The Ring - Outlines, Themes and Suggestions

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013


'Der Ring des Nibelungen' (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a cycle of four epic operas by the German composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883).
The works are based loosely on characters from the Norse sagas and the 'Nibelungenlied'.
The operas, which the composer described as a trilogy with a Vorabend ("ante-evening"), are often referred to as 'The Ring Cycle', 'Wagner's Ring', or simply 'The Ring'.
Wagner wrote the libretto and music over the course of about twenty-six years, from 1848 to 1874.
The four operas that constitute the Ring cycle are, in sequence: 'Das Rheingold' (The Rhine Gold), 'Die Walküre' (The Valkyrie), 'Siegfried', and 'Götterdämmerung' (Twilight of the Gods)
Although individual operas of the sequence are sometimes performed separately, Wagner intended them to be performed in series.
Wagner's title is most literally rendered in English as 'The Ring of the Nibelung'.
The Nibelung in question is the dwarf Alberich, and the ring in question is the one he fashions from the Rhinegold.
The title therefore correctly denotes "Alberich's Ring".
The "-en" suffix in "Nibelungen" can occur in either a genitive singular or a plural, though the article "des" immediately preceding it makes clear that the singular is here intended: hence
"Nibelungen" is occasionally mistaken as a plural, though the Ring of the Nibelungs (in German Der Ring derNibelungen) is incorrect.


The cycle is a work of extraordinary scale.
Perhaps the most outstanding facet of the monumental work is its sheer length: a full performance of the cycle takes place over four nights at the opera, with a total playing time of about 15 hours, depending on the conductor's pacing.

Die Rheintöchter

Die Rheintöchter
The first and shortest opera, 'Das Rheingold', typically lasts two and a half hours, while the final and longest, Götterdämmerung, takes up to five hours, excluding intervals.
The cycle is modelled after ancient Greek dramas that were presented as three tragedies and one satyr play. The Ring proper begins with 'Die Walküre' and ends with 'Götterdämmerung', with 'Rheingold' as a prelude. Wagner called 'Das Rheingold' a Vorabend or "Preliminary Evening", and 'Die Walküre', 'Siegfried' and 'Götterdämmerung' were subtitled 'First Day', 'Second Day' and 'Third Day', respectively, of the trilogy proper.
The scale and scope of the story is epic.
It follows the struggles of gods, heroes, and several mythical creatures over the eponymous magic Ring that grants domination over the entire world.

'Wagner tuba

'Wagner tuba'
The drama and intrigue continue through three generations of protagonists, until the final cataclysm at the end of 'Götterdämmerung'.
The music of the cycle is thick and richly textured, and quite reasonably grows in complexity as the cycle proceeds.
Wagner wrote for an orchestra of gargantuan proportions, including a greatly enlarged brass section with new instruments such as the 'Wagner tuba', 'bass trumpet' and 'contrabass trombone'.

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Festspielhaus - Orchestra Pit
Remarkably, he uses a chorus only relatively briefly, in acts 2 and 3 of 'Götterdämmerung', and then mostly of men with just a few women.
He eventually had a purpose-built theatre constructed, theBayreuth Festspielhaus, in which to perform this work.
The theatre has a special stage that blends the huge orchestra with the singers' voices, allowing them to sing at a natural volume.
The result was that the singers did not have to strain themselves vocally during the long performances.
Plot Outline

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The plot revolves around a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world, forged by the Nibelung dwarf Alberich from gold he stole from the Rhine maidens in the river Rhine.
The German Nibelungen — with the corresponding Old Norse form Niflung (Niflungr) - is the name in Germanic and Norse mythology of one of the kings of a people known as the Nibelungs, as the name of a dwarf.
In Richard Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1848-1874), Nibelung denotes a dwarf, or more specifically race of dwarves.
The name is associated with the hoard of treasure won by Siegfried.

Siegfried - Fritz Lang
The German versions of the tale make much of Kriemhild's right to the "Nibelungen" treasure through her previous marriage to Siegfried. Some seemingly took Nibelung to apply primarily to Siegfried's treasure, in which case it must mean something else than the Burgundian royal family, and so another explanation was contrived.
The alternate theory is that nibel-, nifl-, meaning 'mist, cloud', referred originally to the dwarfish origin for the Nibelung hoard. In the first half of the Nibelungenlied, Siegfried's last fight to win the treasure is against the dwarf Alberich. In Das Lied vom Hürnen Seyfried the treasure belonged to a dwarf. The people of the Nibelungs also have giants in their service, perhaps an indication of their earlier supernatural stature. In the Norse tales the hoard originates from a dwarf, and then to Hreidmar's son Fáfnir who changes into dragon form, and from him to Siegfried.
Niflheim ("Mist-home") is a mythical region of cold and mist and darkness in the north. Niflhel is a term for part of all of Hel, the land of the dead. As dwarfs are subterranean creatures in these tales, who live in darkness, Niflung would seem a reasonable name for these beings.
With the assistance of the God Loge, Wotan – the chief of the gods – steals the ring from Alberich, who curses it, but is forced to hand it over to the giants, Fafner and Fasolt in payment for building the home of the gods, Valhalla, or they will take Freia, who provides the gods with the golden apples that keep them young. Wotan's schemes to regain the ring, spanning generations, drive much of the action in the story.
Siegfried und Brünnhilde
Wotan und Brünnhilde
His grandson, the mortal Siegfried, wins the ring by slaying Fafner (who slew Fasolt for the ring) – as Wotan intended – but is eventually betrayed and slain as a result of the intrigues of Alberich's son Hagen, who wants the ring.
Finally, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde – Siegfried's lover and Wotan's daughter who lost her immortality for defying her father in an attempt to save Siegfried's father Sigmund – returns the ring to the Rhine maidens as she commits suicide on Siegfried's funeral pyre, Hagen is drowned as he attempts to recover the ring.
In the process, the gods and Valhalla are destroyed.
Wagner created the story of the Ring by fusing elements from many German and Scandinavian myths and folk tales.
The Old Norse Edda supplied much of the material for 'Das Rheingold', while 'Die Walküre' was largely based on the 'Völsungasaga'.
Siegfried contains elements from the 'Eddur', the 'Völsungasaga' and 'Thidrekssaga'.
The final opera, 'Götterdämmerung', draws from the 12th-century German poem, the 'Nibelungenlied', which appears to have been the original inspiration for the Ring.
The Ring has been the subject of numerous interpretations - most of which stray far from Wagner's original intentions.


In his earlier operas (up to and including 'Lohengrin') Wagner's style had been based, rather than on the Italian style of opera, on the German style as developed by Carl Maria von Weber, with elements of the grand opera style of Giacomo Meyerbeer.
However he came to be dissatisfied with such a format as a means of artistic expression.
He expressed this clearly in his essay 'A Communication to My Friends', (1851) in which he condemned the majority of modern artists, in painting and in music, as 'feminine ... the world of art close fenced from Life, in which Art plays with herself. Where however the impressions of Life produce an overwhelming 'poetic force', we find the 'masculine, the generative path of Art'.
Wagner unfortunately found that his audiences were not willing to follow where he led them:
'The public, by their enthusiastic reception of 'Rienzi', and their cooler welcome of the 'Flying Dutchman', had plainly shown me what I must set before them if I sought to please.
I completely undeceived their expectations; they left the theatre, after the first performance of 'Tannhäuser', [1845] in a confused and discontented mood. – The feeling of utter loneliness in which I now found myself, quite unmanned me.[...] My Tannhäuser had appealed to a handful of intimate friends alone.'
Finally Wagner announces:
'I shall never write an Opera more. As I have no wish to invent an arbitrary title for my works, I will call them Dramas ... I propose to produce my myth in three complete dramas, preceded by a lengthy Prelude (Vorspiel). ... At a specially-appointed Festival, I propose, some future time, to produce those three Dramas with their Prelude, in the course of three days and a fore-evening. The object of this production I shall consider thoroughly attained, if I and my artistic comrades, the actual performers, shall within these four evenings succeed in artistically conveying my purpose to the true Emotional (not the Critical) Understanding of spectators who shall have gathered together expressly to learn it.'
This is his first public announcement of the form of what would become the Ring cycle.
In accordance with the ideas expressed in his essays of the period 1849–51 (including the 'Communication' but also 'Opera and Drama' and 'The Artwork of the Future'), the four parts of the 'Ring' were originally conceived by Wagner to be free of the traditional operatic concepts of aria and operatic chorus.
There are three important problems discussed in 'Opera and Drama' which were particularly relevant to the Ring cycle: the problem of unifying verse stress with melody; the disjunctions caused by formal arias in dramatic structure, and the way in which opera music could be organised on a different basis of organic growth and modulation; and the function of musical motifs in linking elements of the plot whose connections might otherwise be inexplicit.
This became known as the leitmotif technique, (see below), although Wagner himself did not use this word.
However, Wagner relaxed some aspects of his self-imposed restrictions somewhat as the work progressed.


A leitmotif is a musical term referring to a 'short, constantly recurring musical phrase', associated with a particular person, place, or idea.
It is closely related to the musical concepts of idée fixe or 'motto-theme'.
The term itself is an anglicization of the German 'Leitmotiv', literally meaning "leading motif", or perhaps more accurately, "guiding motif."
A musical motif has been defined as a 'short musical idea...melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic, or all three', a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition: "the smallest structural unit possessing thematic identity."
In particular such a motif should be 'clearly identified so as to retain its identity if modified on subsequent appearances' whether such modification be in terms of rhythm, harmony, orchestration or accompaniment. It may also be 'combined with other leitmotifs to suggest a new dramatic condition' or development.
As a significant element in the Ring, these are recurring themes and/or harmonic progressions.
They musically denote an action, object, emotion, character or other subject mentioned in the text and/or presented onstage.
Wagner referred to them in 'Opera and Drama' as "guides-to-feeling", and described how they could be used to inform the listener of a musical or dramatic subtext to the action onstage in the same way as a Greek Chorus did for Attic Drama.
While other composers before Wagner had already used similar techniques, the Ring was a landmark in the extent to which they were employed, and in the ingenuity of their combination and development.


Wagner made significant innovations in orchestration in this work.
He wrote for a very large orchestra, using the whole range of instruments used singly or in combination to express the great range of emotion and events of the drama.
Wagner even commissioned the production of new instruments, including the 'Wagner tuba', invented to fill a gap he found between the tone qualities of the horn and the trombone, as well as variations of existing instruments, such as the 'bass trumpet' and a 'contrabass trombone' with a double slide.
He also developed the "Wagner bell", enabling the bassoon to reach the low A-natural below the B-flat which is the instrument's lowest note, if such a bell is not to be used, then a contrabassoon should be employed.
All four operas have a very similar instrumentation.
The core ensemble of instruments are one piccolo, three flutes (third doubling second piccolo), three oboes, English horn (doubling fourth oboe), three clarinets, one bass clarinet, three bassoons; eight horns (fifth through eight doubling wagner tubas), three trumpets, one bass trumpet, three trombones, one contrabass trombone (also a bass trombone), one contrabass tuba; a percussion section with 4 timpani (requiring two players), triangle, cymbals, glockenspiel; six harps and a string section consisting of 16 first and second violins, 12 violas, 12 violoncellos, and 8 double basses.
'Das Rheingold' requires one bass drum, one tam-tam, one onstage harp and 18 onstage anvils.
'Die Walküre' requires one snare drum, tam-tam, and an on-stage steerhorn.
'Siegfried' requires one onstage English horn, and one onstage horn.
'Götterdämmerung' requires five onstage horns and three onstage steerhorns.

Wagner Stierhorn
The stierhorn - (steerhorn) also known in English as a cowhorn or bullhorn) is an extremely long medieval bugle horn.
The instrument has been used both orchestrally and in war.
The steerhorn has a straight tube with an exact conical bore and no bell flare.
Today, many orchestras, quite wrongly, substitute the trombone or bass trombone.
The Solti recording, the Golden Ring, uses a steerhorn specially made and used at Bayreuth.


Much of the 'Ring', especially from Siegfried act 3 onwards, cannot be said to be in traditionally clearly defined keys for long stretches, but rather in 'key regions', each of which flows smoothly into the following. This fluidity avoided the musical equivalent of clearly defined musical paragraphs, and assisted Wagner in building the work's huge structures.
Tonal indeterminacy was heightened by the increased freedom with which he used dissonance and chromaticism.
Chromatically altered chords are used very liberally in the 'Ring', and this feature is also prominent in 'Tristan und Isold'.


In summer 1848 Wagner wrote 'The Nibelung Myth as Sketch for a Drama', combining the medieval sources previously mentioned into a single narrative, very similar to the plot of the eventual 'Ring cycle', but nevertheless with substantial differences.
Later that year he began writing a libretto entitled 'Siegfrieds Tod' ("Siegfried's Death").
He was possibly stimulated by a series of articles in the 'Neue Zeitschrift für Musik', inviting composers to write a 'national opera' based on the 'Nibelungenlied', a 12th-century High German poem which, since its rediscovery in 1755, had been hailed by the German Romantics as the "German national epic".
'Siegfrieds Tod' dealt with the death of Siegfried, the central heroic figure of the 'Nibelungenlied'.
By 1850, Wagner had completed a musical sketch (which he abandoned) for 'Siegfrieds Tod'.
He now felt that he needed a preliminary opera, 'Der junge Siegfried' ("The Young Siegfried", later renamed to "Siegfried"), to explain the events in 'Siegfrieds Tod'.
The verse draft of 'Der junge Siegfried' was completed in May 1851.
By October, he had made the momentous decision to embark on a cycle of four operas, to be played over four nights: 'Das Rheingold', 'Die Walküre', 'Der Junge Siegfried' and 'Siegfrieds Tod'.
The text for all four operas was completed in December 1852, and privately published in February 1853.

The Music

In November 1853, Wagner began the composition draft of 'Das Rheingold'.
Unlike the verses, which were written as it were in reverse order, the music would be composed in the same order as the narrative.
Composition proceeded until 1857, when the final score up to the end of act 2 of 'Siegfried' was completed. Wagner then laid the work aside for twelve years, during which he wrote 'Tristan und Isolde' and 'Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg'.
By 1869, Wagner was living at Tribschen on Lake Lucerne, sponsored by King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
He returned to 'Siegfried', and, remarkably, was able to pick up where he left off.
In October, he completed the final opera in the cycle.
He chose the title 'Götterdämmerung' instead of 'Siegfrieds Tod' for this opera.
In the completed work the gods are destroyed in accordance with the new pessimistic thrust of the cycle, not redeemed as in the more optimistic originally planned ending.
Wagner also decided to show onstage the events of 'Das Rheingold' and 'Die Walküre', which had hitherto only been presented as back-narration in the other two operas.

Sex and Death - Freud and Wagner

There is a desire to make Wagner sexy and appealing to a modern audience.
This is how you get naked Rhinemaidens in latex on stage.
It is natural that a Freudian interpretation becomes tempting.
The sexuality in the 'Ring' should be obvious enough, and this is certainly a potent part of the brew that is Siegfried.
As for the intellectual relationship between Wagner and Freud, there is actually a direct connection between them - and that is the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
The published text of the 'Ring' bears a dedication to Arthur Schopenhauer.
What is often not realised is that Freud, in later life, confessed to having borrowed his idea of the subconscious directly from Schopenhauer.
In Schopenhauer's concept of the 'die blinde Wille' - (Blind Will) there is a direct antecedent of Freud's idea of 'das Es' (the it - the Id), the power of desire that drives human beings (and includes libido).
Even the idea of the unconscious can be found directly in Schopenhauer's writing, and it is probably this that inspired Wagner to give the following final words to Isolde:

'vertrinken...versinken... unbewusst - höchste Lust !'

Freud actually uses the term "das Unbewusste" for the unconscious.'
However, to really understand 'Siegfried' - and with it the entire 'Ring Cycle' - it is essential to understand that there is another aspect, much darker, and more profound, that compliments the theme of Sex - and that is Death.
In between these two themes, there is yet a third theme that bridges them, and that is the theme of Angst.
Angst, however, is not mere 'anxiety' (that is a poor English translation) but rather 'terror'.
Just as there is a blind will, so there is blind terror.
When Siegfried finds himself before Brünnhilde, confronted for the first time with the sight of a divinely beautiful woman, he learns the meaning of fear.
His is the terror of a naive child who is abruptly confronted with his sexuality.
He is not in the least bit afraid of a dragon, but a woman reduces him to a terrified trembling boy, crying out for his mother.
As he kisses the sleeping Brünnhilde he says:

'So saug' ich mir Leben aus süssesten Lippen,
Sollt' ich auch sterbend vergeh'n 
Thus do I suck myself out life from these sweetest lips
Even though I should expire and die..'

In giving himself to Brünnhilde, he also resigns himself to Death.
This is a moment not unlike Kundry's kiss in 'Parsifal', - a moment that paradoxically leads to a Schopenhauerian resignation from willing ('Resignation von Wollen'), and redemption, but here it is not Siegfried who will be awakened to the ultimate truth of the destiny of the world, but rather Brünnhilde.
The music which expresses this dramatic passage becomes very extreme and chromatic.
There is both a sense of terror and wonder expressed by the music in equal measure.
If being so abruptly confronted with his sexuality is terrifying to a naive boy, it is equally terrifying to Brünnhilde.
She is innocent about sexuality, after all she is a semi-divine, immortal - an Angel of Death - but an angel nonetheless.
She gains her sexuality when Wotan takes away her divinity and immortality, and becomes mortal flesh. Confrontation with her mortal self is also a confrontation with her carnality, and with Death itself.
Now those who like to think they have got to the bottom of things by reducing all things to sexuality à la Now while the French may refer to orgasm as 'la petite mort' (the little death), in fact the Ring is ultimately more about 'la grande mort' (the great death).
It is in part about the coming to grips with the transitory and ephemeral nature of all things, which is a Schopenhauerian theme.
It is a metaphysical mourning over the fact that even the Immortal Gods turn out to be mortal after all.
The 'Ring', therefore, can be seen as a confrontation with our own mortality, with Death itself.
In his letter to Roeckel, Wagner thus writes:

'We must learn to die, in fact to die in the most absolute sense of the word; the fear of the End is the source of all lovelessness and it arises only where love itself has already faded. How did it come about that mankind so lost touch with this bringer of the highest happiness to everything living that in the end everything they did, everything they undertook and established, was done solely out of fear for the End? My poem shows how.'

Not only that, but Wagner is actually a step or so ahead of Freud.
In Freud's famous Wednesday club, one famous member of that inner circle of thinkers was Gerhard Adler. In contrast to Freud, Adler thought that the drive for power - not sexuality - was the subconscious motivator of human behaviour.
Even sexuality to Adler might have been about engendering a more powerful race (rasse) of offspring.
So is this 'Blind Will' about a sexual drive, or a 'Wille zur Macht' - (will to power) ?
That is a question that Wagner partly asks when the 'Ring' that can confer absolute power becomes the 'Ring der Liebe' (ring of love), symbolising the union between Siegfried and Brünnhilde.
The themes of Love and Power become inexorably intertwined - and into this mixture is blended the themes of Sex, Death, Angst (terror) and ultimately of Redemption.
And from what it is this a redemption ?
It may be suggested that it is a redemption from a world ruled over by the god of vengeance, rage and war, where humans are but the blind playthings of the gods, and of destiny.

'As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,
They kill us for their sport.'
King Lear Act 4, scene 1, 32–37

Even Siegmund, who seems for a moment will rise to break the bonds of slavery to the gods, is risen up in their favour only to be crushed by them like an insect.
Of all humans only Siegfried has cut himself loose from the chains of bondage to the gods and destiny.
He is in this sense the first Free Man.
If this is a world in which humans are but powerless insects before the gods, it is equally a loveless world, where women like Sieglinde are given away into marriage like cattle, to be trapped as a beast of burden in servitude to a patriarchal brute.
And it is to this Free Man, Siegfried, that Brünnhilde gives herself freely, not in bondage, but in Love. Though her confrontation with her sexuality and mortality exposes her to a terrifying vulnerability that she has never before known, she rises above her Fear of Death itself, as blind terror yields to blind passion as both she and Siegfried surrender to their sexuality in blissful abandon: 'leuchtende Liebe - lachende Tod !'
Yet in doing so they have each also abandoned themselves to Death - 'la grande mort' - itself.
They have sewn the seeds of the ultimate apocalypse that will be 'Götterdämmerung'.

Suggested Themes of the Four Music-Dramas

'Rhinegold': Love against Greed and Power
'Die Walküre': Love against Law
'Siegfried': Love as Freedom
'Götterdämmerung': Love as Resignation, Self-Sacrifice and Redemption

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