First Performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Nearly thirty years in the making, Richard Wagner’s cycle of four operas, The Ring of the Nibelung, was a watershed event not only in Wagner’s career, but also in the cultural history of Germany and the history of opera, expanding the boundaries of musical and dramatic expression.

Summary of Event

Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (pr. 1869-1876; The Ring of the Nibelung, commonly known as the Ring cycle), comprising four nights of opera, represented a project unprecedented in scope, length, complexity, coherence between music and dramatic narrative, and stage design. It was the culmination of Wagner’s lifelong attempts at operatic reform and at engaging in political commentary through music. Still performed both in its entirety and as individual operas worldwide, it has become one of the most discussed works of music in history, not only because of its complexity but also because of Wagner’s controversial biography and the National Socialist Party’s associations with the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the opera house where the cycle premiered. Ring Cycle (Wagner) Opera;Ring Cycle Wagner, Richard [p]Wagner, Richard;operas Music;German [kw]First Performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle (Aug. 13-17, 1876) [kw]Performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, First (Aug. 13-17, 1876) [kw]Wagner’s Ring Cycle, First Performance of (Aug. 13-17, 1876) [kw]Ring Cycle, First Performance of Wagner’s (Aug. 13-17, 1876) [kw]Cycle, First Performance of Wagner’s Ring (Aug. 13-17, 1876) Ring Cycle (Wagner) Opera;Ring Cycle Wagner, Richard [p]Wagner, Richard;operas Music;German [g]Germany;Aug. 13-17, 1876: First Performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle[4920] [c]Theater;Aug. 13-17, 1876: First Performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle[4920] [c]Music;Aug. 13-17, 1876: First Performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle[4920] Richter, Hans Louis II Ring des Nibelungen, Der;Ring Cycle Ring of the Nibelung, The;Ring Cycle

Wagner’s intermittent work on what was to become the massive Ring cycle began in 1848, when he wrote a prose sketch of the Nibelung saga. This saga represented a distillation of the mythology and fairy tales Fairy tales;and opera[Opera] that had fascinated Wagner during his last years in Dresden. The entire project was completed in November, 1874, when he completed the music for the fourth opera, thus culminating nearly three decades of work.

For the story of the Ring cycle, Wagner combined Norse and Teutonic mythology with German fairy tales to create a story of a hero, Siegfried, who despite his heroic deeds has fallen under the curse of the Nibelung’s ring. The power-hungry dwarf Alberich, who himself stole the ring from the Rhine, was forced to give it up to the gods to save his own life, and in his anger, he cursed the ring so that anyone who came into its possession would die. Wagner had the text for the entire cycle written out by the end of 1852—it consisted of a “preliminary evening,” Das Rheingold (the Rhinegold), followed by three “music dramas”: Die Walküre (the valkyrie) Der junge Siegfried (the young Siegfried) and Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s death). The latter two pieces would have their names changed before being staged. Wagner began to compose the music for the operas early in 1853.

During the same period, Wagner wrote several prose works outlining his visions for operatic reform and proposing how he intended to “correct” all the shortcomings that he felt marred operas (including his own). He envisioned his four-opera Ring cycle as a chance to present this vision to the world. After composing the music for the first two operas and beginning work on the third, however, Wagner’s optimism waned. His financial difficulties, his exile from his home country, and his struggles to get individual operas—let alone a cycle of four operas—performed began to wear on his will. With no foreseeable prospects for publishing his music or putting it onstage, Wagner decided to break off composition of the Ring cycle in 1857. He instead focused his energies on two other operas, Tristan und Isolde Opera;Tristan und Isolde Tristan und Isolde (Wagner) (1859) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Die (Wagner) Opera;Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg[Meistersinger von Nürnberg] (1867; the meistersinger of Nuremberg).

By 1863, Wagner’s hopes for his Ring project were rekindled; Crown Prince Louis Louis II of Bavaria read Wagner’s publication of the Ring poem, which also included an introduction expressing his hopes to someday see the entire cycle performed at a theater designed specifically for its performance. The prince, who became King Louis II the next year, was fascinated with Wagner’s work and vision and became a good friend, as well as an important, well-connected patron. Louis helped Wagner with his financial debts, and he helped Wagner secure the site for his special opera theater, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

Wagner accordingly resumed composition of the Ring cycle. The first two operas in the cycle were performed individually, as the composer continued to work on the final two. When he was finished and the new opera house was ready, the entire work finally received its premiere. The complete Ring cycle debuted at the Bayreuth Festpielhaus on August 13, 14, 16, and 17, 1876. It comprised Das Rheingold (pr. 1869), Die Walküre (pr. 1870), Siegfried (pr. 1876), and Götterdämmerung (pr. 1876; twilight of the gods). It was conducted by Hans Richter Richter, Hans . The premiere was a significant cultural event: A new cultural center in Germany had been established, and a revolutionary work of art was introduced to the world. No single musical work of this scope had ever been performed before, and the performance raised opera—or “music-drama,” as Wagner referred to it—to new heights.

Richard Wagner (standing) entertaining friends in his Bayreuth home. From an 1880 painting by Wilhelm Beckmann.

(P. F. Collier and Son)

Wagner was able to maintain musical and dramatic continuity over a span of four operas and fourteen hours through his innovative compositional techniques. The innovative features of the Ring cycle were a result of Wagner’s strong desire to reform opera and to create the perfect work of art, synthesizing poetry, drama, and music. The music itself was innovative because of its gradual abandonment of traditional harmony—in other words, the consonant chord progressions common in Baroque and classical music—especially in the last two works, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. In place of such chord progressions, Wagner used nontraditional, dissonant progressions with increasing frequency over the course of the cycle, especially in the depiction of evil characters.

The cohesiveness of the Ring cycle is due in large part to Wagner’s so-called leitmotif technique, in which short musical ideas represent various facets of the drama. Two famous examples of such motifs are the Sword motif—a majestic, major-key theme played by the trumpet—and the Curse motif—a dark, sinister, minor-key theme heard in the trombones with a timpani roll underneath it. Throughout the cycle, a complex network of some one hundred motifs dominates the orchestral accompaniment; these motifs provide a supplement to the onstage action and texts. Wagner took the technique of simple motivic repetition (seen in earlier operas, including his own) and raised it to another level in the Ring cycle, in which motifs evolve from and combine with one another in order to communicate nuanced dramatic content to the audience. The scope of the motivic system created by the Ring cycle represented an unprecedented musical and dramatic device. The motifs in the Ring cycle did not remain static in their recurrences. Rather, they changed, both independently and in combination with other motifs, as the drama developed.

Wagner’s subtle social commentary in the Ring cycle has long fascinated scholars and audiences alike. Through the text and the music, Wagner commented on many aspects of society, including revolution, corruption, the dangers of lust, and the redemptive power of self-sacrifice. Wagner’s precise meanings remain controversial, as scholars continue to argue about, for example, the use of the gods to represent the “old regime” of power that falls at the end of the cycle or the anti-Semitic Wagner, Richard [p]Wagner, Richard;and anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism] Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];and Richard Wagner[Wagner] undertones of the corrupt, power-hungry dwarves Alberich and Mime. Even more significant in Germany’s cultural history were the connections between Wagner and the later National Socialist regime. In the 1930’s, Adolf Hitler Hitler, Adolf , who often professed his affinity for Wagner’s music, particularly the Ring cycle, appropriated the composer’s music in different ways. Hitler used Bayreuth and Wagnerian opera performances as meeting places for his followers, and he piped Wagner’s music into the concentration camps.

Significance

Wagner’s Ring cycle has generated a massive amount of literature since its premiere. Studies range from plot summaries and catalogs of its leitmotifs to complex interpretations of its plot, including George Bernard Shaw’s Shaw, George Bernard socialist interpretation in and Robert Donington’s Donington, Robert Jungian analysis of the motifs. Wagner’s controversial lifestyle and political views (particularly his vehement anti-Semitism) have also provoked numerous studies about the Ring cycles’s cultural undercurrents. In addition, the history of Bayreuth and performances of the Ring cycle after Wagner’s death, including the frequent presence of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists at Bayreuth in the 1930’s, has cast a dark shadow over the cultural history of the cycle.

However, the legacy of the Ring cycle remains—a turning point in the history of opera and the cultural life of Germany. Its unprecedented scope, complexity, harmonic innovations, and musical-dramatic coherence led to a new phase in music history—the post-Romantic era of composers such as Richard Strauss Strauss, Richard , Giacomo Puccini Puccini, Giacomo , and Gustav Mahler Mahler, Gustav . Inspired by Wagner’s challenges to musical and operatic traditions, these composers broke new ground in their own compositions. Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg Schoenberg, Arnold took Wagner’s harmonic innovations a step further when he “abolished” traditional musical harmony altogether and created the twelve-tone system. In short, the Ring cycle represents a landmark event in the life of a revolutionary composer.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooke, Deryck. I Saw the World End: A Study of Wagner’s “Ring.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Detailed study of the origins of the Ring cycle and its music.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DiGaetani, John, ed. Penetrating Wagner’s “Ring”: An Anthology. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1978. Wide-ranging collection of essays on the Ring cycle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holman, J. K. Wagner’s “Ring”: A Listener’s Companion and Concordance. Portland, Oreg.: Amadeus Press, 1996. Detailed guide to the Ring cycle, including a glossary and motif listing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newman, Ernest. The Wagner Operas. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1949. Comprehensive studies of each of Wagner’s works, particularly the Ring cycle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sabor, Rudolph. Richard Wagner: “Der Ring des Nibelungen.” London: Phaidon Press, 1997. A five-volume companion to the Ring cycle, including textual and motivic guides to each opera.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spencer, Stewart, and Barry Millington. Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung.” London: Thames and Hudson, 2000. Complete translation of the Ring cycle’s text, as well as several essays on the cycle.

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