Major Operas | Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner | High Romantic

Wagner’s Ring cycle is made up of four works – Das Rheingold (‘The Rhinegold’, 1851–54), Die Walküre (‘The Valkyrie’, 1851–56), Siegfried (1851–57; 1864–71) and Götterdämmerung (‘Twilight of the Gods’, 1848–52; 1869–74).

Although there have been other, even more ambitious projects in the history of opera – Rutland Boughton’s cycle of choral dramas based on the Arthurian legends and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s (b. 1928) seven-opera Licht cycle, for example – the Ring has proved to be an enduring masterpiece, supremely challenging in the demands that it places on audiences and performers alike and no less rewarding in terms of its infinite fascination and endless ability to engage an audience’s emotions on the very deepest level.

Origins of the Ring

Wagner first became interested in the subject of the Ring in the mid-1840s, at a time when several other composers, including Felix Mendelssohn (1809–47), Robert Schumann (1810–56), Liszt and Niels Gade (1817–1890), were similarly drawn to the theme. All of them were responding to the operatic potential of the early thirteenth-century Nibelungenlied (‘Lay of the Nibelungs’), which had been rediscovered after centuries of neglect and which was now seen as a focus of nationalist aspirations, the epitome of an age when the German nation had been powerful and united. But in Wagner’s eyes the appeal of the Nibelungenlied began to wane as soon as he developed anarchical leanings and turned away from the narrow historical perspective of the medieval epic and towards the dramatic possibilities of myth as the expression of necessary social change. History could not predict the future. Myth alone could embody the universal struggle between the forces of reaction and a more humane and enlightened regime. It was in order to excavate what he believed was the mythic substratum of the material that he started to delve more deeply into the Scandinavian versions of the legend enshrined in the Eddas, versions which, in keeping with the scholarly thinking of his time, he regarded as more archaic and, hence, as more prototypically German than the courtly accretions of the Nibelungenlied. Here in the Eddas, Wagner also found the alliterative verse form, or Stabreim, that constitutes what is perhaps the cycle’s most notorious linguistic feature.

A New Musical Language

The libretto that Wagner drafted in the wake of his Nibelung reading was called Siegfried’s Death and essentially covered the same ground as the work we now know as Götterdämmerung: it told of the hero’s murder as part of a cycle of death and renewal. But it soon became clear that this drama contained too much narrative and presupposed too much existing knowledge on the audience’s part, with the result that Wagner prefaced it first by Young Siegfried in 1851 and then by Das Rheingold and finally Die Walküre in 1852. So vast a project required a new musical language, and it was not until November 1853 that Wagner felt able to make a start on the music, employing the leitmotif technique ineluctably bound...

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