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Wagner’s Ring: Part III

Posted by acdtest on July 29, 2003

Wagner’s Ring: A Guide For The Willing But Perplexed
Part III: First Day — Das Rheingold (Prelude and Scene 1)

fter 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 August of 1853 to rest both mind and body. In a hotel room in Spezia in September he lay down on 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.

Thus, in a quasi-hypnotic or -cataleptic state, was born the first music of the Ring — the orchestral prelude to 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 this moment, persistently eluded him.

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 sounding which the orchestra’s double basses must manually lower the pitch of their lowest string by a semitone). After continuing by itself for a seeming timeless four full measures, it’s joined by a sustained B-flat in the bassoons sounding above it. Twelve measures later the horns add their voices by sounding a rising arpeggio adding a G-natural, and thereby the triad — the tonic (or first), dominant (or fifth), and third degrees of the scale respectively; the fundamental building block of all Western music — 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 fully arpeggiated, all the while gaining in volume, culminates with a repeated three-note figure (also forming a complete E-flat major triad) sounding against it in the trumpets, rising in a crescendo to double forte, whereupon, the curtain having just risen, we’re transported seamlessly into the depths of the river Rhine, and into a primal, Nature-ruled world of pristine innocence.

The effect is breathtaking, and unlike anything in all of opera. In a mere 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 emptiness of the void, the very world itself, and thereby at once establishes the cosmic time scale of the epic drama that is the Ring.

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

In the predawn twilight at the bottom of the river are cavorting among the rocks three water nymphs; the Rheintöchter, or Rhinedaughters — 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) that bears no semblance to the closed-form song of ordinary opera, but is more akin to the dialogue of a stage play, as is true of the sung text in all the Ring as we noted in our first discussion.

Unexpectedly, there intrudes into this lovely, carefree world a discordant note in the form 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. He’s come from Nibelheim, his subterranean home, he says, and he, too, wants to cavort.

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

The three Rheintöchter, in an extended episode continuously commented on by the orchestra in the role of a classical Greek chorus, then set to mercilessly and 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 rises, its newborn rays striking down through the waters and touching the Rhine’s fabled treasure perched high atop a rocky bed, the rapidly blossoming golden 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 foolishly 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 ring), would gain by its magic unlimited world power and riches. They tell him this without fear or concern, secure in the knowledge that 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 existed, nor will ever exist, least of all this comical, helpless, lovesick dwarf.

But the naïve and innocent creatures have neglected to take into account that by reason of their merciless taunting they’ve transformed this comical and helpless 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!

Alberich declares, his words sung to a slightly melodically altered form of the leitmotif of the 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 intended threat, and then fall to laughing at him.

But Alberich has been pushed beyond grandstanding.

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 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 pretty much the stuff of typical fairytale and folklore, isn’t it.

Or is it.

Not in Wagner’s transforming hands it isn’t. In this first scene of Das Rheingold, Wagner has limned, through the organic synthesis of words and music, no less than a world-encompassing secular vision of Original Sin and the consequent loss of Paradise, and all that implies.

But most of all, what Wagner has wrought with this first scene of Das Rheingold is a revolution in the world of opera. For audiences today, as for Das Rheingold‘s very first audience, we know instantly, and with absolute certainty, that we’re not in Kansas anymore. With the Prelude and first scene of Das Rheingold, Wagner has taken opera as far from ordinary Italian-form opera as it’s possible to get and still be recognizable as opera, and at the same time, through the transforming magic of the gestalt created by a previously unimagined synthesis of words and music, transported us into a created world that has all the force and potency of living myth; a feat never before or since accomplished by any work of art.

But Wagner the sorcerer has not finished. As the saying goes, You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Next up: What really went on in Scene 1 of Das Rheingold?

[Note: This is the third 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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