“Der Ring des Nibelungen” or “The Ring of the Nibelung” is the vastest achievement in the history of opera. The composition of this mighty work covered a long period of time, a period which included the years of Richard Wagner’s prime. The subject suggested itself in 1848, just after the completion of ” Tannhäuser,” and, as usual, the conflicting claims of history and legend presented themselves. As usual, however, legend won the decision, for the story of Frederick Barbarossa and his deeds, which long occupied Wagner’s thought, was discarded in favor of that of Siegfried of the Nibelungen myths. The source from which the dramas were drawn may be traced back through devious ways to the old Norse Sagas, principally to that division known as the Eddas, which took a later form in the ” Nibelungen Lied,” the national epic of Germany. As in previous works, Wagner seized upon a some-what chaotic substance and invested it with the form and life of his own genius.
Wagner’s original idea was by no means the monumental affair which the ” Ring of the Nibelung” ultimately proved to be, for the work grew in scope, and changed in design under his hands. He began with the “Death of Siegfried,” incidents and material now contained in the “Dusk of the Gods,” but soon discovered that to make clear and effective the dramatic conditions and events leading up to the passing of his hero, a single drama would not suffice. He therefore planned the play dealing with the birth and life of the young Siegfried of the trilogy and, finding that still further explanatory material was desirable, decided upon ” The Valkyrie ” and, as introduction to the whole, fashioned ” The Rhinegold.” The trilogy was written backwards, therefore, so far as sequence of its different parts is concerned. In 1853, the great dramatic poem was completed and ten years later it was published as a literary product.
The work on the score was interrupted in 1857, for the composition of ” Tristan and Isolde,” done both for pecuniary reasons and to preserve the composer’s connection with the stage. Between the years of 1861 and 1867, he frequently turned from his main scheme for the composition of “The Mastersingers.”
Prior to the completion of the trilogy and somewhat against Wagner’s personal inclinations, there were presented in Munich two of its separate parts, ” The Rhine-gold,” in 1869 and ” The Valkyrie ” in 1870. ” Siegfried ” and ” The Dusk of the Gods,” however, were not seen until the performance of the entire work in August, 1876, at the opening of the Bayreuth Theatre.
The Nibelung trilogy includes plays for three days and a prior evening. The four dramas are in order of sequence, ” The Rhinegold,” ” The Valkyrie,” ” Siegfried” and ” The Dusk of the Gods.” Together, they form a single great tragedy. This mighty work illustrates Wagner’s dramatic and musical theories, his principal dramatic theory being the delineation of the “universal and eternal aspects ” of human life by means of prototypes, his leading musical theory being the employment of the guiding theme, a system by which each of the principal factors of the opera is represented by a musical equivalent. The leading characters, influences and situations each have their own accompanying musical phrase, expressing them as vividly and appropriately as it is possible for tone to do.
There are over eighty guiding motives of this kind in the Ring. Each one consists of a short musical phrase and in each instance the phrase is so individual and characteristc that it is instantly recognizable. Belonging as is does to a clearly defined person, emotion or object, the motive becomes a tonal guide and to hear it is to have that for which it stands instantly suggested to the mind. It is evident that to be familiar with the motives increases many fold the interest and clearness of the opera. For instance, a character may fawn upon a companion and under his blandishments is lurking a desire for the other’s destruction. The guiding motives allow us to look beneath the hypocrisy and to recognize the evil that is in the heart as well as the smile that is on the lips. The motives do not necessarily appear at the introduction of the character or idea but may hint of them long before they enter actively into the drama and may reappear whenever thought of them is suggested by the situation. Neither do they always retain the same exact musical form. The general tonal sequence and outline are preserved, so that the motive is recognizable but by a wondrously skilful handling of the phrase, by changing the harmony or the rhythm, varying but related conditions and emotions are linked together musically so that the orchestra’s utterance becomes a tonal commentary and explanation, making clear all that is taking place in the drama. The sword motive, which occurs repeatedly in the trilogy, may be mentioned as an example of the employment of the guiding phrase to express merely a thought. The sword does not come materially into the action until the last scene of the first act of ” The Valkyrie,” when Sieglinde draws Siegmund’s attention to the weapon left in the ash-tree by Wotan, yet this motive or phrase of seven notes is heard in ” The Rhinegold,” when the gods pass in procession to Walhalla and when Wotan ponders on the strife which the Ring has begotten and on the need of defense arising therefrom. Into his mind flashes the thought of the sword, by the placing of which in the hand of some free-willed agent he hopes to avert the downfall of the gods which Erda has predicted. Energetically and hopefully there comes ringing out from the orchestra the motive of the sword and, to the informed listener, the thought that passes through the mind of the god is made instantly clear.