Everything you always wanted to know about… Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung

Wagner's tetralogy is far from being limited to the famous Ride of the Valkyries, often used in films or television. This dramatic work called The Ring of the Nibelung contains many Germanic legends and draws inspiration from ancient traditions.

Everything you always wanted to know about… Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung
Maria Jeritza dans le rôle de Brunnhilde dans La Walkyrie (Vienne, 1930), © Getty

A total playing time of about 15 hours, 34 characters, 125 instrumentalists… This monumental work by Richard Wagner (1813-1883) took twenty-six years to create, starting from 1848, and it was first performed in 1876 in Bayreuth (Bavaria). It is composed of four epic music dramas: a prologue, The Rhinegold, and three “days”, The Valkyrie, Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods.

With its drama and intrigue, its overlapping time layers, gods, legendary creatures, men… the work is not always easy to understand!

In general terms, the story talks about a stolen magic ring, which grants world domination to its owner. There are two competing lineages, one related to Wotan (the chief of the gods), and the other to the Nibelung dwarf Alberich; they will do everything in their power to regain the ring. The mortal Siegfried, the descendant of  Wotan, eventually wins the ring. But the Rhinegold is cursed, and anybody who tries to get their hands on must go to hell… Doesn't this all sound familiar? It’s like The Lord of the Rings!

Portrait de Richard Wagner (vers 1868)
Portrait de Richard Wagner (vers 1868), © Getty

At the heart of Norse sagas and Germanic legends

Wagner's fascination with the legendary world is undeniable. In 1833 for example, one of his first operas,The Fairies, gives voice to fantasy characters. Some years later, he draws from Norse mythology to build The Flying Dutchman.

With regard to his tetralogy, the composer mainly bases his work on two versions of the legend of Siegfried, published during the 12th and 13th centuries.

The first story, The Song of the Nibelungs, is a Germanic epic poem enriched with Scandinavian mythology. The story tells of dragon-slayer Siegfried, and how he was murdered; we find this story also in Twilight of the Gods, which borrows from the poem most of its characters.

Anton van Rooy dans le rôle de Wotan
Anton van Rooy dans le rôle de Wotan, © Getty

Wagner also looks for possible material in two Old Norse anonymous poems, grouped together under the name Poetic Edda. The adventures of Siegfried are told once again, and the composer discovers new characters to populate his work. Among them, there are Odin (Wotan), his wife Frigg (Fricka) and the Valkyrjar (The Valkyries), those female figures who choose who may die in battle and those who may live.

Unlike other composers, Wagner is more interested in the Legends of the Middle Ages rather than in the myths of ancient history. But the Greek tragedy continues to fascinate him.

A poetic competition

The ancient Greeks, again and again... The term “tetralogy” refers to four different works to be played in honour of the god Dionysus, as part of a competition. Each poet had to submit a group of three tragedies followed by a satyr play. The structure is very close to that of the Ring. Especially since the complete title of the work is The Ring of the Nibelung, A stage-festival play for three days and a preliminary evening. In Wagner's case, it would be more accurate to describe it as a trilogy with a prologue.

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Wagner does not just draw inspiration from Greek tragedy: he modernises it. For example, it is the orchestra who assumes the role of the ancient chorus. “I have composed a Greek chorus…but a chorus which will be sung, so to speak, by the orchestra”, states Wagner about Siegfried's Funeral March in Twilight of the Gods. Thanks to the leitmotiv (a short, constantly recurring musical phrase associated with a particular person, place, or idea), the orchestra has “the role of reflecting and commenting, which was the responsibility of the ancient choir”, always held at a distance from what is happening on stage, according to Christian Merlin in an Avant-Scène Opéra dedicated to Wagner’s works.

Each character has his/her own theme

Wagner’s cycle has no less than 91 different themes that, in total, are performed 2381 times!

The leitmotiv or leitmotif is “the musical equivalent of words” (Jean-Claude Berton, Richard Wagner et la Tétralogie). In order to evoke a character, the orchestra or the singers on stage just have to perform his or her theme. For example in Siegfried, when Wotan asks Mime (Alberich’s brother) who will be the one who will forge the sword Nothung again, the orchestra answers for him by playing Siegfried’s theme.

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But leitmotifs are not related only to characters. Some of them also reflect feelings (love, passion, rage), objects (the sword, the ring), or other subjects (resignation, redemption). The music is therefore imaged, it reflects the action onstage. Thus, the Rheingold prelude makes us see the flowing water of the river Rhine through instrumental inputs that emerge from the initial E-flat.

Note that Wagner is not the one who “invented” this process. Before him, Carl Maria von Weber already used musical motifs in order to remind the spectator of an event or a character who had intervened earlier in the story. On the other hand, it is Wagner who spreads its use, and the tetralogy is among those works in which this feature is most advanced.

The decision to embark on a cycle of four operas

We know Wagner was a composer, but maybe we do not know his "writer side". Well, he is the one who wrote the libretto of his main operas.

The starting point of the Ring is Siegfried's Funeral March (later renamed Twilight of the Gods). The music drama refers to the end of the gods' world, cursed by Wotan's original sin. Wagner starts writing the libretto in 1848 and continues with Young Siegfried (later called Siegfried), to talk about his hero's youth. Initially, he thinks he is going to write only two works. However, many elements of the story are being omitted, which is why the composer imagines two more dramas, The Valkyrie and The Rhinegold. These operas allow him to clarify the events before Siegfried’s birth.

After writing the libretto, Wagner begins writing the music in November 1853. This dual literary and musical work makes him a complete artist, the father of a "total work of art" (Gesamtkunstwerk) - in other words, a work that combines poetry, music and action.

Bayreuth, the cradle of the tetralogy

Bayreuth (1876)
Bayreuth (1876), © Getty

Wagner did not just give a text and a score to his Ring. He also wanted to create an opera house suited to the work: the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, built on May 22, 1872 by the architect Otto Brückwald, on Wagner's 59th birthday. Four years later, the building was first opened for the premiere of the complete four-opera cycle. The tetralogy became a complete work of art in every sense of the word.

Very close to the ideals of ancient Greece, Wagner wants to found a place for promoting communion between the audience and the stage. This is why he chooses an opera house with the shape of an amphitheatre. Nothing can distract the viewer. Not even the orchestra, hidden in a pit called the "mystic gulf" by Wagner's himself, between the audience and the stage.

The premiere of the Ring is a triumph. However, despite its success, the festival went bankrupt immediately. Without the state subsidies and without the financial support of patrons such as Ludwig II of Bavaria, it probably wouldn't have been renewed.

Portrait de Cosima Wagner (vers 1870)
Portrait de Cosima Wagner (vers 1870), © Getty

After Wagner’s death, his wife Cosima directed the festival. She expanded the repertoire, initially limited to the Ring and Parsifal. Tristan and Isolde, The Master-Singers of Nuremberg, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and The Flying Dutchman were gradually introduced from 1886 to 1901.

Criticism of capitalism?

One of the possible interpretations of the opera is political. During its elaboration, Wagner is marked by revolutionary socialism. Anarchists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhaïl Bakounine are among his references. The struggle for power, money, clan rivalries, it’s all there: Wagner’s Ring reflects the damage caused by capitalism, as suggested by Avant-Scène Opéra. Capitalism is thought to be symbolised by the figure of Alberich.

Portrait du philosophe Arthur Schopenhauer
Portrait du philosophe Arthur Schopenhauer, © Getty

The philosophy of the 19th century also seems to be reflected through the tetralogy. When Wagner discovers Arthur Schopenhauer, he abandons the character of Siegfried and focuses more on Wotan. “The Ring would then represent the genesis, the history of the world, starting from an original unity then broken by the desire for power”, as stated in Avant-Scène Opéra.

Patrice Chéreau's centennial production of the Ring cycle

Pompous, denuded or futuristic, the productions of the tetralogy are so different from each other. One of the most discussed ones is probably the Centenary Ring at the Bayreuth Festival in 1976, celebrating the centenary of both the festival and the first performance of the complete cycle. Conducted by Pierre Boulez, the production is staged by Patrice Chéreau.

This time, the action does not take place neither in the Middle Ages nor in a neutral and timeless space. Instead, it is deeply rooted in history, at the same time in which it was created: Wagner’s 19th century, the century of capitalism and industrialisation.

Seeing this version, the most conservative ones tore their hair out; the production was met with controversial reactions. People did not like the representation of the Rhine as a hydroelectric dam and the Rhinemaidens as prostitutes. Likewise, some people struggled to get used to seeing Wotan in a suit. All styles were blended, and the mythological aspect of the work disappeared.

If, on one hand, Chéreau’s production initially shocked, during the last performance in Bayreuth, in August 1980, it was a real triumph: a 90-minute applause and more than 100 calls of "encore"!