Posted in Project 2: Wagner Operas

Research point 2.2: Wagner’s Ring cycle, Part 1 – General Story Information and Themes

This research point is about watching or listening to the whole operatic tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (the Ring of the Nibelung) composed by Richard Wagner (Fig. 1), also known as the Ring cycle. Initially, as recommended by the brief, I wanted to see the cycle performed live, and the closest place for me was the Royal Opera House in London, however, I found that the tickets were already sold out for this season. As such, I decided to watch a recording of a live performance online, and came upon the streaming of the production by Opera North. Although the brief mentioned to write 500 words, I found that even listing only the important plot points took around 800 words. Because of this, I decided to split the research into two parts. In the first part here, I will note general story information and themes found in this colossal cycle, while in the next part, I will write about the musical elements and the production by Opera North that I watched.

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Fig. 1. Richard Wagner (1871)

Der Ring des Nibelungen was devised as a stage festival play to be performed over the course of four nights, consisting of four operas: Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold) as the prelude to the cycle, what Wagner called the ‘preliminary evening‘, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegried, and finally Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). This form was largely inspired by the ancient Greek tradition, where three tragedies were succeeded by a shorter satyr-play. (Millington, 2008: 74-75) As can be imagined from some of the titles, essentially, the story follows the fantastical world of gods, giants, gnomes, Valkyries and human heroes, as they battle for power, symbolized by the most desirable object in their mythical realms – the golden ring of Rhine, but also love and many other things. In fact, what I found most exiting about the cycle is Wagner’s universal depiction of the conflicts and the motivations that drive the characters.
The cycle begins with the timeless flowing waters of Rhine in a striking prelude based on the single E flat major chord, which I briefly explored in the previous composing 1 unit. (Click here to read the post.) From these watery depths opens the scene in which Rhinemaidens, who are guarding the Rhinegold – the river’s treasure of boundless value, are pursued by the Nibelung dwarf, Alberich. Their playful teasing and rejection results in the humiliated Alberich seizing the gold by denouncing love, forging the almighty ring, whose force would give him the control over the world. (Fig. 2) With its power, he enslaves the other dwarfs at Nibelheim, including his brother, Mime, who was imprisoned to forge him a helmet – Tarnhelm that would make the person wearing it invisible and able to shapeshift.

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Fig. 2. Alberich denouncing love and stealing the treasure from Rhinemaidens (Hoffman, 1876)

We are also introduced to the realm of gods, where the supreme god, Wotan, has tricked the giants Fasolt and Fafner into thinking he would hand his sister Freia, goddess of love, as the reward for building his fortress Valhalla (Fig. 3.). The giants take Freia as hostage after realizing Wotan wouldn’t give her up, and without her golden apples, the gods are vulnerable to age and may die. Together with Loge, the god of fire, Wotan descends to Nibelheim and manages to trick Alberich, taking the gold as the ransom to free Freia. However, after Wotan refuses to give the ring to the giants, Erda, goddess of Earth appears to warn him that it has been cursed, and indeed, after he hands it over, there is the first victim of its curse – Fafner, killed by Fasolt in their fight over the treasure. With the Tarnhelm, Fasolt transformed into a dragon to guard the gold he has acquired.

valhalla

Fig. 3. Entrance of Gods to Valhalla (Metropolitan Opera, 2009)

In order to protect Valhalla from Alberich, Wotan fathered nine daughters with Erda – warrior maidens called Valkyries (Fig. 4), tasked to carry off heroes from the battlefield to Valhalla. Valkyries, accompanied by their powerful theme Ride of the Valkyries, are one of the examples where I was really surprised by Wagner’s strong and complex female characters. In fact, I have come across several sources that question whether or not Brunnhilde, Wotan’s favorite daughter, is the true protagonist of the cycle:

the ring - brunnhilde

(Fisher, 2007: 28)

There is also an article about this subject here.

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Fig. 4. Ride of the Valkyries (Rackham, 1910)

Brunnhilde attempts to protect the doomed life of Sigmund, a hero who has found a shelter in the forest while being pursued by his enemies, at the house of his long-lost twin sister, Sieglinde. However, Sieglinde’s husband Hunding returns and realizes that Siegmund is the man he was after, announcing their battle the following day, while Sieglinde and Siegmund fall in love, despite finding out they are twins and Sieglinde being married. (Fig. 5) Siegmund is weaponless, but Sieglinde shows him Nothung, the sword left by their father – Walse, Wotan disguised in the human form. Although Wotan initially wanted to protect his son Sigmund, because of his wife, Fricka, goddess of marriage, who wants to protect Hunding and Sieglinde’s union, although it is loveless, he decides to let Siegmund die. As Brunhilde willingly disobeys her father to protect him, she was condemned to an enchanted sleep surrounded by fire in the beautiful theme Magic Fire Music, waiting to be awakened by a fearless hero, Sieglinde and Sigmund’s son Siegfried.

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Fig. 5. Sigmund, Sieglinde and Hunding (Leeke, c. 1895)

Siegfried was raised by Alberich’s brother Mime, who has been plotting to get the treasure, helmet and the ring by using Siegfried to kill the dragon Fafner. After killing Fafner with his father’s sword Nothung, by tasting his blood, Siegfried is able to talk to and understand the forest bird, who warns him about Mime’s plan to poison him, as well as telling him about Brunnhilde asleep high up on the rocks. After killing Mime, Siegfriend goes to Brunnhilde and awakes her with a kiss. Giving promises to their love, Siegfried sails away and reaches the Gibuchung’s hall, where he meets Gunther, his sister Gutrune and Hagen, Alberich’s son. Hagen, who is also after the ring, tricks Siegfried into drinking a love potion that makes him fall in love with Gutrune. Hagen’s plotting also leads to Siegfried forcing Brunnhilde to marry Gunther, and this betrayal ultimately leads to his death. Realizing that Siegfried and her were both tricked, Brunnhilde returns the ring to the Rhinemaidens, sets fire to Siegfried’s funeral pyre, mounts her horse and leaps into the flames as an ultimate act of redemption. (Fig. 6) As the water overflows, drowning Hagen, Valhalla bursts into flames, bringing gods to their end. Yet, the world has been redeemed, given another chance.

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Fig. 6. Brunnhilde on Grade leaps on Funeral Pyre (Rackham, 1910)

As can be seen from the above, the story of the cycle is enormous and intricate, with the duration of the four operas being altogether around 15 hours. Despite that, I found myself really invested in the narrative, especially how Wagner used the mythical world to portray themes such as human conflicts, motivations and contradictions, the family circumstances, exploitation of nature and people, male-female relationship, the notions of beauty and ugliness, good and evil, as well as greed, revenge, redemption and even incest. The abundance of themes is largely connected to the unstable political climate during which Wagner was composing, ranging from his excitement for the revolutionary utopianism to the Schopenhauerian and Buddhist acceptance of inevitable suffering and loss, discovered after he has been exiled from the German states due to his part in the failed Dresden uprisings. (Bassett, 2003: 9-11)

Beside the Nordic and Germanic Nebelunglied myth, the cycle also borrowed many elements from his four abandoned historico-mythical projects, including Fridrich Barbarossa, Jesus of Nazareth, Achilles and Wieland, which all tell a heroic story, further enriching the themes that can be unraveled. This is something that proves that even though abandoned, saving the ideas and sketches can be a very important tool in the compositional process, even if these at one point unused.

Finally, I will mention that, with the amount of themes that can be listed, it’s no wonder that there have been many different interpretations of the cycle, including both the left and right wing political criticism of the story, such as the capitalist perception by  Bernard Shaw and the aryan interpretation by Chamberlain, as well as more apolitical understandings, such as Donington’s analysis using the Jung’s psychology. (Millington, 2008: 80-83) Of course, as a musician, what I found the most enjoyable is how the music is used to support, illustrate and develop the drama and other elements of the story. This will be the main focus of the second part of the research, where I will also go into detail about the Opera North production of the cycle that I’ve watched. Click here to read this post.


Illustrations:

Fig. 1. Richard Wagner (1871) [Wikimedia commons] At: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RichardWagner.jpg (Accessed on 15th July 2018)

Fig. 2. Alberich denouncing love and stealing the treasure from Rhinemaidens (Hoffman, 1876) [Wikimedia commons] At: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bühnenbildentwurf_Rheingold.JPG  (Accessed on 15th July 2018)

Fig. 3. Entrance of Gods to Valhalla (Metropolitan Opera, 2009) [public domain] At: http://maestrodidietrologia.blogspot.com/2018/09/il-ponte-della-morte.html (Accessed on 15th July 2018)

Fig. 4. Ride of the Valkyries (Rackham, 1910) [Wikimedia commons] At: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ring28.jpg (Accessed on 17th July 2018)

Fig. 5. Sigmund, Sieglinde and Hunding (Leeke, c. 1895) [public domain] At: https://www.akg-images.co.uk/archive/Siegmund–Sieglinde-und-Hunding-2UMDHUOLR3D.html (Accessed on 17th July 2018)

Fig. 6. Brunnhilde on Grade leaps on Funeral Pyre (Rackham, 1910) [public domain] At: https://poulwebb.blogspot.com/2013/07/arthur-rackham-part-4.html (Accessed on 17th July 2018)

References:

Bassett, P. (2003) The Nibelung’s Ring: A Guide to Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen. Kent Town: Wakefield Press.

Fisher, B. D. (ed.) (2007) Wagner’s the Ring of the Nibelung: Opera Classics Library Series. Miami: Opera Journeys Publishing.

Millington, B. (2008) ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen: conception and interpretation’ In: Grey, T. S. (ed.) Cambridge Companion to Wagner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 74-84

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