“Begun in the Revolutionary Years of 1848 and 1849, and occupying Wagner for a quarter-century, the ‘Ring’ is one of the most extended of all artistic creations. Wagner binds this structure of over fifteen hours’ duration with a complex web of Leitmotive (in English, leading motives). Each Leitmotif is a brief musical idea (usually a bit of melody but sometimes a harmonic or rhythmic idea) which stands for something in the drama often a character, but just as often an event, memory, or abstract idea. Through thematic transformation, the important players and events of the drama take on new guises and implications. For instance, in just the first scene of the first opera of the four, the all-important motif of the Rhine Gold, a joyful and sparkling song when first heard, transforms itself into a baleful denunciation of love and a symbol of evil power when dominion is gained over it by a character who denounces love. The idea of world-controlling power is extended to the well-intentioned world of the Gods at the end of this scene, when it is transformed again into the noble theme of Valhalla, their castle above the Rhine” (AMG).
“The basic conflict in the Ring cycle occurs between Alberich, a dwarf who has gained dominion over the power of Gold. With it he can gain control of an army of slaves who can manufacture the weapons and wealth that will make him invincible; he can rule strictly through power and money. Thus he seeks to overthrow the existing world order, headed by the god Wotan, who rules through the power of honor, that is, the keeping of contracts. All the contracts of the world are symbolically impaled on the shaft of his spear, which he cut from a magic tree called the World-Ash Tree after sacrificing one of his eyes for it in order to gain the hand of the goddess Fricka. Alberich and Wotan are, thus, mirror images of each other, the one having sacrificed love itself to gain unbounded power; the other having sacrificed to gain love and to rule in a power that both controls and is bound by the idea of honor. Fricka, for her part, is the goddess of marriage, enforcing that contract in her own right” (AMG).
“Spear and Ring are thus two of the drama’s basic ideas; the suite of motives headed by the Ring are built from a simple pair of chords; the motives ruled by the Spear spring from its basic idea, which is just as simple: an imposingly-rhythmed downward major scale. A third powerful force, Nature, is heard at the very begining of the opera; it is represented by a single chord, unwound into a slow upward arpeggio, and it generates its own retinue of motives that represent the unfolding of powers beyond Man and Gods alike” (AMG).
“After Lohengrin, Wagner completed the first two of the four Ring operas, interrupted composition of the third for several other projects, and only returned to the Ring in earnest when the possibility of staging it as he wished began to appear possible. The whole Ring was finally premiered in 1876; the audience was inclined to see attending the four-day event as something more like visiting a shrine than simply going to the theatre for musical entertainment. This notion persists; to this day staging and attending integral performances of the Ring are considered the most significant events in the lives of both opera companies and opera-going fans. Numerous excerpts from the four immense scores are heard in symphonic concerts and various adaptations throughout the world” (AMG).
Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold):
“Das Rheingold introduces a primeval collection of gods, nymphs, giants, and dwarves who instigate the situations inherited by Wotan’s children, the humans Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the Valkyrie, Brünnhilde. It is a brief glimpse of an Edenic world, already beginning to be corrupted by greed and lust for power. Musically, Das Rheingold introduces many of the motives associated with objects and ideas of importance in the drama. Among these are the Rheingold, the Ring, Walhall, Wotan’s spear, and the renunciation of love. Das Rheingold also introduces Wagner’s huge Ring orchestra, its versatility, and at times, Wagner’s sheer audacity with sound. At one astonishing moment in the transition to Scene Three, the orchestra falls silent, leaving the enslaved Nibelungs’ forging rhythm to ring out on 18 tuned anvils. Rheingold requires six harps for its conclusion, accompanying the forlorn cries of the betrayed Rhine Daughters. The extraordinary prelude, which is in essence the prelude to the entire cycle, should also be mentioned. The first sound the listener hears is a low E flat, played on the double basses, which seems to appear out of nowhere. This single thread of sound slowly becomes a remarkable extension of the single key of E flat, layering arpeggio upon arpeggio and figuration upon figuration, adding different orchestral voices with their different colors to suggest the growth of a mighty river from its source to an overwhelming torrent. Wagner wrote in his autobiography that the sound came to him in a trancelike state in which he felt almost drowned. Although there is no evidence to contradict this account, Wagner often used fanciful accounts of unmediated inspiration to explain his compositions. Against Wagner’s wishes, Das Rheingold was premiered in 1869 for Wagner’s patron, King Ludwig II, in Munich. Wagner had intended to introduce the complete cycle at his new Festival Theater in Bayreuth, and neither the work nor the opera house had yet been completed. Ludwig did not want to wait to hear the completed operas” (Muir 1).
“Of the four episodes of Der Ring des Nibelungen, Die Walküre is most often performed separately, and arguably may be Wagner’s best-loved work. The source of this affection is certainly Wagner’s sensitive depictions of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love, and the father-daughter relationship of Wotan and Brünnhilde. The work was first criticized for Siegmund and Sieglinde’s incestuous love, but Wagner made them appealing, rendered their story with tenderness, and bestowed on them some of his most glorious music. In Die Walküre, Wagner achieved equality of music and words with flexible ease. Act One, in particular, is a masterpiece of rhapsodic melody joined to a tight plan of steadily rising tension released in successive climaxes as the two are drawn to each other and reveal their pasts” (Muir 2).
“Act Two, Scene Two has one of the work’s epic narrations (‘Als junger Liebe Lust mir verblich’), as Wotan confesses his dilemma to his daughter Brünnhilde. These narrations in Wagner’s dramas provide an opportunity to stop and reflect on events and to see them from the perspective of other characters. The device also allows Wagner to bring Leitmotifs strongly into play to represent the relationships of different characters, objects and ideas through their transformation, and thus he furnishes some of the most powerful psychological moments in the drama. As Wotan recalls the theft of the gold, the building of Valhalla, and the ring, each of their leitmotifs are heard; the motifs of the curse and the sword join the texture, and their accumulation drives the narration to its climax as Wotan confesses to his horrified daughter that he only desires one thing – ‘das Ende, das Ende’” (Muir 2).
“Act Three opens with the well known ‘Ride of the Valkyries,’ in which Wotan’s daughters, the Valkyries, assemble on their mountaintop after scouting a battlefield for dead warriors. Listeners acquainted with only the concert version may be surprised to hear the eight voices of the Valkyries over the orchestral texure, and one can understand the tremendous impact originally made in the theater by this curtain-raiser. In Wagner’s Bayreuth theater, with the orchestra under the stage, the voices are much more prominent” (Muir 2).
“The opera concludes with Wotan’s impressive and moving farewell to Brünnhilde, as he leaves her to sleep, surrounded by a ring of fire. Much of this episode’s material is new and unique, including the powerful melody with which Wotan exclaims his farewell; but it is punctuated by important motives such as Loge’s fire, and introduces ones that will be important later in the drama, such as the sleep motive (closely related to Erda’s characteristic music) and that of the downfall of the gods. The orchestral texture here is rich and full, with brass supporting Wotan’s song, and a sweeping countermelody in unison cellos. Wotan’s allusion to one ‘who does not fear the point of my spear,’ is set to the Wälsung motive, and strongly echoed in the brass, while rippling harps accompany a lilting lullaby-like motive in the upper woodwinds” (Muir 2).
“It has been much discussed that Wagner halted composition of Siegfried partway through Act Two (leaving Siegfried under a linden tree) in 1857, and did not begin work on Act Two until 1869, finally reaching completion in 1871. The Ring project had reached a financial crisis, and having moved on mentally to Tristan, Wagner was eager to tackle its different musical and dramatic problems. The intervening years also saw the completion and performance of Die Meistersinger” (Muir 3).
“Wagner’s sense of what he wanted to do with the Ring drama changed by the time he returned to Siegfried. When he began the Ring, he had clearly seen Siegfried as the hero of the drama, but the desire to more fully explore Wotan’s predicament impelled him to expand the project. Wagner’s readings of the philosopher Schopenhauer also had altered his conception to a more pessimistic one, in which the power of love alone would not be sufficient to conquer the curse of greed and corruption” (Muir 3).
“An unusual aspect of this work is that the dramatic action consists almost exclusively of confrontations: in Act One, Mime and Siegfried, and the Wanderer and Mime; Act Two, the Wanderer and Alberich, Siegfried and Fafner, Mime and Alberich, Siegfried and Mime again; then Act Three, the Wanderer and Erda, the Wanderer and Siegfried, and Siegfried and Brünnhilde. In Siegfried, Wotan has resolved to desist from controlling events and calls himself the Wanderer. He is very much present throughout this drama, however, which introduces his new motive, a unique, compact creation. It is at once descending, chromatic, sequential, and cyclic, and neatly conveys the god’s renunciation and his ceaseless wandering through the realm of earth” (Muir 3).
“Siegfried has many elements of a folk or fairy tale: a dark, menacing forest as a setting; a naive, but heroic foundling, a dwarf, a pet bear who makes a brief appearance, a ferocious dragon and a talking bird. The dragon (Fafner) and bird are actually given voices with which to communicate: the dragon is an offstage bass projected through a speaking tube, and the bird is a coloratura soprano. Siegfried’s colorful orchestration also reflects its fairy tale milieu, with its anvil, stage horn, and double-reed effects. The ‘Forest Murmurs’ interlude in Act Two features solo woodwinds in a delightfully tremulous imitation of nature. The addition of a high, bright, penetrating soprano voice as the Wood Bird is almost an instrumental effect as well. The essential fairy tale confrontation between Siegfried and the dragon is preceded and accompanied by a fanciful clash of motives and timbres as Siegfried’s horn does vivid battle with Fafner’s contrabassoon” (Muir 3).
“Inevitably, the first two acts of Siegfried are stylistically closer to Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, where the motivic material was generally concise. Act Three introduces more expansive motives associated with the Wanderer’s dialogue with Erda, and Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s grand concluding love duet. The use of motives looks towards the freedom and fluidity of Götterdämmerung, and they are combined in denser polyphonic textures, reflecting the technique developed in Tristan” (Muir 3).
Twilight of the Gods:
“Wagner completed the first draft of Siegfrieds Tod, later renamed Götterdämmerung in October 1848. Realizing that much knowledge of the situation was preassumed, he added a Prologue, and eventually turned the project into a cycle of four operas. He changed the dramatic focus from Siegfried to Wotan, and consequently had to revise Siegfrieds Tod. In 1852, he changed the end so that Walhall and the gods were destroyed. In 1856, more changes were made in light of his reading of Schopenhauer and interest in Buddhism. The first complete draft of the score was completed in April 1872, and the entire opera finally completed on November 21, 1874” (Muir 4).
“Götterdämmerung is a colossal work, one of the longest evenings of opera in the standard repertory. The Prologue and Act One, connected by the orchestral ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ probably comprise the longest continuous stretch of music heard in any operatic work. Despite this, the drama is so compressed that events seem almost to race to their cataclysmic end. Götterdämmerung’s structure echoes that of the entire cycle, with a prologue and three acts reflecting the large-scale plan of the prologue and three evenings” (Muir 4).
“Musically, Wagner has gained such mastery of his drama and musical motives, that he treats both with superb fluidity. At the same time, there seem to be regressive moments. For example, the Act Two chorus of the Gibichung vassals seems like an artifact of the old grand opera, as does the revenge trio in the same act, with its ensemble singing, and duplications of text. These events are partially explained by the libretto having preceded the music by more than 20 years, from a time when Wagner’s music-dramatic theories had not been fully realized” (Muir 4).
“Wagner’s use of his Leitmotives produces uncannily powerful psychological effects. For example, in Act Three, at the moment of Siegfried’s death, the audience sees what he sees, by the use of Brünnhilde’s awakening music from Siegfried Act Three, which then fades with his consciousness. It has been observed that the audience’s memory for dramatic narrative have been stretched almost to their limits by the arc between these two moments; but an even longer stretch comes when the Funeral Music begins with the timpani strokes from Brünnhilde’s annunciation of Siegmund’s death in Die Walküre” (Muir 4).
“The music following Brünnhilde’s immolation, even if it does not ‘explain’ anything, is hugely consoling after the multiple tragedies, and that consoling effect again lies in Wagner’s masterful manipulation of memory. Over a simmering stew of Leitmotives – those of the Rhine, Walhall, and Siegfried – the violins sing an arching melody first heard in Die Walküre, when Sieglinde burst out with this melody after Brünnhilde told her that she was bearing Siegmund’s child. The label traditionally attached to this melody, ‘Redemption by Love,’ has misled audiences; in fact, Wagner considered it a song of praise to his heroine, Brünnhilde. His choice to end the entire vast work with this melody is indeed explanatory” (Muir 4).