Music with Ease > Operas of Richard Wagner > Ring of the Nibelung (Wagner) - Synopsis
The Ring of the Nibelung
(German title: Der Ring des Nibelungen)
An Opera by Richard Wagner
A stage-festival play for three days and a preliminary evening (Ein Bühnenfestspiel für drei Tage und einen Vorabend), words and music by Richard Wagner.
The first performance of the entire cycle of four music-dramas took place at Bayreuth, August 13, 14, 16, and 17, 1876. "Das Rheingold" had been given September 22, 1869, and "Die Walküre," June 26, 1870, at Munich.
January 30, 1888, at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, "Die Walküre" was given as the first performance of the "Ring" in America, with the omission, however of "Das Rheingold," the cycle therefore being incomplete, consisting only of the three music-dramas -- "Die Walküre," "Siegfried," and "Götterdämmerung"; in other words the trilogy without the Vorabend, or preliminary evening.
Beginning Monday, March 4, 1889, with "Das Rheingold," the complete cycle, "Der Ring des Nibelungen," was given for the first time in America: "Die Walküre" following Tuesday, March 5, "Siegfried," Friday, March 8: "Götterdämmerung," Monday, March 11. The cycle was immediately repeated. Anton Seidl was the conductor. Among the principals were Lilli Lehmann, Max Alvary, and Emil Fischer.
Seidl conducted the production of the "Ring" in London, under the direction of Angelo Neumann, at Her Majestys Theatre, May 5-9, 1882.
The "Ring" really is a tetralogy. Wagner, however, called it a trilogy, regarding "Das Rheingold" only as a Vorabend to the three longer music-dramas.
In the repetitions of the "Ring" in this country many distinguished artists have appeared: Lehmann, Moran-Olden, Nordica, Ternina, Fremstad, Gadski, Kurt, as Brünnhilde; Lehmann, Nordica, Eames, Fremstad, as Sieglinde; Alvary and Jean de Rezske as Siegfried, both in "Siegfried" and "Götterdämmerung"; Niemann and Van Dyck, as Siegmund; Fischer and Van Rooy as Wotan; Schumann-Heink and Homer as Waltraute and Erda.
The "Ring of the Nibelung" consists of four music-dramas-"Das Rheingold" (The Rhinegold), "Die Walküre" (The Valkyr), "Siegfried," and "Götterdämmerung" (Dusk of the Gods). The "books" of these were written in inverse order. Wagner made a dramatic sketch of the Nibelung myth as early as the autumn of 1848, and between then and the autumn of 1850 he wrote the "Death of Siegfried." This subsequently became the "Dusk of the Gods." Meanwhile Wagners ideas as to the proper treatment of the myth seem to have undergone a change. "Siegfrieds Death" ended with Brünnhilde leading Siegfried to Valhalla, -- dramatic, but without the deeper ethical significance of the later version, when Wagner evidently conceived the purpose of connecting the final catastrophe of his trilogy with the "Dusk of the Gods," or end of all things, in Northern mythology, and of embodying a profound truth in the action of the music-dramas. This metaphysical significance of the work is believed to be sufficiently explained in the brief synopsis of the plot of the trilogy and in the descriptive musical and dramatic analyses below.
In the autumn of 1850 when Wagner was on the point of stretching out the music of "Siegfrieds Death," he recognized that he must lead up to it with another drama, and "Young Siegfried," afterwards "Siegfried," was the result. This in turn he found incomplete, and finally decided to supplement it with the "Valkyr" and "Rhinegold."
"Das Rheingold" was produced in Munich, at the Court Theatre, September 22, 1869; "Die Walküre," on the same stage, June 20, 1870. "Siegfried" and "Dusk of the Gods" were not performed until 1876, when they were produced at Bayreuth.
Of the principal characters in the "Ring of the Nibelung," Alberich, the Nibelung, and Wotan, the chief of the gods, are symbolic of greed for wealth and power. Thus lust leads Alberich to renounce love -- the most sacred of emotions -- in order that he may rob the Rhinedaughters of the Rhinegold and forge from it the ring which is to make him all-powerful. Wotan by strategy obtains the ring, but instead of returning it to the Rhinedaughter, he gives it to the giants, Fafner and Fasolt, as ransom for Freia, the goddess of youth and beauty, whom he had promised to the giants as a reward for building Walhalla. Alberich has cursed the ring and all into whose possession it may come. The giant no sooner obtain it than they fall to quarrelling over it. Fafner slays fasolt and then retires to a cave in the heart of a forest where, in the form of a dragon, he guards the ring and the rest of the treasure which Wotan wrested from Alberich and also gave to the giants as ransom for Freia. This treasure includes the tarnhelmet, a helmet made of Rhinegold, the wearer of which can assume any guise.
Wotan having witnessed the slaying of Fasolt, is filled with dread lest the curse of Alberich be visited upon the gods. To defend Walhalla against the assaults of Alberich and the host of Nibelungs, he begets in union with Erda, the goddess of wisdom, the Valkyrs (chief among them Brünnhilde), wild maidens who course through the air on superb chargers and bear the bodies of departed heroes to Walhalla, where they revive and aid the gods in warding off the attacks of the Nibelungs. But it is also necessary that the curse-laden ring should be wrested from Fafner and restored through purely unselfish motives to the Rhinedaughters, and the curse thus lifted from the race of the gods. None of the gods can do this because their motive in doing so would not be unselfish. Hence Wotan, for a time, casts off his divinity, and in human disguise as Wälse, begets in union, with a human woman the Wälsung twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde. Siegmund he hopes will be the hero who will slay fafner and restore the ring to the Rhine-daughters. To nerve him for this task, Wotan surrounds the Wälsungs with numerous hardships. Sieglinde is forced to become the wife of her robber, Hunding. Siegmund, storm-driven, seeks shelter in Hundings hut, where he and his sister, recognizing one another, flee together Hunding overtakes them and Wotan, as Siegmund has been guilty of a crime the marriage vow, is obliged, at the request of his spouse Fricka, the Juno of Northern mythology, to give victory to Hunding. Brünnhilde, contrary to Wotans command, takes pity on Siegmund, and seeks to shield him against Hunding. For this, Wotan causes her to fall into a profound slumber. The hero who will penetrate the barrier of fire with which Wotan has surrounded the rock upon which she slumbers can claim her as his bride.
After Siegmunds death Sieglinde gives birth to Siegfried, a son of their illicit union, who is reared by one of the Nibelungs, Mime, in the forest where Fafner guards the Nibelung treasure. Mime is seeking to weld the pieces of Siegmunds sword (Nothung or Needful) in order that Siegfried may slay Fafner, Mime hoping then to kill the youth and to possess himself of the treasure. But he cannot weld the sword. At last Siegfried, learning that it was his fathers weapon, welds the pieces and slays Fafner. His slips having come in contact with his bloody fingers, he is through the magic power of the dragons blood, enabled to understand the language of the birds, and a little feathery songster warns him of Mimes treachery. Siegfried slays the Nibelung and is then guided to the fiery barrier around the Valkyr rock. Penetrating this, he comes upon Brünnhilde, and enraptured with her beauty, awakens her and claims her as his bride. She, the virgin pride of the goddess, yielding to the love of the woman, gives herself up to him. He plights his troth with the curse-laden ring which he has wrested from Fafner.
Siegfried goes forth in quest of adventure. On the Rhine lives the Gibichung Gunther, his sister Gutrune and their half-brother Hagen, none other than the son of the Nibelung Alberich. Hagen, knowing of Siegfrieds coming, plans his destruction in order to regain the ring for the Nibelungs. Therefore, craftily concealing Brünnhildes and Siegfrieds relations from Gunther, he incites a longing in the latter to possess Brünnhilde as his bride. Carrying out a plot evolved by Hagen, Gutrune on Siegfrieds arrival presents to him a drinking-horn filled with a love-potion. Siegfried drinks, is led through the effect of the potion to forget that Brünnhilde is his bride, and, becoming enamoured of Gutrune, asks her in marriage of Gunther. The latter consents, provided Siegfried will disguise himself in the Tarnhelmet as Gunther and lead Brünnhilde to him as bride. Siegfried readily agrees, and in the guise of Gunther overcomes Brünnhilde and delivers her to the Gibichung. But Brünnhilde, recognizing on Siegfried the ring, which her conquerer had drawn from her finger, accuses him of treachery in delivering her, his own bride, to Gunther. The latter, unmasked and also suspicious of Siegfried, conspires with Hagen and Brünnhilde, who, knowing naught of the love-potion, is roused to a frenzy of hate and jealousy by Siegfrieds seeming treachery, to compass the young heros death. Hagen slays Siegfried during a hunt, and then in a quarrel with Gunther over the ring also kills the Gibichung.
Meanwhile Brünnhilde has learned through the Rhine-daughters of the treachery of which she and Siegfried have been the victims. All her jealous hatred of Siegfried yields to her old love for him and a passionate yearning to join him in death. She draws the ring from his finger and places it on her own, then hurls a torch upon the pyre. Mounting her steed, she plunges into the flames. One of the Rhinedaughters, swimming in on the rising waters, seizes the curse-laden ring. Hagen rushes into the flooding Rhine hoping to regain it, but the other Rhinedaughters grasp him and draw him down into the flood. Not only the flames of the pyre, but a glow which pervades the whole horizon illumine the scene. It is Walhalla being consumed by fire. Through love-the very emotion Alberich renounced in order to gain wealth and power -- Brünnhilde has caused the old order of things to pass away and a human era to dawn in place of the old mythological one of the gods.
The sum of all that has been written concerning the book of "The Ring of the Nibelung" is probably larger than the sum of all that has been written concerning the librettos used by all other composers. What can be said of the ordinary opera libretto beyond Voltaires remark that "what is too stupid to be spoken is sung"? But "The Ring of the Nibelung" produced vehement discussion. It was attacked and defended, praised and ridiculed, extolled and condemned. And it survived all the discussion it called forth. It is the outstanding fact in Wagners career that he always triumphed. He threw his lance into the midst of his enemies and fought his way up to it. No matter how much opposition his music-dramas excited, they gradually found their way into the repertoire.
It was contended on many sides that a book like "The Ring of the Nibelung" could not be set to music. Certainly it could not be after fashion of an ordinary opera. Perhaps people were so accustomed to the books of nonsense which figured as opera librettos that they thought "The Ring of the Nibelung" was so great a work that its action and climaxes were beyond the scope of musical expression. For such, Wagner has placed music on a higher level. He has shown that music makes a great drama greater.
One of the most remarkable features of Wagners works is the authors complete absorption of the times of which he wrote. He seems to have gone back to the very period in which the scenes of his music dramas are laid and to have himself lived through the events in his plots. Hans Sachs could not have left a more faithful portrayal of life in the Nuremberg of his day than Wagner has given us in "Die Meistersinger." In "The Ring of the Nibelung" he has done more -- he has absorbed an imaginary epoch lived over the days of gods and demigods; infused life into mythological figures. "The Rhinehold," which is full of varied interest from its first note to its last, deals entirely with beings of mythology. They are presented true to life -- if that expression may be used in connection with beings that never lived -- that is to say, they are so vividly drawn that we forget such beings never lived, and take as much interest in their doings and saying as if they were lifelike reproductions of historical characters. Was there ever a love scene more thrilling than that between Seigmund and Sieglinde? It represents the gradations of the love of two souls from its first awakening to its rapturous greeting in full self-consciousness. No one stops to think during that impassioned scene that the close relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde would in these days have been a bar to their legal union. For all we know, in those moments when the impassioned music of that scene whirls us away in its resistless current, not a drop of related blood courses through their veins. It has been said that we could not be interested in mythological beings -- that "The Ring of the Nibelung" lacked human interest. In reply, I say that wonderful as is the first act of "The Valkyr," there is nothing in it to compare in wild and lofty beauty with the last act of that music-drama -- especially the scene between Brünnhilde and Wotan.
That there are faults of dramatic construction in "The Ring of the Nibelung" I admit. In what follows I have not hesitated to point them out. But there are faults of construction in Shakespeare. What would be the critical verdict if "Hamlet" were now to have its first performance in the exact form in which Shakespeare left it? With all its faults of dramatic construction "The Ring of the Nibelung" is a remarkable drama, full of life and action and logically developed, the events leading up to superb climaxes. Wagner was doubly inspired. He was both a great dramatist and a great musician.
The chief faults of dramatic construction of which Wagner was guilty in "The Ring of the Nibelung" are certain unduly prolonged scenes which are merely episodical -- that is, unnecessary to the development of the plot so that they delay the action and weary the audience to a point which endangers the success of the really sublime portions of the score. In several of these scenes, there is a great amount of narrative, the story of events with which we have become familiar being retold in detail although some incidents which connect the plot of the particular music-drama with that of the preceding one are also related. But, as narrative on the stage makes little impression, and, when it is sung perhaps none at all, because it cannot be well understood, it would seem as if prefaces to the dramas could have taken the place of these narratives. Certain it is that these long drawn-out scenes did more to retard the popular recognition of Wagners genius than the activity of hostile critics and musicians. Still, it should be remembered that these music-dramas were composed for performance under the circumstances which prevail at Bayreuth, where the performances begin in the afternoon and there are long waits between the acts, during which you can refresh yourself by a stroll or by the more mundane pleasures of the table. Then, after an hours relaxation of the mind and of the sense of hearing, you are ready to hear another act. Under these agreeable conditions one remains sufficiently fresh to enjoy the music even of the dramatically faulty scenes.
One of the characters in "The Ring of the Nibelung," Brünnhilde, is Wagners noblest creation. She takes upon herself the sins of the gods and by her expiation frees the world from the curse of lust for wealth and power. She is a perfect dramatic incarnation of the profound and beautiful metaphysical motive upon which the plot of "The Ring of the Nibelung" is based.
There now follow descriptive accounts of the stories and music of the four component parts of this work by Wagner -- perhaps his greatest.