The Ring of the Nibelung or, in the original German, Der Ring des Nibelungen, is a series of four epic operas. Both the libretto and the music were written by Richard Wagner over the course of twenty-six years, from 1848 to 1874.
The four operas in the Ring cycle are:
- Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold)
- Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)
- Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)
The Ring is a work of extraordinary scale and scope. Its most obvious quality, for a first-time listener, is its sheer length: a full performance of the cycle takes place over four nights at the opera, with a total playing time of about 15 hours, depending on the conductor's pacing. The first and shortest opera, Rheingold, typically clocks in at two and a half hours, while the last and longest, Götterdämmerung, can take up to six hours in performance.
The scale and scope of the story is epic. It follows the struggles of gods, heroes, and several mythical creatures, over the eponymous magic Ring that grants domination over the entire world. The drama and intrigue continues through three generations of protagonists, until the final cataclysm at the end of Götterdämmerung.
The music of the Ring is thick and richly textured, and grows in complexity as the cycle proceeds. The rate of musical notes per minute tends to be slow, to the point where the scores are somewhat thin volumes even compared to shorter operas. Wagner wrote for an orchestra of gargantuan proportions, forcing the singers to work hard to prevent their voices from being drowned out (a problem exacerbated by the large sizes of modern concert halls.)
The plot revolves around a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world, forged by the Nibelung dwarf Alberich from gold stolen from the river Rhine. Several mythic figures struggle for possession of the Ring, including Wotan (Odin), the chief of the Gods. Wotan's scheme, spanning generations, to overcome his limitations, drives much of the action in the story. The hero Siegfried wins the Ring, as Wotan intended, but is eventually betrayed and slain. Finally, the Valkyrie Brünhilde, Siegfried's lover and Wotan's estranged daughter, returns the Ring to the Rhine. In the process, the Gods are destroyed.
For a detailed plot synopsis, see the articles for the individual operas.
Wagner created the story of the Ring by fusing elements from many German and Scandinavian myths. The Old Norse Eddas supplied much of the material for Das Rheingold, while Die Walküre was largely based on the Volsunga saga. Siegfried contains elements from the Eddas, the Volsunga Saga, the Thidreks saga, and even the Grimm brothers' fairy tale The Tale of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear. The final opera, Götterdämmerung, draws from the 12th century High German poem known as the Nibelungenlied, which appears to have been the original inspiration for the Ring, and for which the cycle was named.
In weaving these disparate sources into a coherent tale, Wagner injected many contemporary concepts. One of the principal themes in the Ring is the struggle of love, which is also associated with Nature and freedom, against power, which is associated with civilization and law. In the very first scene of the Ring, the scorned dwarf Alberich sets the plot in motion by placing a curse on love, an act that allows him to acquire the power to rule the world.
Since its inception, the Ring has been subjected to a plethora of interpretations. George Bernard Shaw, in The Perfect Wagnerite, argues for a view of the Ring as an essentially socialist critique of industrial society and its abuses.
Peter Kjaerulff, in The Ringbearers Diary, interprets the Ring as an attempt to expose a structure of ideas he refers to as The Cursed Ring, which he also links to J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Plato's The Ring of Gyges.
Wagner was unsatisfied with the traditional structure of an opera as a series of distinct songs. In his previous operas, he had tried to disguise the song breaks as part of the music. For the Ring he decided to adopt a through-composed style, where each act of each opera would be a complete song with no breaks whatsoever.
As a new foundation for his operas, Wagner adopted the use of leitmotifs, recurring themes which have a symbolic meaning. (Wagner called them Grundthemas, base themes). While Wagner and other composers before him had already used leitmotifs, the Ring was unique in that it is based only on leitmotifs. Any important action is accompanied by a leitmotif, and there are long stretches of music which are made of only leitmotifs. There are dozens of leitmotifs spread through the Ring. Prominent characters and ideas each have their own leitmotif, and often a leitmotif will occur in the music to suggest a subtext to the action onstage. Many of the leitmotifs appear in several operas, and some even occur in all four.
Wagner also felt limited by the orchestration he had available to him, so he invented an instrument, the Wagner tuba, to fill a gap he found.
History of the Ring Cycle
In 1848, Wagner began writing a libretto entitled Siegfrieds Tod ("Siegfried's Death"). He was likely encouraged by a series of articles in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, inviting composers to write a "national opera" based on the Nibelungenlied, a 12th century High German poem which, since its rediscovery in 1755, had been hailed by the German Romantics as the "German national epic". Siegfrieds Tod dealt with the death of Siegfried, the central heroic figure of the Nibelungenlied. Wagner drew from several other sources as the work progressed, including the Eddas, the Thidreks saga, and the Volsunga saga.
By 1850, Wagner had completed a musical sketch for Siegfrieds Tod. He now felt that he needed a preliminary opera, Der junge Siegfried ("The Young Siegfried", later renamed to "Siegfried"), in order to explain the events in Siegfrieds Tod. The verse draft of Der junge Siegfried was completed in May 1851. By October, he had decided on a cycle of four operas, to be played over four nights: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Der Junge Siegfried and Siegfrieds Tod.
The text for all four operas was completed in December 1852, and privately published in February 1853. In November, Wagner began the composition draft of Das Rheingold. Unlike the verses, which were written from the end of the story to the beginning, the music would be composed from beginning to end. Composition proceeded until 1857, when the final score up to Act II of Siegfried was completed. Wagner then laid the work aside for twelve years, during which he wrote Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
By 1869, Wagner was living at Tribschen on Lake Lucerne, sponsored by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. At this point, he returned to Siegfried, and, remarkably, was able to pick up where he left off. In October, he completed the final opera, Götterdämmerung, as Siegfried's Tod had been renamed (since the focus of the tetralogy had shifted from Siegfried to Wotan.)
On King Ludwig's insistence, and over Wagner's objections, "special previews" of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre were given at the Munich Court Theater, before the rest of the Ring. Thus, Das Rheingold premiered on September 22, 1869, and Die Walküre on June 26, 1870.
Wagner had long desired to have a special festival opera house, designed by himself, for the performance of the Ring. In 1871, he decided on a location in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth. In 1872, he moved to Bayreuth, and the foundation stone was laid. Wagner would spend the next two years attempting to raise capital for the construction, with scant success; King Ludwig finally rescued the project in 1874 by donating the needed funds. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus opened in 1876 with the first complete performance of the Ring, which took place from August 13 to August 17.
Recordings of the complete Ring Cycle
The complete Ring Cycle has been performed many times, but relatively few full recordings exist, probably due to commercial considerations. The four operas together take about 14 hours, which makes for a lot of records, tapes, or CDs, and a lot of studio time. For this reason, many full Ring recordings are taken from live performances, especially at Bayreuth.
Here are some of the best-known and most appreciated recordings of the complete Ring Cycle:
- Karl Böhm conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, 1967. Stereo sound. [Philips]
- Pierre Boulez conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, 1980-1981. Stereo sound. [Philips]
- Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the La Scala Opera Orchestra, 1950. Mono sound. [Opera D'Oro]
- Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro della Radio Italiana (RAI orchestra and chorus), 1953. Mono sound. [EMI]
- Reginald Goodall conducting the English National Opera Orchestra, 1975. Stereo sound. Sung in English, using Andrew Porter's translation. [Chandos]
- Hans Knappertsbusch conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, 1956. Mono sound. [Music & Arts]
- Hans Knappertsbusch conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, 1958. Mono sound. [Melodram]
- Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1967. Stereo sound. [Deutsche Grammophon/Polygram]
- James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, 1990. Stereo sound. [Deutsche Grammophon]
- Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the Bayerische Staatsoper, 1989. [EMI Classics]
- Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 1958-1965. This is the first studio recording of the complete Ring, and is enduringly popular. Stereo sound. [Decca/Polygram records]
The complete cycle is still performed every year in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, a society event attended by many important and popular people like politicians, actors, musicians and sportsmen. Tickets are hard to get and are often reserved years in advance.
The most famous Bayreuth Ring production in recent memory was the centennial Ring directed by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez. Set in the industrial revolution, it featured grimy sets and men in business suits. Early performances were booed, but the production is now often regarded as revolutionary.
Another complete Ring cycle is as of 2004 underway in London, performed by English National Opera at the Coliseum Theatre near Trafalgar Square. The production is notable for its use of contemporary minimalist sets and costumes. Many of the scenes look like rooms from Ikea and indeed the production is sponsored by the MFI furniture company.