Posted in For Project 14

Project 14 Research 2: Wagner’s Prelude to Das Rheingold – Drones in Western Music and Pastorale; the Ethereal Link between Music and Biology

I was quite intrigued by the research point of Project 14, which mentions Wagner’s Prelude to Das Rheingold and its sustaining gradation centered around one tone – Eb, and its harmony – Eb major, for 136 bars, which is approximately 4 minutes long. Erickson (1975: 94) calls it ‘the only well-known drone piece in the concert repertory’, being “long enough for listeners to feel the absence of root movement or chord progression.”

Indeed, beside the Prelude to Das Rheingold, Erickson (1975: 95) only lists two contemporary pieces as the examples of the Western experimentation with the drone – Rabe’s Was??, an electronical composition written around 1968, and Rush’s Hard Music, composed around 1970 for three amplified pianos. However, reading more about Wagner’s prelude, Deathridge (2008: 50) argues that the ‘powerfully suggestive musical idea’ has roots in the instrumental pastorale of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, adopting the devices of the genre – the drone bass, the lilting 6/8 meter, triadic harmony, which Wagner stretched out into ‘a ritualistic, static musical allegory’. This made me further investigate the genre of pastorale. 

Instrumental pastorale is based on the imitation of the music of shepherds, their shawms and pipes (Apel, 1969: 649). With the long drone basses, the dotted rhythms similar to sicilliana, and the moderate or slow tempo of 6/8 or 12/8, these pieces evoked the pastoral life. Among the earliest such compositions I found are the Italian organ pastorales, such as Cappricio Pastorale by Frescobaldi, Pastorale by Zipoli and another by Pasquini, which also influenced Bach’s Pastorale for Organ. (Smith, 2006: 4) As the Italian shepherds had a tradition of playing bagpipes and shawms in the cities at Christmas, in association to that, the pastorales were included in Corelli’s Christmas Concert, Pifa (sinfonia) of Handel’s Messiah and opening sinfonia of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. (Appel, 1969: 649) Finally, the drone effect and the pastorale can be heard in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastorale’.

Here is a video of Zipoli’s Pastorale with the score, which illustrates the use of the drone and dotten rhythm in the genre of the Italian organ pastorales:

Agreeing with Deathridge, I can clearly see the elements of the pastorale present within Wagner’s Prelude, being immensely amplified and augmented into an allegory of creation – a mythical emergence of the Rhine river. But more than that the vastly dilated pastorale features also point to a deeper suggestion of the origin of life itself. As Thomas Mann (1947: 360) writes, Wagner’s compulsion:

“… forced back to the beginning and arch-beginning of all things, the primeval cell, the first contra E-flat of the prelude to the prelude; that it would be laid upon him to erect a musical cosmogony, yes, a myth-cosmos, himself, and endow it with profound organic bios, the singing spectacle-poem of the beginning and end of the world.” 

Along these lines, if the Prelude is paralleled with the biology, its musical gradation begins with a single cell – the sustained low pitch of Eb played by the double-basses, which is first divided into two cells – Eb and Bb. The more and more intensifying division is further characterized not only by the rising dotted figurations and arpeggios that introduce the full Eb chord and a few intermediate tones, but also by the increasing surface rhythm and the stretto imitation that make every motif appear as if twice the speed with every occurrence, despite that the basic tempo and pulsation are not changed. By the end of the Prelude, an infinite number of cells seem to sound together.

Although indirectly, Wagner’s Prelude to Das Rheingold reminded me of a concert I recently attended called Cellular Dynamics, which fundamentally changed the way I view and understand music, as well as my own biology.

This ability of music to depict our fundamental, biological essence of the self is something that completely intrigued me then, and yet now once again with Wagner’s Prelude. Despite many theorists doubting his own account of how the Prelude to Das Rheingold was composed (Vazsonyi, 2010: 162), I felt the need to include it in this post. After a long walk, Wagner took a nap, and fell into a state of half-sleep:

“… I suddenly got the feeling that I was sinking into a strong current of water. The rush and roar soon took musical shape within my brain as the chord of E-flat major, surging incessantly in broken chords: these declared themselves as melodic figurations of increasing motion, yet the pure triad of E-flat major never changed … I awoke from my half-sleep in terror, feeling as though the waves were now rushing high above my head. I at once recognized that the orchestral prelude to the Rheingold, which for a long time I must have carried about within me, yet had never been able to fix definitely, had at last come into being in me: and I quickly understood the very essence of my own nature: the stream of life was not to flow to me from without, but from within.” (Von Westernhagen, 1978: 181)

Whether true or not, with the Prelude’s magnified pastorale qualities pointing out to our pre-existence, this is precisely the experience and sensation I had when listening to it – the biology I have carried about within me, came into being in me and I finally understood the very essence of my own nature. This is a lesson of music which I will everlastingly carry with me. And hopefully, one day my music will also be able to express something as profound. Moving away from this grandiose aspiration that is entirely distant for now, next, take a look at my Project 14.


Apel, Willi (ed.) (1969) Harvard Dictionary of Music. (2nd ed.) Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Deathridge, J. (2008) Wagner Beyond Good and Evil. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

Erickson, R. (1975) Sound Structure in Music. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Mann, T. (1947) Essays of Three Decades. Translated by Lowe-Porter, H. T. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Smith, R. (ed.) (2006) Easy Organ Classics. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Vazsonyi, N. (2010) Richard Wagner: Self-Promotion and the Making of a Brand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Von Westernhagen, C. (1978) Wagner: A Biography. Translated by Whittall, M. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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