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Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle - Introduction

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Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle
Introduction | Das Rheingold | Die Walküre
Siegfried | Götterdämmerung

Richard Wagner's huge operatic masterpiece, Der Ring des Nibelungen (usually abbreviated to The Ring), is monumental in its scope, concept and execution. Over 25 years in the making, it comprises four operas – intended for performance on four consecutive nights – that last two and-a-half, four, four and four and-a-half hours respectively. It is a story of greed, love, loyalty, murder and ultimately redemption, featuring giants and dwarves, gods and mortals, heroes (and heroines) and villains. The term 'opera' does not describe these works adequately – they should, as Wagner himself indicated, be described more correctly as music-dramas.

The Operas

The four operas, in sequence are:

  1. Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold)
  2. Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)
  3. Siegfried
  4. Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods)

The text of the whole cycle was actually written in reverse. Starting in 1848; by 1850 Wagner had completed the libretto for an opera to be entitled Siegfried's Death, which eventually became what we know today as Götterdämmerung, although with considerable modification to the plot. Before starting to compose the music, he realised a need to explain the events of Götterdämmerung, and so wrote the libretto for Young Siegfried, today known just as Siegfried. This, in turn, required him to write Die Walküre, to explain the events leading to the birth of Siegfried, and finally a prequel, Das Rheingold, to explain the background to all three. The libretti for all four operas were completed by 1853.

Origins of the Plot

Wagner took inspiration for elements of the storyline for the Ring from a number of sources, principally the huge Nordic saga Volsunga Saga, and the epic German poem, The Nibelungenlied. Neither the Volsunga Saga nor the Nibelungenlied as we know them today are original – both date from the early 13th Century and both are by unknown poets. The Volsunga Saga is based on earlier works, some of which have come down to us in what is known as the Poetic Edda and the slightly later Prose Edda. The Nibelungenlied poem dates from about 1200, but the genesis may go back to the 5th or 6th Centuries. The early 13th-Century poem was almost certainly written for entertainment performance at a kingly court located somewhere between Vienna and Passau. It is most likely that both these epics derive from old songs and lays1 known by their respective poets. Whatever their origins, Wagner was very selective in what he took, adapting it extensively and adding a lot of his own material.

The Music Takes Shape

Although the libretto was completed first, Wagner noted down the important musical ideas as he went – the words and the music go very much hand-in-hand. Detailed composition of Das Rheingold started in 1853, but Götterdämmerung was not finally completed until 1874. Between 1857 and 1869, having completed up to the end of Act Two of Siegfried, Wagner took a break and did no work on the cycle at all – instead, during this period he composed two other great masterpieces, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Musical motifs are important connective and representational elements in the Ring. They recur throughout the cycle as hints and highlights to the action that is unrolling on the stage. Sometimes the motifs are used to identify people or physical entities – the Rhine Gold, Siegfried, Wotan's spear, Siegfried's sword and the Ring itself all have their own motif. The motifs are also used to identify abstract ideas such as Alberich's curse, Fate, Love, and Redemption. In his book2, Robert Donnington identifies over 90 motifs and argues a complex web of relationship between many of them.

Political Climate of the Time

The year 1848, in which Wagner started to write the libretto for Siegfried's Death, was the same year that Marx and Engels published The Manifesto of the Communist Party. The revolutionary fever that spread rapidly across Europe reached Dresden, where Wagner was conductor at the Royal Court Opera, in the following year, 1849. He addressed a meeting of the pro-republican Vaterlandsverein, at which he challenged the King of Saxony to embrace the new politics, rid himself of the privileged aristocracy and to act as a true champion of his people. The speech was published anonymously in the Dresdner Anzeiger newspaper a day or so later. Wagner was an active revolutionary, holding political meetings in his garden, at which it was proposed to arm the people, and even assisting with the making of hand-grenades.

In May 1849, a letter to his friend and co-revolutionary, August Röckel, fell into the hands of the police and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Wagner fled post-haste to Switzerland - it would be over ten years before he could return. For many years, he was dependent upon financial support from friends, supplemented by occasional conducting engagements, including a season with the London Philharmonic in 1855. He was finally rescued from penury in 1864 by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who invited him to Munich, Germany, paid off his debts and gave him a salary that allowed Wagner to concentrate on composing.

In the light of Wagner's political activism and his writings, there can be no doubt that the Ring has a political dimension to it. The downfall of the gods equates to the end of absolutist monarchy; the Rhine Gold, or to be precise the Ring made from it, to the corrupting power of greed; and the enslavement of the Nibelungs by Alberich at the start of Scene Three of Das Rheingold; to the cruel exploitation of the working man by those in possession of power. In these terms, Siegfried represents the new order.

Fit for the Role

All the principal roles, and most especially the soprano role of Brünnhilde and the tenor role of Siegfried, require singers of exceptional vocal power and stamina. Great Brünnhildes are first born to the role and then learn to interpret it – in the past hundred years or so, singers such as Anna von Mildenberg, Gertrud Kappel, Frida Leider, Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson and now in our present time, Hildegard Behrens, have all made the role their own.

First Performances and the Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Das Rheingold was premièred at the Court Theatre in Munich on 22 September, 1869, followed by Die Walküre on 26 June, 1870. The first complete performance of the Ring cycle was given at Bayreuth in the opening season of the Festspielhaus, on 13 – 17 August, 1876. The Festspielhaus is the theatre that Wagner designed and built, specifically and exclusively to perform his music dramas in.

Tickets Please?

The Ring cycle is performed most years during the annual summer Festival at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Since its opening in 1876 and up to and including the 2004 Festival (2005 was one of the years when it was not given), there have been 197 performances each of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, 196 of Siegfried and 200 of Götterdämmerung. Demand for Festival tickets exceeds availability many times over, so allocation of tickets is by ballot. A former British politician, who applies for tickets every year, notes that while he was a Cabinet Minister in the UK Government he was regularly successful in being allocated tickets, but that since he left office he has not!

1Long narrative poems, usually about mortal heroes, almost invariably sung by travelling minstrels during medieval times.2Donnington, Robert, Wagner's Ring and its Symbols, Faber and Faber, London, 1963.

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