„The Ring“is a musical drama consisting of four operas, which’s whole length would take up to around 16 hours. The four parts are called “Das Rheingold” (The Rhinegold); “Die Walküre” (The Valkyie);” Siegfried”; “Götterdämmerung” (Twilight of the Gods). For the orchestration Wagner even had a few instruments built particularly for this piece. 1
-General Background to the work
Apparently, Wagner first came to the idea of writing “Der Ring des Nibelungen” when he was reading the myth about the plot in Joacob Grimms’ “Deutsche Mythologie” (=German mythology). These stories were based on the legend of the Nibelung. Apart from this legend, Wagner also included another, northern myths collection, but he changed a few characters and motifs.
In 1848 he began to write the text for the drama and finished five years later. Nevertheless, it took him until the end of 1874 to finish writing the music for it. Wagner created this massive piece as a new form of the romantic opera, which connects not only the art of music, but also text, acting, scenery and costumes. ¹′²
The whole plot is incredibly ramified and in my personal opinion quite confusing. At the beginning of the plot, the “Nibelung” Alberich steals the so called “Rheingold” (=Rhinegold) from the river Rhine, which has the power to control everything, and forges a ring with it. In order to get the gold, he has to pay the price of not being allowed to fall in love anymore.
In the meantime, the God Wotan seems to be having a completely different problem: He asks the giants “Fafner” and “Fasolt” to build a castle for him, in return he promises to give them the Goddess “Freia”. But Wotan changes his mind in the end and wants to by the Giants by giving them Alberich’s ring. The god steals the ring, onto which Alberich curses it. The curse seems to work, and shortly after receiving the ring, Fafner kills his brother.
Years later a new person joins the story: Siegfried, who was brought up by Alberichs’ brother and doesn’t know, that he is part of Wotans plan to get rid of the rings’ curse. He (Siegfried) kills Fafner, who has transformed into a dragon and takes the ring. He falls in love with a girl called Brünnhilde, and offers her the ring as a sign of his affection, but Alberichs’ son “Hagen” gets Siegfried to drink a magical potion, which makes him forget Brünhilde, and he falls in love with another gilr called Gutrune. Therefore, he takes Brünnhildes ring back again, whereupon she tells Hagen his weakness. Hagen kills Siegfried, who was able to think clear again within his last minutes and remembers that he loves Brünnhilde. She has build up a pyre and troughs herself into the flames as her beloved is about to die.
After Alberichs death the daughters of the Rhine come out of the river and take their ring back. The curse is reversed due to Brünnhilds’ love to Alberich, but the flames of the pyre also reaches Wallhall, the residence of the Gods. A new era starts. 2,3,4
The whole piece involves around 30 actors, some of the main roles are the following: The cast of the first three cycles was played by: Karl Hill as Alberich; Franz Betz as Wotan; Georg Unger as Siegfried, Amalie Materna as Brünnhilde; Luise aide as Erda; Albert Niemann as Siegmund; Josephine Schesky as Sieglinde. It was conducted by Hans Richter.
The instrumentation for all four operas stay almost the same. For the first one “The Rhinegold” Wagner uses the following:
3 flutes, 1 piccolo flute, 3 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons
8 tubas (of which 2 are”Tenor- Wagnertubas” and 2 “Bass-Wagnetubas”, 4 triangles, 3 trombones, 1 contratrombone, 1 contrabasstuba
2 timpani, 1 cymbal, 1 big drum, 1 tam-tam,
16 first violins, 16 second violins, 12 violas, 12 violoncelli, 8 contrabasses
On stage: 1 harp, 16 anvils. 5
I personally already had the opportunity to watch the first part of the circle “The Rhinegold” myself in Bayreuth a few years ago. The music was really amazing, the whole atmosphere, size of the concert hall and orchestra, the stage set, it was just a really breath-taking experience. Nevertheless, I wasn’t informed about the plot of the play and even though my first language is German I found it really difficult to understand the text and therefore could hardly follow the plot. In addition to that, as already mentioned earlier, I find the order of the plot generally a bit chaotic, even though I read through the text.
I found a recording of the other three parts of the drama, and watched them throughout a whole week whilst taking notes. Unfortunately, all of them where from another location with a different set of actors. This of course, had the advantage, that I saw how different the scenery and costumes can be interpreted, but on the other side, it led to even more confusion about the characters and the plot.
Even though I was amazed by the length of the piece and the amount of characters involved, I had to make pauses quite often in order to stay focused. Knowing, that Wagner always went into the extreme with his pieces I expected this piece, which took him over 25 years to write to be astonishing. But for my personal liking nevertheless, terribly long. It was still interesting to see in which ways he used his leitmotifs. Often, he introduces new scenes with a long intro, which involves (in a hidden way, and woven into one-another) most of the motifs which follow in the corresponding scene. Furthermore I noticed, that the leitmotifs, which are linked to a character or an object are (except for minor changes) the same throughout all of the four operas.
Apart from the few negative things I mentioned before, I found in incredibly interesting to learn something about this massive piece. I was surprised to notice that some of the motifs are still now often used in the media industry for example “Ride of the Valkyries”.
(1) Neumyer, I. (2018). Der Ring des Nibelungen-Wagners Hauptwerk. [online] Planet Wissen. Available at: https://www.planet-wissen.de/geschichte/persoenlichkeiten/richard_wagner/pwiederringdesnibelungenwagnershauptwerk100.html [Accessed: 5 Jul. 2019]
(2)Frank, M. (2013). Das böse liebt Geld. Zeit online (newspaper) [online] p.1-2. Available at: https://www.zeit.de/2013/21/richard-wagner-ring-des-nibelungen. [Accessed: 5 Jul. 2019]
(3) Richard Wagner – Der Ring des Nibelungen – Vortragsseminar von Hanskarl Kölsch mit Musikbeispielen. 1st ed. [pdf] Munich. Available at: http://www.hk-koelsch.de/V101031.pdf [Accessed: 4 Jul. 2019]
(4) Sadie, S and Macy, L. (2008). The Grove book of Operas. 2nd ed. [ebook]. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available at: https://www-oxfordreference-com.ucreative.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/acref/9780195309072.001.0001/acref-9780195309072-e-216 [Accessed: 4 Jul. 2019]
(5)Bayreuth.Bayern-online.de (2016). Das Orchester de Oper Das Rheingold – Wagner. [online]. Available at: https://bayreuth.bayern-online.de/die-stadt/kultur/richard-wagner-festspiele/wagnerportal/wissen/opern/der-ring-des-nibelungen/das-rheingold/orchester/ [Accessed: 4 Jul. 2019]