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.