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Wagner’s Ring: Part II

Posted by acdtest on July 17, 2003

Wagner’s Ring: A Guide For The Willing But Perplexed
Part II: First Day — Das Rheingold (Introduction)

agner, early in 1853, sent to his 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 (or Vorabend) 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 are all three-act dramas, the last, Götterdämmerung, having in addition a prologue of substantial length), and its approximate total performance time is on the order of only some two-and-a-half hours (the approximate performance time of the Prologue and first act alone of Götterdämmerung is almost that long).

But those differences are merely mechanical. There are differences of a more fundamental nature between Das Rheingold and 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 of Das Rheingold is absent any human folk (presumptively true, but, as we shall later see, not altogether so), but is instead peopled by water nymphs, gods, giants, and subterranean dwarfs.

More fundamental yet is another difference.

The music of Das Rheingold has been remarked by many commentators to lack the sumptuous 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 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 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. And as to the theoretic principles underlying music-drama (i.e., the synthesis of music, text, and drama), Wagner’s working his way through that thorny problem was accomplished in his writing of the two above mentioned theoretical publications. By the time he actually sat down to in earnest compose the music for Das Rheingold in November of 1853 Wagner knew precisely what had to be done, and precisely how to go about doing it, even to the point of jettisoning at least one of the theoretic principles he adduced in those publications of 1849 and 1851 (the principle of the equality of music and poetry in 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 the music of the rest of the Ring. It’s clearly more elemental, and lacks as well the soaring, gravity-defying quality of the music of the three following music-dramas. Where the commentators are in error is in not recognizing that the difference was a purposeful act on Wagner’s part. As Wagner knew better than anyone, before one can soar one must first have a solid earthbound foothold from which to push off, and so the music of Das Rheingold was calculatedly devised to act as solid earthbound foothold for the music of the rest of the Ring.

Like all else in Das Rheingold (and unlike the following three music-dramas), its music is archetypal in nature. Although Wagner, as we noted previously, had used the device of leitmotif in three earlier operas preceding his work on the Ring, what he now had in mind (as was also noted in our previous discussion) was the use of leitmotif on a scale never before attempted, employing a contrapuntal symphonic development never before imagined; a metamorphosing and interweaving organic development of such an affective order 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 lays the foundation for, and makes high-relief first use of, this extraordinary new handling of leitmotif, thereby preparing his audience’s mind and ears for the symphonic richness and complexity of what is to come in the following three music-dramas, while at the same time trumpeting loudly and clearly the radical departure from Italian-form opera that Der Ring des Nibelungen was designed by necessity to be.

Next up: Das Rheingold — Prelude and Scene 1.

[Note: This is the second 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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