Wagner's Ring: A Guide For The Willing But Perplexed
Part III

First Day: Das Rheingold — Prelude and Scene 1

After completing the full poem (libretto) of his tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, but still lacking the key to the problem of how to transform the massive drama into music-drama, Wagner, in ill health, repaired to Italy and the sunny Mediterranean in late August of 1853 to rest both mind and body. In a hotel room in Spezia in early September he lay down upon a couch intending to take a short nap, and lapsed into a half-waking, half-dream state.

I felt as though I were sinking in a mighty flood. The rush and roar [of the water] soon took musical shape within my brain as the chord of E-flat major, surging incessantly in broken chords. These declared themselves as melodic figurations of increasing motion, yet the pure triad of E-flat major never changed but seemed by its steady persistence to impart infinite significance to the element in which I was sinking. I awoke from my half-sleep in terror, feeling as though the waves were now rushing high above my head. I at once recognized that the orchestral prelude to the Rheingold, which for a long time I must have carried about within me, yet had never been able to fix definitely, had at last come to being in me.

Thus, in a quasi-hypnotic or -cataleptic state, was born the first music of the Ring, and of its first music-drama, Das Rheingold. And to Wagner was finally vouchsafed the long-sought-for key to this new way of making opera, which key had, until that moment, persistently eluded him even though throughout the writing of the Ring poem he at all times had a half-conscious sense of the "shape" of the radical new musical language that would be required to realize that poem as music-drama. Wagner at once set out to return to his home in Zürich hot to get to work, and after being unavoidably waylaid for a time on his arrival by domestic and other personal problems, began his in-earnest composition of the music for Das Rheingold on 1st November, 1853.

The prelude to Das Rheingold is one of opera's most enduring wonders. It begins with an undifferentiated and sustained E-flat sounding in the deepest bass; a sound so low in pitch it's felt as much as heard, and for the sounding of which half the orchestra's eight double basses must manually lower the pitch of their lowest string by a semitone (the other half doubling them at the octave). After continuing alone for a seemingly timeless four full measures, the E-flat is joined by a sustained B-flat in the bassoons. Twelve measures later, one by one, the eight horns begin adding their voices by each sounding a rising arpeggio adding a G-natural, and thereby the triad (the most elemental building block of all Western tonal music; a chord comprising the first, third, and fifth degrees of the scale) of E-flat major is fully established. At the 49th measure the strings enter with an undulating, melodic figuration adding other degrees of the E-flat major scale, which figuration, rising and becoming progressively more rapid and densely arpeggiated, all the while gaining in volume, culminates with a repeated three-note figure tracing out an E-flat major triad sounding against it in the trumpets, the whole rising in a crescendo to a final effective fortissimo, whereupon, the curtain having already risen, we're transported seamlessly into the depths of the river Rhine, and into a primal, Nature-ruled world of pristine innocence.

In the theater the effect is breathtaking (and with a modicum of imagination, equally so in one's armchair at home), and unlike anything in all of opera. In 136 measures of little more than a rising, melodically arpeggiated E-flat major triad (which is the Ring's first and most basic leitmotif) sounding over an undifferentiated E-flat pedal, Wagner limns no less than the coming into being out of the vast emptiness of the void the very world itself, thereby at once establishing the cosmic reach and time scale of Das Rheingold, and of the entire Ring.

And why, you may ask, does Wagner choose, impossibly, to begin the Ring in the depths (actually at the bottom) of a river? And the answer is, because water is the very womb of life itself, and its first nurturer. What more symbolically and psychologically appropriate place to begin this world-encompassing cosmic drama?

In the predawn twilight at the bottom of the river are cavorting among the rocks three water nymphs, the Rheintöchter (Rhine-daughters) Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde; charmingly frivolous, carefree, and childlike creatures without a serious thought in their very pretty but very empty heads. While cavorting about they chatter away among themselves to a delightful melodic line passed from one to the other (the Ring's second leitmotif), the first appearance of the Ring's new form of sung dialogue.

Unexpectedly, there intrudes into this lovely, carefree world a discordant note in the person of the decidedly unlovely Nibelung dwarf Alberich, who enters by way of a cleft in the rocks to an appropriately unlovely and ungainly figure sounded in the lower strings (that's right; another leitmotif). He's come from Nibelheim, his subterranean home, he says, and he, too, please, would like to join in the cavorting.

The Rheintöchter are more surprised and repelled than alarmed, although one of them, Flosshilde, displaying more sense than we're wont to credit any of the Rheintöchter, immediately warns her sisters to look out for their charge, the gold of the Rhine. But at the moment, her sisters are far too busy trying to figure out just what this disreputable intruder is doing there, a place he clearly has no business being. The answer, they discover in short order, is that the poor dwarf is in love, and just the idea strikes all three sisters as so preposterous as to be laughable, and Flosshilde quickly forgets her initial fear that the misshapen little fellow might be after the Rhine's gold as it's now comically clear that what he's after is her and her sisters' delectable selves.

The three Rheintöchter, in an extended episode continuously commented on and shaped by the orchestra, which has been eloquently commenting on and shaping all the action since the rise of the curtain, then set to cruelly, if innocently and without malice, teasing the lovesick Alberich, driving him finally to the point of frantic and helpless frustration, at which point the sun begins to rise, its rays striking down through the waters and touching the Rhine's fabled treasure perched high atop a rocky bed, the gold's rapidly blossoming glow spreading throughout the river's depths as the orchestra sounds in the trumpets the leitmotif of the Rhinegold.

The Rheintöchter greet the awakening of the gold with a joyous new melody (based on the leitmotif of the Rhinegold). Alberich, however, is merely confused. He hasn't so much as a clue as to what all the fuss is about. He asks, and the Rheintöchter, dismayed at his ignorance of the storied gold of the Rhine, proceed to spell out for him the gold's inherent magic: he who could fashion a ring from the gold, they tell him (and here the orchestra sounds for the first time the leitmotif of the golden ring), would gain by its magic unlimited power and riches. This they tell him without fear or concern, for, as they further tell Alberich, only one who has first renounced love would be capable of fashioning such a ring (and here the orchestra sounds, also for the first time, the leitmotif of the renunciation of love, one of the most important leitmotifs in all the Ring), and such a one has never before existed nor can ever exist, least of all this lovesick, helpless, comical dwarf.

But the naïve and innocent creatures have neglected to take into account that by reason of their merciless taunting they've turned this lovesick, helpless, and comical dwarf into something decidedly uncomical, and anything but helpless.

The wealth of the world
I could win for my own through the gold?
Where love is denied me,
I still could gain its pleasures through cunning?
Mock on, then!
The Nibelung approaches your toy!

declares Alberich, his words sung to a slightly melodically altered form of the leitmotif of the golden ring, the orchestra playing against it the leitmotif of the renunciation of love.

The Rheintöchter think Alberich merely grandstanding out of sheer desperation, and they shriek in mock horror at his expressed threat, then fall to laughing at him.

This, it turns out, was not a good thing to do, for Alberich has now been pushed beyond grandstanding, and beyond endurance.

Are you still not afraid?
Then coquet in the dark, brood of the waters!
I will put out your light,
wrench the gold from its resting place,
and forge the ring of revenge!
For hear me, ye waters:
Thus I curse love forever!

with which oath, the last line of which is sung to a slight but ominous variation of the renunciation of love leitmotif, Alberich rips the Rhinegold from its bed, and with a sinister laugh disappears with it through the cleft in the rocks back to Nibelheim as the waters grow dark, and the Rheintöchter wail the loss of the gold.

Well, all this is perhaps entertaining, you might think, but hardly worthy of such elaborate treatment. I mean, it's all pretty much the common stuff of fairytale and folklore, isn't it?

Not in Wagner's transfiguring hands it isn't. In this first scene of Das Rheingold, Wagner, through this new synthesis of words and music, has conjured no less than a secular vision of Original Sin, and the consequent loss of Paradise on a world-encompassing scale, and in so doing wrought a revolution in the world of opera, and a milestone in the history of art. With the Prelude and first scene of Das Rheingold, Wagner has taken opera as far from ordinary opera as it's possible to go and still be recognizable as opera, and at the same time, through the transforming magic of the gestalt produced by this previously unimaginable synthesis of words, music, and mise en scène transported his audience into a Wagnerian world that's experienced with all the force and potency of living myth; something never before or since accomplished by any work of art.

And just how did Wagner manage to accomplish this?

Without being tediously technical, we'll try to answer just that question in the next installment of this series, and answer as well the question, What really went on in Scene 1 of Das Rheingold?

[Note: This is the 3rd in a series of articles on the Ring further installments of which will appear on this weblog as time for the writing permits. All installments of this series after they appear will be readable in their own Category, Wagner's Ring.]

Posted by ACD on 18 September 2004 | Permalink

Wagner's Ring: A Guide For The Willing But Perplexed
Part II

First Day: Das Rheingold — Introduction

Early in 1853, Wagner sent to his close friend, champion, and future father-in-law, Franz Liszt, the just-completed poem (libretto) of his mammoth tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, along with an accompanying note. "Mark well my new poem," wrote Wagner. "It contains the beginning of the world and its end."

As a concise description of the dramatic course of Wagner's vast four-part drama one could not ask for better. As a description of what this epic, radical undertaking would mean for the world of opera, one could not ask for more prophetic. A few months after he wrote those words, Wagner began the in-earnest composition of the music for the first music-drama of the great tetralogy, Das Rheingold, and when the score was completed the following year it signaled the beginning of the new world of music-drama, and the beginning of the end of the old world of classic Italian-form opera. Wagner's great achievement would change forever the world of opera, that achievement's subsequent influence so pervasive and so compelling that even that supremely insular genius of Italian-form opera, Giuseppe Verdi -- Wagner's exact contemporary -- was not left untouched, his last two operas, Otello (1877) and Falstaff (1883), singular masterpieces in his operatic oeuvre, displaying a marked Wagnerian influence.

Das Rheingold, the First Day of the Ring, is unlike the music-dramas of the three following Days in that it has but a single act of four scenes, the following three music-dramas each being three-act dramas, and the last, Götterdämmerung, having in addition a prologue of substantial length. Das Rheingold is, of course, considerably shorter than any of the other three music-dramas, its approximate total performance time on the order of a mere two-and-a-half hours, the approximate performance time of just the Prologue and first act alone of Götterdämmerung being almost that long.

While these are but mechanical differences, differences of a more fundamental nature distinguish Das Rheingold from the other music-dramas of the Ring, all of which differences are purposeful creative acts on Wagner's part. One such fundamental difference is that the world-drama of Das Rheingold is absent any human actors, but is instead peopled by water nymphs, gods, giants, and subterranean dwarfs.

More fundamental still is yet another difference.

The music of Das Rheingold has been remarked by many commentators to lack the fluidity and harmonic and melodic richness of the music of the rest of the Ring. The explanation most commonly put forward for this perceived lack is twofold: Wagner, they say, was embarking on a revolutionary new way of making opera in Das Rheingold, and in the composition of its music was feeling his way through step by step, getting his feet wet, so to speak, and at the same time trying to adhere closely to the theoretical principles of music-drama and Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Artwork) he'd set down in Wagnerian-length detail in two publications of two previous years: Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Artwork of the Future) of 1849, and Oper und Drama of 1851.

The explanation sounds perfectly plausible, even perfectly on-target, but it's almost surely perfectly in error, and betrays, I think, a basic misunderstanding of the workings of Wagner's creative genius.

Wagner never embarked on the in-earnest composition (as opposed to fragments and piecemeal sketches) of the music for any of his music-dramas until he had a full grasp, musically and dramatically, of just what was required. If there was any step-by-step feeling his way through in the composition of any of the music for the Ring it was all accomplished in the numerous musical sketches he made between 1848 and the early part of 1853; fragments mostly, as until late 1853 he had not as yet found the key to this new way of making opera; a key that would later be vouchsafed him in a dramatic (and slightly spooky) eureka moment of insight, as we'll see in Part III of this series.

And as to Wagner's attempting in Das Rheingold to adhere closely to his above mentioned previously published theoretic principles of music-drama as they concern the organic synthesis of music, text, and drama, Wagner's working his way through that thorny problem was accomplished by his very writing of those theoretical publications. It was Wagner's typical if peculiar way of dealing with such problems. By the time he actually sat down to in earnest compose the music for Das Rheingold in November of 1853, Wagner knew just what had to be done, and just how to go about doing it, even to the point of unwittingly jettisoning, at the prompting, as always, of his invariably infallible creative unconscious,* at least one of the theoretic principles he adduced in those publications of 1849 and 1851 (the Gesamtkunstwerk principle of the equality and interdependence of the contribution of all the arts in the forming of music-drama).

The commentators are correct, however, in their observation that the quality of the music of Das Rheingold is of a different order from that of the rest of the Ring. It's clearly more elemental, more "square", and lacks the soaring, sumptuous, gravity-defying fluidity of the music of the three following music-dramas. Where the commentators are in error is in not recognizing that the difference was not the result of Wagner feeling his way through, or of his attempting to realize a theoretical ideal to which he'd previously committed himself in print, but rather a purposeful creative act on Wagner's part. As Wagner knew better than anyone, before something can soar it must first have a solid, earthbound foothold from which to push off, and so the complex, new-to-opera musical and declamatory language of Das Rheingold was calculatedly devised to provide that earthbound foothold for the even more complex musical and declamatory language of the rest of the Ring, and in its elemental character provide as well the perfect language with which to limn the elemental, archetypal world-drama of Das Rheingold.

Although Wagner had to some extent used the not exclusive to him device of leitmotif in his operas preceding the Ring, what he now had in mind (as was noted in Part I of our discussion) was the use of leitmotif on a scale never before attempted, and employing a complex contrapuntal symphonic development never before imagined possible, or even imagined at all; a metamorphosing and interweaving organic development of such subtlety and affective power that "...the thing shall sound in a way that people shall hear what they cannot see," as Wagner put it. In the music for Das Rheingold, Wagner makes easily-grasped and high-relief first use of this extraordinary new handling of leitmotif, thereby laying the foundation, and providing the material, for its more subtle and complex use in the following three Ring music-dramas, as well as preparing and conditioning his audiences for that more subtle and complex use, while at the same time declaring clearly and unmistakably right from Das Rheingold's very first opening measures the radical departure from Italian-form opera that Der Ring des Nibelungen is, and was by necessity compelled to be.

Next up: Das Rheingold -- Prelude and Scene 1.

*Wagner would not be fully consciously aware of just how far he'd strayed in his music-dramas from the principles laid down in his theoretic writings until after Tristan und Isolde some six years later.

[Note: This is the second in a series of articles on the Ring further installments of which will appear on this weblog as time for the writing permits. All installments of this series after they appear will be readable in their own Category, Wagner's Ring.]

Posted by ACD on 17 September 2004 | Permalink

Wagner's Ring: A Guide For The Willing But Perplexed
Part I


"I will write no more operas," wrote Richard Wagner to a friend in 1851 after having completed in 1848 the first full prose sketch of his planned Nibelungen drama which as late as 1850 he planned as two grand heroic operas -- regular operas -- called Der junge Siegfried (Young Siegfried) and Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried's Death), the texts of which two operas would later become the texts of the Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, respectively, that we have today.

Wagner made that astonishing declaration before he'd written so much as a note of the music (other than brief, tentative sketches in 1850 for some music for Siegfrieds Tod which he ultimately discarded), and before he had even the vaguest conscious idea of just how his Nibelungen drama could be set to music. He knew only by 1851 that existing musical and operatic forms could not contain it, and that such inadequate forms would have to be scrapped.

As always with Wagner, his flawless instincts and intuition in matters musical and dramatic never failed him, pointing him always toward the right path, but never letting him set foot upon it until he was fully prepared musically, dramatically, and emotionally to trod it securely and with unfaltering and unerring step. It was not until late in 1853, after completing the finished poems (libretti) of what was now a truly mammoth four-work drama to be titled Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Nibelung's Ring), that Wagner felt himself ready to begin work on the music for the first of these, Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), and not until late 1874 that he finished the music for the last, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). The vast undertaking has no parallel nor any equal in the whole history of art, and not until another possessing Wagner's colossal, multifaceted genius makes his appearance on the world stage will we ever again see a work of its like.

It's conventional to begin articles such as this with an at least brief history of the many twists, turns, and blind alleys attendant the composition of the Ring, along with an at least brief discussion of the sources upon which Wagner drew for his Nibelungen drama. We, however, will dispense with that as, first, the information is available in any number of existing volumes that the interested student may readily consult, and second, and more to the point, because such information, while of legitimate historical and biographical interest in its own right, is of no value whatsoever in understanding the finished artwork. One could even go so far as to assert that such information is of clear negative value as it often leads to distortions of understanding, or to outright misunderstanding. As with all genuine works of art, the finished artwork contains within itself all that's needed for its understanding, and requires only that one be sufficiently open and properly prepared to receive it.

Perhaps the very first requirement of proper preparation for understanding the Ring is that one must be willing to jettison entirely one's ordinary opera expectations, and indeed any ideas one may have of what constitutes an opera. Wagner was not being merely rhetorical when in 1851 he said he would write no more operas (at that time he'd already written six, three of which -- Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin -- are still part of the standard repertoire of every major opera house worldwide). He was true to both the letter and spirit of his word, and from that time forward wrote only what he then termed music-dramas, even though, through long habit, common usage persisted in referring to these later works as operas as well.

So, what's the difference between opera and music-drama? In short, just about everything of importance. As has been previously pointed out on this weblog, all the two share in common is the technical apparatus of performance: an orchestra and conductor, singer-actors, a sung text (libretto), and appropriate mise en scène. Beyond that, music-drama bears to Italian-form opera as does Italian-form opera to the Broadway musical or rock opera.

Typically (and there are exceptions), Italian-form opera, for all its often convoluted melodrama and grand staging, has but one primary purpose: To act as showcase for the human voice in song (and at this juncture, I wish to explicitly except the Italian-form operas of Mozart from this discussion as they're sui generis, and a separate issue altogether). Not to put too fine a point on it, Italian-form opera is about the "songs" and the singers. Not so with music-drama. Music-drama is about the drama, foremost and centrally. There are no "songs," and singers are merely one part of the musico-dramatic apparatus, and not the most important part, either. That role falls to the orchestra within which is contained and played out the very core of the drama itself, the sung libretto and on-stage action acting as armature for the drama in rendering matters specific and concrete which music alone is incapable of rendering. In music-drama all the elements of the technical apparatus exist to serve the drama exclusively. In Italian-form opera they exist to serve the singers.

Another difference between Italian-form opera and music-drama is the difference in how one must prepare oneself to receive the work. With the former, for instance, it's enough to have a vague idea of what the singers are saying in their stop-the-action arias, duets, trios, quartets, etc. If the singers sing beautifully enough, are halfway decent actors, and are not totally grotesque as stage presences, understanding approximately what they're saying when they sing is enough to give one all the understanding required.

Again, not so with music-drama. There, one must pretty much know exactly what the singers are saying when they sing, for absent that knowledge one will become hopelessly lost because rather than action-stopping arias, duets, trios, quartets, etc., in music-drama there are, from beginning to end, but seamless sung melodic lines which are the approximate equivalent of the spoken dialogue of a stage play (approximate because in a stage play, unlike music-drama, the whole of the drama is contained within the dialogue itself). Miss what's being said in music-drama's sung dialogue, and one misses all the concrete dramatic and psychological detail as well as all that's concrete and centering in story and plot. But most important of all, absent a verbatim knowledge of the sung dialogue, what one will miss is the hallmark gestalt produced by the organic union of text and music that gives music-drama its name, and its very raison d'être.

Which brings us to the famous Wagnerian device of leitmotif; the device of using melodic phrases and harmonic progressions and modulations, and even rhythmic figurations, to represent (but typically not onomatopoetically) persons, places, things, abstract ideas, and states of mind, which device although not invented by Wagner was developed by him to a previously unimaginable degree of contrapuntal symphonic complexity; a veritable musical tour de force unequaled by any composer before or since. Wagner's melodic and harmonic metamorphoses, permutations, and contrapuntal symphonic development of these leitmotifs are at the heart of music-drama, the Ring most especially, and one would imagine that an intimate knowledge of all the Ring leitmotifs (with their permutations and metamorphoses they number over a hundred) would be prerequisite for one's understanding of the tetralogy.

You'll be relieved to learn, I'm certain, that such is not the case. One's understanding of and response to the Ring would be deepened by such intimate knowledge most certainly, but some experts' notions to the contrary notwithstanding, Wagner created his music-dramas to speak directly to the emotions of a theater audience, none of whom he counted on to be trained musicians or musicologists. The leitmotifs will speak to you and work their magic whether you're aware of their individual presences or not, so you may put your mind at ease concerning them.

And that's all quite enough for this introductory installment. It doesn't say nearly all that can be said, but says sufficient to prepare you for the next installment wherein we'll begin our discussion of the first music-drama, or, as it's called, the First Day* of the Ring: Das Rheingold.

*Throughout this series, we will treat the Ring as a tetralogy rather than as a trilogy with an introductory music-drama (or Fore-evening, Vorabend) as Wagner did, and number the Days accordingly.

[Note: This is the first in a series of articles on the Ring further installments of which will appear on this weblog as time for the writing permits. All installments of this series after they appear will be readable in their own Category, Wagner's Ring.]

Posted by ACD on 16 September 2004 | Permalink