Richard Wagner - Das Rheingold

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013
'Das Rheingold' (The Rhine Gold) is the first of the four operas that constitute Richard Wagner's 'Der Ring des Nibelungen' ('The Ring of the Nibelung').

Nationaltheater München
It was originally written as an introduction to the tripartite 'Ring', but the cycle is now generally regarded as consisting of four individual operas.

Ludwig II König von Bayern
'Das Rheingold' received its premiere at the Nationaltheater München (National Theatre Munich) on 22 September 1869, with August Kindermann in the role of Wotan, Heinrich Vogl as Loge, and Karl Fischer as Alberich.

Das Rheingold - Poster
Wagner wanted this opera to be premiered as part of the entire cycle, but was forced to allow the performance at the insistence of his patron King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

During its early years, the National Theatre saw the premières of a significant number of Wagner's operas.
These included 'Tristan und Isolde' (1865), 'Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg' (1868), 'Das Rheingold' (1869) and 'Die Walküre' (1870), after which Wagner chose to build the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, and held further premières of his works there.

The opera received its premiere as part of the complete cycle on 13 August 1876, in the Bayreuther Festspielhaus.

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Although 'Das Rheingold' comes first in the sequence of 'Ring' operas, it was the last to be conceived. Wagner's plans for the cycle grew backwards from the tale of the death of the hero Siegfried, to include his youth and then the story of the events around his conception and of how the Valkyrie Brünnhilde was punished for trying to save his parents against Wotan's instructions.
So, in August 1851, Wagner wrote in "Eine Mittheilung an meine Freunde" (A Communication to My Friends), "I propose to produce my myth in three complete dramas....".
However, by October, he had decided that this trilogy required a prelude and the text of "Eine Mittheilung" was duly altered to reflect the change.
To the sentence quoted above he added the words, "which will be preceded by a great prelude".
He started work on the prelude producing a three paragraph prose sketch that month, although he remained uncertain of the name, considering in turn 'Der Raub: Vorspiel' - (The Theft: Prelude), 'Der Raub des Rheingoldes' - (The Theft of the Rhinegold) and 'Das Rheingold (Vorspiel)' - (The Rhinegold (Prelude)).
A letter Wagner wrote to Theodor Uhlig confirms that at this time the opera was intended to have three acts. 
Wagner continued to develop the text and storyline of the prelude in parallel with those of 'Die Walküre'.
The prose draft of 'Das Rheingold' was completed between 21 March and 23 March 1852 and its verse draft between 15 September and 3 November.
A fair copy of the text was finished by 15 December.

Wagner 1850
During the early years of the 1850s Wagner produced some musical sketches for parts of the 'Ring' and noted down various motifs that were to be used in the work.
Of particular note is 5 September 1853; Wagner claimed in his autobiography 'Mein Leben' that on this date the musical idea came to him while he was half asleep in a hotel in La Spezia in Italy.
There also exist three sets of isolated musical sketches for 'Das Rheingold' which were composed between 15 September 1852 and November 1853.
The first of these was entered into the verse draft of the text, the second into Wagner's copy of the 1853 printing of the text; the third was written on an undated sheet of music paper.
All three were subsequently used by Wagner.
Proper sequential development of the score started on 1 November 1853.
By 14 January, Wagner had completed the first draft of the opera on between two and three staves.
The next stage involved the development of a more detailed draft that indicated most of the vocal and instrumental details.
This was completed by 28 May. In parallel with this Wagner started work on a fair copy of the score on 15 February, a task he completed on 26 September 1854, by which time he had also started work on the sketches of 'Die Walküre'.

Das Rheingold - Synopsis

'Das Rheingold'
'Das Rheingold', considerably shorter than its three successors, consists of four scenes performed without a break.
Alberich, a dwarf from the underground caverns of Nibelheim, steals gold from the Rhinedaughters, a deed which can only be achieved by renouncing love.
Alberich then makes a ring from the gold which gives its owner great power.
Meanwhile Wotan, ruler of the gods, searches for a way to pay the giants Fafner and Fasolt for building his new fortress, Valhalla.
He had promised to give them Freia, goddess of youth and love, but when she leaves with them, the gods begin to age.
Wotan searches for another means of payment.
With the help of Loge, god of fire and cunning, he tricks Alberich into surrendering the ring, whereupon Alberich puts a curse on whoever owns it.
Wotan gives the ring to the giants, and Alberich's curse strikes immediately: Fafner kills Fasolt in order to become the sole possessor of the ring, as the gods march into their majestic new home.

Scene 1

The scale of the whole work is established in the prelude, over 136 bars, beginning with a low E flat, and building in more and more elaborate figurations of the chord of E flat major, to portray the motion of the river Rhine.
It is considered the best-known drone piece in the concert repertory, lasting approximately four minutes.

The curtain rises to show, at the bottom of the Rhine, the three Rhine maidens playing together.
The Rhinemaidens have been described as the drama’s most seductive but most elusive characters.
The Rhinemaidens and the Woodbird, in Deryck Cooke's analysis, are related through nature, as "fundamentally innocent allies of the natural world".
The Rhinemaidens are the three water-nymphs (Rheintöchter or "Rhine daughters").
Their individual names are Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Floßhilde, although they are generally treated as a single entity, and they act together accordingly.
Of the 34 characters in the Ring cycle, they are the only ones who did not originate in the Old Norse 'Eddas'. Wagner created his Rhinemaidens from other legends and myths, most notably the 'Nibelungenlied' which contains stories involving water-sprites.
The key concepts associated with the Rhinemaidens in the Ring operas - their flawed guardianship of the Rhine gold, and the condition (the renunciation of love) through which the gold could be stolen from them and then transformed into a means of obtaining world power - are wholly Wagner's own invention, and are the elements that initiate and propel the entire drama.
The Rhinemaidens are the first and the last characters seen in the four-opera cycle, appearing both in the opening scene of 'Das Rheingold', and in the final climactic spectacle of 'Götterdämmerung', when they rise from the Rhine waters to reclaim the ring from Brünnhilde’s ashes. They have been described as morally innocent, yet they display a range of sophisticated emotions, including some that are far from guileless. Seductive and elusive, they have no relationship to any of the other characters.
The various musical themes associated with the Rhinemaidens are regarded as among the most lyrical in the entire 'Ring cycle'. The music contains important melodies and phrases which are reprised and developed elsewhere in the operas to characterise other individuals and circumstances, and to relate plot developments to the source of the narrative.

The Rhinemaidens' sorrow in the loss of the gold is deep and heartfelt.
As the gods are crossing the rainbow bridge into Valhalla at the end of 'Das Rheingold', Loge ironically suggests that, in the absence of the gold, the maidens should "bask in the gods’ new-found radiance".
The maidens' lament then becomes a stern reproof: "Tender and true are only the depths", they sing; "False and base is all they that revel above".
Rhinemaidens' lament: "Rheingold! Rheingold! Reines Gold!..." ('Das Rheingold' Scene 4): The lament, which is sung at the end of 'Das Rheingold' as the gods cross the Rainbow Bridge into Valhalla, begins with the "Rheingold" repetition from the greeting, but develops into a hauntingsong of loss, which becomes ever more poignant before it is drowned by the fortissimo orchestral brilliance that ends the opera.
Significantly, a slow version of the lament is played on the horns in 'Siegfried', Act 2, as Siegfried enters Fafner's cave to claim the gold - the lament serves to remind us of the gold's true ownership.
The lament is played exuberantly as part of the magnificent orchestral interlude known as 'Siegfried's Rhine Journey', during the 'Götterdämmerung' prologue, before a shadow falls across the music as it descends into the minor key of the servitude motive.
In the final 'Götterdämmerung' scene they show ruthlessness as, having recovered the ring, they drag the hapless Hagen down into the waters of the Rhine.
The key shifts to A flat as Woglinde begins an innocent song whose melody is frequently used to characterise the Rhine maidens later in the cycle.
Alberich, a Nibelung dwarf, appears from a deep chasm and tries to woo them.

Alberich is chief of the Nibelungen race of dwarfs and the main antagonist driving events. He gains the power to forge the ring after renouncing love. His brother, the Smith Mime, creates the Tarnhelm for Alberich. The murderer of the hero Siegfried, Hagen, is son of Alberich. Wagner's Alberich is a composite character, mostly based on Alberich from the 'Nibelungenlied', but also on Andvari from Norse mythology. He has been widely described as a negative Jewish stereotype, with his race expressed through "distorted" music and "muttering" speech.
Struck by Alberich's ugliness, the Rhine maidens mock his advances and he grows angry.
As the sun begins to rise, the maidens praise the golden glow atop a nearby rock; Alberich asks what it is.
The Rhine maidens tell him about the Rhine gold, which their father has ordered them to guard: it can be made into a magic ring which will let its bearer rule the world, but only by someone who first renounces love. They think they have nothing to fear from the lustful dwarf, but Alberich, embittered by their mockery, curses love, seizes the gold and returns to his chasm, leaving them screaming in dismay.

Scene 2

Meanwhile, Wotan wants a magnificent castle, Valhalla, for the gods to live in as a testament to his greatness.
He has contracted with the two giants Fasolt and Fafner to build him the castle.

In Norse mythology, Valhalla (from Old Norse Valhǫll "hall of the slain") is a majestic, enormous hall located in Asgard, ruled over by the god Wotan.
Half of those who die in combat travel to Valhalla upon death, led by the Walküren, while the other half go to the goddess Freyja's field Fólkvangr.
In Valhalla, the dead join the masses of those who have died in combat known as Einherjar, as well as various legendary Germanic heroes and kings, as they prepare to aid Wotan during the events of Ragnarök (Götterdämmerung).
Before the hall stands the golden tree Glasir, and the hall's ceiling is thatched with golden shields.

The scene opens with Wotan, ruler of the Gods, is asleep on a mountaintop with Fricka, his wife.
Fricka awakes and sees a magnificent castle behind them.
She wakes Wotan and points out that their new home has been completed.

Fasolt and Fafner
The giants Fasolt and Fafner built the castle; in exchange Wotan has offered them Fricka's sister Freia, the goddess of youth and beauty and feminine love.
Fricka has concerns for her sister, but Wotan is confident that they will not have to give Freia away, because he has dispatched his clever servant Loge (Loki) to search the world for something else to give the giants instead.

In Norse mythology, Loki,  is the son of Fárbauti and Laufey, and the brother of Helblindi and Býleistr. By the jötunn Angrboða, Loki is the father of Hel, the wolf Fenrir, and the world serpent Jörmungandr. By his wife Sigyn, Loki is the father of Narfi and/or Nari. In addition, Loki is referred to as the father of Váli in the Prose Edda.
Loki's relation with the gods varies by source. Loki sometimes assists the gods and sometimes causes problems for them. Loki is a shape shifter. Loki's positive relations with the gods end with his role in engineering the death of the god Baldr.
In the 'Ring', Loki is merged with Logi and called Loge. In the first opera 'Das Rheingold' he hopes to turn into fire and destroys Valhalla, and in the final opera 'Gotterdammerung' Valhalla is set alight, destroying the Gods.

Gungnir - Wotan's (Odin's) Spear
Freia rushes onstage in a panic, followed by Fasolt and Fafner.
Fasolt demands payment for their finished work.
He points out that Wotan's authority is sustained by the treaties carved into his spear, including his contract with the giants, which Wotan therefore cannot violate.

In 'Der Ring des Nibelungen', Wotan's (Odin's) spear (Gungniris), is made from the wood of the world tree Yggdrasil, and engraved, in sacred runes, with the contracts from which Wotan's power derives. When he tries to bar the eponymous hero of the opera Siegfried from awakening Brünnhilde from her magic sleep, Siegfried breaks the spear in two and Wotan flees. It is implied that this is also the end of Wotan's power and he never appears onstage again.

Loge (Loki)
Donner (god of thunder) and Froh (god of spring) arrive to defend their sister Freia, but Wotan stops them; as ruler of the Gods, he cannot permit the use of force to break the agreement.
Hoping Loge will arrive with the alternative payment he promised, Wotan tries to stall.
Loge finally returns with a discouraging report: there is nothing that men will accept in exchange for feminine love, and, by extension, nothing the giants would accept in exchange for Freia.

In Der Ring des Nibelungen Freia is the goddess Freyja combined with the apple-bearing goddess Iðunn.
In Norse mythology, Freyja (Old Norse the "Lady") is a goddess associated with love, sexuality, beauty, fertility, gold, seiðr, war, and death. Freyja is the owner of the necklace Brísingamen, rides a chariot pulled by two cats, owns the boar Hildisvíni, possesses a cloak of falcon feathers, and, by her husband Óðr, is the mother of two daughters, Hnoss and Gersemi. Along with her brother Freyr (Old Norse the "Lord"), her father Njörðr, and her mother (Njörðr's sister, unnamed in sources), she is a member of the Vanir. Stemming from Old Norse Freyja, modern forms of the name include Freya, Frejya, Freyia, Frøya, Frøjya, and Freia.

Loge tells them that he was able to find only one instance where someone willingly gave up love for something else: Alberich the dwarf has renounced love, stolen the Rheingold and made a powerful magic ring out of it.
A general discussion of the ring ensues and everyone finds good reasons for wanting it.
Fafner makes a counteroffer: the giants will accept the ring and the Nibelung's gold in payment, instead of Freia.
When Wotan tries to haggle, the giants depart, taking Freia with them as hostage.
Freia's golden apples had kept the Gods eternally young; in her absence, they begin to age and weaken.
In order to win Freia back, Wotan resolves to follow Loge down into the earth, in pursuit of the gold.
An orchestral interlude follows: it "paints" the descent of Loge and Wotan into Nibelheim.
As the orchestra fades, it gives way to a choir of 18 tuned anvils (indicated in the score with specific size, quantity and pitch) beating out the dotted rhythm of the Nibelung theme to give a stark depiction of the toiling of the enslaved dwarves.
Scene 3

In Nibelheim, Alberich has enslaved the rest of the Nibelung dwarves with the power of the ring.
He has forced his brother Mime, the most skillful smith, to create a magic helmet, the Tarnhelm.
Alberich demonstrates the Tarnhelm's power by making himself invisible, the better to torment his subjects.

Tarnhelm is the name of a magic helmet. It was crafted by Mime at the demand of his brother Alberich. It is used as a cloak of invisibility by Alberich. It also allows one to change one's form:
Alberich changes to a dragon and then a toad in 'Das Rheingold', Scene 3
Fafner changes to a dragon at the end of 'Das Rheingold' and appears thus in 'Siegfried' Act II. (It is never made clear whether or not Fafner actually used the Tarnhelm to transform or not, or simply transformed as many giants and gods did in the myths.
Siegfried changes to 'Gunther' in 'Götterdämmerung' Act I, Scene 3.
Finally, it allows one to travel long distances instantly, as Siegfried does in 'Götterdämmerung' Act II, Scene 2.

Wotan and Loge arrive and happen upon Mime, who tells them about Alberich's forging of the ring and the misery of the Nibelungs under his rule.
Alberich returns, driving his slaves to pile up a huge mound of gold.
When they have finished, he dismisses them and turns his attention to the two visitors.
He boasts to them about his plans to conquer the world.
Loge asks how he can protect himself against a thief while he sleeps.
Alberich says the Tarnhelm would hide him, by allowing him to turn invisible or change his form.
Loge says he doesn't believe it and requests a demonstration that would astonish him.
Alberich complies, turning into a giant snake.
Loge acts suitably impressed and then he asks if he can also reduce his size, which would be very useful for hiding, but he says that it would be too difficult.
Thus goaded Alberich transforms himself into a toad and the two gods quickly seize him, tie him up, and drag him up to the mountain top.

Scene 4

The Nibelungen Hoard
On the mountaintop, Wotan and Loge force Alberich to exchange his wealth for his freedom.
They untie his right hand, and he uses the ring to summon his Nibelung slaves, who bring the hoard of gold. After the gold has been delivered, he asks for the return of the Tarnhelm, but Loge says that it is part of his ransom.
Finally, Wotan demands the ring.
Alberich refuses, but Wotan seizes it from his finger and puts it on his own.
Alberich is crushed by his loss, and before he leaves he lays a curse on the ring: until it should return to him, whoever does not possess it will desire it, and whoever possesses it will live in anxiety, and will eventually be killed and robbed of it by its next owner.
Alberich's discordant "Death-Curse" leitmotif is one of the few leitmotifs which occur regularly and unchanged in all four parts of the Ring Cycle.
The gods reconvene.
Fasolt and Fafner return, carrying Freia. Reluctant to release Freia, Fasolt insists that the gold be heaped high enough to hide her from view.

die Tarnhelm
They pile up the gold, and Wotan is forced to relinquish the Tarnhelm to help cover Freia completely. However, Fasolt spots a remaining crack in the gold, through which Freia's eye can be seen.
He demands that Wotan fill the crack by yielding the ring.
Loge reminds all present that the ring rightly belongs to the Rhine maidens.
Wotan angrily and defensively declares that he will keep it for his own.
The giants seize Freia and start to leave, this time forever.
Suddenly, Erda the earth goddess, a primeval goddess older than Wotan, appears out of the ground.
She warns Wotan of impending doom and urges him to give up the cursed ring.
Troubled, Wotan calls the giants back and surrenders the ring.
The giants release Freia and begin dividing the treasure, but they quarrel over the ring itself.
Fafner clubs Fasolt to death (the orchestra repeats the "Death-Curse" leitmotif).
Wotan, horrified, realizes that Alberich's curse has terrible power.
Loge remarks that Wotan is indeed a lucky fellow; his enemies are killing each other for the gold he gave up.

Entry of the Gods into Valhalla
At last, the gods prepare to enter their new home.
Donner summons a thunderstorm to clear the air.
After the storm has ended, Froh creates a rainbow bridge that stretches to the gate of the castle.
Wotan leads them across the bridge to the castle, which he names Valhalla. Fricka asks him about the name, and he replies enigmatically that its meaning will become clear when his plans come to fruition.
Loge, who knows that the end of the gods is coming, does not follow the others into Valhalla; he tells the audience that he is tempted to destroy the gods and all they have deceitfully acquired.
Far below, the Rhine maidens mourn the loss of their gold and proclaim that the glory of the gods is only an illusion.

Between the Operas

What Wotan is planning, which doesn't become apparent until the next opera, is this, and it forms the driving notion of the entire plot:
Because of his dependence on treaties, which he cannot violate, and are engraved in sacred runes on his spear, Wotan cannot himself take the ring back from Fafner; but if he can create a hero who is not dependent on him, who is not acting as Wotan's agent, that hero could slay Fafner and win the ring back for him.

Wotan, always a great womanizer, descends to earth in human guise as "Wälse" and sires a pair of twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, on an earthly mother.
He then abandons them to their fate, and starts paying visits to Erda the earth goddess.
Erda bears him eight immortal daughter - the Walküren (Valkyries: "bearer of the fallen heroes").
Bearing in mind Erda's prediction of a final end of the Gods, Wotan instructs the Walküren to roam the earth, inciting men to make war on each other so as to find the most valiant warriors, and when they fall in battle to carry them to Valhalla to abide with the Gods and defend Valhalla in its eventual apocalyptic battle Ragnarök against Alberich's army.
Brünnhilde, the leader of the Walküren, who is Wotan's favourite, is also the expression of Wotan's 'True Will'.

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