Last week saw a short tour through Germany, with stops in the historical cities of Heidelberg, Worms, Bonn, and Weimar. Besides offering textbook examples of cultural tourism, each city had a classical music connection—Schumann’s residency in Heidelberg, Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn, Liszt and Bach’s tenures in Weimar (not to mention those of Schiller and Goethe, as well as the founding of the Bauhaus, where Stefan Wolpe honed his craft). Worms’ musical association is a bit more metaphoric. Nestled by the Rhine river, the small town has a rich history but no famous composers to its name. Instead, it is home to the legend of the Nibelungs, the medieval epic Nibelungenlied poem which became the basis for Wagner’s Ring. And fortunately, a new museum adorns the town where Siegfried slew the dragon and Hagen threw the Nibelung treasure into the Rhine.
The Nibelungen Museum deftly handles the complicated story of the Nibelunglied and the even more complicated story of its effect on German history and culture. Patrons slowly ascend two tall towers, equipped with audio guides which automatically play short excerpts every few feet. As you wind up the staircase of the Seeing Tower, you view clips from Fritz Lang’s Siegfried and hear from the anonymous author of the original Nibelungenlied, an indignant narrator from beyond the grave who describes his epic poem while disparaging its various appropriations by everyone from Wagner to the Nazis.
The narrator makes a bold attempt to divorce his story from its after-story, pointing out history’s distortions of the poem, the differences between it and the Icelandic Edda, and the ways which Wagner’s Ring muddled it entirely. He viciously indicts the adoption of the Nibelungenlied as a metaphor on the national scale—the idea Brünhild stands in for a victorious Germania, that Siegfried is an archetypical Aryan, or that the soldiers dying at Stalingrad were the modern embodiment of the suicidal loyalty of the Nordic race. Angry that politicians and musicians alike adopted his work as a symbol of national unity and then nationalistic jingoism, he speaks coldly of “that mad reinterpretation machine” which created the Wagner’s Ring and Fritz Lang’s Siegfried but also the iconography of the Nazi party. It is an exercise in intertextuality disguised as a museum narrative, both informative and shockingly clever.
And at various times, the narrator’s voice breaks away into a haze of music—original music! In a museum audio guide! The low Eb of Wagner’s Rheingold hums under webs of electronic distortion and an eerie, spectral madrigal by the French composer Thierry Fournier floats through (listen here).
The museum is built around a portion of city walls which dates back to 1200; traveling from the Seeing Tower to the Hearing Tower, you walk along the ancient structure. The second tower tells the actual the Nibelungenlied, with the audio guide providing excerpts from the poem and interesting asides. Having learned the history of the epic, you listen with new ears. As you leave the museum, explosions and screams echo through the headphones, suggesting that though the medieval author of the legend may not have been responsible for the horrors of the last century, their saga is inextricably a part of his own.