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The History of 'The Ring'
(German title: Der Ring der Nibelungen)
An Opera Trilogy by
Richard Wagner

In 1851 Liszt was conducting the small but excellent opera at Weimar. That year Wagner, as I have already partly quoted, wrote: "At the end of my last stay in Paris, when, ill, miserable, and despairing, I sat brooding over my fate, my eye fell on the score of my ‘Lohengrin,’ totally forgotten by me. Suddenly I felt something like compassion that this music should never sound from off the death-pale paper. Two words I wrote to Liszt; his answer was the news that preparations were made for the performance on the largest scale the limited means of Weimar would permit… Success was his reward with this success he now approaches me saying, ‘Behold, we have come so far; now create us a new work, that we may go still further.’"

Wagner’s response to this call was the great drama of "The Ring," originally intended for Weimar, but never performed there. He was just thirty-five when he began the gigantic work; for it was in 1848 that he wrote the poem on the death of the mythical Siegfried. In order to make that poem perfectly clear, he realised that a dramatic rendering of antecedent events was necessary. He therefore wrote "The Young Siegfried," and "The Valkyrie," prefacing this trilogy by a "grand introductory play" then called "The Rape of the Rhinegold." I quote again from one of his communications of 1851. "I propose," he wrote, "to produce my myth in three complete dramas, preceded by a lengthy Prelude…. At a specially appointed Festival, I propose, at some future time, to produce those three dramas, with their Prelude, in the course of three days and a fore-evening." This plan was not realised until 1876, twenty-five years later, at Bayreuth, by which time the original titles had been made to stand as we now know them, namely, Fore-evening: "The Rhinegold"; First Day: "The Valkyrie"; Second Day: "Siegfried"; Third Day: "The Dusk of the Gods."

The stupendous trilogy is a setting, to Wagner’s own libretto, of the Nibelungenlied, with a liberal infusion of Norse mythology. These old legends of the Nibelung dwarfs who dwell in the bowels of the earth, of the Rhine-maidens, of Wotan, Freia, and the other gods and goddesses who inhabited Walhalla, of their dealings with heroic mortals such as Siegfried and Siegmund, and so on, attracted Wagner as affording the finest opportunities for carrying out his convictions on the subject of musical drama. The stories have been dear to Northern nations for full a thousand years, and their fascination seems to mellow rather than decay with age. As Sir Hubert Parry has said, even he cold spirit of twentieth-century analysis and criticism grows warm under their influence; for the mysticism, which formed so much of their charm, is no vague cloudland of dreams and sensational episodes, but an expression of the feelings and reflections of a noble and warmhearted race of human beings on the circumstances of life and the mysteries of the world. The stories as whole are an attempt to explain, either in allegorical or direct narrative way, their idea of the origin of things and the forces of nature, and the inevitable fate which hangs over all. They are just such as a composer of Wagner’s calibre wanted; for the characters and situations and general outlines of the legends are of the grandest and most typical kind, and express deep truths of human nature without either complication or commonplace.

One hears much about the heavy demands which "The Ring" makes on its hearers, as well as its performers. This is, to a large extent, the outcome of the countless efforts of writers to "explain" its supposed inner meaning, to analyse and unravel its scores, with their extensive agglomeration of motifs or guiding themes, each with its own particular significance. Yet Wagner used to say that he required nothing from the public but healthy senses and a human heart. Of course he meant "The Ring" to carry a "message"; and it is in trying to expound this message that commentators advance such a conflicting variety of views. For this confusion Wagner himself is partly to blame. Scattered throughout his voluminous prose works and published correspondence are many invaluable "explanations" and suggestions regarding all his music-drams, but the trouble is that they do not always agree. Wagner, versatile and mercurial, was, as Mr. George Bernard Shaw has acutely pointed out, a different being every hour. He explained matters according to his momentary mood -- a Schopenhauerian one hour, a semi-Christian the next. As regards "The Ring," his contradictions are readily accounted for by the fact that the work engaged him for a long number of years, during which his views naturally underwent many changes, with resulting contradictions and inconsistencies in exposition. We may, however, safely take the following as expressing in a few words what he really meant: "My Nibelung-poem," he writes in 1854, "shows Nature in her naked truth, with all her innate opposites, whose infinitely varied meetings include the shock of mutual repulsion…. The whole course of the poem shows the necessity of recognising the change, the diversity, the multiplicity, the eternal newness of reality and life, and yielding place to it."

There is no need to make any mystery about the subject; no need to involve it in cloudy discussions about philosophy and metaphysics and all the rest. It is a subject not necessarily implying any great strain on the imagination such as is too often assumed. In plain language, it shows the struggle of free love and human impulse against the fetters of conventional laws, and against the sway of wealth and splendour. It is essentially a drama of to-day, though dressed up in all the heathen paraphernalia of gods, giants, dwarfs, water-maidens, Valkyries, &c., &c. The spectator will readily recognise in it a picture of the world through which he is himself fighting his way. The dwarfs, giants, and gods may be regarded as dramatisations of the three main orders of mankind -- dwarfs, the instinctively lustful, greedy, grabbing people; giants, the patient, industrious, stupid money-lovers; gods, the clever, moral intellectuals, who make and rule States and communities. The Rhine-maidens are the nature-lovers who admire the gold for its beauty, not for its commercial value. Alberich is the capitalist, who forswears the love he cannot win by reason of his unamiable personality. He carries off the gold to turn it into money and the means of acquiring vast wealth through the labour of millions driven by starvation to accept his terms.

The giants, on the other hand, are willing to buy love and gold honestly, with patient, manual drudgery in the service of the higher powers. These higher powers, who, in comparison with the dwarfs and giants, may be called gods, are the talented moral beings whose aims reach beyond the mere satisfaction of their appetites and personal affections. In order to carry out their projects for the advancement of the world from a state of savagery, they make laws and enforce them by the punishment of the disobedient. In time these laws cease to be in accordance with the ever-widening and developing ideas of the gods. But their law must be preserved at all costs, even when it no longer represents their thought; otherwise their subjects will respect neither law nor law-givers. Thus gradually the gods become entangled in a network of statutes made by themselves, which they must obey in order to maintain their authority.

No wonder Wotan, who represents the Will, ultimately begins to long for the advent of a higher power -- the ideal man -- to extricate the gods from their position! But not till middle of "The Ring" does the highest order of all appear -- the order of hero -- in the person of Siegfried, who makes an end of dwarfs, giants, and gods; destroys the artificial rule of law, and inaugurates a new reign of freedom of thought. Such, in briefest outline, is the message of "The Ring." But, in truth, if one may put it frankly, very few musicians give any thought to the message nowadays. Wagner was no doubt very serious about it, but the amateur can enjoy the great work without knowing anything whatever of that philosophical basis which it takes Mr. Bernard Shaw one hundred and forty pages to explain.

Similarly with the music, the details of which could not be exhausted in a portly octavo. "The Ring" is one vast web of "motives," many of which rivet themselves at once upon the listener’s attention. It must not, however, be supposed (the mistake is often made) that the scores are compounded of "a string of disconnected phrases, arbitrarily formed and capriciously titled." The scores are symphonic in their scope. That is to say, the "motives" are welded together and worked up in such a way as to produce the effect of a united whole, rich in variety, beauty, and meaning -- a glittering texture of harmony and counterpoint, of which the pianoforte score can give but a faint conception. If the listener can pick out the various "motives" as the drama proceeds, it will add immeasurably to his intellectual and artistic pleasure. But Wagner’s music, as I have before insisted, makes the right mood-pictures even for him who does not know the guiding themes, and this is one of the best proofs of the composer’s greatness.

To enjoy these dramas, in fact, only a perfect understanding of the text is necessary. To quote one of the master’s biographers, "If you know what the characters are saying and doing, the music will do its own work. It will create the right mood for you, though you do not know the name of a single leading theme." This, surely, is a comforting thought for the average opera-goer who has been led by the makers of many books on the Wagnerian drama to believe that only when he has analysed the Wagner score to its last bar can he fully enjoy the music in actual performance.

The literature of "The Ring" is already on the way to become as extensive as the literature of "Hamlet." Readers who desire to study the subject in fuller detail than can here be attempted -- whether from the literary, the ethical, or the musical sides -- must refer to larger works such as Mr. W. J. Henderson’s "Richard Wagner: His Life and his Dramas," to which volume, as well as to the "Musical Studies" of Dr. Hueffer, I am much indebted. Purely musical students will find the analysis of Mr. S. H. Hamer (Cassell) of peculiar value.


The Ring of the Niebelungen poster

Siegfried and Locke - Illustration to "The Ring of the Niebelungen" by Richard Wagner. Date: Before 1914.

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