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The ABC of the Ring

Part II: from Nibelungen to Zukunftsmusik

Sofie Taes
Reading time
8 min.

Where to begin with a monumental work like the Ring des Nibelungen? By reading our Great Wagner Glossary, of course. In this second volume, you'll discover Wagner's favorite opera, his views on art and gender, his link with Adolphe Sax and just about all the arguments of both his lovers and haters.



They made it into the very title of Wagner’s illustrious tetralogy. But who are these Nibelungen in fact? With roots in Germanic and Norse mythology, both the etymology and narrative origins of this clan are shrouded in mist. In its earliest form, the name is said to refer to the ‘Gibichungs’, the royal dynasty of the tribe of ‘Burgundi’ that settled in the Middle Rhine region in the fifth century. In the medieval Nibelungenlied, they inhabit a fairy-tale world in which dwarves and giants get involved in the theft of the Rhinegold, the forging of a magic ring and a cursed treasure. As ‘Nybling’ or ‘Nibling’, the name also appears in the late medieval Lied vom Hürnen Seyfrid, a heroic poem in which the main character, Siegfried, raised by a blacksmith, slays a dragon and turns its skin into armour. Wagner hitched his wagon to these storytelling traditions before cranking things up: in the Ring, the Nibelungen are the dwarf-like denizens of dark caves, clever gold-diggers and skilled blacksmiths, but above all the forgers of a ring that brings more misery than the delivery guy at Pandora’s door.


Optical illusion

The narrative material of the Ring begs for special effects. A real gift for Wagner, of course, for whom scenography and stage effects were indispensable components of his metaverse. He didn’t invent optical tricks, however. Baroque opera had made abundant use of colossal machines and technical contraptions to make gods levitate, thunderstorms rage and ships sink between the stage boards. But with the help of theatre technician Carl Brandt, Wagner did open the door to a new era. Brandt specialized in transition scenes: using smoke, steam and mist as well as (electric) lights, magic lanterns and two locomotive boilers, he orchestrated complex scene changes without having to close the curtain. For Fafner, Brandt built a mechanical dragon, for the waterworks in Götterdämmerung a hidden trough and a system of pumps that generated a flow of water with real mermaids! The magic of Bayreuth lay in what was impossible and wasn’t actually real, the poetry of illusion.



‘I like Wagner’s music better than anybody’s. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says.’ Notwithstanding Oscar Wilde’s quip about the composer in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wagner had more than enough fans. Blown away by the shockwave of his music, many of his peers fell prey to Wagnermania: among them, César Franck, Anton Bruckner, Ernest Chausson, Jules Massenet, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Less illustrious admirers soon congregated in Wagner societies that sprouted like mushrooms. In Germany alone, 200 branches of the Allgemeiner Richard-Wagner-Verband had been established by the late nineteenth century. Belgium played a key role in the history of Wagner worship. In 1871, that is, even before the composer’s death, the Comité belge du Patronat de Bayreuth (later renamed the Comité belge de l’Association wagnérienne universelle) was founded in Brussels. It was to become one of the best organized associations outside Germany. Indeed, fandom still thrives here today, with various circles, groups of friends and societies on both sides of the language border.



Wagner juggled words as brilliantly as he did sounds. And so, unlike most composers, he wrote his librettos himself. The Wagner signature? Nonsense words that lie somewhere between onomatopoeia and neologism. The Ring abounds in such sonorous gibberish. Take the Rhinemaidens, for instance, who shout out ‘Weia! Waga! … Wagala weia! Wallala weiala weia!’ and ‘Heiajaheia! Heiajaheia! Wallalalala leiajahei!’ Brünnhilde, for her part, hollers ‘Hojotoho! Heiaha!’ while Siegfried, as he forges, musters his courage by singing ‘Hoho! Hoho! Hohei! Hohei! Hoho!’ Wagner claimed he was playing with real words, but to critics it was nothing but preposterous baby talk. The suspected source of this prattle and babble? Der Freischütz (1817), Carl Maria von Weber’s masterpiece and Wagner’s favourite opera. In it, Weber introduced an interesting variant on Italian bel canto: instead of endlessly stringing notes on a single syllable, he stretched melodies on onomatopoeic scraps of words. Unprecedented at the time, but widely recognized today: indeed, a good old ‘La La La’ always does the trick.



Wagner’s dream of a superlative German art may have reeked of megalomania, but he firmly believed that it would bring Enlightenment to the people. In Die Kunst und die Revolution (1849; Art and Revolution), he argued that such a ‘new, true art’ could only come about if ‘everything old’ was first destroyed. As a prophet, he felt called on to climb the barricades, free art from the stranglehold of capitalist speculation and restore its transformative power. To this end, he sought to achieve a total experience of word, music and staging modelled on ancient Greek theatre. With the Ring, he converted that theoretical model into musical practice. In this sense, the tetralogy was at once his artistic and ideological declaration of principles, in which disrupted reality peeks out from behind the seams of the realm of fiction.



You can’t talk about Wagner without talking about the orchestra. He explored every millimetre of every string and every bell of every wind instrument in search of colours and textures. For the Ring, he even had a new instrument built, the Wagner tuba, the missing link between the horn and the trombone. Wagner wrote no fewer than four parts for a duo in stereo: two tenor tubas tuned to B-flat and two bass tubas to F. He is said to have first dreamed of this brass instrument with its lofty heroic tone in 1854, while composing Das Rheingold. But his idea didn’t entirely come out of the blue: Wagner was probably inspired by the instruments he had seen in the Paris workshop of Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax. A letter from Wagner, which explicitly mentions ‘Sax’schen Instrumenten’, may well be the ultimate clue that the Wagner tuba is in fact the cousin of the ‘saxhorn’. Who actually made the instruments after Wagner’s design is something we ignore. Nor do we know what happened to the originals since they were last seen in Bayreuth in 1939.

Wagner tuba
Wagner tuba



There is no such thing as coincidence in Wagner’s world. Thus, the Ring’s ambitious format is a deliberate strategy to dispel any suggestion that opera should consist mainly of light-hearted entertainment. It took Wagner some effort to convince his audience of this, as became clear when the enthusiastic response to the early work Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen failed to happen again for Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhaüser. The cool reception to what he saw as a logical step in his artistic development caused Wagner to lose heart. ‘I shall never write another opera’, he swore in Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde (1851; A Communication to My Friends). ‘From now on I shall call my works dramas.’ It is in that same essay that he first shared his revolutionary concept for the Ring: ‘I propose a myth in three complete dramas preceded by an elaborate prelude … At some time in the future, at a festival specially created for the purpose, I will present those dramas and prelude, spread over three days and a preceding evening.’ A prediction that became a reality, a reality that became a legend.



Wagner concocted the most beautiful myths for himself, too: for instance, his claim that the text and music of his operas arose simultaneously has proven to be rather unfounded. Each part of the Ring began as a ‘primal text’ in prose, which was then moulded into a clean copy in a versified version. Musical sketches followed on a few staffs and then a fully instrumentalized score. Wagner failed to make an orchestral draft of Die Walküre, which turned out to be a painful mistake: because the actual writing had taken years, he could no longer read his old notes and had to start again from scratch. From Siegfried onwards, he took a different approach, elaborating one act at a time, from the first jottings to the final double bar line. Today, the handwritten originals are scattered across private and public collections in Europe and the US, but the lion’s share is in the Nationalarchiv of the Richard-Wagner-Stiftung in Bayreuth. The clean copies of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre – once held by King Ludwig – were given to Hitler in 1939 for his 50th birthday. They are believed to have been lost in 1945, but rumours that they will one day resurface crop up regularly.

Final scene manuscript for 'Die Walküre'
Final scene manuscript for 'Die Walküre'



The evidence of recent research is conclusive: attention spans are getting shorter. And shorter. Sound bites, tweets, quotes, likes, shares and Tik Tok teasers are all contributing to our growing inability to stay focused for long. So anyone venturing into Wagner’s Ring has their work cut out for them. ‘Three days and a preceding evening’, that’s fifteen to twenty hours in total, two and a half to five hours per music drama. It’s a recurrent reproach: why did the man have to be so pretentious? It’s certainly not just a case of acute verbosity. Wagner conceived the performances as day-long events – including breaks for nibbles and refreshments – because the complex narrative material, the use of leitmotifs and the continuous flow of the story simply called for some narrative scope. If you’re getting cold feet already, don’t think ‘long’, think ‘bingeworthy’ and dive into his very own streaming service.

'Wagner has lovely moments
but awful quarters of an hour.'
Gioachino Rossini



Wagner would have been delighted at the idea that his shadow extended far beyond his slight silhouette. His legacy became the backcloth against which Wagnerism – a cultural and intellectual movement that peaked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – began to question major themes, social trends and artistic ideas. In Belgium, Wagnerism caught on in the aftermath of a production of Lohengrin at La Monnaie in 1870. By then, audiences were familiar with Wagner’s work: he had been a guest conductor at the Brussels music temple a decade earlier. While the Parisian opera scene persisted in its Wagner phobia, La Monnaie grew to become the venue for the French-language premières of his operas. A first full-length Ring was produced by La Monnaie in 1903. The tetralogy enchanted many leading Belgian artists, including Fernand Khnopff, Constantin Meunier, Maurice Maeterlinck, James Ensor and Emile Fabry. When he founded the group L’Art Monumental, Fabry echoed Wagner’s ambition to ‘elevate the soul of the masses’. His paintings in La Monnaie’s grand staircase have left a lasting trace of the passion of Belgian Wagnerians.



Wagner’s aesthetic theories were steeped in traditional gender thinking. For instance, he saw words as seeds that the music had to fertilize. Wagner’s position on gender reflected the then prevalent idea that man as an active force was higher up on the biological and social ladder than passive woman. And yet his work has also been read by feminists from the opposite perspective. They argue that it’s often female characters who take an active role and restore order where men have created chaos. For instance, Wotan regularly gets told off by his wife Fricka while primal Earth mother Erda outdoes the gods in her omniscience. Nevertheless, Wagner’s ideas about the sexes can certainly be called ‘questionable’, to say the least. He admired woman insofar as she sacrificed herself blindly for the love of man, something that happens with clockwork regularity in the Ring. The #MeToo award, however, goes to Brünnhilde, the warrior woman who, despite unfriending her bullying father and ridding the ring of its curse, still ends up being burned at the stake.



The output of Wagner’s creative genius is outright miraculous: he wrote each and every note and word heard in the Ring, and he conceived each and every detail of the scenography, staging and costumes. For Wagner, the music of the future was the Gesamtkunstwerk in which all the elements of theatre together would provide a transformative experience. Musical innovations like the leitmotif and the unendliche Melodie were merely pawns on the chessboard on which Wagner’s ideals battled it out with traditional conceptions of what opera should be. Wagner’s future, that’s us now, today. Did his recipe for Zukunftsmusik prove tenable? Truth be told, Wagner is a rare guest on the stage today, and then only in major houses where a whole army can be called up to perform the miracle of the Ring. It’s rarely put on, therefore, but when it is, it’s well worth being there. Because the Ring spans the past, the present and the future. It’s a universal allegory that, like all great art, is as contemporary as it is timeless.

Translation: Patrick Lennon