Richard Wagner — THE RING, Part I. DAS RHEINGOLD


In all of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion there is noth­ing quite like Richard Wagner’s stu­pen­dous cycle Der Ring des Nibelun­gen (The Nibelung’s Ring). Based on Wagner’s own retelling of sto­ries from ancient Ger­man and Scan­di­na­vian mythol­ogy, it con­sists of four sep­a­rate but inti­mately related operas — some of them among the longest ever writ­ten — usu­ally given over the space of a week.

Das Rhein­gold is the first chap­ter in this epic tale, and it is — quite unfairly — some­times not given the respect accorded other parts of the Ring. For one thing, it is by far the short­est. At two and a half hours it is one of Wagner’s short­est operas, about the same length as The Fly­ing Dutch­man. The com­poser him­self (prob­a­bly inad­ver­tently) con­tributed to this slight­ing of Rhein­gold by call­ing it a “pre­lim­i­nary evening” to the rest of the Ring.

In 1848 he fin­ished orches­trat­ing Lohen­grin and wrote the poem to a new opera, Siegfried’s Death, (known today as Göt­ter­däm­merung). Decid­ing he needed to explain how the events of that opera had come to be, he wrote the poem to Young Siegfried (the opera we now know as Siegfried) in 1851. The fol­low­ing year, feel­ing fur­ther expla­na­tion was needed he wrote the poem to Die Walküre.

In order to given every­thing com­pletely, these three dra­mas must be pre­ceded by a grand intro­duc­tory play: The Rape of the Rhein­gold,” Wag­ner wrote to Franz Liszt. “The object is the com­plete rep­re­sen­ta­tion of every­thing in regard to this rape: the ori­gin of the Nibelung trea­sure, the pos­ses­sion of this trea­sure by Wotan, and the curse of Alberich….[By writ­ing this sep­a­rate drama] I gain suf­fi­cient space to inten­sify the wealth of rela­tion­ship, while in the pre­vi­ous mode of treat­ment I was com­pelled to cut down and enfee­ble this.”

Dur­ing the time Wag­ner was cre­at­ing the libretto to his stu­pen­dous new work he was also writ­ing books and pam­phlets – on the­atri­cal reform, on opera and drama, and the art work of the future. As his ideas on the nature of opera changed, so did the nature of his libretti. Göt­ter­däm­merung has mar­velous arias, a thrilling love duet, a sen­sa­tional vengeance trio, all of which can be excerpted and per­formed in on their own (as can some of the orches­tral pas­sages). But by the time Wag­ner wrote the libretto to Rhein­gold in 1852 his idea was that the drama should not be inter­rupted by musi­cal set pieces like arias and duets, but ought to con­tinue unfold­ing seamlessly.

This meant the music for the singers must be dif­fer­ent from the way the vocal line had been writ­ten in operas before. It also meant that the orches­tral music would be dif­fer­ent from any­thing in the his­tory of opera, with the orches­tra being as inte­gral a part of con­vey­ing the drama as were the singers onstage. “The music shall sound in such a fash­ion that peo­ple shall hear what they can­not see,” he wrote to Liszt. In fact, com­po­si­tion sketches show that as Wag­ner was in the pre­lim­i­nary stages of com­posit­ing the music he was think­ing not only of the words, but of the stage direc­tions, as well, writ­ing music that reflected the move­ment on stage.

To do this, Wag­ner devel­oped the sys­tem of leit­mo­tivs — bits of melody, or rhythm, or har­mony that are asso­ci­ated with a char­ac­ter, a dra­matic event, an object or an emo­tion. They are much more than mere “musi­cal sign posts” that whiz past dur­ing the opera. Begin­ning with Rhein­gold, Wagner’s music springs almost entirely from these build­ing blocks, which he molds or com­bines to reflect shifts in the drama tak­ing place on stage. This means the music can let the audi­ence know what a char­ac­ter is really think­ing, for instance, or why an event is tak­ing place. There was no prece­dent in all of opera for this new idiom in which Wag­ner began work­ing for the first time with Rhein­gold. “I am spin­ning my cocoon like a silk­worm,” he wrote to Liszt as he com­posed Rhein­gold’s music, “but I spin it out of myself.”

Wag­ner had writ­ten no music for five years — from the time he fin­ished Lohen­grin until he started com­pos­ing the music to Rhein­gold in 1853. (Though the libretti to the Ring operas were writ­ten in reverse order, the music was com­posed from the begin­ning of the cycle to the end.)

One of the most over­whelm­ing tasks Wag­ner faced was how to start Rhein­gold. What music could pos­si­bly launch not just this opera, but also the Ring as a whole? How do you covey in music the begin­ning of Cre­ation? As always with Wag­ner, his rem­i­nis­cences are to be taken with a grain of salt, but as he later related events, he had gone for a long walk, then returned to take a nap. Falling into a state of half-sleep, he sud­denly felt as if he were sink­ing into a flood of water:

The rush and roar soon took musi­cal shape within my brain as the chord of E flat major, surg­ing inces­santly in bro­ken chords: these declared them­selves as melodic fig­u­ra­tions of increas­ing motion, yet the pure triad of E flat major never changed….I awake from my half-sleep in ter­ror, feel­ing as though the waves were now rush­ing high above my head. I at once rec­og­nized that the orches­tral pre­lude to the Rhein­gold, which for a long time I must have car­ried about within me, yet had never been able to fix def­i­nitely, had at last come into being in me: and I quickly under­stood the very essence of my own nature: the stream of life was not to flow to me from with­out, but from within.”

There is noth­ing in all of opera like this mirac­u­lous begin­ning to Rhein­gold: the note of low E flat softly played by the dou­bles basses, then, four mea­sures later, the note of B flat added by the bas­soons to that basic E flat. And twelve mea­sure later one French horn (“very sweetly” says the score) inton­ing the notes of the E flat major triad up the scale for over two octaves, fol­lowed by another French horn, and then another, until all eight horns are play­ing waves of arpeg­gios, all on the three notes of the E flat major triad. Then the cel­los, and even­tu­ally the entire orches­tra join in. It’s a musi­cal depic­tion of the cre­ation of life itself, grow­ing from a sin­gle cell (that first E flat) until the Rhine maid­ens sud­denly break into the song of joy­ous, unspoiled Nature itself.

In addi­tion to writ­ing music unlike any­thing ever heard before, in Rhein­gold Wag­ner was mak­ing demands for the phys­i­cal stage that went far beyond what was even pos­si­ble at the time: the open­ing scene in the Rhine river with the Rhine maid­ens swim­ming around as if in mid-air; the shift from the depths of the Rhine to the airy moun­tain tops of the gods with Val­halla in this dis­tance; descend­ing to Nibel­heim and back again; how could Don­ner sum­mon the swirling mists on stage, then dis­si­pate them on cue with his ham­mer, con­jur­ing up the rain­bow bridge over which the gods would walk to their new home?  What did Rhine maid­ens look like? The Nibelun­gen? How should the god­dess Erda be por­trayed so she was not merely (in the words of come­di­enne Anna Rus­sell) “a green-faced torso pop­ping out of the ground”?

All of this Wag­ner had to deal with in Das Rhein­gold. The fact that he not only got it right, but go it so right than the rest of his stu­pen­dous Ring cycle seems to flow effort­lessly from Rhein­gold, means this open­ing chap­ter deserves respect as not only the cor­ner­stone on which the rest of the Ring builds, but as a musi­cal and dra­matic mas­ter­piece all on its own.

Wag­ner did not want to give any part of the Ring until the entire cycle could be pre­sented as a whole, some­thing he knew would require its own “great fes­ti­val, to be arranged per­haps espe­cially for the pur­pose of this per­for­mance,” as he told Franz Liszt before a note of the music had been com­posed. But against Wagner’s wishes, Das Rhein­gold had its pre­mière in Munich on Sep­tem­ber 22, 1869, on the express orders of King Lud­wig II.  It was seven years before Wag­ner was able to present the Ring in its entirety, in the the­ater at Bayreuth he had built specif­i­cally for the work. Even there, the colos­sal stage require­ments Rhein­gold made were not met to Wagner’s satisfaction.

The pro­gram for the first Met per­for­mance of Das Rhein­gold on Jan­u­ary 4, 1889, car­ried the note: “For this opera the scenery has been ordered from Ger­many and the cos­tumes and armorare from the designs of Prof. Doepier, who made the orig­i­nal draw­ings for Richard Wag­ner.” The one-act opera was pre­sented with an inter­mis­sion between the sec­ond and third scenes. “This is the prac­tice of the Impe­r­ial Opera House in Vienna, and though open to objec­tion on artis­tic grounds will doubt­less prove a wel­come relief,” noted one New York news­pa­per the day before the pre­mière. In fact, Wag­ner him­self had raised no objec­tions to the inter­mis­sion when Rhein­gold was given in Berlin in 1881, and until almost World War Two the Met pre­sented the work both with and with­out an inter­mis­sion, some­times dur­ing the same season.

Before this new pro­duc­tion by Robert Lep­age opened the Met’s 2010-11 sea­son on Sep­tem­ber 27th, Das Rhein­gold had been given 154 times by the com­pany, far few times than Göt­ter­däm­merung (224), Siegfried (255), and Die Walküre (522).  But along the way this one-act opera has attracted some of the great­est singers, con­duc­tors, and stage direc­tors of their time, all engaged in the Her­culean task of bring­ing to life Wagner’s sub­lime — and immense — vision.

A slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these notes appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill Sep­tem­ber 2010.

The art at the top of the page is part of Gün­ther Schneider-Siemssen’s pro­duc­tion of Das Rhein­gold for the Salzburg Easter Fes­ti­val 1967 – 72.