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Wagner’s Ring: Part I

Posted by acdtest on July 13, 2003

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

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 (in 1850 planned as two grand heroic operas called Der junge Siegfried (Young Siegfried) and Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death), for which two operas he also completed the libretti), but 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 such a work could be set to music. He knew only that existing musical and operatic forms could not contain it, and that such forms would have to be scrapped totally.

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 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 again see a work of its like.

It’s traditional 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 genuinely great works of art, the finished artwork contains within itself all that’s needed for 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 in the standard repertoire). 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.

So, what’s the difference between opera and music-drama? In short, just about everything. As has here been previously pointed out, 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 (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 a separate issue altogether). Not to put too fine a point on it, Italian-form opera is about singers. Not so music-drama. Music-drama is about the drama, 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. 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 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 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 melodic lines which are the approximate equivalent of the spoken dialogue of a dramatic 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 concrete dramatic and psychological detail, as well as all that’s concrete and centering in story and plot. But most importantly of all, absent a full 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 musical phrases or figures to represent (but typically not onomatopoetically) persons, places, things, abstract ideas, and even states of mind, which device although not invented by Wagner was developed by him to a previously unimaginable degree of 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 might 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, of course, but some experts’ notions to the contrary, Wagner created his music-dramas to speak directly to the emotions of an 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 now, that’s all quite enough for this introductory article. It doesn’t say nearly all that can be said, but says sufficient to prepare you for the next installment wherein we’ll discuss the first music-drama, or as it’s called, the First Day (or Vorabend (Fore-evening), depending on whether one views the Ring as a tetralogy or as a trilogy with an introductory music-drama, as Wagner viewed it),* of Wagner’s great tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold.

*Throughout this series, we will treat the Ring as a tetralogy, and number the Days accordingly.

[Note: This is the first in a series of articles on the Ring, further installments of which will appear here as time for the writing permits. All installments of this series may be read here. For access to individual installments, please consult the titles listed under the category Wagner’s Ring to be found in the Master Archives Index.]
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