Wagner’s Ring – a programme note

Der Ring des Nibelungen, Wagner’s great operatic tetralogy, is an allegory of humanity, power and love and stands alone as the largest and most complex work in the history of opera.  Described by Wagner as ‘a stage festival play for three days and a preliminary evening’, its creation took him some 28 years, from 1848 to 1876.  He not only composed the music but also wrote all of the text; indeed, one of the many unexpected facts about The Ring is that the words and music were written in opposite directions.  At first his intention was to write a single opera based on the death of the hero Siegfried and the events which led up to it as described in the Nibelungenlied of German mythology and Nordic sagas.  However, as the text progressed Wagner realised that the relationships between characters and the motivations for their actions needed further explanation and that this would only be possible by extending the story backwards in time to show earlier events.  This led him to write what these days I suppose we would call ‘prequels’ consisting of texts for two further full length operas which tell of the events leading to Siegfried’s birth and then his recovery of the Ring and rescue of Brünnhilde.  He then realised that this would be meaningless without an explanation of the circumstances leading to the original theft of the Rhinegold, the forging of the ring and the treachery and betrayal amongst the gods, giants and dwarves that followed.  This led to the “preliminary evening”, an opera in one act, Das Rheingold.  Having completed the story to his satisfaction he then set about setting it to music, a monumental task which took him over 20 years.  He could have finished much sooner but, with the first two operas and two acts of the third complete, he set the work aside for many years during which he  composed Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger.  Only then, refreshed, could he rejoin Wotan and Siegfried at the foot of Brünnhilde’s rock and see the drama to its great conclusion.

Given the sources that Wagner used for his text, it is perhaps not surprising that the style of the language and the meter of the poetry is highly reminiscent of the Sagas.  The English translation that I have included (see below), by Frederick Jameson, is meant for singing and is therefore sometimes a little opaque.  However, the inflamed language and alliterative rhythms, so reminiscent of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poetry, gives a good impression of how the text sounds to German ears.  It is no coincidence that, for those familiar with the other great Ring saga, the similarity with the songs that Tolkien gives to his characters is striking.

As a conductor and musician I must say that there can be no comparable feeling to that experienced when preparing and performing this music.  Without doubt there are scores which demand more of one in singular ways but, for sheer magnificence and power, searching out the deepest reaches of one’s mind and spirit, it stands alone.  Wagner’s music will always be divisive, polarising opinion, and not all can love it.  However, in rehearsal, when these great sounds have died away and we make to leave, there has been an unmistakable feeling of quiet, as though we have partaken in something truly awesome and outside our normal experience.  To attend a performance of the complete Ring Cycle is, clearly, something that can be experienced only rarely and those who have done so are relatively few.  Indeed, a more typical response to Wagner’s music amongst those music lovers who make their opinions known to me is one of apprehension and resistance and I must say that I include a number of orchestral musicians in this.  Obviously, we are playing only a few fragments of the whole tonight and my intention when programming it was that we should enjoy the music and let it take us where it would.  However, as a result, some may be persuaded to delve further and discover, to their great advantage and enjoyment, the extraordinary riches that are to be found in this man’s works.  I hope so.

Brünnhilde’s Immolation

Mighty logs I bid you now pile
On high by the river shore!
Bright and fierce kindle a fire;
Let the noblest hero’s corse
In its flames be consumed.
His steed bring to me here
That with me his lord he may follow:
For my body burneth with holiest longing
My hero’s honour to share.
Fulfil Brünnhild’s behest!

(During the following the young men raise a huge funeral pyre of logs before the hall, near the bank of the Rhine: women decorate this with coverings on which they strew plants and flowers.)

Like rays of sunshine streameth his light:
The purest was he who hath me betrayed!
In wedlock traitor, true in friendship,
From his heart’s own true love, only beloved,
Barred was he by his sword.
Truer than his were oaths ne’er spoken;
Faithful as he, none ever held promise;
Purer than his was love ne’er plighted:
Yet oaths hath he scorned, Bonds broken,
The faithfullest love none hath so betrayed!
Know ye why that was?

Oh ye of vows the heavenly guardians!
Turn now your eyes on my grievous distress;
Behold your eternal disgrace!
To my plaint give ear thou mighty god!
Through his most valiant deed
By thee so dearly desired,
Didst thou condemn him to endure
The doom that on thee had fallen,
He, truest of all, must betray me,
That wise a woman may grow!

Know I now all thy will?
All things, all things, all now know I.
All to me is revealed.
Wings of thy ravens wave around me;
With dread tidings long desired
I send now thy messengers home.
Rest now, rest now, o god!

(She signs to the vassals to lift Siegfried’s body onto the funeral pyre; at the same time she draws the ring from Siegfried’s finger and gazes at it meditatively.)

My heritage yields now the hero.
Accursed charm! Terrible ring!
My hand grasps thee, and gives thee away.
Ye sisters wise who dwell in the waters,
Give ear, ye sorrowing Rhinemaids,
I thank thee for thy good counsel:
What ye desire I leave to you:
Now from my ashes take ye your treasure!
Let fire, burning this hand,
Cleanse, too, the ring from its curse!
Ye in the flood, wash it away,
And purer preserve your shining gold
That to your sorrow was stolen.

(She has put the ring on her finger and now turns to the pyre on which Siegfried’s body lies stretched. She takes a great fire-brand from one of the men, waves it and points to the background.)
Fly home ye ravens!
Tell your lord the tidings
That here on the Rhine ye have learned!
To Brünnhilde’s rock first wing your flight!
There burneth Loge:
Straight way bid him to Walhall!
For the end of godhood draweth now near.
So – cast I the brand
On Walhall’s glittering walls.

(She hurls the brand onto the pyre which quickly bursts into bright flames. Two ravens fly up from the rocks and disappear into the background. Brünnhilde sees her horse which has just been led in by two vassals.)
Grane, my steed, I greet thee!

Knows’t thou now, my friend,
Whither I lead thee?
In fire radiant, lies there thy lord,
Siegfried, my hero blest.
To follow thy master joyfully neigh’st thou!
Lures thee to him the light with its laughter?
Feel, too, my bosom, how it doth burn;
Glowing flames now lay hold on my heart:
Fast to enfold him, embraced by his arms,
In might of our loving with him made one!
Heiajaho! Grane!
Give him thy greeting!
Siegfried! Siegfried! See!
Joyfully greets thee thy wife!

 (She has jumped onto the horse and with one bound leaps into the burning pyre.  The flames immediately blaze up so that they fill the whole space in front of the hall, and appear to seize on the building itself.  The men and women press to the front in terror.  As the whole space of the stage seems filled with fire, the glow suddenly subsides, so that only a cloud of smoke remains which is drawn to the background and there lies on the horizon as a dark bank of cloud.  At the same time, the Rhine overflows its banks in a mighty flood which rolls over the fire.  On the waves the three Rhine-daughters swim forwards and now appear on the place of the fire. 

Hagen, who since the incident of the ring, has observed Brünnhilde’s behaviour with growing anxiety, is seized with great alarm at the appearance of the Rhine-daughters.  He hastily throws spear, shield and helmet from him and rushes, as if deranged, into the flood.  Two Rhine-daughters, Woglinde and Wellgunde, embrace his neck with their arms and draw him with them into the depths as they swim away.  Flosshilde, the third, swimming in front of the others towards the background, holds up the regained ring joyously.  Through the bank of clouds which lie on the horizon a red glow breaks forth with increasing brightness.  Illumined by this light, the three Rhine-daughters are seen, swimming in circles, merrily playing with the ring on the calmer waters of the Rhine, which has gradually returned to its natural bed. 

From the ruins of the fallen hall the men and women, in the greatest agitation, look on the growing firelight in the heavens.  As this, at length, glows with the greatest brightness, the interior of Walhall is seen, in which gods and heroes sit assembled.  Bright flames appear to seize on the hall of the gods.  As the gods become entirely hidden by the flames, the curtain falls.)

English Translation based on that by Frederick Jameson.