Wagner's Cycle and Myth: The Ring of the Nibelung

Gods, dwarves, men and mermaids: the story of the origins of the world according to Richard Wagner in The Ring of the Nibelung borrows its universal dimension from mythology. But what is the purpose of this genesis marked by violence and cruelty?

Wagner's Cycle and Myth: The Ring of the Nibelung
Josef Hoffmann, La Walkyrie: fin du premier acte

I have currently finished the full draft of the Valkyrie. Tomorrow will be the turn of the verses. Here I am, deeply moved by the magnificence and the beauty of my subject; my complete view of the world has found its perfect artistic expression in it [...]. Once the verses are ready, I will become, from that moment on, entirely musician again. Richard Wagner writing to Theodor Uhlig on May 31, 1852.

The philosopher, poet, stage-director, and artistic aspects of Richard Wagner are often forgotten, and he is only considered as a musician. Certainly, theatre was his first passion, and his interest in music was born exclusively in order to compose pieces for his theatre plays. But also his interest in philosophy, history, music and theatre leads him to build this titanic work, Das Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Dismissed by the Paris Opera during his exile, dissatisfied with the Romantic opera, tired of the historical Grand opera, the composer's route to the mythical drama was not straightforward.

The Bayreuth “Maestro” is not the first composer to turn a myth into an opera. This was a tradition dating back to the origins of the lyric art itself, back to the 16th century. In fact, Monteverdi marks the official birth of this genre with the use of the Orpheus myth. However, Wagner eventually decided that Greek and Roman mythology was inappropriate for the elaboration of his dramas since it referred, in the collective imagination of the 19th century, to the Ancien Régime. For this reason, he builds upon the following four sources: The Song of the Nibelungs, an Austrian epic poem written around 1200, the Niflunga Saga, composed around 1260, the Poetic Edda (elaborated during the 7th century and composed of 15 mythical poems), and finally the Völsunga saga, or Saga of the Völsungs, a legendary saga of the 13th century.

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France, Paris, Set design for act I of The Ring of the Nibelung - The Rhinegold by Richard Wagner ©DEA PICTURE LIBRARY
France, Paris, Set design for act I of The Ring of the Nibelung - The Rhinegold by Richard Wagner ©DEA PICTURE LIBRARY

If, on one hand, Norse and Germanic mythology is suitable for writing his “Stage Festival Drama for Three Days and a Preliminary Evening”, Wagner was obsessed with the Greek tragedy. In his essays, especially The Artwork of the Future, Opera and Drama, and Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde, (A Communication to My Friends), the composer displayed his admiration for ancient theatre. It was more than just amazement: Greek tragedy would eventually shape his idea of opera over the years.

He completed his first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies) in 1834, a period when the Romantic opera was expanding within German-speaking countries. In the following years, he completed Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love, 1834-1836), the first  of these works to be performed, and then Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes, faithful to the tradition of the historical Grand Opera.

Wagner could already distinguish two trends in his early works: the operas whose subjects were based on tales and legends, and those whose subject was more historical, wrapped in a political dimension (Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde, 1851). Nevertheless, there is never a real rupture between Wagner’s different works: several elements of tales and legends were incorporated into his tetralogy, both in the libretto and in the score, others simply led to the fruition of the cycle in the mind of the composer. Wagner considered mythology as separate to history, reason why from Rienzi onwards we can observe a “mythification” of power, which slowly walks towards the mythical drama.

The composer is famous for conceiving, in the Ring, the so-called total art-work, made possible through the construction of the Bayreuth Theatre. This Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), is, above all, the result of a long thought-process and rooted in a cultural and political, rather than artistic, utopia. It is based on two pillars: Greek tragedy and the events that occurred in 1848. In addition to being politically involved (Wagner stood at the barricades during the uprising in Dresden in 1849), Wagner discovered the works of Proudhon, Feuerbach, Schopenhauer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, etc. His voracious reading and the European political context resulted in his focus on the place of opera in society.

To Wagner, art in the 19th century is the pleasure of a bourgeoisie for whom entertainment has a recreational value, without actually examining, understanding or appreciating the work. This infatuation with opera made the genre elitist, accessible only to a fraction of society, primarily in the capitals. Wagner dreamed of a public discussing works of art, far from a mere a utopian dream since it once found its expression within Greek tragedy, in which the entire population would gather to see the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, etc..

Greek tragedy truly had political, cultural and religious power, and Wagner sought to revive such power in his tetralogy. The composer believed that tragedy represented the zenith of public art, “the deepest and most noble part of the conscience of the people ”, since it praised the feeling of civic union. But through what channels? Mainly the use, on stage, of founding myths, explaining the organization of society, perceived at that time as the repetition of an original and numinous event.

Theatre of Dionysus, Athens © DEA / A. VERGANI
Theatre of Dionysus, Athens © DEA / A. VERGANI

In Wagner’s mind, the Greek tragedy was opposed to the elitist operatic genre, based on mythology which, according to Wagner, was “the common creative force, people's poetic creativity ” - Opera and Drama (1851); Greek tragedy was the highest and purest expression of the people's artistic creation. It is this idea of the myth that led Wagner to consider the creation of a total artwork, combining the plastic arts, music, literature, and poetry.

However, to ensure that the work is complete, it must be based on a principle of formal and organic unity, which must go beyond the mere accumulation of arts. Only mythology allows this synthesis because this summary possesses a visible artistic value, which immediately speaks to the audience. Instantly, the infinite and the divine are perceptible in the representation of a mythical drama, thus embodying the history of mankind.

"Little by little, I developed the conviction that the images of this mythological world were in us since the beginning of time." - Richard Wagner, summer 1847.

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