Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a cycle of four epic music dramas by the German composer Richard Wagner. The operas are based loosely on characters from the Norse sagas and the Nibelungenlied. The works are often referred to as "The Ring Cycle", "Wagner's Ring", or simply "The Ring".
Wagner wrote the libretto and music over the course of about twenty-six years, from 1848 to 1874. The four operas that constitute the Ring cycle are, in the order of the imagined events they portray:
Although individual operas are performed as works in their own right, a full understanding of the story of the Ring cycle requires attendance at all four operas, which was the intention and expectation of the composer.
Wagner's title is rendered in English as The Ring of the Nibelung. However the word Nibelung frequently confuses English speakers, resulting in misunderstanding of the German title, the English title, or how to use the word outside the title. The word Nibelung is in the singular. The Nibelung of the title is the dwarf Alberich, and the Ring in question is the one he fashions from the Rhinegold. The title therefore means "Alberich's Ring".
The cycle is modelled after ancient Greek dramas that were presented as three tragedies and one satyr play. The Ring properly begins with Die Walküre and ends with Götterdämmerung, with Rheingold as a prelude. Wagner called Das Rheingold a Vorabend or "Preliminary Evening", and Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung were subtitled First Day, Second Day and Third Day, respectively, of the trilogy proper.
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 continue through three generations of protagonists, until the final cataclysm at the end of Götterdämmerung.
The music of the cycle is thick and richly textured, and grows in complexity as the cycle proceeds. Wagner wrote for an orchestra of gargantuan proportions, including a greatly enlarged brass section with new instruments such as the Wagner tuba, bass trumpet and contrabass trombone. He eventually had a purpose-built theatre (the Bayreuth Festspielhaus) constructed in Bayreuth in which to perform this work. The theatre had a special stage which blended the huge orchestra with the singers' voices, allowing them to sing at a natural volume. The result was that the singers did not have to strain themselves vocally during the long performances. The acoustics of this performance space are among the best in the world.
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 Brünnhilde, 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 and folk tales. 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 and Thidreks saga. 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. (For a detailed examination of Wagner's sources for the Ring, and his treatment of them, see among other works Deryck Cooke's unfinished study of the Ring, I Saw the World End, and Ernest Newman's Wagner Nights. Also useful is a translation by Stewart Spencer (Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung: Companion, edited by Barry Millington) which, as well as containing essays—including one on the source material—provides an English translation of the entire text which seeks to remain faithful to the early medieval Stabreim technique Wagner used).
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 renouncing love, an act that allows him to acquire the power to rule the world by means of forging a magical ring. In the last scene of that opera this ring of power is taken from him, so he places a curse on it: “Whosoever holds the ring, by the ring they shall be enslaved.”
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. Robert Donington in Wagner's Ring and its Symbols interprets it in terms of Jungian psychology as an account of the development of unconscious archetypes in the mind, leading towards individuation. Peter Kjærulff, in The Ringbearer's 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.
In his previous operas, Wagner had tried to make minimal use of recitative and scena ed aria. For the Ring he decided to do away with them entirely and adopted a through-composed style, whereby each act of each opera would be a continuous piece of music with no breaks whatsoever. In the essay Opera and Drama, (1852) Wagner describes the way in which poetry, music and the visual arts should combine to form what he called The Artwork of the Future. He called these artworks "music-dramas", and thereafter very rarely referred to his works as operas.
As a new foundation for his music-dramas, Wagner adopted the use of what he called Grundthemen, or "base themes", although they are usually referred to elsewhere as leitmotifs. These are recurring melodies and/or harmonic progressions, sometimes tied to a particular key and often to a particular orchestration. They musically denote an action, object, emotion, character or other subject mentioned in the text and/or presented onstage. Wagner referred to them in Opera and Drama as "guides-to-feeling", and described how they could be used to inform the listener of a musical or dramatic subtext to the action onstage in the same way as a Greek Chorus did for Attic Drama. While other composers before Wagner had already used leitmotifs, the Ring was unique in the extent to which they were employed, and in the ingeniousness of their combination and development.
Any important subject in The Ring is usually accompanied by a leitmotif; indeed, there are long stretches of music which are constructed exclusively from them. One such example occurs in Götterdämmerung: Siegfried's journey down the river Rhine is described first through a rhapsody on the Siegfried theme which then merges into the Rhine theme and finally into the motifs denoting the Gibichung Hall. There are dozens of individual motifs scattered throughout the Ring. They often occur as a musical reference to a presentation of their subject onstage, or to a direct reference in the text, or more subtly implied by the text. Many of them appear in several operas, and some even in all four. Sometimes, as in the character of the Woodbird, a cluster of motives is associated with a single character.
As the cycle progresses, and especially from the third act of Siegfried on, these motives are presented in increasingly sophisticated combinations. Wagner also used Franz Liszt's technique of "metamorphosis of themes" to effect a dynamic development of many leitmotifs into quite different ones with a life all of their own. A clear example occurs in the transition from the first to the second scene of Das Rheingold, in which the musical theme associated with the ring of power, newly forged, transforms into that of Valhalla, Wotan's just-completed fortress, intended as a base from which he as chief of the gods can impose his law on the world, embodied by his spear. Thus an implication is made which is left unstated in the libretto; but regardless of how a listener might make the implied connection by associating the "ring" motive with Valhalla (which will be destroyed along with the ring), the burden of the argument at this point is entirely musical. The most important result of this kind of technique is the setting up of an infinitely complex web of musico-conceptual associations which continues to provide material for discussion.
Aspects of the leitmotif system did attract criticism for being too obvious. Some have misunderstood the function of leitmotives, imagining them to be mere 'calling cards' whose function is tautological – simply informing the listener as to which character, object or idea has just arrived on stage or been mentioned; but this is no more what leitmotives are for than, for example, Debussy wrote "La Mer" to describe the sea to people who hadn't seen it for themselves. In particular, the leitmotivic profile of the cycle's end has attracted much criticism. George Bernard Shaw dismissed the final bars of the Ring (the so-called "Redemption through love" motif), saying "the gushing effect which is its sole valuable quality is so cheaply attained that it is hardly going too far to call it the most trumpery phrase in the entire tetralogy". Other critics, such as Theodor Adorno in his essay In Search of Wagner, have speculated that Wagner did not actually know how to end the cycle, and merely spun together a few obvious motives which were chosen simply because they were the most beautiful sounding. More veneratively Mark Doran has sought to explain the cycle's final bars as the 'all-knowing orchestra's "purely musical praise of Brünnhilde".
The advances in orchestration and tonality Wagner made in this work are of seminal importance in the history of Western music. He wrote for a very large orchestra, with a palette of seventeen different instrumental families used singly or in a myriad of combinations to express the great range of emotion and events of the drama. Wagner even went so far as to commission the production of new instruments, including the Wagner tuba, invented to fill a gap he found between the tone qualities of the French horn and the trombone, as well as variations of existing instruments, such as the bass trumpet and a contrabass trombone with a double slide.
In addition Wagner weakened traditional tonality to the extent that most of the Ring, especially from Siegfried Act III onwards, cannot be said to be in traditionally defined "keys", but rather in "key regions", each of which flow smoothly into the following one. This fluidity avoided the musical equivalent of "full stops" or "periods", and was an important part of the style that enabled Wagner to build the work's huge structures - Das Rheingold is unbroken at two-and-a-half hours long. Tonal indeterminacy was heightened by the vastly increased freedom with which he used dissonance and chromaticism. Chromatically altered chords, as well as a variety of sevenths and ninths are used very liberally in the Ring, and this work, together with Tristan und Isolde, is frequently cited as a milestone on the way to Arnold Schoenberg's revolutionary break with the traditional concept of key and his rejection of consonance as the basis of an organising principle in music.
The woodwinds include 3 flutes and 1 piccolo, 3 oboes and 1 cor anglais, 3 clarinets and 1 bass clarinet, and 3 bassoons (with a note that contrabassoon(s) should be used if the bassoons used are unable to play the low A occasionally required).
The brass section contains 8 horns, the last four players doubling on 2 B flat tenor and 2 F bass Wagner tubas, 3 trumpets and 1 bass trumpet as well as 3 tenorbass trombones, 1 contrabass trombone (doubling on bass trombone) and 1 contrabass tuba.
The percussion section contains 4 timpani, a triangle, a pair of cymbals, a side drum and a carillon or glockenspiel. In Das Rheingold, the orchestra is completed with 6 harps plus one offstage harp. In several sections of the cycle, Wagner also calls for a thunder machine, 18 anvils, offstage horns and several stierhorns (4 in Götterdämmerung and 1 in Die Walküre).
To facilitate performance of the work in theatres lacking large orchestra pits, reduced orchestrations are also available.
By 1850, Wagner had completed a musical sketch (which he abandoned) 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 made the momentous decision to embark 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.
By 1869, Wagner was living at Tribschen on Lake Lucerne, sponsored by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. He returned to Siegfried, and, remarkably, was able to pick up where he left off. In October, he completed the final opera in the cycle. He chose the title Götterdämmerung instead of Siegfrieds Tod for this opera. In the completed work the gods are destroyed in accordance with the new pessimistic thrust of the cycle, not redeemed as in the more optimistic originally planned ending. Wagner also decided to show onstage the events of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, which had hitherto only been presented as back-narration in the other two operas. These changes resulted in some discrepancies in the cycle, but these do not diminish the value of the work.
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.
The complete cycle is performed most years at the Bayreuth Festival: the first staging of a new production becomes 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 Ring is a major undertaking for any opera company: staging four interlinked operas requires a huge commitment both artistically and financially. In most opera houses, production of a new Ring cycle will happen over a number of years, with one or two operas in the cycle being added each year. Bayreuth is unusual in that a new cycle is almost always created within a single year. The Ring cycle has been staged by opera companies in many different ways. Early productions often stayed close to Wagner's original Bayreuth staging. Trends set at Bayreuth have continued to be influential. Following the closure of the Festspielhaus during the Second World War, the 1950s saw productions by Wagner's grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner (known as the 'New Bayreuth' style) which emphasised the human aspects of the drama in a more abstract setting. Perhaps the most famous modern production was the centennial production of 1976 directed by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez. Set in the industrial revolution, it replaced the depths of the Rhine with a hydroelectric power dam and featured grimy sets populated by men and gods in business suits. This drew heavily on the reading of the Ring as a revolutionary drama and critique of the modern world, famously described by George Bernard Shaw in 'The Perfect Wagnerite'. Early performances were booed but the audience of 1980 gave it a 90 minute ovation in its final year; the production is now generally regarded as revolutionary and a classic. Ring productions tend to fall into two camps: those which try to remain fairly close to Wagner's original stage design and direction, and those which seek to re-interpret the Ring for modern audiences, often inserting stage pictures and action which Wagner himself might not recognise. The production by Peter Hall, conducted by Georg Solti at Bayreuth in 1983 is an example of the former, while the production by Richard Jones at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 1994–1996, conducted by Bernard Haitink, is an example of the latter.
Another interesting complete Ring cycle was begun in 2004, performed by the English National Opera at the Coliseum Theatre near London's 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.
Certain opera companies, such as the Seattle Opera, produce entirely new Ring cycles every 4 to 6 years. Seattle Opera's next cycle will be performed in August 2009.
The Canadian Opera Company conducted its first complete Ring Cycle in 2006 upon the opening of the new Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. This production is notable for the stage direction by Canadian film directors Atom Egoyan and François Girard.
The Royal Danish Opera performed a complete Ring cycle in May 2006 in its new waterfront home, the Copenhagen Opera House. This version of the ring tells the story from the viewpoint of Brünnhilde and has a distinct feminist angle. For example, in a key scene in Die Walküre, it is Sieglinde and not Siegmund who manages to pull the sword Notung out of a tree. At the end of the cycle, Brünnhilde does not die, but instead gives birth to Siegfried's child.
It is possible to perform The Ring with fewer resources than usual. In 1990, the City of Birmingham Touring Opera (now Birmingham Opera Company), presented a two-evening adaptation (by Jonathan Dove) for a limited number of solo singers, each doubling several roles, and 18 orchestral players. This version made its American premiere at the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Subsequently, it was performed in full at Long Beach Opera in January 2006, and was performed in full with the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh in July 2006.
Here are some of the best-known and most appreciated recordings of the complete Ring Cycle:
The Solti recording was the first stereo studio recording of the complete cycle, and it remains popular. In a poll on the BBC Radio 3's long running radio programme CD Review, this set was voted as the greatest recording of the 20th century. Although Solti's was the first studio stereo recording, the cycle had previously been recorded live in stereo by Decca engineers at the Bayreuth Festival in 1955 under the baton of Joseph Keilberth. Although unavailable for over 50 years, this cycle has now been issued on CD and vinyl by Testament.
First-time buyers looking for a Ring recording are often recommended the Solti. Gramophone, for example, list it as their recommendation on their website. However, when their long-time Wagner critic Alan Blyth reviewed recordings of the Ring for the feature Building a Library on CD Review (then Stereo Review) in 1986, he favoured the Böhm and Furtwängler/RAI recordings. When John Deathridge carried out a follow-up review for the programme in 1992, he favoured parts of the Goodall, Haitink and Boulez cycles for individual operas and Levine overall.
The Ring cycle is also available in a number of video or DVD presentations. These include:
The first three of these are also available as audio recordings.
A lesser known Looney Tunes cartoon is Friz Freleng's Herr Meets Hare, originally released in 1945 and not seen again until the Leonard Maltin video Bugs and Daffy: Wartime Cartoons. The cartoon portrays Bugs Bunny inadvertently ending up in the Black Forest after having missed the left turn at Albuquerque (for the very first time, in fact) and running into Nazi official Hermann Goering. At one point, Bugs fools Goering by acting out the Brünhilde routine, complete with an obese horse. The Warner Bros. animation department had admired the image of Bugs dressed as a Rhinemaiden and had long thought about elaborating on the scene, and so Chuck Jones eventually did so with What's Opera, Doc?.
Anna Russell's The Ring of the Nibelungs (An Analysis) is not really a parody, since it follows Wagner's story and actually discusses many of the Ring's leitmotifs as academically as she makes them entertaining. However, Russell draws attention to some of the more unusual elements in the plot that people often miss, to the delight of her audience. Anthony Burgess's version of the Ring Cycle is the 1961 novel The Worm and the Ring, which transposes the action to an Oxfordshire grammar school. The comic fantasist Tom Holt similarly chooses to set Expecting Someone Taller, his sequel to the Ring, in a rural English setting.
Charles Ludlam's single-evening parody of the Ring cycle was titled Der Ring Gott Farblonjet in Off-Off Broadway productions around 1977. The piece owed much to comedic influences of Anna Russell, Samuel Clemens, and George Bernard Shaw, although the drag elements typical to Ludlum's work were uniquely adapted to the casting demands for dwarfs and giants.
J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings appears to borrow some elements from Der Ring des Nibelungen; however, Tolkien himself denied that he had been inspired by Wagner's work, saying that "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases. Any similarity arises because Tolkien and Wagner both drew upon the same source material for inspiration, including the Völsunga saga and the Poetic Edda.
Nerdcore rapper MC Frontalot released a song regarding his experiences attending a performance of The Ring. He expresses initial disappointment that the opera wasn't about Hobbits and ultimate joy when the final act delivered a very pleasing conclusion.