The Bayreuth Centennial Ring Celebrates Its Fortieth Anniversary (Part 2 of 2)

Memories of May 1968

In spite of their outstanding differences, both Chéreau and Boulez were responding to their experiences of the May 1968 events. In May 1968 and the months following it, France witnessed widespread student protests and the largest worker strike in French history, affecting all parts of France and all sectors of the economy. Both Chéreau and Boulez participated in the May events, albeit in different ways. At the time, Chéreau was experimenting with collective theater and bringing theater to local schools and factories in Sartrouville. On May 13, 1968, Boulez gave a lecture (“Where Are We Now?”) in Saint-Etienne that proposed sweeping changes to the new music landscape in France.


Student protesters confront the police in the Latin Quarter of Paris, May 10/11, 1968

By the mid-1970s, memories of May 1968 had undergone a significant transformation. The scholar Kristin Ross refers to the “afterlives” of May 1968 – how the legacy of the events was subjected to new interpretations for personal and political gain. Former radicals – in particular the New Philosophers – disavowed their revolutionary past and Marxism in general. Though Chéreau and Boulez had not been radicals in the way that the New Philosophers had been – neither joined radical worker organizations – they were similarly disappointed with and wished to forget their experiences of May 1968. Chéreau had gone bankrupt in 1969 and left Sartrouville for the Piccolo Teatro in Milan. In 1970, Boulez began plans with President Georges Pompidou to design a new music research center – what would later become IRCAM.

Dammerung1 copy

The final scene of Chéreau’s Götterdämmerung. Workers watch as Valhalla burns to the ground.

In spite of their desire to disavow and forget the past, both Chéreau and Boulez adopt ideas and themes of the May 1968 period in the Bayreuth Centennial Ring. Chéreau’s critique of Wotan as a metaphor for an oppressive state is in keeping with the anti-authoritarian impulse of the 1968 years. The frequent use of steam and fog evokes memories of the police using tear gas to clear student protesters. Chéreau’s irreverent treatment of Wagner’s stage directions – for example the opening image of the Rhine Maidens as prostitutes on a hydroelectric dam – recalls his critical stagings of Molière and Jacob Lenz in Sartrouville. Boulez repeatedly draws on ideas from his 1968 lecture, in particular the idea of musical research and experimentation using new technologies and sounds. He sees Bayreuth as an alternative to the culture industry of opera houses and as a model for his own research center.


Rheingold, scene 1 (“At the bottom of the Rhine”): Chéreau and Peduzzi depict the Rhine as a hydroelectric dam.

What makes the Bayreuth Centennial Ring so relevant today is that it shows Wagner the revolutionary in a mixed light. Chéreau highlights Wagner’s vision of the power structures underlying the modern state. In this way, he upholds the image of Wagner as a radical leftist thinker, yet he is also unafraid to show the problematic aspects of Wagner’s revolutionary thinking, more specifically Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Finally, Boulez’s outstanding attention to the rhythmic and temporal innovations of the music continues to inspire musicians and listeners to this day.


 I will present this material at the Modern Language Association Annual Conference in Philadelphia, PA on January 5-8, 2017. This blog post is based on Chapters Three and Four of my dissertation.

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