer of hope at the end. (The Dutch singer Gré Brouwenstijn as Sieglinde stood out to me: I thought she had a lovely, expressive voice and her role really moved me. She also performs Gutrune.). Das Rheingold’s sound world is one of empty grandeur and moral ambiguity. Except for the sorrowful Rhine maidens, there is no one in the opera worth rooting for.

Götterdämmerung is the most “grand opera” of the four, the overall feeling dominated by Hagen and the Gibichungs. You’re startled to hear ensemble singing (especially the summoned vassals in Act 2) after so many hours without that opera style. Yet you can’t say that the opera is a throwback to Meyerbeer, for Wagner’s use of leitmotifs is notably complex and innovative in this drama.

Hans Hotter’s voice isn’t beautiful (Varnay’s and Windgassen’s are, definitely), but he gives so much expression, emotion, and authority in his characterization. He spoils me for any other Wotan. What a joy to hear him in dialogue with Varnay in Die Walküre and with Windgassen in Act 3 of Siegfried. You really do feel like the encounter between Siegfried and Wotan is a life-and-death encounter between mighty and unyielding forces. You hear the sorrow and resignation in Hotter’s voice once Wotan’s spear is destroyed.

As I crossed the Mississippi River and thus was almost home, I listened to Brünnhilde’s immolation and the great conclusion of the whole cycle. (On this recording, the audience sits in silence for a few seconds before erupting in applause.) The music, rather than the Mississippi, transported me to the actual Rhine River that we were pleased to visit a few years ago during our daughter’s choir tour.

 

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