- Reading time
- 9 min.
Where to begin with a monumental work like the Ring des Nibelungen? By reading the first part of our Great Wagner Glossary, of course. In 13 entries, find out (almost) everything about the most epic and megalomaniacal project in operatic history.
Gods, humans and a motley crew of creatures all involved in an epic squabble about the pecking order of the universe, that’s Der Ring des Nibelungen for you. A bacchanal of self-interest, shocking power games, heroes tumbling off their pedestals, relationships torn apart, psychological terror, sex and revenge, nymphs and nymphomaniacs … There’s no campfire singing in this raw saga in which nothing is sacred, beautiful airs are snuffed out in a flash and catharsis lies in the great big nothing: the destruction of the divine order in an uncompromising apocalypse. The wild ride to Wagner’s narrative resolution – as inhospitable as an ice floe adrift in the Amundsen Sea – is driven by a little ring that, in exchange for a loveless existence, grants its wearer supreme power. The band was forged from the Rhinegold stolen from the water nymphs by the dwarf Alberich, scion of the Nibelungen. When the supreme god Wotan gets it back from him, Alberich curses everyone who will ever possess it. Several fires, murders and a dragon later, Wotan, without the ring, blows the retreat to Valhalla. Climate worriers need not worry: Wagner’s eschatology lays bare the total bankruptcy of the creatures that inhabit it but leaves the Earth intact.
‘The bass howled, the tenor bawled, the baritone sang flat and the soprano, when she condescended to sing at all and didn’t merely shout her words, screamed’, playwright George Bernard Shaw commented in 1894 after a performance of Parsifal at the Bayreuther Festspielhaus. Now, if you imagine having to listen to the ‘Bayreuth bark’ throughout the tetralogy, it is no wonder that, over the years, the Ring, besides drawing millions of fans, has triggered acute allergic reactions in listeners. At the source of the controversy is Wagner’s widow, Cosima, who ran his estate with an iron fist. She is ‘credited’ with the birth of the harsh singing style that confuses declamation with artistry. Cosima justified this choice by referring to Wagner’s instructions. But archival research contradicts her claim: Wagner preferred bel canto, a lyrical, Italianate style of singing far removed from the spitting Sprechgesang that was fetishized into the performance standard. Today, the expressive flow of opera singers fortunately extends beyond ‘as loud as possible’. But listener, beware: the early recordings can indeed bark. And some even bite.
Francis Ford Coppola knew it, of course: Die Walküre is all fury and bulging biceps, girl power on steroids, Oscar-winning action balled into a musical uppercut. The overture to the final act of the second Ring opera ensured the helicopter attack on a Vietnamese village in Apocalypse Now entered the pantheon of cinema history. Coppola is perhaps the best known but certainly not the only film mogul to have feasted on the sound effects and storytelling tricks Wagner used to revolutionize the stage. The composer’s oeuvre inspired numerous soundtracks tailored to thundering drama, explosive scenes and forceful characters. His operas were frequently recycled in the silent film era already and that trend continues to this day: just take a look at Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), Sam Mendes’ Jarhead (2005), David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011), Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013) and Guy Ritchie’s Wrath of Man (2021). The ride of the Walküre – Wagner’s undisputed greatest greatest hit – has its own franchise, which includes TV shows, commercials and video games, not to mention a series of films. Among the best of these works, Nintendo’s NES game Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! and Maxell’s ‘Blown Away Guy’, who, facing the thundering storm of notes played on the electronics giant’s audio cassette, has to hold on to his seat for dear life.
A vegetarian in theory, not in practice: according to his spouse Cosima, neither Wagner’s constitution nor his doctor’s orders allowed him to lead a meatless existence. But he was fond of animals and was the proud owner of Pohl (a bloodhound), the spaniels Peps and Fips, and the Newfoundlands Robber, Russmuck, Brange and Marke. Humans do all the barking in the Ring, of course, but there is a diverse fauna, including a horse, eagle, serpent, forest bird and wolf cub. The most iconic creature of all, however, is Fafner, the giant who uses the power of the ring to turn himself into a dragon. Wagner thrust the beast from the Old Norse Völsunga saga into the Middle High German Nibelungenlied. In Siegfried, Fafner helps the eponymous hero reach the realm of the gods, where his life takes a new turn. If you’re of a nervous disposition, then watch out for the moment when the French horn accidentally wakens the sleeping dragon. Sharp-toothed and supernatural, Fafner embodies the magnetism of Wagner’s pitch-black universe. And so he too has his ardent fans. However, if you were planning a pilgrimage to the 13-metre-long effigy erected at Germany’s Drachenfels in 1933, you’re unfortunately too late: in March 2023, Fafner’s neck snapped under the weight of years..
Wagner’s magnum opus was almost thirty years in the making before conductor Hans Richter lifted his baton at the premiere of the tetralogy at the Bayreuther Festspielhaus on 13 August 1876. That it would take him half a lifetime to complete his epic is not something Wagner had anticipated. He hardly started work on a libretto for the heroic opera Siegfrieds Tod (the later Götterdämmerung) in 1848 when the March Revolution in Dresden threw a spanner in the works. After seeking refuge in Switzerland, he first devoted himself to a work of theory (Oper und Drama, 1851) before switching to the texts for Der junge Siegfried (Siegfried), Die Walküre and Das Rheingold. Wagner didn’t put a single note of music down on paper at the time: it’s only in 1853 that he started working on the score, a job that, he reckoned optimistically, would take him, yes, about three years. It turned out to be twenty-one. On 21 (!) November 1874, at his beloved villa Wahnfried, he drew a double bar after Götterdammerung and wrote ‘Ich sage nichts weiter’ (I will say nothing more).
‘Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.’ Was J.R.R. Tolkien ever as succinct as when commenting on the alleged similarities between Der Ring des Nibelungen and The Lord of the Rings? Hardly. And yet, admit it, John Ronald Reuel: there is a case to be made for a comparison. For instance, with The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King and the prequel The Hobbit, Tolkien also wrote a tetralogy. He drew on the same sources that provided Wagner with his narrative material (Völsunga saga, Edda) and there is no doubt that he knew Wagner’s work: Tolkien read his original libretti with an Oxford study group, collaborated with (notorious Wagner fan) C.S. Lewis on a translation of Die Walküre and saw several operas live in Lewis’s company. Moreover, despite his criticism of the Ring, Tolkien appears to have adopted several of Wagner’s original ideas, such as the theme of the corrupting ring. For all that, The Lord isn’t a simple carbon copy of The Ring: Tolkien littered his Middle-earth with insights into philology and Old English literature, symbols and stories of a Catholic nature, and personal life experiences. Moreover, too tight a focus on whether Tolkien ‘scrounged’ from Wagner can lead to tunnel vision. After all, couldn’t the same accusations be levelled against Star Wars and Game of Thrones, among many others?
In The Perfect Wagnerite, George Bernard Shaw analyses the Ring cycle as an allegory of the collapse of capitalism. Of course, Shaw’s is just one of the many logs on the bonfire of critical interpretations. Indeed, the Ring has been read as a Marxist tract, an allegory of the Third Reich, a romantic stage novella, a nihilistic pamphlet, and the creation story of a navel-gazing mythomaniac. Whether Wagner was at all attempting to convey a political vision with the Ring remains to be seen. After all, what does the Ring teach us? Every hero is an idiot and every leader a deceiver; nature itself is not all that bountiful with gifts either. A philosophical approach might then offer a more reasonable outcome: Wagner’s Ring is an attempt to look critically at society using ancient Greek theatre as formal ideal and the fabric of ancient myths as narrative template. Like the ancient authors, Wagner addresses major themes through minor drama. The clashes between characters and values produce different answers to some essential questions: What kind of world do we want for ourselves? How are we to achieve this world without gods and magical forces? What stands between us and utopia?
In 1871 Wagner decided to move to Bayreuth, where a new opera house was going to be built. The foundation stone of the Festspielhaus was laid a year later on the ‘Green Hill’, a plot of land donated by the city authorities. Wagner wanted to present his first Ring there in 1873, but budgetary problems caused delays. To raise money, Wagner associations were set up here and there. The composer chipped in with concert tours. But after a year, two thirds of the capital were still missing. King Ludwig II of Bavaria stepped in with a loan for the execution of the entire building programme, including Wahnfried, Wagner and Cosima’s new residence. The family moved in in April 1874 and the theatre opened a year later. Bayreuth was tailor-made from A to Z for Wagner and his dream of creating immersive music drama. Thus, he hid the musicians from the view of the audience by placing them in a canopy-covered orchestra pit, refrained from building a proscenium arch (the architectural dividing line between stage and audience), and had the hall lights turned off during performances. There were no VIP seats: in Wagner’s horseshoe-shaped utopia, all seats enjoyed unobstructed views of the stage.
It is not at all uncommon of course for works from the repertoire to produce different interpretations over time. But rarely has an oeuvre fired up the imagination of creators as much as Wagner’s Ring. As an undergraduate, American theatre director Peter Sellars performed a puppet version of the entire cycle. Comedian Anna Russell didn’t even need props: she ended her 22-minute summary of the tetralogy (1953) with the sardonic, ‘You’re exactly where you started twenty hours ago’. Two decades later, Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez transplanted the story to the age of the Industrial Revolution; their controversial Centenary Ring emphasized social topics such as class struggle, exploitation and the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Robert Lepage’s production (New York, 2010) also raised eyebrows with its intricate stage construction whose squeaky mechanism jarred audiences and reviewers alike. Recent interpretations have focused on #MeToo and environmental issues. In addition to themes, media have also evolved: surf YouTube to discover the wonderful world of LEGO opera, where Wagner’s narrative realm has been recreated in plastic bricks. And yes indeed, the Ring is now also a sixteen-part fantasy podcast in 3D. At least, so we’ve been told.
Looking at Wagner is like looking at a Janus head: it is impossible to separate the brilliant composer from the pernicious polemicist. Besides artistic divisions, Wagner also sowed political controversy with his radical social diagnoses which were only aggravated by his self-ambition, intransigence, lack of self-censorship and highly inflammable temperament. True, with hostile writings like Das Judenthum in der Musik (1850, rev. 1869), Wagner echoed a broader trend in nineteenth-century Germany. But there is no doubt that his anti-Semitism reflected a deliberate stance – ‘this anger is as necessary to my nature as bile is to blood’, he confided to Liszt. His unvarnished writings drew the attention of the Nazis, who believed Wagner’s music exemplified the supremacy of Aryan art. On account of Wagner’s negative comments on Judaism, it has been argued that anti-Semitic stereotypes were also embedded in his music. For instance, the Nibelungen Alberich and Mime have sometimes been read as Jewish caricatures, although nowhere in the libretti are they explicitly described as such.
Wagner, a people person? He was certainly an insightful observer and sharp portraitist. To achieve layered psychological characterizations, he worked on several fronts: the strategic use of keys and leitmotifs (see under L), variations in texture and instrumentation, and the interaction between characters and their environment. Take Brünnhilde, an exemplary case study. A bawler with horns on her head and hair on her chest, you would think. But once you start stripping off the layers, Brünnhilde emerges as a deeply human and touching character, as she also turns out to be a plaything of fate: for her too, life gives and takes. Her entrance in the third act is one of those passages where Wagner shows that he has everything down to a T: trills, swirling strings, the thrusting Walküre motif and the primal scream all paint the picture of the ultimate warrior queen, long before George Lucas (Princess Leia) and Quentin Tarantino (The Bride) came up with their own über-cool femmes fatales.
John Williams got the picture alright: illustrating is good, suggesting is better. A century before Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker strutted across the big screen, Wagner’s characters were walking across the stage with their own musical themes. The leitmotif is perhaps his most grandiose invention: a musical theme linked to a character, idea, place or emotion. Drawing on a full-fledged alphabet of motifs, the orchestra can both mirror what’s happening on stage and project underlying connections and unspoken thoughts. As a listener, therefore, you often know better than the characters what’s going on. By constantly adapting the motifs to the narrative context, Wagner creates variety; the element of repetition, in turn, triggers the power of memory. It is in that fertile layer of reference that a deeper understanding of the story flourishes alongside a lush forest of interpretive possibilities. Moreover, the use of leitmotifs sucks you deeper and deeper into the drama: thanks to the mottoes, the Ring feels like a super-soap, where the familiar narrative space allows for insane plot twists. But you have to be prepared to give a good deal for it: the tetralogy has more than sixty leitmotifs, which Wagner mixes and matches to create clusters of notes that speak volumes.
A Wagner opera is a thousand-piece puzzle. For a conductor, therefore, the Ring is the ultimate litmus test. Without an inspired hand holding the baton, the formidable instrumentation, shrewd structures and languorous melodies will dissolve in a goo of flats. Moreover, so it says in Über das Dirigieren (1869, On Conducting), Wagner believed that a conductor should not only drive the orchestra, but also be a co-creator. Therefore, the Ring is ideal to bring out the artistic credo of great maestros. Such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, who in the 1950s recorded two cycles in which Wagner’s vision faithfully resonates; or Karl Böhm, who in 1967 recorded a remarkably fresh Ring. During that same period, Georg Solti led an all-star cast (with Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde!) in a studio recording that still counts among the all-time favourites. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was Bernard Haitink (with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks) and Daniel Barenboim (live but without an audience at Bayreuth) who each earned their place in the Wagner pantheon using their batons. The most recent Ring to be performed at La Monnaie was under Sylvain Cambreling in 1990. The production planned with Antonio Pappano never came to fruition.
Translation: Patrick Lennon