The Metropolitan Opera Guild

Teaching Materials

The Basics: Introducing Your Students to Opera

Introducing Your Students to Opera What is an Orchestra?

 

What is Opera?

 

Introducing a Specific Opera.

 

Additional Ideas.

 

What is an Orchestra? 

· Brainstorm with your students about what an orchestra is.

 

· Make a semantic map: put suggested words around the board as the students brainstorm.

 

· Have students justify their ideas.

 

· Discuss the instruments and classification of instruments in the orchestra.

 

· Introduce how the orchestra is arranged, using a diagram for illustration.

 

· Using words in the semantic map, have students write a composition on what an orchestra is.

 

What is Opera?

 

·Brainstorm with your students about what an opera is. What stereotypes have they heard?

 

· Discuss how opera singers' voices are not amplified and how singers must project.

 

· Introduce the voice parts and operatic singing.

 

· Make a chart of the voice parts from high to low.

 

· Play examples of different voices and have students brainstorm on the character's personality.

 

· Discuss typical roles of different voice parts. (ie. Soprano is often the heroine, Bass is often evil.)

 

· With the class, choose a current movie or tv show and assign each character a voice part.

 

Introducing a Specific Opera  

· Start by introducing the characters of the opera and their voices.

 

· Tell a little bit about the story through the characters.

 

· Ask students for adjectives to describe the characters.

 

· Using their adjectives, ask students to write character analyses.

 

· Using character analyses, have students write their own story before learning the full synopsis.

 

· Use the students' stories to then introduce the full synopsis.

 

· Ask students to draw a picture of the opera's setting as it is described in the libretto.

 

· Have students read the libretto aloud as play. Stop periodically to review what has happened.

 

· As you progress through the libretto, listen to the music from different sections of the opera.

 

· Point out how the music highlights the drama.

 

· How does the music convey characters' emotions?

 

· Play each character's introductory aria. Does it match their character analyses?

 

· Have students draw a picture of their favorite character in appropriate costume.

 

· Have students draw a picture of their favorite scene.

 

· After studying each act, ask students to predict what will happen next.

 

· Before teaching them the end of the story, ask students to write their own endings.

 

Additional Ideas 

 

 

 

 

 

· After each class, have students summarize the story covered that day.

 

· Have students research the composer and librettist.

 

· Have students research the time of the opera (ie., ancient egypt, gypsies, Paris, etc.).

 

top of page  

Teaching Materials

Using Die Walküre to Teach Music

HOW TO USE THIS STUDY GUIDE

 

Motivations

 

Background

 

Use of Leitmotifs

 

Two Orchestral Moments

 

Background:

 

Die Walküre is the second opera in Richard Wagner's 4-part saga known as Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs). While knowledge of the first opera Das Rheingold is helpful in following the events and characters in this opera, Die Walküre can be approached as a free-standing entity on its own. Furthermore, many of the narrations, especially the very long one of Wotan's in Act II, retell many of the events which occur in the first opera.

 

Use of Leitmotifs:

 

Although it is possible to listen to this opera by following the text of the libretto and listening to the music, it is virtually impossible to understand and appreciate the full power of this work without knowing and following the leitmotifs or leading motifs of the score. These phrases and melodies represent characters, objects, places and specific emotions. They reveal, foretell, remind and elucidate a meaning or an association that words alone cannot suggest. For example, when Siegmund describes how he searched for his father, known as Wälse, the listener would hear a majestic phrases in E major played softly by the trombones. But by knowing that this motif represents Valhalla, it tells the listener something that Siegmund himself yet does not know: that his father Wälse is really Wotan. This is just one example of the function and power of the leitmotif. Many of the leitmotifs presented here were first heard in Das Rheingold, and it is suggested that one look at those musical examples before embarking on a study of Die Walküre. Nevertheless, Die Walküre will here be treated as an entity standing alone, and any important leitmotifs which occur in this opera, even though they may have been presented previously in Das Rheingold, will also be listed here as well in a fresh numeration. (It is suggested to the teacher that some of the key leitmotifs as illustrated in the enclosed musical examples be played for the class a few times until they become familiar with them. Then play them in a jumbled order to see whether they can identify them. When that occurs, these leitmotifs can be a musical road map to the characters, action and emotions of the opera.)

 

The action in Die Walküre takes place approximately 25 years after the conclusion of Das Rheingold. During that time, Wotan, king of the gods, has sired 9 daughters with the the earth goddess, Erda. These daughters are known as Valkyries, whose main mission is to swoop down on battlefields and bring up deceased war heroes to Valhalla who are to form a guard for this fortress of the gods. Brünnhilde is Wotan's favorite daughter and the Valkyrie after whom the opera is named. In addition, Wotan has had an affair with an unknown mortal woman, who bore him twins, a son (Siegmund) and a daughter (Sieglinde). He lived with them and their mother under the name of Wolfe and their race was called the "Walsungs." At a young age the twins were separated when the girl was abducted and their mother killed. It is Wotan's hope that Siegmund will some day slay Fafner who possesses the Ring and then restore it to the Rhinemaidens, its rightful owner, and thereby deliver the gods from the curse put upon the Ring by Alberich.

 

Act I begins as a storm is raging outside. A persistent figure in the cellos and double basses over tremolos in the violins and violas depicts this tempest (Ex. #1).

 

The motif of thunder, heard earlier in Das Rheingold as Donner, the god of thunder, peals out in the brass (Ex. #2).

 

The constant crescendi and descrescendi in the rising and falling melodic line of the basses and cellos suggest the wind and rain. As the storm begins to die down, an exhausted young warrior Siegmund enters a crude home built around a huge ash tree, which prominently grows in the center of the main room. Shortly, Sieglinde enters and takes pity on this man by bringing him a drink of water. This sympathetic and caring personality of Sieglinde is shown in the first of many tender motifs to follow (Ex. #3).

 

This motif, played gently in the strings, is harmonized in consonant thirds and repeated for reinforcement in sequence a bit higher. A subsequent repetition has a characteristic Wagnerian turn to it (Ex. #3A).

 

Very few words are exchanged by the couple. They do not recognize each other as siblings, and it is clear from their glances that they are attracted to each other. Furthermore, the orchestra provides all the clues necessary to inform the listener of what is going on in these unspoken glances. A solo cello, supported by the remaining choir of cellos, plays a motif which at first can be called “Sympathy,” but eventually blossoms into “Love” (Ex. #4).

 

It is an expansive, legato melody, and the last two bars, marked “4A” in the musical example, takes on an identity of its own with many subsequent repetitions. The solo cello weaves in and out of their dialogue and eventually the plaintive sound of the English horn adds a poignancy to this musical characterization.

 

Siegmund begins to tell his story, how he came to be at this place. He says his name is “Wehwalt” or “Woeful” and a musical motif depicts his woefulness (Ex. #5). This “Woe of the Volsung” motif is played alternately with #3, Sieglinde’s “Sympathy” or “Pity,” and then in counterpoint with it.

 

Suddenly an ominous figure in the French horns announces the approach of Hunding, Sieglinde’s husband and a descendent of the Neiding race. This motif is played softly twice, then more forcefully in the trombones (Ex. #6).

 

It is repeated many times and characterizes him as a gruff, unpleasant man. As Siegmund and Sieglinde continue to glance at each other the “Kindness” and “Love” motifs keep repeating. Hunding notices how alike they look. When Hunding asks Siegmund his name, the bass clarinet intones the “Volsung” motif (#5). Siegmund continues his autobiographical story and when he describes how the Neidings had attacked his people, we hear once again #6, the Hunding motif, telling us that Hunding is one of the Neidings, the enemy of his people. The “Valhalla” motif, heard prominently in Das Rheingold, especially at the end when the gods crossed over the rainbow to Valhalla, is now heard to tell us that Siegmund’s father Wolfe is really Wotan (#7).

 

As Siegmund continues his narrative, a second Volsung motif is heard in the bassoons, French horns, violas and cellos (Ex. #8).

 

This motif, which will be heard many more times throughout the rest of The Ring, is presented here slowly and somberly and represents the tragic Volsung race doomed to suffering. Hunding, showing traditional hospitality, invites Siegmund to spend the night, but by morning he must be prepared to defend himself. Meanwhile, Sieglinde prepares Hunding’s drink and slips a powerful sleeping potion into it. As she does so, she catches Siegmund’s eye and tries to get him to look at a particular spot in the ash tree, but before Seigmund can understand the message, Hunding notices her glances and orders her into the bedroom. The bass trumpet, however, has told the audience what she was trying to get Siegmund to notice. It is the famous “Sword” motif (Ex. #9).

 

It is nothing more than an ascending arpeggio played softly under tremolo strings. The dotted and doubly dotted rhythms give a special impetus to this melody. It will assert its full power and glory in due time. Meanwhile Siegmund muses on the fact that his father had promised him that in his direst need he will find a special sword. “Where is the trusty sword?” he asks. A solo trumpet then blazes forth with #9 as a flicker of light from the fire on the hearth illuminates the spot on the tree where Sieglinde had glanced. Sure enough, that is where the sword is imbedded. This theme is repeated a few times with new colorations and changes in rhythm and eventually combines in counterpoint with a new motif that of “Victory” as we get a clear premonition of what will soon develop. (See Ex. #10 which shows the “Sword” motif in the lower staff and the “Victory” motif above it.)

 

Sieglinde tells Siegmund that he must flee while he has the opportunity; that she has drugged her husband and he won’t awaken for some time. In her narrative she tells how an old man once came and stuck the sword deep into the tree trunk. When the “old man” is mentioned, the “Valhalla” motif (#7) tells us the old man was Wotan. The old man had stated that whoever can withdraw the sword can possess it and its power. She adds that she hopes that someday she could find a friend and hero who could bring her comfort after all her suffering. She describes how her loveless, arranged marriage with Hunding occurred. Siegmund, with great intensity, says that he is the friend for whom she has been longing.

 

Suddenly and magically, the doors fly open to reveal a beautiful spring night and in the closest Wagner comes to a set aria in the entire opera, Siegmund sings his “Spring Song” to a throbbing orchestral accompaniment (Ex. #11).

 

During this “aria” the “Love” motif (#4A) soars with a new sweetness and beauty. He is drawn to Sieglinde by love, just as spring is drawn to the earth. Sieglinde answers with “Du bist der Lenz” (“You are the spring”) (Ex. #12).

 

During her “aria” the “Love” motif permeates the orchestral fabric. Soon they realize the inevitable; they are brother and sister, and yet are uncontrollably in love with each other. They have a common gene—Wotan (“Valhalla” motif #7)—and they have the same father. They are both Volsungs. She names him “Siegmund” and exclaims that the sword was imbedded in the tree trunk waiting for him. A motif that was known as “Renunciation of Love” in Das Rheingold now becomes an “Assertion of Love”—“ Heiligster Minner hochste Noth” (“Holiest loves’ most highest need”) (Ex. #13).

 

With his hand on the hilt of the sword, Siegmund names the sword “Nothung” (“that which will save him in time of need”) and with a strong effort, he pulls it from the trunk as the trumpets blaze forth with the “Sword” motif (#9) in all its glory. Sieglinde lets out a shriek of joy, astonished at the prowess of her newly found hero. Together they flee the house which has until now enslaved her, as the orchestra concludes Act I with an impetuous and exciting peroration on a combination of the “Sword” motif and that of “Love” (#4A)

 

Act II opens in a wild, rocky pass in the mountains. A rhythmic variation of the “Sword” motif (#9) serves as the beginning of the Prelude. Soon a new rhythmic figure is heard which leads into the famous “Valkyrie” theme played by the trombones (Ex. #14).

 

Its motif is based on a dotted rhythm with ascending sequential patterns in arpeggio form. It will be heard in even greater prominence at the beginning of Act III. Soon trills in the high strings and short upward rushing passages in the woodwinds introduce Brünnhilde, the lead Valkyrie. She makes her entrance with her famous battle cry, the “Valkyrie Call” (Ex. #15).

 

She is a warrior-maiden and her martial-like call takes her sequence after sequence to ever soaring heights with trills and leaping octaves. She has come to warn her father Wotan that his wife Fricka is approaching and that she is angry.

 

Fricka has come to reproach Wotan for his infidelities and to chastise him for siding with Siegmund, for after all, he has tarnished the sanctity of marriage and the home by running off with someone’s wife and committed incest with his own sister as well. A hint of Siegmund’s “Spring Song” (#11) helps to point out where Wotan’s sympathy lies. A repetition of the “Sword” motif (#9) is heard as Wotan tries to defend Siegmund’s actions, saying that “needed is one who, free from help of the gods, fights free from the gods’ control.” Fricka demands that Wotan take back the sword (#9) so Siegmund will lose in his upcoming confrontation with Hunding who is pursuing him for absconding with his wife. As Wotan listens to Fricka’s rational and moral arguments, the motif of “Dejection” reveals the depths of his despair and ultimate resignation to his wife’s will (Ex. #16).

 

Note the characteristic Wagnerian turn on the first note. The fact that “Siegmund shall fall” is slowly but surely sinking in. Wotan asks what Fricka demands and she answers, “Do not shield the Volsung.” “Dejection” (#16) is now played starkly and boldly. As Wotan accedes to her wishes, it is played again three times in sequential succession, each one higher than before. Wotan makes a pledge to uphold her demands and the descending scale-like “Oath or Treaty” motif, first heard in Das Rheingold, attests to that oath (Ex. #17).

 

After Fricka departs, Wotan, in a lengthy monologue, tells Brünnhilde just about everything that had transpired in the Das Rheingold. There are numerous motivic references to remind the listener to whom and to what he refers. He then tells Brünnhilde that Siegmund must fall to Hunding. Sieglinde and Siegmund enter in haste, feeling from Hunding’s pursuit. The sinister Hunding rhythm (#6) is pounded out by the French horns on one pitch in the background, indicating he is not far away.

 

The next scene is known as the “Todesverkündigung” or the “Annuciation of Death” or “Fate.” Brünnhilde has the task to tell Siegmund that he will die, and that she has come to take him to Valhalla to join the other heroes there and as well as his father Wälse (Wotan). This all-pervasive “Annunciation of Death” motif (#Ex. #18A) and its last 3 notes (#Ex. #18A) introduces this somber scene.

 

It is first played by the brass, quietly, and culminates in an impressive crescendo/decrescendo dynamic. It will permeate the dialogue throughout the scene. Siegmund is accepting of this only if Sieglinde can join him, as their “Love” motif (#4B) is heard. But when Brünnhilde tells him that Sieglinde must remain on earth to bear his child, which she is already carrying, he bursts out with wrath. He rejects the notion of going to Valhalla and is ready to kill the sleeping Sieglinde with his sword. Brünnhilde tells Siegmund that Hunding will slay him, but Siegmund says he can’t for he has the magic sword (#9). Brünnhilde replies that the one who bestowed the magic power to the sword can withdraw that power. She tells him to give over Sieglinde to her so she can safeguard her. Moved by sympathy and compassion, Brünnhilde now declares that they both shall live, and that she will help him in his upcoming battle with Hunding and she rides away as the themes of “Love” (#4B) and “Spring” (#11) well up in the orchestra.

 

Hunding’s sinister rhythm is heard again (#6), now louder, as he is getting closer. Siegmund draws his sword (#9) and rushes off to confront his enemy. Hunding’s voice is heard offstage and the fight soon moves into view. Brünnhilde appears—“Valkyrie” motif (#15) and sword (#9), and guards Siegmund with her shield. Suddenly out of nowhere, Wotan appears and holds out his spear in front of Siegmund. His sword snaps and splinters at the magical power of Wotan as the “Treaty” motif (#17) descends in the bass instruments, reminding us that he is keeping his pledge that he made with Fricka. Hunding plunges his sword into Siegmund’s heart—“Fate” motif (#18B). Brünnhilde lifts Sieglinde onto her horse and rides away with her—“Valkyrie” motif (#15) and “Fate” (#18B) yet once again. But with a contemptuous wave of the hand by Wotan, Hunding falls dead. Act II ends as Wotan rages against Brünnhilde for defying him and he tears off her with great wrath in search of his insolent daughter.

 

Act III opens with what is perhaps the most well-known music of the entire Ring. It is known as “The Ride of the Valkyries.” The eight Valkyries, Brünnhilde’s sisters, rush to and fro as the famous theme blazes forth (#14), and they call to each other with the “Ho-yo-to-ho” battle cry (#15). They are supposed to be swooping up dead heroes to bring them to Valhalla. At first the music is in B minor but as the music gathers power it changes to B major with the heavy brass instruments thundering out the famous “Ride.” But one Valkyrie is missing, Brünnhilde. She enters with the exhausted and very pregnant Sieglinde. The Valkyries are relunctant to help Sieglinde for fear of arousing the wrath of their father Wotan, so they suggest that Sieglinde hide in the forest near Fafner, who has been changed into a dragon and is guarding the Ring. Brünnhilde gives Sieglinde the pieces of Siegmund’s shattered sword and tells her that in her womb she is carrying “the world’s most wonderful hero…Siegfried, who shall rejoice in victory” We hear now for the first time one of the most important motifs of The Ring (Ex. #19).

 

This theme represents the future “Hero Siegfried.” It is a relatively long (compared to most of the motifs) arching melody and is sung first by Brünnhilde followed by a repetition in the brass. Sieglinde responds with a soaring new theme of her own, “O hehrstes Wunder! ” (“Oh radiant wonder!”) (Ex. #20). This motif represents “Redemption” and will eventually be sung by Brünnhilde herself at the end of Gotterdammerung. Sieglinde rushes off to safety.

 

Wotan, full of wrath, approaches, “Wo ist Brünnhilde? ” (“Where is Brünnhilde?”) as he seeks out his favorite daughter who defied him in helping Siegmund. The “Dejection” motif (#16) is interjected after almost every phrase as he expresses his anger and disappointment in her. As he begins to spell out her punishment, he sings an expansion of the “Annunciation of Death” motif (#18). No more will Brünnhilde bring fallen heroes to Valhalla. He banishes her and declares that he never wishes to see her again. The trombones and tubas powerfully reiterate the descending scalewise “Treaty” motif (#17)—the agreement Wotan had made with his wife Fricka not to side with the adulterer Siegmund. Brünnhilde will be put into a deep sleep, defenseless, until the first man comes along who finds her and becomes her master. The eight Valkyries protest, but to no avail. As the treaty motif (#17) pounds out yet again, Wotan reiterates that their sister shall be fated “by the hearth to sit and spin, to all mockers a sport and shame.” The Valkyries recoil from Brünnhilde and they disperse amid shrieks of terror as an abbreviated and subdued version of the “Valkyrie” motif (#14) accompanies their swift departure.

 

Wotan is now left alone with his daughter Brünnhilde. His sentence has been harsh, perhaps unduly harsh, and he is, after all, her loving father. A new theme, representing “Volsung love” tells the audience that there is some love, some tenderness in his heart (Ex. #21). It is an expansive theme, starting in the depths of the bass clarinet and ascending through the cellos and basses and then handed off to the plaintive timbre of the English horn. (Note how measures 3—5 of #20 are similar to the “Dejection” motif (#16), but now sweetened and transformed into a new kind of emotion.) Wotan’s anger is tinged with guilt that he had to surrender Siegmund to Hunding, that he had to chastise his daughter so severely and that he will be permanently separated from her. In this Wagner’s greatest father-daughter scene, Brünnhilde begs him to look into her eyes and soften his anger. During this dialogue “Volsung love” (#21) winds its way through the orchestral fabric, mostly played by the melancholic tones of the oboe and English horn.

 

Brünnhilde explains why she tried to defend Siegmund, even revealing that she perceived that deep down Wotan really desired his victory, and that love filled her heart, the love of Wotan for the Volsungs. Soaring strings then expand the motif and carry it to new heights for a very powerful effect. She beseeches her father not to disgrace her for it would also bring shame upon him. She reminds him of the Volsung race that he has sired and which she preserved by saving Seiglinde, pregnant with Siegfried—“Hero” motif (#19) in the orchestra—and that Sieglinde also guards the shattered sword (#9).

 

Wotan pronounces his punishment: Brünnhilde will lie bound and weaponless in a deep slumber and become the wife of the first man who shall find and awaken her. She falls on her knees and begs for at least some protection so that only the strongest and fearless of heroes (#19) can rescue her. Wotan says that she asks too much. Brünnhilde embraces his knees and plead with him. She begs for a fire to surround and protect her. The “Fire” motif (#22) wells up, together with the “Valkyrie” motif (#14).

 

Wotan is deeply moved by her entreaties. The “Valkyrie” motif is not heard in augmentation—longer and slower notes, rising up from the brass. At its melodic apex, it turns into the “Slumber” motif (#23) as Wotan begins his famous “Farewell” (“Lebwohl”).

 

This “Slumber” theme will permeate the rest of the opera, a theme of comfort and repetition, conveying the security that Brünnhilde will be safe. Wotan sings the “Hero’s” motif (#19) saying that only a true hero can rescue her from the ring of fire which surrounds her. During a series of powerful orchestral climaxes as these aforementioned themes saturate the musical texture, his heart melts and he embraces his daughter for the last time while he pours out his profound love for her. It is one of the most powerful moments in all of opera; the catharsis to which the opera has been building. Wotan summons Loge, the god of Fire, whom we first met in Das Rheingold. Wotan strikes the rock three times with his spear. A flash of flame appears and brightens the stage. With his spear, he directs the flame to surround Brünnhilde. He intones the “Hero’s” motif (#19) for the last time. The brass instruments then majestically peal out with the same theme one last time, as the “Fire” (#22) and “Slumber” (#23) are heard in counterpoint. The last 15 minutes of this opera are visually and aurally some of the most moving and emotionally powerful in all of opera.

 

Two Orchestral Moments:

 

The “Ride of the Valkyries” is the most famous excerpt from any of the four operas of Wagner’s Ring. It is often played in a concert version without the eight screaming Valkyries. In Die Walküre, it opens Act III. A series of upwards swoops in the violins (Ex. #24) and rapid fortissimo trills in the woodwinds (Ex. #25) starts this wild ride.

 

Soon a dotted rhythmic figure emerges in the bassoons, French horns and cellos (Ex. #26).

 

The swoops, trills and dotted rhythm all play against each other for eight full measures when the famous theme (See Ex. #14 above) emerges in the bass trumpet and two of the French horns. Soon more trumpets and French horns join in with this theme. Rapidly descending arpeggios alternating in the first and second violins add more fury the texture. Now four trombones peal out with the melody as the curtain opens and the Valkyries are running about the stage. First one, then a second, then two more Valkyries give out with the Valkyrie war-cry, “Ho-jo-to-ho” (#15). The “Ride,” which up to this point had been in a B minor, now reasserts in B major, this time with ff dynamics. Soon four more Valkyries join in with the first four. After a final statement of the main theme, the “Ho-jo-to-ho’s” are sung in harmony and begin to overlap with each other, adding yet more weight to the overall texture. They laugh in unison in a descending chromatic scale. The arrival of their eldest sister Brünnhilde finally brings an end to this colorful and powerful orchestral tour de force, taking up 70 full pages in the full orchestral score.

 

The concluding pages of the opera contain another colorful and motif-laden segment known as “Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music.” Brünnhilde, having defied her father Wotan in trying to protect Siegmund, has prevailed upon Wotan to compromise in his punishement of her. As fragmentary pieces of the “Valkyrie” theme (#14) rise up from the depths of the orchestra, the “Slumber” motif (#22) rings out ff in the violins and high woodwinds as Wotan begins his “Farewell” (“Lebwohl”). This motif weaves its way through various instruments and different dynamic levels. Wotan accedes to Brünnhilde’s wishes, that she will be surrounded by fire impenetrable to all but the bravest of hero’s—the “Hero” theme (#19). The motif of “Volsung love” (#20) emerges with a soaring crescendo as Wotan’s true love for his daughter asserts itself. The bold, descending, powerful “Treaty’ motif (#17) leads into Wotan’s summoning of Loge, the god of Fire. A series of tremolo trills in the strings leads to Loge’s “Fire” motif (#21). The trills become more rapid as the harps (Wagner calls for six of them) and flutes convey the effect of the flicker of the flames. The texture thickens with rapidly falling and rising arpeggios in the violins. Wotan sings the “Hero’s” motif and this is immediately taken up by 4 French horns and the bass trumpet. The opera concludes with the flame in full blaze—via the strings and harps—while the woodwinds literally rock Brünnhilde to sleep with their incessant repetition of the “Slumber” motif (#22). She will be awakened in the final scene of the next opera, by the yet-to-be born hero, Siegfried.

 

top of page  

Teaching Materials

Using Die Walküre to Teach Humanities

HOW TO USE THIS GUIDE

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Setting the Stage

 

Questions for Discussion and Writing

 

Projects and Further Study

 

DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN: A STUDY GUIDE (DAS RHEINGOLD, DIE WALKURE, SIEGFRIED, GOETTERDAEMMERUNG)

 

PREFATORY NOTE and RECOMMENDED READING

 

This study guide differs from all the others on this site in treating four separate broadcasts as a single entity. The four works of Wagner’s Ring were conceived as a cycle, were originally staged as such under Wagner’s direction at his specially built theater in Bayreuth in 1876, are usually performed nowadays as a cycle in the world’s major opera houses (including the Met), and are being broadcast as such on four consecutive Saturday matinees. The musical and dramatic unity of the Ring suggest that, for these brief online guides, the four works be considered together.

 

 

To a greater extent than with other repertory operas, it’s important that you become familiar with the plot of the Ring cycle in detail. Synopses are available elsewhere on this site, as well as other Internet sites, and are included with most available recordings.

 

 

The Ring is so vast, complex, and rich that no brief introduction can hope to do it justice. This guide wont even try. Instead, we’ll offer a few hints from various sources, documentary and critical, about how to approach listening to the Ring, as well as the usual discussion questions and suggestions for further research that you find on the other study guides. The best thing you can do, though, is go directly to some of the most helpful commentaries as soon as you’re done here. These books are mostly in print and readily available in bookstores and libraries.

 

 

-- Ernest Newman’s The Wagner Operas (originally published as Wagner Nights), though half a century old, remains the most readable detailed introduction to Wagner’s operas for the general reader in English. In the two volume paperback published by Harper Colophon, the Ring operas are in volume II.

 

 

-- Two excellent brief books based on Met intermission features given during previous Ring broadcasts are M. Owen Lee’s Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Around and John Culshaw’s Reflections on Wagner’s Ring. If I had to choose only one small book about the Ring, it would be Lee’s.

 

 

-- George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite offers a “Marxist” reading of the Ring in a brief, witty volume (available in an inexpensive Dover paperback). Shaw’s interpretation has influenced many recent stagings of the Ring, notably the 1976 centennial production at Bayreuth by Patrice Chereau. Shaw is essential reading.

 

 

-- Robert Donington’s Wagner’s Ring and its Symbols takes a completely different approach, reading the Ring through the lens of Jungian psychology as universal myth. Also essential, slower going than Shaw, but equally insightful.

 

 

-- The chapters on the Ring in Carl Dahlhaus’s compact Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas are illuminating.

 

 

-- In Catherine Clement’s Opera, or the Undoing of Women, the lengthy chapter entitled “The Tetralogic of the Ring, or the Daughter Done For” offers a unique “feminist” perspective, far beyond what is usually understood by that term.

 

 

-- The anthology Penetrating Wagner’s Ring, edited by John L. DiGaetani (Da Capo Press), gives you bits of Newman, Shaw, Donington, Culshaw, and other notable commentators.

 

 

-- The English National Opera guides to the Ring operas (published separately in four volumes) offer essays, photos, bibliographies and discographies, as well as the libretto in German and in Andrew Porter’s masterly English translation (also available separately in a one volume Dutton paperback).

 

 

-- Deryck Cooke’s I Saw the World End is a finely detailed study of the first two Ring operas (Cooke did not live to complete the others).

 

 

-- Theodor Adorno’s In Search of Wagner is a penetrating, if thorny, study by an eminent musicologist and Marxist sociologist.

 

 

-- Wagner himself wrote extensively about the Ring both in preparation for composing it and afterwards. Especially important here is Opera and Drama. His writings have been translated and collected in various inexpensive paperback editions.

 

 

-- D.C. Comics has produced a startling (and scrupulous) “graphic novel” version of The Ring. (Other artists have illustrated the Ring, notably Arthur Rackham, whose version is also available in paperback.)

 

 

-- There are many good biographies of Wagner, including those by John Culshaw, Hans Mayer, Barry Millington, Derek Watson, and Robert Gutman. They all have plenty to say about the Ring. Also recommend are the comic-book style Introducing Wagner by Michael White and Kevin Scott and the anthology The Wagner Companion edited by Peter Burbridge and Richard Sutton.

 

 

-- Most Ring recordings come with reams of annotation (though some, to cut costs, assume that you already have background material and come with none). They are usually referred to by the name of the conductor. The most generally admired recording is the Solti on Decca. Levine conducts a fine Met version on DG. There are plenty of others. Furtwaengler/La Scala (in primitive live-broadcast sound from 1950, on various labels, most inexpensively on Opera d’Oro) is of great historical and artistic interest. Several full cycles have been recorded in performance from the Bayreuth stage. On video, you can see the deconstructionist 1976 centennial Bayreuth Ring, the Met’s more traditional Romantic/representational staging, and several others, most closer to the deconstructionist than to the traditional.

 

 

Equipped as you now are with an arsenal of sources, let’s proceed to ...

 

 

Back to top 

A. SETTING THE STAGE 

From the womb of night and death was spawned a race that dwells in Nibelheim, that is, in gloomy subterranean clefts and caverns: Nibelungen are they called; with restless nimbleness they burrow through the bowels of the earth, like worms in a dead body; they smelt and smith hard metals. The pure and noble Rhinegold Alberich seized, divorced it from the waters’ depth, and wrought therefrom with cunning art a Ring that lent him rulership of all his race, the Nibelungen: so he became their master, forced them to work for him alone, and amassed the priceless Nibelungen Hoard, whose greatest treasure is the Tarnhelm, conferring power to take on any shape at will ... Thus armored, Alberich made for mastery of the world and all that it contains ...

 

 

Wotan bargains with the giants to build a burg from whence to rule the world in peace and order; their building finished, the giants ask the Nibelungen Hoard in payment. The utmost cunning of the gods succeeds in trapping Alberich; he must ransom his life with the Hoard: the Ring alone he strives to keep. The gods, well knowing that in it resides the secret of all Alberich’s power, extort from him the Ring as well: then he curses it; it shall be the ruin of all who possess it ...

 

 

In high emprise the gods have planned the world, bound down the elements by prudent laws, and devoted themselves to most careful nurture of the human race. Their strength stands over all. Yet the peace by which they have arrived at mastery does not repose on reconcilement: by violence and cunning was it wrought. The object of their higher ordering of the world is moral consciousness: but the wrong they fight attaches to themselves ...

 

 

Wotan himself, however, cannot undo the wrong without committing yet another: only a free will, independent of the gods themselves, and able to assume and expiate itself the burden of all guilt, can loose the spell; and in man the gods perceive the faculty of such free will. In man they therefore seek to plant their own divinity, to raise his strength so high that, in full knowledge of that strength, he may rid him of the gods’ protection, to do of his free will what his own mind inspires ...

 

 

But not yet is the rightful hero born, in whom his self-reliant strength shall reach full consciousness, enabling him with the free-willed penalty of death before his eyes to call his boldest deed his own. In the race of the Waelsungen this hero at last shall come to birth ...

 

 

(Richard Wagner, Nibelungen myth considered as a Sketch for a Drama, excerpt, 1848)

 

 

All through last winter I was plagued by an idea which lately has taken possession of me to such an extent that I must bring it to fruition. Did I not once write you with regard to a lively subject? It was that of the youth who sets out to “learn what fear is” and is so stupid that he never manages to learn. Imagine how startled I was when I realised that this youth is no other than -- the young Siegfried, who wins the Hoard and awakes Brynhilde!

 

(Wagner, 1851)

 

 

Since my return to Germany from Paris, my favorite study had been that of ancient German lore ... As though to get down to its root, I sank myself into the primal element of home, that meets us in the legends of a past which attracts us the more warmly as the present repels us with its hostile chill ... I drove step by step into the deeper regions of antiquity, where at last to my delight, and truly in the utmost reaches of old time, I was to light upon the fair young form of man, in all the freshness of his force. My studies thus bore me, through the legends of the Middle Ages, right down to their foundation in the old Germanic mythos; one swathing after another, which the later legendary lore had bound around it, I was able to unloose, and thus at last to gaze upon it into chastest beauty ...

 

 

Although the splendid type of Siegfried had long attracted me, it first enthralled my every thought when I had come to see it in its purest human shape, set free from every later wrappage. Now for the first time, also, did I recognize the possibility of making him the hero of a drama; a possibility that had not occurred to me while I knew him only from the medieval Nibelungenlied.

 

 

...[Conventional] opera form was never, of its very nature, a form embracing the whole drama, but the rather an arbitrary conglomerate of separate smaller forms of song, whose fortuitous concatenation of arias, duos, trios, and so on, with choruses and so-called ensemble pieces, made out the actual edifice of opera ... it was henceforth impossible for me to contemplate a filling of these ready-molded forms ...

 

 

In the whole course of the drama I saw no possibility of division or demarcation, other than the acts in which the place or time, or the scenes in which the dramatis personae change.

 

(Wagner, A Communication to my Friends, 1851)

 

 

We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word. The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness, and this fear is generated only when love itself begins to wane ...

 

Alberich and his Ring would have been powerless to harm the gods had they not themselves been susceptible to evil ...

 

The development of the whole poem sets forth the necessity of recognizing and yielding to the change, the many-sidedness, the multiplicity, the eternal renewing of reality and life. Wotan rises to the tragic height of willing his own destruction. This is the lesson that we have to learn from the history of mankind: to will what necessity imposes, and ourselves bring it about. The creative product of this supreme, self-destroying will, its victorious achievement, is a fearless human being, one who never ceases to love: Siegfried. That is the whole matter ...

 

Experience is everything. Moreover, Siegfried alone (man by himself) is not the complete human being: he is merely the half; it is only along with Bruennhilde that he becomes the redeemer. To the isolated being not all things are possible; there is need of more than one, and it is woman, suffering and willing to sacrifice herself, who becomes at last the real, conscious redeemer: for what is love itself but the “eternal feminine ...”

 

You must feel that something is being enacted that is not to be expressed in mere words -- and it is wrong of you to challenge me to explain it in words.

 

(Wagner, letter to August Roeckel, 1854)

 

 

I made my most remarkable discovery in this respect with my Nibelung drama. It had taken form at a time when, with my ideas, I had built up an optimistic world, on Hellenic principles; believing that in order to realize such a world, it was only necessary for man to wish it. I ingeniously set aside the problem, why they did not wish it. I remember that it was with this definite creative purpose that I conceived the personality of Siegfried, with the intention of representing an existence free from pain. But I meant in the presentment of the whole Nibelung myth to express my meaning even more clearly, by showing how from the first wrongdoing a whole world of evil arose, and consequently fell to pieces in order to teach us the lesson that we must recognize evil and tear it up by the roots, and raise in its stead a righteous world. I was scarcely aware that in the working out, nay, in the first elaboration of my scheme, I was being unconsciously guided by a wholly different, infinitely more profound intuition, and that instead of conceiving a phase in the development of the world, I had grasped the very essence and meaning of the world itself in all its possible phases, and had realized its nothingness ... But I remember that once, toward the end, I decided to bring out my original purpose, cost what it might, namely, in Bruennhilde’s final somewhat artificially colored invocation to those around her, in which having pointed out the evils of possession, she declares that in love alone is blessedness to be found, without (unfortunately) making quite clear what the nature of that love is, which in the development of the myth we find playing the part of destructive genius.

 

(Wagner, letter to Roeckel, 1856)

 

 

When Wagner published the libretto of The Twilight of the Gods he made known yet another, third set of lines from Bruennhilde’s final speech, and provided a kind of author’s note to the reader in the form of stage directions: “Although with these lines the writer tried to provide an anticipated alternative for the musical effect of the drama, during the course of the long interruptions that kept him from completing the composition of his text he felt himself moved to a version of this final poem of departure that corresponds still better to that effect, and this too he now appends.” This new interpretation is to be found in the following lines:

 

Now that I go no longer

 

to the fastness of Walhalla

 

do you know where I am going?

 

I am leaving the home of wishes,

 

the home of delusion I am fleeing forever;

 

behind me I close

 

the open gates

 

of eternal becoming;

 

to the chosen land

 

beyond wish and delusion,

 

goal of world-wandering,

 

now goes the knower.

 

Do you know how I won

 

the blessed end

 

of everything eternal?

 

The deepest suffering

 

of sorrowing love

 

opened my eyes;

 

I saw the world come to an end.

 

 

(Hans Mayer, quoting Wagner; these verses do not appear in the final version)

 

 

“Not goods, not gold, not godly splendour; not house, not land, nor lordly pomp; not the cheating covenant of cheerless contracts, not the harsh laws of lying custom: rapture in pleasure and pain comes -- from love alone.”

 

(Wagner, Bruennhilde’s final lines in the 1852-53 version of Goetterdaemmerung, omitted from the final version; trans. Mary Whittall)

 

Is there anything, in all the realm of art, to set beside Der Ring des Nibelungen? This cycle of four immense music dramas, the vastest piece of music ever conceived by the mind of man -- what an experience it is first to discover, and then to spend a lifetime exploring, those four parts, tracing their connective links, puzzling out their meanings, and listening through in wonder and awe to their shattering conclusion!

 

At the start, the Ring may seem like some kind of children’s story, a fanciful tale set in a land of long ago. It is easy, too, to see it as a myth about nature -- a very contemporary statement about man’s greedy, insane exploitation of nature, and about the impending threat of the world’s annihilation. Then, after a few hearings, it comes to seem mythic in the deepest sense: it uses external nature to tell us about our inner selves. But Wagner, when he began it, seems to have intended the Ring as a political allegory for his own century.

 

(M. Owen Lee)

 

And so it was that Wagner became a revolutionary. As an artist he became a revolutionary because he thought that sweeping changes in society would bring about better conditions for art -- for his art, the drama of the people, compounded of myth and music ... It is important to realize that a work like Der Ring des Nibelungen ... was written essentially as an attack on the bourgeois civilization and culture that had reigned supreme since the Renaissance -- that its blend of primitivism and futurity was aimed at a non-existent world of classless populism ... The opposition that it encountered, the outrage that it excited, were directed not so much against the revolutionary aspects of its form or the fact that it broke with the rules of an artistic genre -- the opera -- from which it had manifestly departed. For that was by no means the only thing from which it had departed ... Cultivated middle-class Germans laughed at all that Wagalaweia stuff and all that alliteration, as if it were some barbarous whimsy; if the term Kultur-Bolshevism had existed in Wagner’s day they would undoubtedly have applied it to him -- and not without reason.

 

(Thomas Mann)

 

This helmet [the Tarnhelm] is a very common article in our streets, where it generally takes the form of a tall hat. It makes a man invisible as a shareholder, and changes him into various shapes, such as a pious Christian, a subscriber to hospitals, a benefactor of the poor, a model husband and father, a shrewd, practical, independent Englishman, when he is really a pitiful parasite on the commonwealth, consuming a great deal, and producing nothing, feeling nothing, knowing nothing, believing nothing, and doing nothing except what all the rest do ...

 

And now, attentive Reader, we have reached the point at which some foolish person is sure to interrupt us by declaring that The Rhine Gold is what they call “a work of art” pure and simple, and that Wagner never dreamt of shareholders, tall hats, whitelead factories, and industrial and political questions looked at from the socialist and humanitarian points of view. We need not discuss these impertinences: it is easier to silence them with the facts of Wagner’s life ... In 1848, the year of revolutions, the discontented middle class ... made common cause with the starving wage-working calss, and resorted to armed rebellion, which reached Dresden in 1849 ... when the crash came, [Wagner took] his side with the right and the poor against the rich and the wrong. When the insurrection was defeated, three leaders of it were especially marked down for vengeance: August Roeckel, an old friend of Wagner’s to whom he wrote a well-known series of letters; Michael Bakoonin, afterwards a famous apostle of revolutionary Anarchism; and Wagner himself. Wagner escaped to Switzerland: Roeckel and Bakoonin suffered long terms of imprisonment ... For three years [Wagner] kept pouring forth pamphlets ... essentially the pamphlets and manifestoes of a born agitator -- on social evolution, religion, life, art and the influence of riches.

 

(George Bernard Shaw)

 

 

And when he saw his four parts as a whole, Wagner changed the ending again -- and made a really remarkable change. He decided to introduce into his drama something that had never been part of the Siegfried myths before -- the old Norse Ragnarok, the myth of the twilight of the gods. This was a doomsday myth in which gods and heroes battle with the powers of evil, and all the combatants on both sides destroyed, along with mankind, in a stupendous apocalyptic fire and flood.

 

(M. Owen Lee)

 

 

What had brought about this fundamental alteration in Wagner’s ethical design? We cannot trace in detail all the mysterious spiritual changes in him that had led to this surprising result; but it has been argued, with a certain plausibility, that by the early 1850’s his optimism with regard to the coming of a new and better European social order -- one in which the Gods, so to speak, would at last rule the world wisely and well -- had given way to a pessimism that saw no way out of the contemporary evil and misery, and that the final blow to his optimism had been dealt by Louis Napoleon’s coup d’etat of the 2nd December 1851. That unexpected event certainly shook him to his foundations. In 1851 he had been convinced that the trend of opinion in France was towards a new social democracy which would change the face of things for the better; and he shared the general confidence that the French elections in December would be the beginning of an upheaval that would inaugurate an epoch of social and political freedom and happiness not only for France but for Europe. When the news came of Louis Napoleon’s seizure of power it was at first, he tells us in My Life, some so absolutely incredible that he could hardly believe it: “it seemed to me,” he says, “that the world was really coming to an end ... I turned my back on this incomprehensible world as a riddle not worth the attempt to solve ...”

 

The theory that the change from an optimistic to a pessimistic ending of the Ring drama came about through Wagner’s political disillusionment at the hands of Louis Napoleon in December 1851 was plausible enough at one time. But the recent publication of his sketches has negated it ... His decision to change the 1848 ending of his Nibelungen drama had therefore been made long before Louis Napoleon’s coup d’etat had plunged him into pessimism about the actual world in which his lot as an artist was cast.

 

(Ernest Newman)

 

 

And now, O Nibelungen Spectator, pluck up; for all allegories come to an end somewhere; and the hour of your release from these explanations is at hand. The rest of what you are going to see is opera, and nothing but opera. Before many bars have been played, Siegfried and the wakened Brynhild, newly become tenor and soprano, will sing a concerted cadenza; plunge on from that to a magnificent love duet; and end with a precipitous allegro a cappella ... and a high C for the soprano all complete.

 

What is more, the work which follows, entitled Night Falls on the Gods, is a thorough grand opera. In it you shall see what you have so far missed ... in short, all manner of operatic conventions ...

 

We shall now find that at the point where the Ring changes from music drama into opera, it also ceases to be philosophic, and becomes didactic. The philosophic part is a dramatic symbol of the world as Wagner observed it. In the didactic part philosophy degenerates into the prescription of a romantic nostrum for all human ills. Wagner, only mortal, after all, succumbed to the panacea mania when his philosophy was exhausted, like any of the rest of us ...

 

... [The Ring ends with] a lapse into panacea-mongering didacticism by the holding up of Love as the remedy for all evils and the solvent of all social difficulties ...

 

The truth is that the love panacea in Night Falls on the Gods and in the last act of Siegfried is a survival of the first crude operatic conception of the story, modified by an anticipation of love as the fulfiller of our Will to Live and consequently our reconciler to night and death.

 

(George Bernard Shaw)

 

 

The revolutionary nature of the Ring cycle has long been accepted. But what has not been so easily acknowledged is that, ipso facto, these operas are profoundly antisemitic. One reason why the antisemitism of the operas has been denied is that Wagner does not identify any of the characters as specifically Jewish ... Yet, in the context of nineteenth-century German revolutionary thought, any allegory of capitalism must imply an antagonism to Judaism as both the spirit and the practice of modern bourgeois capitalism. This sub-text relating to Judaism was evident to contemporary German audiences, and there was no need to spell it out ...

 

A reading of the revolutionary antisemitism of the Ring must begin with the Nibelung Alberich, the abhorrent Jewish counterpart of Wotan ... Driven by lust for power and money, he conforms to the classic anti-Jewish characteristics described by Wagner in his essays. His distorted music and his contorted words are reminiscent of the description in Judaism in Music of Jewish speech: “A creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle ... an intolerably jumbled blabber ... If we hear a Jew speak, we are unconsciously offended by the entire lack of purely-human expression in his discourse ... its peculiar blubber ... In song, the peculiarity of the Jewish nature attains for us its climax of distastefulness.” One of Wagner’s subtlest anti-Jewish touches in his portrait of Alberich is purely musical. The mocking of Alberich by the Rhinemaidens is a cunning melodic mockery of Jewishness ...

 

In the third of the Ring operas, Siegfried, Alberich’s brother Mime represents a different sort of Jew. (Adorno calls him a “ghetto-Jew” in contrast to Alberich the “stock-exchange Jew.”) Misshapen, hunch-backed and bleary eyed, slinking, shuffling and blinking, Mime on the surface seems less dangerous than his brother. But Wagner emphasizes that he is no less malevolent ... Again, the music in a sophisticated way suggests to the audience that this must be so by reminding them of Mime’s Jewishness. The sentimental appoggiature of his falsely affectionate singing evoke Wagner’s characterization of the false sentimentality of Jewish music. Mime’s brutal despatch by the enlightened Siegfried gratified Wagner’s hopes for a rough solution to the Jewish Question, once the gulled Germans had woken up to the falseness of the love which the Jews protested towards them. No less an admirer of Wagner than the (Jewish) composer Gustav Mahler freely admitted the Jewish nature of Mime: “No doubt with Mime, Wagner intended to ridicule the Jews with all their characteristic traits -- petty intelligence and greed -- the jargon is textually and musically so cleverly suggested ...”

 

... Seen in the light of his revolutionism ... the virtually simultaneous work on the Nibelung music and the antisemitic essay indicates that Wagner had reached a state of psychological readiness in two closely interacting portions of his mind. His musical creativity and his emotionality were both now channelled into hatred.

 

(Paul Lawrence Rose)

 

 

That brings me to the new problem raised in the last two decades by critics of Wagner -- that there is vicious anti-Semitism, not just in the prose writings, but in the operas themselves. I shall not burden you with the names of these undisciplined critics, who choose, as the Nazis themselves once did, to consider only what in Wagner serves their purposes. I shall not attempt here to refute them one by one. But let it be said that, while there are passages in Wagner’s political essays, and statements made in private conversations, that are anti-Semitic in tone, he wrote hundreds of pages explaining his operas, and never once did he make a statement there to indicate, even slightly, that they, or their characters, or their situations, were intended as anti-Semitic ...

 

Of the figures claimed to be hateful Jewish caricatures or worse, [Joseph] Horowitz argued ... that Alberich, whom an anti-Wagner critic recently called “a revolting Jewish schlemiel” was thought, by one of today’s leading conductors, to be “the most compassionately drawn” of all the figures in the Ring.

 

(M. Owen Lee)

 

 

Originally what was intended was to discover a way out of isolation. Siegfried’s Death was not conceived as another drama about the artist and about the conflict between genius and society. In the first written draft the Nibelung myth is very strongly objectified: it bears witness far less to artistic self-assertion than to the foundations of a particular Weltanschaunung. The music drama, fed from mythological and folk sources, was to point the way out of the isolation that was at the heart of the dramas centered around the artist.

 

(Hans Mayer)

 

 

[Wagner’s] Music Drama would be the opposite of [existing opera and drama] in almost every respect. It would be about the insides of the characters. It would be concerned with their emotions, not their motives. It would explore and articulate the ultimate reality of experience, what goes on in the heart and the soul ... In this kind of drama the externals of plot and social relationships would be reduced to a minimum. Its chief requirement was for situations which remained unchanged long enough for the characters’ full inner experience of them, and response to them, to be expressed. Myth was ideal for this, because it dealt in archetypal situations and because its universal validity, regardless of time and place, meant that the dramatist could almost dispense with a social and political context and present, as it were “pure,” the inner drama.

 

(Bryan Magee)

 

 

Wagner’s characters in the Ring are so alive that we have no difficulty in accepting them as individuals who love and hate, struggle and triumph, suffer and die with all the fascination for us of vivid personalities; and this straightforward aspect of them is exceedingly important. But like everything else in the drama, they are symbols too. As symbols, they are parts of one another, so that in Valkyrie, Act II, Scene 2, for example, Brynhilde describes herself as Wotan’s will. They are parts of Wagner, as to a very large extent he knew; and they are parts of us, since Wagner’s basic conflicts are the same as ours, and his characters are such as we can recognize among our own characteristics.

 

In this very real sense, the Ring is interesting to you and me because it is about you and me. Its characters combine to add up to a further, unseen character who is not on the list of the cast, though present in every drama that has ever been written. This unseen character is the product of all the seen characters sensed as the diverse characteristics contributing to a composite portrait. Wagner’s characters, besides all the other levels on which they simultaneously operate, are contrasted attributes each bringing some quality of its own to this composite portrait.

 

... The underlying subject of the Ring, however, is not literally Wagner’s nature nor yours nor mine. It is human nature.

 

... These insights, in short, are archetypal rather than individual. They are true for you and me, but they are true because we share with other people the human characteristics of our kind.

 

We have each of us a psyche; but that psyche is not confined within our separate personalities. It merges into the human psyche. A work of art of the calibre of the Ring is not so much a portrait of “a psyche” as a portrait of “the psyche.” It is a study of life from the psyche’s point of view. It is an answer, but an inside answer to the perennial question: what is life all about?

 

(Robert Donington)

 

 

No less, then, than the rejected dwarf [Alberich] is the Father of the Gods [Wotan], a figure condensing the adult and the infantile, smarting from frustrated mother-love. Alberich regresses to pre-genital pursuit of power. Rather than do this, rather than part with Freia, Wotan steals Alberich’s Ring for the Giants and takes possession of a threatened power. Yet though he will commit theft for the sake of love this Father of the Gods, whose infidelities Fricka hopes the creation of Valhalla will put an end to, has never enjoyed the richness of love. In The Valkyrie we learn why. Meanwhile it is to be noticed what a curiously unformed, indeterminate, neurotic impression the Wotan of The Rhinegold makes. He needs Fricka to remind him of the peril to Freia; Fasolt to remind him of the obligations of godhood; Loge to tell him of the Rhinegold and show him how to get it; Alberich to reveal the iniquity of his theft ... and Erda to warn him of the consequences. He is a higher being than Alberich, yet he sinks lower. One could say of his godhood what Wagner said of Oedipus’s manhood, that it was “both his justification and his indictment.” The greatest height he can reach is to realize his crime and plan to repair it ...

 

Meanwhile he can enjoy the solace of pouring out his heart to Bruennhilde, his daughter by the symbolic mother-figure, Erda -- his daughter who is ideally maternal in her understanding of his inmost being (“I speak in secret speaking to thee”), for whom -- since a cherished daughter is not a sexual object -- he feels, as for no other woman, a deep and constant tenderness. When this daughter rejects his command to protect Hunding (refuses to act as the deputy of Wotan committed to play the wrong role in the Oedipal triangle) his rage brings to the surface his sexual desire for her, which tenderness had inhibited, in the form of her punishment. Cast on a rock in slumber, deprived of the protection of his fatherly care, she is sentenced to become the sexual object of the first man who finds her ...

 

... [it was] by pushing the antithesis between power and love into the realm of sexuality as seen through the distorting mirror of the Oedipus Complex, in which the son appears as the one who loves and is loved by the mother, and the father as a tyrant forcing his lust upon her, that Wagner pursued his “psycho-analysis” of Siegfried’s Death [the earlier version of Goetterdaemmerung].

 

(Robert L. Jacobs, A Freudian View of the Ring)

 

 

I will reel off the incestuous thread; you will see where it takes us. The twins, Wotan’s son and daughter, go to it happily, and this beloved child, Siegfried, the bearer of all their hopes, is the child of a brother and sister. In fact, notice that right up to and including his death, he will be ignorant of his origins. One might think, perhaps, that the incest is so close and so ticklish that it prohibits Siegfried’s seeing anything at all about his own history. For an instant he evokes his mother -- when he is standing beside the sleeping body of the Valkyrie. Who just happens to be his aunt, because she is the sister of his parents and the daughter of his grandfather. Of course, when put like that, a whole poetic side disappears in favor of those old stories by babbling women whose familial function it is to know and pass on the genealogy ... Ethnologists have something instructive to say about this: if the prohibition of incest were not respected, society would end up in giant families, closed back upon themselves, with kinship ties knotted one on top of another; and it would be family war. You can read the entire Ring as the progressive disappearance of a family that refuses exchange. There is nothing but refused exchange, with the false pretext that “they” are too ugly, or too rough: but Alberich and Hunding, the “villains” of the story, are really normal. Alberich runs after sprites; Hunding carried off his wife as one of the spoils of war. Somehow they are right, and love, the sublime love on the part of gods, is a mortal love. That is why, when they first begin to love each other, Siegfried and Brunhilde embrace and sing of joyful, suicidal death. Furthermore, take a look at something strange yet nonetheless coherent: divine marriage, the marriage that is the law, which Fricka and her husband, Wotan, are in charge of guarding, is a childless marriage. Sterility afflicts the gods when they act within the norm ...

 

The mothers are the great sacrificial victims in the story. Two of them are more or less unknown to us; Sieglinde’s mother just passes through, Wotan’s children “hardly knew her.”

 

The same is true of Hagen’s mother, Krimhilde. They are bellies, just barely of some use for childbearing; after that they disappear, having fulfilled their function ...

 

(Catherine Clement)

 

 

The Ring was over a quarter of a century in the writing, from 1848 to 1874; but the inconsistencies to be found throughout the work are less remarkable than the unity it preserves. It is easier, however, to sense the inner coherence than to define it in terms recognized in operatic and dramatic theory; the attempt to define it, to burrow down to the bedrock one vaguely senses is there, brings one up against the need to find some order in the strange confusion of all the elements -- dramatic, epic and symphonic -- that contribute substance to the work.

 

... Siegfried, like Siegmund, has grown up outside the world of contracts and laws, in a wilderness Wotan avoids entering; the sword he bears is the counter-symbol to Wotan’s spear. He is free natural man, sought by Wagner in mythic prehistory, because he hoped for his coming in the future. Wagner was not troubled by the admission that the reverse face of “instinct” is brutality (he saw himself as Wotan, the resigned and resigning god).

 

... In 1854 Wagner read Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea ... The philosophy of renunciation, of “denial of the will”, seemed to match his own sense of being quite without consolation -- recognition of which is its own consolation ...

 

It was no fluke that Schopenhauer’s philosophy should have struck Wagner with such force at the very time when he was composing Die Walkuere. His convictions were always inclined to develop out of his works, rather than vice versa, and it is in the second act of this work that Wotan resigns himself and gives up his plans as hopeless, recognizing the impasse where he is trapped. That Siegmund stands outside the law is the condition enabling him to commit the “freest deed,” as Wotan intended, but it also means that Wotan, as “lord of contracts”, must take action against him: “I give up my work; I wish for only one thing more: the end, the end! And Alberich will take care of the end!”

 

[Apparently] Wagner exchanged the philosophy of history for an existential philosophy, and rejected utopianism in favour of resignation ... Schopenhauer condemned optimism as “wicked”, and it was in that spirit that Wagner demolished and denied the utopianism of the Ring... The only thing left is resignation, and the tragic hero of the Ring is not Siegfried but Wotan.

 

Wagner’s own Schopenhauerian interpretation of the Ring has hardly ever been challenged, since it suits the image of him as the revolutionary who recanted -- an image shared by his adherents and his opponents alike ... Yet it does not hold water. It is true that Wotan is a figure of resignation in Die Walkuere, and a “wanderer” in Siegfried, roaming about like his own ghost. But the “end” that he “wills” is not the end of the world, but the downfall of the gods; he is weary to death of the old system of rule and the guilt in which it has entangled itself ...

 

The letter to Roeckel cannot be reconciled with the work itself, and Wagner eventually revoked the Schopenhauerian interpretation himself ... “Namely, I want to demonstrate that there is a saving way that leads to the complete pacification of the will through love, which no philosopher, especially not Schopenhauer, has ever recognized; it’s not an abstract love of mankind, but real love, the love that blossoms from sexual love, that is, from the attraction between man and woman.”

 

... And with that Wagner was able to set the love story of Siegfried and Bruennhilde to music.

 

(Carl Dahlhaus)

 

 

Now I must say at length what I have meant from the first to say. The Ring can be thought of as taking place, not only in its natural landscape of rivers and mountains covered by fir trees (the way Wagner wanted it on the stage), and not only in a nineteenth-century industrialized Europe endangered by greed and corrupting materialism (the way Wagner first thought of it, and some modern productions stage it), but in that inner landscape which is Wagner’s and mine and yours (the way Wagner eventually suggested we see it).

 

On that inner level, Wotan and Alberich, Siegfried and Bruennhilde are four inner impulses, four aspects of consciousness -- the present state of human evolution. Consciousness as light and dark, as male and female. You may want to add Fricka as conscience, and Loge as intelligence, and Erda as intuition, and those other characters, especially the human characters, as the sorrows and desires and fears that inhabit your inner landscape.

 

that will make Wagner’s Ring fit what Schlegel and the other German Romantics were saying, that the myths of the gods were about man, that the secret of the universe lay in each human soul. It will explain why Fricka knows what Wotan tries to hide, why Erda knows what Wotan must do, why Loge knows how to implement what Wotan plans: that is the way conscience and intuition and intelligence work for consciousness.

 

Seen this way, the Ring is a story of a soul in crisis. The great elemental world of gods and men is also the private world of man’s inner struggle with his own destructive impulses, of his awareness of limitations and guilt, of the emergence in him of new ideas, and the dying in him of transforming deaths.

 

Wagner once said something very startling about his Ring. He said that it teaches us that “we must learn to die.” We must “will what is necessary and bring it to pass.” The great deaths in myths are symbols of inner transformations in man, who makes the myths. In this myth, Wotan -- the god of consciousness -- dies. Wagner didn’t originally intend that. He intended that Erda, when she appears in Das Rheingold, would warn Wotan that his power would end unless he gave up the Ring. Later, he revised Erda’s warning to read, “All that exists ends. A dark day is dawning for the gods. I counsel you -- give up the Ring.” Relinquishing its power is not an alternative. Wotan will pass away in any case. He must accept the loss of his power, and embrace his death.

 

At the end of the Ring, the god of consciousness dies. And his voluntary withdrawal leaves the world within us to be ruled henceforth, not by the consciousness he represents, but by that “mightiest of miracles,” the transformation wrought by his daughter Bruennhilde. The Ring, which began as a parable of Europe’s evolution towards a classless, progressive society, eventually -- to Wagner’s surprise, and after many revisions -- became a parable of a god’s voluntary death, and the transformation that results. It is indeed about evolution, but it is as far in advance of Darwin’s theory (developed at almost exactly the same time) as myth has always been in advance of science. It begins with a god newly established in power and ends with that god consumed in flames. That is to say, it begins with the emergence of man into consciousness, and ends with consciousness voluntarily yielding to -- the next evolutionary development in human nature.

 

(M. Owen Lee)

 

 

Now, in any theater, in any performance, the start of Rheingold is something very special. For one thing, we are about to embark on a long journey; added together, the four dramas in the Ring cycle come to not far short of fifteen hours. And whatever anyone says about the changes in style and approach which Wagner unquestionably made in the twenty-five years or so that it took him to write the words and the music of the Ring, there is still a sort of magical inevitability about the opening of Das Rheingold, and never more so than in the pitch darkness of Bayreuth. The E flat on the basses is, without my being too fanciful, more like a sound of nature than the beginning of an opera. And that is how it should be. We are already a very long way from any conventional opera, and yet we have heard just one note.

 

(John Culshaw)

 

 

Back to top 

B. QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION AND WRITING 

1. There are many systematic theories about the meaning of the Ring cycle. A few of the more prominent ones introduced above are:

 

a. The revolutionary/political theory, most ingratiatingly advocated by Shaw. b. The Jungian “archetype” theory set forth by Donington. c. The Freudian approach represented by Jacobs. d. The Schopenhauerian/existentialist/pessimist approach explained by Wagner himself, but challenged by Dahlhaus (and others, including Shaw in portions of his book not quoted here). e. The Romantic Love theory taken up by Shaw, but seen as a “lapse” in Wagner’s thinking. f. The racialist/antisemitism theory argued by Rose and strenuously rejected by Lee. g. The “moral evolution” concept with which Lee concludes his explication of the work.

 

Which of these theories, if any, seems most plausible to you, and most congruent with the work as you experience it? Which seems to fit least well? Where do the various theories break down? In fact, do we even need a theory to understand this immense work? Do such theories interfere with our enjoyment?

 

2. Wagner worked backwards in writing the text of the Ring, starting with Goetterdaemmerung and ending with Das Rheingold. Then he composed the music in chronological order, starting with Rheingold and ending with Goetterdaemmerung. He interrupted composing the Ring before Act III of Siegfried and did not return to it for several years, during which he wrote two very large (and very different) works, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nuernburg.

 

What effects, if any, did this strange evolution have on the Ring. Can you perceive these effects in the text, or hear them in the music? (Consider, for instance, the Norn scene that begins Goetterdaemmerung.)

 

3. Wagner’s choice of “Stabreim” (alliteration) instead of end rhyme for the verse of the Ring was based on ancient models. Many listeners find it silly, ugly, or tedious. How about you?

 

4. The Ring is full of symbols: the Ring itself, the Tarnhelm, the sword Nothung, Wotan’s spear, the tree in Hunding’s hut, the Magic Fire that surrounds Bruennhilde, and many more. Choose one (or more) of these symbols, discuss what it represents, and trace its use over the course of the four dramas. Remember that symbols open out: simple objects can stand for complex, even contradictory, ideas.

 

5. The major musical technique Wagner uses to bind the Ring together is the recurrent melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic elements that have been dubbed “Leitmotivs,” or leading motives. There are something like a hundred of them in the Ring. ( You can find a detailed discussion in the musical study guide that serves as a companion to this one on the website.) These, too, have a symbolic function. Show how one (or more) of these Leitmotivs, like the physical symbols, represents abstract ideas, and trace its use through the course of the work. (Lengthy treatises have been devoted to this study, so don’t expect to find and explain every appearance of a Leitmotiv.)

 

6. Aside from these musical and physical symbols, what other elements hold the Ring together and create the unity that several of the above commentators emphasize? Or are they wrong, and is the work just a big sprawl?

 

7. A related question: does each drama stand up well as an independent, self-contained dramatic entity, or does it make sense only in the context of the other three? Which of the four is most satisfying by itself? Which least? Why?

 

8. Wagner tried half a dozen different scripts for the ending of Goetterdaemmerung, then gave up and said that the music would explain what it all means. The text of Bruennhilde’s “Immolation Scene,” then, is really only a skeleton, which the music fills out.

 

What do you think the ending means? Consider first what actually happens onstage; then ask why.

 

9. Who is the protagonist of the Ring? Is it the young hero Siegfried, as Wagner originally intended? (He doesn’t appear until the third drama.) Is it Wotan, the tormented god (who disappears after the third drama, though his presence is still felt in Goetterdaemmerung)? Is it Bruennhilde, the “bridge” between those two males (and a link to the third, Siegmund) and the character who has the last long word (forgetting Hagen’s final shout, as almost everyone does)? Are they all protagonists? None?

 

10. To what genre does the Ring belong? Is it an epic? A tragedy? How are those genres defined, and what characteristics does the Ring have that would suggest you assign it to one or the other (or neither, but perhaps some other)?

 

11. The Ring has often been performed with “cuts,” to make it easier on the singers (or the audience). There have even been “pocket” versions in the which the work was reduced to a single evening or two, down from fifteen hours to perhaps six.

 

From a dramatic point of view, what episodes are essential and must not be cut? What episodes are dispensible (perhaps the work would even be better off without them)?

 

12. Wagner himself excerpted orchestral passages from the Ring, such as Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and his Funeral March, for performance in concert; he even made versions of vocal sections which eliminated the voices, such as the big love duet that precedes the Rhine Journey, and the famous Ride of the Valkyries. Many listeners prefer to hear the orchestral parts without the singing. What do you think?

 

13. Wagner was a revolutionist, but also (increasingly) a nationalist, monarchist, and antisemite. Hitler and the Nazis adopted Wagner as a kind of house composer, and used his works for propaganda purposes. Hitler became very friendly with Wagner’s daughter-in-law and through her took control of many aspects of the annual Bayreuth Festival of Wagner’s works. (This was half a century after Wagner’s death.) Ever since, Wagner’s music has been associated with Nazism. It is still effectively banned in Israel, despite occasional attempts to program it. Should it be? Should Wagner be regarded as a “Nazi” composer? Should the works of artists and composers be judged for their politics?

 

 

Back to top 

C. PROJECTS AND FURTHER STUDY  

1. Read Wagner’s ancient sources: the poetic Edda, the prose Edda, and the Nibelungenlied are the major ones. Notice how Wagner picked and chose, modified, added, and otherwise devised a work that is far more than a mere adaptation of these sources.

 

2. See the pair of silent films by Fritz Lang, Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge, for another approach to this source material. Lang sticks closer to the original stories, but the Wagnerian influence is clear. These films, made in the heyday of pre-War German cinema, are massive productions for their time, and classics in the history of film. They are available in several home video editions.

 

3. Wagner’s early Hellenism shaped his idea of the Ring, which is modelled partly on the Oresteia of Aeschylus: a trilogy of plays on mythic subjects (Das Rheingold was designated a “prologue” and modelled on the “satyr plays” that accompanied the Greek tragedies) performed in a festival setting. Even the plots and themes have similarities. Read the Oresteia with that in mind.

 

4. Read Wagner’s writings which relate directly to the Ring, such as the relevant letters to Roeckel, Opera and Drama, the Communication to My Friends, and others. They are available in English translation in several editions. Read also the infamous Judaism in Music.

 

5. Wagner’s other operas, together with the Ring, are central to the operatic repertory. They all repay repeated listening and study. Each creates its own “sound world” and musical language. On this site you’ll find study guides for Der Fliegende Hollaender, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal. The other major works are Tannhaeuser, Lohengrin, and Tristan und Isolde. Studied chronologically, they show the maturation of Wagner’s art and thought. They illuminate each other, and knowing the others will help you grasp the Ring.

 

6. The founding and history of the Bayreuth Festival are intimately connected with the creation of the Ring. Read about it. (Bayreuth by Frederic Spotts is the best currently available book on the subject in English.) Wagner’s innovations at Bayreuth changed the course of European theater.

 

7. Wagner’s patron, Ludwig II of Bavaria (known as the “mad king”), was a fascinating figure himself. Several biographies are available.

 

8. A significant development in recent Wagner studies was the publication in English of the diaries of his second wife, Cosima, illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and former wife of conductor Hans von Buelow. (The circumstances of her relationship with husbands 1 and 2 were scandalous then, and may seem so to you today.) Her detailed diaries, kept during her years of marriage with Wagner, reveal much about his daily activities, character, and beliefs. What they show is sometimes endearing, sometimes repellent. They’re available in a two- volume complete edition and a handier one-volume abridgement.

 

9. By now, you Tolkien fans will have noticed the resemblances between his Middle Earth trilogy and Wagner’s Ring. This is no accident. Tolkien was a scholar of the ancient Northern epics, and his sources were the same as Wagner’s, though he went even farther in forging a new text based on ancient models. Read, or re-read, Tolkien, for comparison and contrast.

 

10. Among significant writers who had a lot to say about Wagner are Thomas Mann, whose essays and lectures on Wagner are available in English translation, and Wagner’s sometime friend Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote a great deal about him, first as acolyte, later as severe critic. (He called Wagner a “disease” who has “contaminated” music and made it “sick.”) Mann was an ardent Wagnerite, but he used his platform partly to castigate the Nazis for co-opting the composer’s works. (As a result, he became persona non grata and had to leave Germany.} Read these writers, both for their own merits and for what they say about Wagner.

 

11. The story of Wagner and Nazism is a complex and important one. Much has been published, much argued. Investigate it. The larger questions it raises about the relation between art and politics are important.

 

12. Wagner’s influence was immense, even on people who heard little of his music or never saw a staging of one of his works. In France, “Wagnerism” was a movement that spawned journals and societies. The Symbolist poets and impressionist painters were swept up in it. Debussy, as un-Wagnerian a composer as you can imagine, could not have conceived Pelleas et Melisande without the example of Wagner. England had a large Wagner following among artists and writers. (Shaw is a case in point.) The controversy over Wagner affected Italian opera of the late nineteenth century; composer and (Verdi’s) librettist Arrigo Boito was a central figure in that storm. Playwrights from Ibsen to Eugene O’Neill show evidence of Wagnerian influence. Explore the shadow of Wagner among these and other artists.

 

13. The D.C. Comics graphic novel of the Ring, cited above, is a landmark in the iconography of the Ring, as are Arthur Rackham’s illustrations. Many artists were attracted to this subject. See what you can find. And add yourself to the canon by making your own illustrations of scenes from the Ring.

 

14. For that matter, go all the way and design a production. The Ring is a designer’s dream; the possibilities are seemingly endless. It can also be a nightmare, attempting to find practical solutions to Wagner’s impossible demands. (How, for example, to make convincing Alberich’s transformation into a toad?) There have been space age Rings and post-nuclear holocaust Rings and nineteenth century class warfare Rings and stone age Rings and post-Romantic Rings. Your concept may be as good as, or better, than some of those.

 

15. ... To which end, watch the now-celebrated but once reviled Chereau/Boulez Bayreuth Centennial Ring on home video. Does it work for you? What’s good, and what’s not? Compare it with the more “traditional” Met Ring, also available on video. Ask yourself the same questions. Of the two, which do you prefer?

 

16. The comedian Anna Russell had a hilarious routine about the Ring which she performed hundreds of times. It’s available on CD. There’s also a Bugs Bunny cartoon that parodies the Ring. Look for it.

 

17. The best-known orchestral excerpt from the Ring is the Ride of the Valkyries. (That’s the opening of Act III of Die Walkuere, to the initiated, among whom you may now count yourselves.) And for contemporary audiences, the best-known context for that is -- say it with me -- Apocalypse Now. The terrifying helicopter attack sequence in the film is performed to that music, because (as the Robert Duvall character tells his crew) it “scares the hell out of” the people they’re attacking. If you haven’t seen it, do. If you have, watch it again after you’ve heard the complete opera on the broadcast.

 

18. Had enough? Wrung out? (Sorry.) Understandable. One more assignment, though: after these broadcasts and whatever you’ve done to prepare for them or follow them up, don’t listen to any music from the Ring for a full year. Then come back to it, the whole sequence, without distractions. Don’t ask why; you’ll find out.

 

top of page