Richard Wagner’s four-part, 15-hour operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) represents the culmination of his ideas about theater and music. Wagner (1813-1833) conceived The Ring as a festival event, something to be spread over four days. The cycle was first performed complete in August 1876 in a specially constructed theater in the German town of Bayreuth, which continues to hold an annual summer festival devoted to the composer’s works. A special “festival theater” was built for The Ring so that every spectator would have a good view of the performance. The orchestra was placed in a pit concealed from the audience’s view, and, for the first time in western theater, the auditorium was kept dark, so that all eyes were focused on the illuminated stage.
Musically, Wagner created his most elaborate system of leading motives (Leitmotiven)–musical subjects associated with a character, an object, or an emotion-–for The Ring. These motives develop over the course of the four operas, reflecting with revealing accuracy the drama and the changing relationships in it. The final act of Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) , the last opera in the cycle, contains Wagner’s most elaborate use of Leitmotiv.
The Ring cycle centers around a magic ring forged from gold stolen from the Rhine by the Nibelung Alberich. When Wotan, the king of the gods, takes the ring from Alberich, the Nibelung curses it so that anyone who wears it will die. The first victim is Fafner, who receives the ring as payment for building Wotan’s castle Valhalla. Fafner takes the form of a dragon and Siegfried slays him, winning the ring. In Götterdämmerung, the curse claims Siegfried when Hagen, Alberich’s son, kills the hero by plunging a spear into his back.
Siegfried’s Funeral Music accompanies a nighttime procession as the vassals carry the fallen hero’s body through the forest to a summit flooded in moonlight. Two musical ideas give the march its tragic grandeur – a two-note rhythmic tag played on the timpani at the beginning of the march, and the rumbling theme subsequently introduced by violas and cellos. The motive which follows, played first by brass then by winds, is associated with the tragic fate of the Volsung race, of which Siegfried was the last.
The trumpet introduces another motive central to Siegfried’s character, the sword motive, and this is crowned by a fortissimo restatement of the two-note rhythmic tag by the full orchestra, including cymbals. This is followed by Siegfried’s motive played by the brass. The final motive associated with his character is his horn call, played by the full brass during the major-key central climax of the Funeral Music.
As the opera closes, Brünnhilde has ordered Siegfried’s body placed on a funeral pyre. She has taken the ring and wears it on her finger. Knowing that it can only be freed of the curse by fire, she mounts her horse and rides into the flames. The Rhine floods its banks, engulfing the pyre and reclaiming the ring. In the distance, a radiant vision of Valhalla filled with gods and goddesses appears in the sky and it too is suddenly swallowed by flames.
In the closing orchestral torrent that accompanies these events, Wagner revisits motives heard throughout the cycle. One motive played by the strings dominates the conclusion; the composer described it as “the glorification of Brünnhilde.” Her actions bring the cycle of events to a close, reconciling nature (the Rhine) and man (the ring) by returning the stolen gold to the river.
-- John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA studying 18th- and early 19th-century German opera.
Length: 13 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 8 horns (5th and 6th = tenor Wagner tubas, 7th = bass Wagner tuba), 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, 2 timpani, percussion (cymbals, tenor drum, triangle), 6 harps, and strings.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 17, 1920, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting.