'Ring' Shows Genius Side of Controversial Composer

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 18, 2005 | Go to article overview

'Ring' Shows Genius Side of Controversial Composer


Byline: Bill Gowen

Although his personal life was nothing to brag about, Richard Wagner is one of the great musical geniuses.

Yes, Wagner (1813-83) was a womanizer, ruthless businessman and anti-Semite, with his already shaky personal reputation taking a dive during World War II when Adolf Hitler made Wagner the Third Reich's "house" composer.

But when Wagner put pen to paper, he created a body of work that remains a cornerstone of Western art. He was a genius with warts, but a genius nonetheless.

Hopefully, thoughts of the "bad" Wagner will be put aside for three weeks starting March 28 when his monumental four-opera cycle, "Der Ring des Nibelungen" ("The Ring of the Nibelung") is presented at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The "Ring," as it's more commonly known, runs 15 to 15 1/2 hours, spread over four nights. And if you think that is long, remember that Wagner took more than a quarter-century to create it!

Early years, education: As is the case with many great artists, Wagner was a product of his time and environment.

He was born May 22, 1813, in Leipzig, Germany, but his father died a few months later and the family moved to Dresden in 1814, shortly after Richard's first birthday. The young Wagner's formal education included the classics of Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante and the myths of Greece and Richard's Teutonic homeland.

The composer emerges: In the early 1830s Wagner began to compose his operas (he called them "music-dramas"), and his love for mythology came into greater and greater play.

His first success came in the late 1840s with "The Flying Dutchman," followed by "Tannhauser" and "Lohengrin," works that demonstrated his love for Norse/German medieval mythology, which would reach full flower in the "Ring" cycle.

The "Ring" idea is born: After reading such early Rhine legends and texts as "Nibelungenlied" ("Song of the Dwarves"), ideas for "Das Ring des Nibelingen" began taking form in Wagner's mind around 1850.

One of the things that sets the "Ring" cycle and his other music-dramas apart from the work of others is that Wagner wrote his own texts.

For the "Ring" cycle, he first wrote the text (based on a series of epic poems), and over the intervening years he pulled them together into one long drama, beginning with how the Rhinemaidens' gold was stolen from the river and cast into a ring by the evil dwarf Alberich, whereupon it was stolen through a bit of magic by Wotan, leader of the gods. The ring is then bartered to the giants Fafner and Fasolt as ransom for the freedom of Wotan's sister-in- law Freia, as well as payment for the giants' construction of the gods' castle, Valhalla.

And that's just the first two hours of "Das Rheingold," the opening opera in the cycle. …

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