Richard Wagner and The Ring Cycle
Richard Wagner's “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, or “The Ring cycle” is without doubt one of the greatest masterpieces of musical history. It is a work of extraordinary scale, it contains four operas, with a total playing time of over 15 hours. It tells stories of myth and mayhem, death and betrayal, heroism, glory and ultimately devastation or redemption depending how you look at it.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was a German composer and theorist who went on to become one of the wold’s most influential – and controversial composers. His music had a revolutionary influence on the course of Western music, either by extension of his discoveries or reaction against them. He is primarily known for his operas, or, as some of his later works were later known, "music dramas". Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. His compositions are known for their complex textures, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the use of leitmotifs, musical phrases associated with individual characters, ideas or plot elements. Among Wagner’s major works are The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal – and his great tetralogy, The Ring of the Nibelung that consists of four separate operas and took 26 years to complete (Boulez, 1975, p.8-10 and Schonberg, 1997, p. 320).
Wagner was born on May 22nd 1813 in the Jewish quarter of Leipzig. A mystery attaches to his paternity, his legal father died when he was six months old and his mother married an actor named Ludwig Geyer the following year. From childhood Wagner was surrounded by actors, musicians and artist, but showed no unusual aptitude in any direction, not until he was fifteen years old, and heard the Beethoven Ninth Symphony and decided to become a composer. He was at that time completely untrained and in many respects he developed into a self-taught composer (Schonberg, 1997, p. 297-298).
At the age of 20, Wagner took a choirmaster position in Würzberg and composed his first opera, Die Feen, in 1833. His opera career soon picked up speed. He completed Rienzi in 1840, The Flying Dutchman in 1843 and Tannhauser in 1845 (Schonberg, 1997, p. 298-301).
Although Wagner’s early operas had won him renown and were widely performed, he was not satisfied. Despite his intense attempts to exercise authorial control, theatre managements continued to present his works primarily for their entertainment value, thereby belittling his intensions as a musical dramatist (Carnegy, 2006, p. 46).
Wagner believed that art could only be rescued through the creation of a modern equivalent of the theatre festivals of Periclean Athens. There, audience and performers had come together to marvel at the strange and terrible ways of the gods as dramatized in tragedies of Aeschylus. The subject chosen for the principal festival dramas concerned the profoundest issues of human existence, and these were presented as living myth. Wagner noted that Aeschylus had been a composer, poet and stage manager all in one. He had achieved a supreme synthesis of every artistic, moral and religious possibility (Carnegy, 2006, p. 46).
Wagner arrived at the concept of a unified art work, the “Gesamtkunstwerk” or "total work of art", where he laid out his criteria for a new idealistic artwork of the future, by which he sought to synthesise the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, with music subsidiary to drama. He described this vision in a series of essays published between 1849 and 1852. Wagner believed that this new performance concept which he called “Music drama” would raise art above the level of mere entertainment, the level to which he believed had sunk in a capitalist society. He continued to explore these themes in is most controversial booklet, “Judaism in music” in which he held the Jews responsible for everything in German art that was derivate and mediocre. This work hangs as a great shadow over Wagner’s life and reputation, especially as his music later became a symbol for Nazism as Hitler and the Nazi regime used Wagner’s theories to support their own racist ideology (Schonberg, 1997, p. 301-302).
Until his final years, Wagner's life was characterised by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors. His controversial writings on music, drama and politics have attracted extensive comment since the late 20th century. No composer, and few human beings, have had Wagner’s sense of mission. “I let myself be guided without fear by my instinct. I am being used as the instrument for something higher than my own being warrants … I am in the hands of the immortal genius that I serve for the span of my life and that intends me to complete only what I can achieve.” Such was Wagner’s ego that it is not stretching a point to suggest that he secretly regarded himself as a god. He was sent to earth by mysterious forces (Schonberg, 1997, p. 297).
The Ring Cycle
Wagner realised his ideas of the “Gesamtkunstwerk” most fully in his four-opera cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen” or “The Ring of the Nibelung”. Wagner wrote the libretto and the music in the years 1848 to 1874. The Ring text belongs to the most turbulent period of Wagner’s life. Between the first sketch in 1848 and the completion of the poem for publication at the end of 1852 lay revolution and upheaval, flight from Dredsen, and exile in Zurich, and not surprisingly the preoccupations of these years left their mark on the work in progress. Der Ring des Nieblungen resounds with social, political and economic messages and the author’s shifting philosophical convictions, all bearing witness to the revolutionaries, socio-economists, and philosophers whose work Wagner read or with whom he associated” (Magee, 1990, p. 1).
It is easy to see why it took him around 26 years to complete the whole thing. There are all sorts of little interesting corners, massive staging considerations, quirky sub-plots, and, above all, the incredible music. The four operas The operas, Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walküre (The Valkyre), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) are all an incredible work of art. They tell a story of the Rhinegold, guarded by three Rhinemaidens, the dwarf Alberich that steals the gold and makes a ring out of it that whoever owns, also rules the world. The saga is based on three main characters: Wotan the king of gods, Brünhilde his daughter and Siegfried, her lover. The story revolves around the possession of the ring of gold, which promises world dominance to anyone willing to renounce love. It is a tale of heroism, greed, betrayal as well as love and redemption. Other characters are amongst others gods and goddesses like Fricka, Freia, Donner and Loge, the Wälsung twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, and Valkyries like Brünnhilde, Waltraute and Siegrune (Spencer, 1993, p. 54-56).
The ideal Theatre
In the late 19th century there really was not any market for a fifteen-hour epic drama and Wagner struggled to raise money to create this challenging new artwork that was going to change the course of operatic history. Wagner had long desired to have a special festival opera house, designed by himself, for the performance of the Ring. In 1871, he decided on a location in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth. In 1872, he moved to Bayreuth, and the foundation stone was laid. Wagner had very strong ideas about where and under what circumstances he wanted his operas to be performed. He envisaged eventual performance only in a special theatre and under festival conditions. His music never really addressed practicalities and in many ways is totally impossible to perform and stage. No existing German company could respond to satisfactory to the challenge of the work. Correct performances required handpicked singers, the auditorium would be an amphitheatre and the orchestra invisible. Nothing would be allowed to undermine the sense of total illusion created on the stage. Wagner expected that his stage should create a perfect illusory world for the spectators, necessitating concealment of the orchestra (Carnegy, 2006, p. 69).
The realization of the Ring was made possible by Wagner’s meeting with the eighteen-year-old Ludwig II of Bavaria, who had just ascended the Bavarian throne and developed an all-consuming passion for Wagner and his works. He was willing to finance the production of the Ring, and as Wagner resumed work on the composition, Ludwig embarked on plans to build a special theatre in Munich for the performance. Political opposition made this impossible, but the first two parts, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, were performed at the Munich Hofoper in 1869 and 1870, while Wagner arranged to have the special festival theatre built at Bayeruth. Even with Ludwig’s backing, this was a colossal enterprise to finance, but in August 1876 the theatre opened with the first complete cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen. The completion of the Ring Cycle and the opening of the Festival Theatre at Bayreuth realized Wagner’s dream of creating opera in a setting totally removed from the social mileu of the fashionable city opera house. From the outset musicians came to Bayreuth as pilgrims to shrine of the new religion of music (Raeburn, 1998, p. 138-139).
The magical world of Norse mythology has been an inspiration to many writers, composers and visual artists. Wagner is no exception, he had long been interested in early Norse and German heroic poetry, including the medieval German epic Nibelungenlied (“Song of the Nibelung”), when he sketched out a prose version of the Nibelung myth in 1848. But the Ring is also greatly inspired by the Nordic mythology and Icelandic sagas (Björnsson, 2000, 13).
Although under the influence of the Norse Mythology, Wagner interprets the stories in his own ways. The first part, Das Rheingold, is largely based on the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. The second part, Die Walküre contains elements from Völsunga saga. All these three sources were compiled in Iceland, probably in the first half of the 13th century. The third part, Siegfried is based on the Edda’s, Völsunga saga and Thidrekssaga, a prose narrative written in 1260-70 in Old Norse and the fourth part, Götterdämmerung is inspired by the Nibelungenlied, an epic poem written in Middle High German around 1200. In 1856, Wagner, by a Franz Müller’s (ministry manager in Weimar) request, wrote a note a list of ten books that had at that time inspired him when composing the libretto. The list includes Edda, Völsungasaga and Heimskringla (Björnsson, 2000, p. 70).
Wagner himself writes about his inspiration from the Norse mythology in his biography from 1912:
“In my efforts to master the myths of Germany more thoroughly than had been possible in my former perusal of the Nibelung and the Heldenbuch [Book of Heroes], Mone ’s particularly suggestive commentary on this Heldensage [Stories of Heroes] filled me with delight, although stricter scholars regarded this work with suspicion on account of the boldness of some of its statements. By this means I was drawn irresistibly to the northern sagas; and I now tried, as far as was possible without a fluent knowledge of the Scandinavian languages, to acquaint myself with the Edda, as well as with the prose version which existed of a considerable portion of the Heldensage. Read by the light of Mone’s Commentaries, the Wolsungasaga had a decided influence upon my method of handling this material. My conceptions as to the inner significance of these old-world legends, which had been growing for a long time, gradually gained strength and moulded themselves with the plastic forms which inspired my later works.” (Wagner, 1911, p. 416).
It is not hard to get lost in Wagner’s music. It is a rich brew of characters, myths and melodies, textures and themes. But there is a method in all this madness. Wagner invented a new way of composing using leitmotivs which are musical phrases, which was to become the single most important constructive and stylist element in all the subsequence music. A leitmotif is first of all something which is associated with a specific thing, a person or a theme, place or an idea. It is something that reoccurs not merely as a thematic convenience but as an integrated part of a plot. The leitmotif begins in simply showing something, someone, somewhere, by means of musical sound (Millington, 1993, p. 15-16). Rather than an excuse to eat up composing time, the Leitmotifs act as a reminder about those characters, and Wagner occasionally changes them slightly to change how you feel about who it's representing. For instance, the Rheingold itself, which is the sort of title theme for the whole Ring. The first time you hear that, it is brilliantly placed as a very sonorous memorable image, you just hear the Rheinmaidens sing “Rheingold” to those two chords. It is beautifully orchestrated, once you have heard that, you can’t forget it, and so whenever that reoccurs, throughout the next fourteen or fifteen hours it will have that connotation. The whole adventure of the gold is carried by those two chords which change key and become blackened and smutched and the sound of Rheingold in Gotterdammerung is one of the blackest sounds ever made.
Wagner uses the motifs in similar way as a designer would use colours, textures and shapes. He gives each person a special motif. An example, Siegfried’s leitmotif is turned into a funeral march. These leitmotifs which recur and percolate and change and alter is a way to make the audience associate with the characters, with something of importance, and your stage, the materials and the characters and the plot and the architypes beyond gets gradually deeper, until if it has worked for you, at the end of Gotterdammerung, of the twilight of the Gods, should be really overwhelming where you hear all kinds of motifs in the fire.
Modern cinema depends in a way on a Wagnerian model, not only the idea of motifs associated with particular things, but the kinds of motifs that you hear. John William’s music for Star Wars is a good example. The idea of associating a thing or a person with a musical idea is something that really comes from Wagner.
Few examples of the Leitmotifs:
“If it was Beethoven who dominated music in the first half of the nineteenth century, it was Richard Wagner who loomed over the second half. It was not only that Wagnerian opera changed the course of music. There was also something Messianic about Wagner that raised the concept for the Artist-as-a-Hero to an unprecedented degree” (Schonberg, 1997, p. 296).
The Ring Cycle is one of the most influential theatrical works ever written. It is a powerful music-drama on a grand scale. For Wagner the important thing about myth was that its truths were true for all time. Dramas based on it were not limited as were those set in particular times and places, their significance and truths therefore limited to their particular ambience. Myths are not limited by history, they shrine timeless truth, love and hate.
Björnsson, Á. (2000) Wagner og Völsungarnir, Reykjavík: Mál og Menning.
Boulez, P. (1975) “Divergences: The man and his work”, in Barth, H. (ed.) Wagner: A documentary study, London: Thames & Hudson.
Carnegy, P. (2006) Wagner and the art of the theatre, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Magee, E. (1990) Richard Wagner and the Nibelungs, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Millington, B. (1993) “Wagner’s revolutionary musical reforms”, in Spencer, S. (ed.) Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung: A Companion, London: Thames & Hudson, pp. 14-16.
Raeburn, M. (1998) The chronicle of opera, London: Thames & Hudson.
Schonberg, H. (1997) The lives of the great composers, London: Abacus.
Spencer, S. (1993) “Or strike at me now as I strangle thy knee: A note on the text and translation”, in Spencer, S. (ed.) Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung: A Companion, London: Thames & Hudson, pp. 11-13.
Wagner, R. (1911) My Life, London: Constable and company.