Follow the Leitmotifs: Repeated Imagery Helps Keep Cycle Consistent

Article excerpt

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) began conceptualizing ideas for Der Ring des Nibelungen ("The Ring of the Nibelung") around 1840, when he began to study Norse and Teutonic mythology for story ideas and characters for possible use in an epic music drama.

Wagner's original idea was to write just one opera, and he drafted its text in 1848 and called it Siegfrieds Todt ("Siegfried's Death"), which later would be reworked into the concluding opera of the "Ring" tetralogy, "Gotterdammerung" ("The Twilight of the Gods").

It soon became evident that if he wanted to create a great allegory of life and death, he needed to expand his horizons. As a result, throughout the 1840s and early 1850s he continued to use mythology as a basis for the poems from which sprang the texts for what would become the first three operas in the "Ring" cycle.

Wagner then turned his attention to setting his words to music. "Das Rheingold" ("The Rheingold") was composed and orchestrated in 1853-54, "Die Walkure" ("The Valkyrie") followed between 1854 and 1856, and the first two acts of "Siegfried" were composed (but not orchestrated) in 1856-57.

At that point Wagner stopped, and it seemed likely the "Ring" would never be completed. Meanwhile, he turned his attention to two operas that were destined to become masterpieces in their own rights: "Tristan und Isolde" and "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg."

Finally, in 1869, Wagner returned to the "Ring" and over the next five years completed "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung."

Although "Das Rheingold" had its first performance in 1869, it wasn't until Aug. 13, 1876, that the complete "Ring" cycle was world-premiered. The event took place in Wagner's hometown of Bayreuth, Germany, in the Festspielhaus that he had built just for the occasion.

The Festspielhaus remains the home of the Bayreuth Festival, where the "Ring of the Nibelung" and other Wagner operas are performed each summer. …