THE curtain rises on the rocky bed of the Rhine wrapped in greenish twilight. The water, blue above, is lighter, and flows to the right. In the centre, towers a conical peak around which the Rhine-daughter, Woglinde, is gracefully swimming, singing her watch-song. Her sisters, Flosshilde and Wellgunde, join her and sport among the crags.
The Rhine motiv, of ascending scale, corresponding to its rise in tint, begins on bassoons and double basses two parts each); at the seventeenth bar the eighth horn takes it up. It is followed on the seventh and then distributed among all eight horns for twenty-four bars, when the wave movement begins on the ‘cellos.
The motiv of the Rhine-daughters is a swimming movement given by the violins ; it runs through this entire scene.
From a dark chasm, issues Alberich, the Nibelung (baritone), who halts and delightedly watches the sports of the Nixies. The bassoons and bass clarinets cry out at his entrance. He wants to join the maidens, and, after their first alarm, they encourage his advances and successively mock his desires ; and then all laugh at his discomfiture. His impotent cry, ” O schmerz ! ‘accentuated by the strings, is the motiv of Bondage. He vainly chases them in his passion till, exhausted, he shakes his fist at them in his fury. Just then the harp sounds, and, above on the central peak, the gold blazes forth to the salutation of the second horn. The Rhine-daughters forget the dwarf, and swim about the rock with their Adoration of the Gold. The first section is accompanied by violins in eight parts : the second, by only four parts violins and the other strings. Alberich is dazzled. On inquiry, he learns its virtues. Fashioned into a ring, it would endow its possessor with omnipotence. Wellgunde, in unison with the first oboe, utters the Power of the Ring, ” Welt Erbe gewänne zu eigen,” accompanied by the second oboe, horn, bassoon and strings. Flosshilde tries to check her sister’s revelations, but is reminded by Woglinde that the gold can only be gained by one who forswears love. Renunciation sounds in her words : ” Nur wer der Minne Macht entsagt, nur wer der Liebe Lust verjagt,” accompanied by tubas and drums, pianissimo, and light strings. There is nothing to be feared from Alberich, for he is faint with the fires of love till the very waters hiss ! Again their mocking laughter exasperates the dwarf. But the Power of the Ring on piccolos, cor anglais, and horns, and Renunciation, on flutes, oboes, and clarinets, reveal his secret thoughts. ‘With swift resolve, he bids them laugh on, and scales the peak, while they scatter as they suppose from his amorous pursuit. However, he clutches the gold. They were mistaken ! Let the water witness how he curses love and will weld the gold into the mighty Ring! (Bassoons and drums softly give the motiv.) Then he plunges to his cavern and disappears, while darkness falls ; and the Rhine-daughters frantically pursue the robber with despairing cries that mingle with his fiendish laughter.
The heavy gloom gradually clears away, and we see a plateau among the mountain tops. Day breaks gradually, and the battlements of a castle glitter on a distant peak separated from us by a deep valley in which is the unseen Rhine. Wotan and Fricka are sleeping on the flowery sward. The motiv of the Ring gradually assumes a more majestic character and is developed into Walhalla on the tubas; gradually the rest of the brass is added, and harps, cello and double bass join in. Fricka awakes and sees the splendid castle, and is surprised and alarmed. She shakes her husband, who murmurs in his dreams of the glories of the structure ; also depicted in the music. Then he awakes and acclaims the accomplishment of his idea ; the first trumpet sounding Hail to Walhalla at his final ” herrlicher Bau.”
Fricka says that ‘s all very well, but how about Freia ? Payment must be thought of. The Treaty is heard on the bass strings at ” Der Burg ist fertig.” Fricka reproaches Wotan for trading her flower sister to the giants for the work. From their mutual recriminations, we gather that Fricka wanted a lordly abode of delight to induce her husband to stay at home, but he wants to turn it into a stronghold. His phrase ” Wolltest du Frau in der Feste mich fangen ?” forms the theme of Love’s Fascination (horn, clarinet, bassoon, violin, and viola). The notes had been sung twelve bars earlier by Fricka. Wotan will not give up his freedom. He knows he worships woman too much for Fricka’s wishes ; but she must remember that to gain her for his wife he left an eye in pledge. Besides, he does not mean to desert Freïa, who now dashes in, praying for protection from the pursuing Fasolt. The motive of Freïa and Flight, on the violins, enter with her. Wotan says, ” Don’t mind him ; where ‘s Loge ? ” Fricka carps at his trust in that crafty fellow ; but Wotan expects him to find a way out of the difficulty as he swore he would. Then Fricka is bitter at his keeping out of the way. Freïa calls upon her brothers, Donner and Froh, to come to her aid. Fricka comforts her by saying that they, too, are linkers. Fasolt and Fafner, armed with heavy stakes, now enter to the heavy motiv of the Giants, loudly announced on the bass strings, drums, trumpets, trombones, and tubas. Fasolt is spokesman. While the Gods slept the Giants toiled ; now take possession of the completed work and pay up ! Wotan tries to wriggle out of the dilemma. He was not serious in his intention to give up Freïa. The Giants are speechless with rage. Are the runes on Wotan’s spear, that bound the bargain, written in sport ? And the Treaty with the Giants, on horns and bassoons, solemnly recalls the pact. Wotan jests at the idea. Why, the glances of the flowery goddess would blind the Giants ! So ! he mocks them ! Have they toiled to gain the sweetening ways of a woman only to find themselves tricked ? Fafner turns to his brother. Wealth they do not want, but the goddess has in her beautiful garden Golden fipples (a soft graceful motiv on horns, drums, pianissimo, and double basses). She alone can grow them and they give eternal youth. Her absence will wither the gods ! At this, Wotan mutters, ” Loge ‘s a long time coming.” However he must make up his mind. Won’t they take anything else ? Nothing but Freïa ! And they advance towards her. Her cries bring in Donner and Froh, who try to protect her. Donner swings his hammer and threatens the Giants, but Wotan extends his spear between them, and the Treaty with the Giants solemnly sounds on the trombones. Freïa wails that Wotan forsakes her; and Fricka comments on his hard heart. But at last here comes Loge ! His leaping and flickering motiv on the violas and ‘cellos announces him. It is immediately followed by the Flames’ Spell on the first and second violins to Wotan’s first words. Loge is scornful; he prefers heights and hollows to houses. However, he has examined Walhalla, and finds all sound and satisfactory. Wotan calls him to the point. How about his oath to get out of the bargain ? To the reproaches of Fricka, Froh, and Donner, he denies anything more than a promise to try. The Giants are impatient. Wotan wants to know what has kept Loge so long. He has been over the world to find a ransom for Freïa, but finds that nothing weighs against woman’s worth ! At his ” Weibes Wonne und Werth” we hear Love’s Regret on the cor anglais, horns, and strings. The only exception was the Nibelung Alberich; and he tells the tale. The Giants are interested. The Nibelung has already harmed them, and his possession of the Rheingold is serious. They and the gods learn its virtues, and decide that the dwarf must be deprived of his ring. Loge says that the Rhine-daughters are coming to ask Wotan to make him restore it. Wotan is troubled. The Giants now consult, and then tell Wotan that they will accept the ring in lieu of Freïa. He scouts the notion ; so they seize and hurry her away, deaf to her cries, saying that they will give him till evening for reflection.
A pale mist begins to thicken and settle like a blight. Loge remarks on its withering effects on the gods. They are growing grey and haggard. Yes, they confess all vitality is failing them ! The Golden Apples are heard on various instruments. Loge explains that the need of them is withering the gods. Freïa never gave him any of her fruit, for he was only a demi-god, so he does not suffer as they do! In desperation, Wotan decides to have the gold for the ransom. Loge must accompany him to Niebelheim ! Sadly they bid him farewell as he enters a cleft whence a sulphurous cloud immediately arises and obscures the whole scene. When it clears, a subterranean cavern is seen with narrow passages leading away in all directions. The music accompanying the descent reveals the thoughts of the gods. We have Loge, Bondage, Gold, Flight, and the rhythm of the Forge gradually becoming more distinct. It is first heard on the oboes, clarinets, horns, and gradually taken up by eighteen anvils behind the scenes, all tuned to F. A forge becomes visible, with smoke and flames. Bondage is repeated five times by the bassoons as Alberich drags his shrieking brother Mime by the ear out of a side cleft : he will scourge him unless his task is done ! Mime whines ; it is ready, but he does not want to give it up. However, he hastily drops the piece of metal-work he has been concealing when Alberich becomes violent. The latter carefully examines it ; it is perfect. It is the Tarnhelm that he ordered Mime to make for him. He puts it on, and stuffed horns give forth the Power of the Helm. He softly says, “Night and cloud, know me not,” and vanishes. His voice is heard asking Mime if he can see him. Mime looks about in amazement. He cannot. “Then feel me ! ” and blows from a whip fall upon him as he writhes and screams. His brother ironically thanks him for the work whereby all the Nibelungs shall now kneel to Alberich, who can watch then himself unseen ! His voice grows faint in the distance, and howls arise in the side galleries as his invisible whip falls upon his other brethren. Mime lies groaning on the ground as Loge and Wotan enter. His reflections are sad ; two bassoons give forth Reflection to his words, ” Wer hälfe mir,” as they ask what ails him. He explains how Alberich forged the ring out of Rheingold and forces all the Nibelungs to pile up treasure for him ; also how he made Mime forge a brass helm which Mime wanted to retain, but unfortunately did not know its virtue, or he would have stolen the ring; and so he only got blows for his pains. He gains little sympathy ; and they realize that their errand will not be easy though Wotan trusts in Loge’s craft. The Forge is now heard ; and Alberich returns driving before him a herd of Nibelungs, loaded with ingots, which they pile up while he abuses them. The Tarnhelm is now in his hand. He sees Wotan and Loge, and is angry. He drives Mime in among the others, and threatens them all if they don’t work well for him. Drawing his ring off, he waves it threateningly, and Alberich’s Power, on the oboe, cor anglais, and clarinets, emphasizes his words, ” Zittre und zage, gezahmtes Heer!” To a return of the Forge, they scatter to their tasks in terror. Then he scowls at the intruders. What do they want there ? They have come to behold the wonders of which they have heard. But he mistrusts them. Loge reminds him of all he owes to fire : he is his friend. Alberich says that Loge’s favours now go to the light instead of the dark elves, but now he fears nothing. He points to the hoard of one day’s work, but that is the least. The bass clarinet and three bassoons tell of the Amassing of the Treasure. He will fall on the gods and their women shall suffer ! Wotan is furious, but Loge warns him to control himself. Here occurs the Nibelung’s Cry of Triumph, made up partly of Walhalla, on oboes, and Loge, on piccolo and violin, showing the components of Alberich’s exultation. Loge suggests that if the ring were stolen, Alberich’s power would be gone. Yes ! But he has provided against that by having the Tarnhelm made, so that he may sleep invisible and escape that danger. Loge is full of admiration, but is somewhat incredulous as to the power of that same helm. Alberich is insulted. In what form shall he appear to them? Any he pleases ! He selects that of a terrible dragon, at which Loge feigns intense fright, to the huge enjoyment of Alberich. The Dragon roars and undulates fearfully on the bass tubas. So far Loge is convinced, but can Alberich also assume minute as well as mighty pro-portions ? Of course he can, and immediately transforms himself into a toad that hops on the clarinet and cor anglais. At Loge’s hint, Wotan sets his foot upon it, while Loge seizes the Tarnhelm, whereupon Alberich resumes his own form and is promptly bound and dragged to the upper world, to which the scene gradually changes.
The orchestral interlude includes an ironical reminiscence of the Nibelung’s Cry of Triumph, the Ring, Bondage, and the Forge on the anvils, growing gradually fainter. Then comes Flight on violins, and the Giants in the distance on the bass strings. Walhalla follows on horns and bassoons, and Bondage, combined with the Giants, loudly and threateningly, on trombones. Lastly comes the adoration of the Gold. Thus the situation is fully pictured.
Wotan and Loge issue from the cleft, dragging their infuriated captive. Loge gleefully skips about him with a sympathetic figure on the strings as he lies on the ground.
They mock his impotence and baffled dreams of power, while he vows revenge. But first he must pay ransom ! They demand his hoard of gold, and he consents after vain opposition. The violins and ‘cellos imitate the rubbing of the cords as Loge unbinds his right hand. He murmurs a command with his lips to the ring and immediately the Forge is heard on the ‘cellos pianissimo. The Nibelungs come in with the treasure and pile it, and then depart to their toil at Alberich’s orders. Now will they unbind him ? Loge throws the Tarnhelm on the heap. Well, he reflects, let it go : Mime can forge another ! Now will they free him ? To his horror, they demand the ring. Let them first take his life ! But he is forced to submit, in spite of his rage and revilings. Wotan forcibly removes it from his finger amid horrible shrieks, and puts it on his own. Now at last he is master of masters ! Alberich may go now. The cords are loosened (with imitations again on the violins and violas), and immediately the Nibelung’s Work of Destruction begins on horn, clarinets, and ‘cellos. This undermining motiv of menace is perpetually recurring hence-forward. Now the dwarf launches his dire Curse of the Ring largely to the above motiv and drum tremolo. Alberich’s Power and Bondage also occur some twenty bars before the conclusion. May the gold of the ring give death to its wearer; may no gladness dwell with it and no luck accompany it ; may it be a burden to its possessor and a gnawing pain to him who owns it not. All shall crave its gain, but none shall gain wealth by it ; it shall not profit its owner, but shall light the thief to his throat. Its dread shall make him feel forfeit to death. Though he live long, he shall die every day, and shall be the slave of the ring he seems to rule. And this shall be until it returns unto Alberich ! Then he dives into the cleft, as Loge sneers at his loving farewell, which neither disturbs Wotan’s contemplation of the treasure.
Now the clouds in the foreground begin to clear away. Loge sees Freïa approaching with the Giants ; we hear Golden Apples prominently, and Froh, Donner, and Fricka hurry in to welcome Wotan and Loge and hear of their success. Harps accompany Froh’s joyous words. They all feel restored vitality, and the mist now hangs over Walhalla alone. Freïa comes in and runs to Fricka, who warmly embraces her. Fasolt interposes to his ponderous motiv ; she is not free yet. In any case he is loth to give up the beautiful goddess ; but, if the ransom is paid, here she is ! The hoard must be heaped between the Giants’ two spears till it conceals Freîa, standing behind, from their eyes. Froh and Donner pile it up. Fafner packs it down tight, and it leaves Freïa’s hair still visible. But there is no more gold ; and the gods are indignant. Wotan turns away in disgust at the greed of the Giants, and Fricka reproaches him for Freia’s predicament. The Tarnhelm must be added; and, finally, Loge contemptuously throws it on the heap. Fasolt steps up to inspect, and discovers a chink through which the light of Freïa’s eye streams. He will not free her so long as he is lighted by her glance ! There is nothing left but the ring, and that must stop the hole. But Loge explains that they cannot have that ; Wotan must restore it to the Rhine-daughters ! No such thing, Wotan snaps that he won it and will keep it ! Then Loge is sorry for the comforting promise he gave the maidens ! Wotan is stubborn before the prayers of all, and the Giants are about to carry away the distressed Freïa as forfeit. Darkness overspreads the scene, and suddenly from a chasm at one side a blue light shines, and Erda rises half way from the depths. Stretching out her hand to Wotan, she appeals to him not to retain what is accursed. The ring will soon ruin its owner ! ” Who is this ? ” cries Wotan. The muted violas and stuffed horns enter with the motiv of the Norns as she declares herself. She is the prophetess of the present, past, and future ; to Wotan she bore the three Norns who tell him at night what she sees. His danger has brought her today to warn him that all things must end and a day of gloom will dawn for the gods. Let him give up the ring ! Her words are accompanied softly by the Norns, the Nibelung’s Work of Destruction, and ” Ein dust’rer Tag” introduces the new motiv on violins and violas and gong, the Fall of the Gods. As she sinks, Wotan wants to know more ; but she has said enough and disappears, while the others remonstrate with his insistence with the hallowed Wala, and beg him to heed her words. All anxiously awaits his decision. After deep reflection, in which the trombones firmly utter the Treaty with the Giants, he calls Freïa to him ; she is free ! He wishes the Giants joy of their ring as he throw it on the pile. The gods all caress the youth-giving goddess, as Fafner spreads a big sack for the treasure. Fasolt wants his half, but his brother says Fasolt cared more about Freïa than the gold ; would he have shared half of her with Fafner ? Fasolt appeals to the gods to decide between them, but Wotan turns contemptuously away. Loge mischievously suggests that he take the ring and leave the rest. Thereupon he snatches it from Fafner, who stretches him lifeless with a blow of his stake, to a fortissimo chord of the full orchestra. The strings accompany his fall and give the Ring. Fafner puts the ring into his sack and leisurely proceeds to gather up the rest, while the gods stand transfixed with horror. Wotan shudders, and mutters how terribly he feels the might of the curse. To the Nibelung’s Work of Destruction, Loge tells him how lucky he is to have transferred the evil to his foes ; but his mind still misgives him, and he will go to consult with Erda ! Fricka tries her blandishments to lure him to Walhalla, but he broods over the wrong by which it was paid for. Donner points to the background, where mists still obscure the castle ; he will clear the air with a storm i He mounts the rocks and begins to swing his hammer, calling the mists and clouds around him. His Incantation of the Thunder begins with hurrying passages on the violas and two-part ‘cellos. The other strings join in till there are six parts each of the first and second violins. Horns, two parts, are added at the seventh bar; and then Come flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, as Donner disappears among thick storm-clouds, and then the crashing brass follows. As the lightning flashes, all the instruments cease except two ‘cellos and a drum fortissimo. Donner calls Froh to him to mark out the way for the bridge to Walhalla. Meantime Fafner had packed up his treasure and departed. Then the clouds part and reveal Donner and Froh, with a brilliant rainbow stretching from their feet to Walhalla. Froh tells them it is fit for their passage. The Rainbow glitters with scintillations on all the strings, including eight parts violins and six parts harps. Flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns, and bassoons also render assistance, and, as Froh ends, Walhalla rises from the tubas. The motive of the Ring (trumpets), the Rhine (oboes and cor anglais) act as commentary, while Wotan says he has had to work hard since the dawn to win the walls, and now the night is at hand and the walls shall shield them all. Here the Sword, which Fafner has left behind and Wotan picks up, breaks forth on the trumpet. He takes Fricka’s hand to cross the bridge and the others follow. Loge lingers behind, and soliloquizes that they are hastening to their end, and he is unwilling to share their doom. He would rather return to fire and destroy them all ; and his flames roar on the strings. He will ponder it well ! As he turns to join them on the bridge, Rheingold arises from the valley below. Wotan halts. Whose sorrow reaches him ? The Nixies are mourning its loss, Loge explains. Wotan is remorseful and angered at the same time. Why can’t they keep quiet ? So Loge mockingly calls to them in the Rhine below, ” Wotan hopes that, having lost the gleam of the gold, ye may find happiness in sunning yourselves in the Light of the Gods.” But their wail follows the steps of the latter to Walhalla in the glory of the Rainbow.