The composition of the operatic tetralogy 'The Ring of the Nibelung' occupied Richard Wagner for more than a quarter of a century.
Conceived around 1848, the work was not finished until 1874, less than two years before the entire cycle was given its premiere at Bayreuth.
Most of this time was devoted to the composition of the music, the text having been largely completed in about four years.
Wagner's Method of Composition
Furthermore, it was often Wagner's practice to work on two or more drafts of a work at the same time, switching back and forth between them as the fancy took him.
Consequently, it is all but impossible to make definitive statements about the exact order in which the various themes, leitmotifs and instrumentations were arrived at.
Each score, however, did pass through at least three stages, there being seven possible stages in all:
Preliminary and Supplementary Sketches (Einzelskizzen) -
before beginning the composition proper, Wagner usually made some preliminary sketches to work on. Needless to say, he added supplementary sketches to these throughout the compositional process.
These sketches are sometimes little more than fragmentary phrases jotted down on scraps of paper; but they can also be quite lengthy and elaborate sections of music written on several staves.
Sometimes they are labelled (e.g. "Fafner", "Waldvogel" [Woodbird]).
Unlike the preliminary sketches for his earlier operas, however, which were usually settings of lines of text, the sketches for the Ring operas were generally worked out independently of the text; vocal sketches do survive, but more often than not even these are without text.
It is highly unlikely that all Wagner's sketches have come down to us, and of course not everything need have been sketched - some of the music for the preliminary drafts may have been composed from scratch as it was required - but the "cleaner" a passage in a draft is, the more likely it is that it was preceded by a sketch.
Preliminary Draft (Gesamtentwurf) – the first complete draft in pencil (later traced over in ink) of the entire work (in the case of the first two Ring operas) or of an entire act (in the case of the last two).
There is generally only one vocal stave and one or two instrumental staves.
Instrumental interludes are sometimes elaborated on three staves.
The preliminary draft for 'Das Rheingold' was similar in detail to the one Wagner composed for 'Lohengrin', but those of the following three Ring operas were as detailed as Lohengrin's second complete draft (the so-called "composition draft").
Developed Draft (Orchesterskizze) – in the case of 'Siegfried' (Acts I and II), the preliminary drafts were elaborated before Wagner proceeded to develop the full scores.
In these intermediate drafts, he worked out all the orchestral details, including instrumental doublings.
The developed drafts for the first two acts of 'Siegfried' are in ink and are written on one vocal and two instrumental staves throughout.
In WWV these developed drafts are called Orchesterskizzen, a term which WWV also employs to describe the more elaborate second drafts of the later acts of the Ring.
Orchestral Draft (Orchesterskizze) – in the composition of the third act of 'Siegfried' and all three acts of 'Götterdämmerung', the preliminary draft was followed by an elaborate short score written in ink on two or three vocal staves and as many as five instrumental staves.
These Orchesterskizzen, as Wagner himself styled them, are even more detailed than the developed drafts of the first two acts of Siegfried.
Instrumentation Draft (Partiturerstschrift) – in the case of the four scenes of 'Das Rheingold', the preliminary draft was followed by what Wagner termed an Instrumentationsskizze, in which he worked out most of the orchestral details.
This draft was written in pencil and on as many staves as were required by the instrumentation.
It is thus but one remove from being a full score, and in WWV both are referred to by the same name.
The instrumental prelude that precedes Scene 1 was not included in the instrumentation draft, however, but was written out in ink in full score without any intermediate stage, as is explained below.
Full Score (Partiturerstschrift) – the final score, in which the instrumentation is fully detailed and separate staves are allocated to the various instruments and singers.
The full scores for 'Die Walküre' and 'Siegfried' (Acts I and II) are in pencil; those for 'Das Rheingold' (Prelude), 'Siegfried' (Act III) and the whole of 'Götterdämmerung' are in ink.
Needless to say, as many staves are used as are required by the instrumentation.
No full score was made for 'Das Rheingold' (Scenes 1-4), as the instrumentation draft was considered sufficiently detailed for a fair copy to be made directly from it.
Fair Copy (Reinschrift der Partitur) – a clean copy in ink of the full score.
Wagner only drafted fair copies for 'Das Rheingold', 'Die Walküre' and the first two acts of 'Siegfried'.
In the case of the 'Das Rheingold' (Scenes 1-4), there was no full score as such, so the fair copy was the only copy of the full score.
In the case of 'Siegfried' (Act III) and the whole of 'Götterdämmerung' the full scores were written neatly in ink, so Wagner did not deem it necessary to draft a separate fair copy.
The fair copy of 'Das Rheingold' was, incidentally, the first fair copy Wagner ever made of one of his operas.
It took Wagner just over four years to complete the text of his 'Ring Cycle' (1848–1852).
The composition of the music, however, would occupy him, on and off, for almost a quarter of a century.
In the summer of 1850 he actually began to compose music for the prologue of 'Siegfried's Tod' (Siegfried's Death, as 'Götterdämmerung' was originally called) before he had even conceived of the 'Ring Cycle' itself. This effort, however, was premature and Wagner abandoned the work near the beginning of the second scene, in which Siegfried takes his leave of Brünnhilde.
The following summer Wagner made another abortive attempt to compose music for his gradually emerging operatic cycle.
Only a handful of sketches survive for 'Der junge Siegfried' (The Young Siegfried, as Siegfried was originally called).
Some of these were later drawn upon when Wagner came to compose Siegfried proper in 1856.
A few other sketches survive from these early years.
Other early sketches for Die Walküre were made in the summer of 1852. 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.
The idea for the prelude of 'Das Rheingold' famously came to Wagner in a "vision" he had on 5 September 1853 as he lay in a semi-conscious state in an inn at La Spezia, Italy:
However, it was not until 1 November 1853, at his lodgings in Zürich, that he finally sat down and began the first continuous musical draft of the tetralogy.
Five and a half years had passed since he had completed his last opera, Lohengrin.
The Composing of the 'Ring Cycle'
He began by developing a preliminary draft (Gesamtentwurf) of the entire work from his sketches.
This 77-page draft, which was written in pencil and on two (sometimes three) staves, was completed by 14 January 1854.
The following month (1 February) he proceeded to make a second complete draft.
It seems that his first intention was to make a composition draft in ink, just as he had done for 'Lohengrin', but as such a draft of the opening Prelude – which consists of little more than an arpeggiated E♭ major triad – would have been to all intents and purposes a full score, he decided to skip the intermediate stage and draft the full score in ink right away.
This he proceeded to do with the Prelude, significantly revising some of its details in the process.
When, however, he reached the beginning of Scene 1, he found that the remainder of the opera required too much revision and elaboration to allow him to develop a full score without first making a second complete draft.
He therefore abandoned the full score in ink and proceeded to develop instead an instrumentation draft in pencil, in which he worked out most of the vocal and orchestral details of the four remaining scenes.
This Instrumentationsskizze, as Wagner himself styled it, was completed by 28 May 1854.
Two things should be noted about the second complete draft of 'Das Rheingold'.
Firstly, the full score of the Prelude (in ink) and the instrumentation draft of the remainder of the opera (in pencil) together constitute a single manuscript (WWV 86A Musik III).
In WWV this is called a Partiturerstschrift, a term usually reserved for Wagner's full scores: strictly speaking only the section in ink is a Partiturerstschrift.
Secondly, the manuscript is fragmentary: thirty-three measures are missing, which include the closing measures of the Prelude and the opening measures of Scene 1.
As ink is used before this lacuna and pencil after it, it is generally assumed that Wagner switched from one medium to the other at the entrance of the voices (i.e. the first measure of Scene 1); but until and unless the missing sheets are recovered, this must remain an assumption.
The final stage of the compositional process was the writing out in ink of a fair copy of the full score (Reinschrift der Partitur).
This task was begun by Wagner himself on 15 February 1854, while he was still at work on the instrumentation draft.
It was delayed, however, by his decision to start work on 'Die Walküre' (28 June 1854).
|Adolf Hitler and Winifred Wagner|
He worked at it on and off for several months, alternating this work with the ongoing composition of 'Die Walküre'.
|Ludwig II König von Bayern|
Wagner then sent it to the Dresden copyist Friedrich Wölfel, who completed a beautiful and very accurate ink copy on 11 November 1855.
|'Die Feen' - Rough Drafts|
Wagner gave his own fair copy to his patron Ludwig II of Bavaria as a birthday gift on 25 August 1865, and it eventually found its way into the king's family archives.
More than half a century later it was purchased by the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce and presented to Adolf Hitler on the occasion of the Führer's fiftieth birthday (20 April 1939).
It was destroyed (along with the autograph scores of 'Die Feen', 'Das Liebesverbot' and 'Rienzi', and the fair copy of 'Die Walküre') shortly before the fall of Berlin in May 1945 (though a number of conspiracy theories continue to claim otherwise).
|Walkürenritt - Die Walküre|
But it was not until 28 June 1854 that Wagner began to transform these into a complete draft of all three acts of the opera.
This preliminary draft (Gesamtentwurf), which was completed by 27 December 1854, was written in pencil and shows a greater degree of orchestral elaboration than the corresponding draft of 'Das Rheingold'.
In January 1855 Wagner proceeded to compose the full score without bothering to write an intermediate instrumentation draft as he had done for 'Das Rheingold'.
This was a decision he was soon to regret, as numerous interruptions made the task of orchestrating the Gesamtentwurf an exceedingly difficult one.
If he allowed too much time to elapse between the initial drafting of a passage and its later elaboration, he found that he could not remember how he had intended to orchestrate the draft.
Consequently some passages had to be composed again from scratch.
Wagner, nevertheless, persevered with the task and the full score was finally completed on 20 March 1856.
The fair copy was begun on 14 July 1855 in the Swiss resort of Seelisberg, where Wagner and his wife spent a month.
It was completed in Zürich on 23 March 1856, just three days after the completion of the full score.
'Siegfried', Acts I and II
Schopenhauer's pessimistic and renunciatory philosophy had a profound effect on Wagner, and it was only to be expected that it should influence the composition of the Ring.
In 1856 the libretto of 'Siegfried' was revised and a new ending was devised for 'Götterdämmerung' – the so-called 'Schopenhauer Ending'.
When Wagner came to compose 'Siegfried', he made three significant alterations to his modus operandi. Firstly, he wrote (in ink and on at least three staves) a developed draft between the preliminary draft and the full score; this intermediate draft included most of the orchestral details of the final score; this procedure, Wagner hoped, would facilitate the writing of the full score, obviating the difficulties he had encountered during the composition of 'Die Walküre'.
Secondly, he composed one act at a time, carrying the composition of the music through all three stages from preliminary draft to full score (but not necessarily fair copy) for the first act before proceeding to the composition of the second act; this way he ensured that as little time as possible elapsed between the initial drafting of a passage and its final orchestration.
Thirdly, he frequently worked on the various drafts at the same time, orchestrating the earlier scenes of an act while still drafting the later ones.
Discounting the earlier sketches he had made for 'Der junge Siegfried' (summer 1851), the composition of 'Siegfried' was begun in Zürich in September 1856.
The developed draft was begun on 22 September, almost immediately after the (undated) preliminary draft. The full score was begun on 11 October, so Wagner was working on all three stages at the same time.
|Tristan und Isolde|
|'Tristan und Isolde'|
Nevertheless, by 31 March 1857 the full score of Act I was finished.
Sometime thereafter Wagner began to make a fair copy, but he abandoned this task after just one scene.
Almost two months elapsed before he began work on Act II; the prelude, Fafners Ruhe ("Fafner's Rest") was sketched on 20 May 1857, while the preliminary draft was begun on 22 May, the composer's forty-fourth birthday.
On 18 June, he began the developed draft while still working on the preliminary draft; but later that same month he dropped the work (at the point where Siegfried rests himself beneath the linden tree) to concentrate on 'Tristan und Isolde'.
The preliminary draft reached this point on the 26th, and the developed draft on the 27th.
It seems that Wagner was tiring of the 'Ring' and he considered putting it aside for a while:
I have led my young Siegfried to a beautiful forest solitude, and there have left him under a linden tree, and taken leave of him with heartfelt tears." (Wagner, in a letter to Franz Liszt, dated 8 May 1857)
This hiatus, however, did not last as long as Wagner had anticipated.
On 13 July 1857 he took up the work again and finished Act II within four weeks, the preliminary draft being completed on 30 July and the developed draft on 9 August.
The full score of the first act was now complete (in pencil), and a fair copy had been made (in ink) of the opening scene; the developed draft of the second act was finished, but the full score had not yet been begun. At this point Wagner once again put the opera aside to concentrate on 'Tristan und Isolde'.
Seven years would pass before he took it up again, during which time he completed 'Tristan' and started 'Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg'.
At this time Wagner's straitened circumstances compelled him to accept financial assistance from a wealthy silk merchant, Otto Wesendonck.
On 28 April 1857 Wagner and Minna moved into the Asyl, a small cottage on Wesendonck's new estate near Zürich, which the generous patron had placed at Wagner's disposal.
In August 1858, however, Wagner was forced to leave Zürich alone, following an argument with Minna over his questionable relationship with Wesendonck's wife Mathilde; he and Minna were formally separated in 1862, though Wagner continued to support her financially until her death in 1866.
From 1858 to 1864 Wagner spent six restless years wandering across Europe.
During this period he lived in several different cities – Venice, Lucerne, Paris, Vienna, Weimar, Karlsruhe, Zürich, Munich, Nürnberg, Leipzig, Dresden, Biebrich and Stuttgart among them – and all this time 'Siegfried' languished unfinished.
|Ludwig II König von Bayern|
He resumed the task of making a fair copy of Act I, finishing Scene 2; then, between 22 December 1864 and 2 December 1865, he wrote out the full score of Act II.
But that same month he was forced to leave Bavaria, having scandalized Ludwig's court by conducting an adulterous affair with Liszt's married daughter Cosima.
On 30 March 1866 Wagner moved into a villa in Tribschen, on the shores of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland; Cosima joined him there two months later.
Tribschen was to be Richard and Cosima's home for the next six years.
They were eventually married on 25 August 1870.
'Siegfried', Act III
Work on 'Siegfried' was resumed at the start of 1869 and on 23 February the fair copies of Acts I and II were finally completed.
A week later, on 1 March, Wagner began the composition of Act III.
Working from sketches dating from around 1864 and thereafter, he proceeded to make a preliminary draft of the entire act, as was his usual practice.
This was completed fifteen weeks later on 14 June.
The second complete draft – the orchestral draft (see above) – was finished on 5 August.
The full score was begun on 25 August and completed on 5 February 1871.
As explained above, Wagner never made a fair copy of the third act of 'Siegfried'.
It is often said that twelve years elapsed between the second and third acts of 'Siegfried', but this is an exaggeration.
While it is true that eleven years and twenty-nine weeks passed between the completion of the developed draft of Act II and the beginning of the preliminary draft of Act III, Wagner devoted more than a year of this so-called hiatus to the composition of 'Siegfried', completing the fair copy of Act I, drawing up both the full score and fair copy of Act II, and making sketches for Act III.
There was to be no fair copy of this the final opera in the cycle, so the three acts passed through just three stages: preliminary draft (Gesamtentwurf), orchestral draft (Orchesterskizze), and full score (Partiturerstschrift).
Wagner had altered his modus operandi once again while at work on the last two acts of 'Die Meistersinger': now it was his practice to finish both complete drafts of each act in turn before beginning the full score of the entire opera.
The composition of 'Götterdämmerung' proceeded without much difficulty, as Wagner was now thoroughly familiar with his musical material and his enlarged orchestra.
There was a brief interruption over Christmas, but the work was resumed early in the new year (on 9 January 1870).
The second complete draft – the orchestral draft – was begun just two days later and Wagner worked on both drafts together.
It was not until 5 February 1871 that the completion of 'Siegfried' allowed him the time to concentrate on 'Götterdämmerung'.
By the summer of 1871 both drafts of the Prologue and Act I were finished and Wagner had begun the preliminary draft of Act II.
The orchestral draft was not begun, however, until 18 November of the same year.
Act II was completed by the end of the year.
|Bayreuth in 1876|
This was not the only change he made to the text of Act III.
While setting this act to music, he decided that Gutrune should die (in earlier drafts she merely fainted).
During rehearsals for the world premiere at Bayreuth in 1876 Wagner even pointed out to his assistant Heinrich Porges the exact measure in which she expires.
Porges became a devotee and intimate of Richard Wagner, and his extensive notes on Wagner's rehearsal and staging were published in the journal 'Bayreuther Blätter' over the period 1880-1896. His study of 'Tristan und Isolde' was published after his death in 1906 by Hans von Wolzogen. He received a life pension from King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
Work on the preliminary draft of Act III began on 4 January 1872, followed shortly thereafter by the orchestral draft.
The former was finished on 9 April and the latter on 22 July.
A year later, on 28 April 1873, they moved into Wahnfried, Wagner's new mansion in Bayreuth.
On 3 May 1873, just five days after taking up residence in Wahnfried, Wagner began the full score of 'Götterdämmerung'.
On Christmas Eve he had reached the end of Act I.
On 26 June 1874 the second act was fully scored, and less than five months later, on 21 November 1874, the full score of the entire opera was ready.
On the very last page Wagner wrote: "Vollendet in Wahnfried am 21. November 1874. Ich sage nichts weiter!! RW" ("Completed in Wahnfried on 21 November 1874. I will say no more!! RW")
After more than a quarter of a century, 'Der Ring des Nibelungen' was finally completed.