Sunday, November 14, 2004

Der Ring des Nibelungen: Wagner’s The Ring Cycle

Target Audience: Background Information for the opera goer interested in Wagner written at the pre-college level

Wagner’s Operas: Table of Contents

Chapter I: Die Feen
Chapter II: Das Liebesverbot
Chapter III: Rienzi
Chapter IV: Der fliegende Holländer
Chapter V: Tannhäuser
Chapter VI: Lohengrin
Chapter VII: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Chapter VIII: Tristan und Isolde
Chapter IX: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Chapter X: Parsifal

“Der Ring des Nibelungen:”
About the Opera

Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungen) is a compilation of four consecutive full length operas written by Richard Wagner. He completed the operas in 1876 after fleeing to Switzerland due to his political activism in Germany. Wagner based his opera on a 12th century epic poem entitled "Nibelungenlied". "Des Nibelungen" are defined as “subterranean dwarfs” according to

The four operas within the larger work are entitled Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung. After writing the last opera Götterdämmerung, Wagner realized that a prologue was needed and wrote the other three operas, each as a preface to previous. The entire work Der Ring des Nibelungen takes from 15 to 24 hours to perform. Usually not shown in one sitting, the audience was required to come back four nights – one night for each of the operas -- to see the entire work.

Richard Wagner: The Mastermind

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is considered one of the most influential composers German opera. When Wagner was just six months old, his father died of typhus. The next year, his mother married a close family friend, Ludwig Geyer, who moved the family to Dresden. After Geyer died, the family moved back to Leizpig.

As respected as his works are today, he had very little formal training in music. He was quite involved in theater from an early age, however was compelled to write music as well. He had very little formal training in music outside of the six months that he spent studying in Leizpig. He had a fair number of opportunities within theatrical directing, however not any in opera. Despite his lack of formal training, his ability to mimic the sounds of other composers such as Beethoven or Rossini to create his own masterpieces was nothing short of astounding.

After participating in radical politics for a period of time in Germany, he fled to Switzerland. It was during this period of time away from Germany that his approach to opera changed dramatically. The Ring Cycle was his first work after this time and it was by far his most large-scale work. Upon his return, he divorced his wife and married Cosima von Bülow, the daughter of his close friend, Franz Liszt.

In 1882, Wagner started to develop some health problems. He moved to Venice, but he suddenly died there within a year.

The Ring’s Continuing Influence in the 20th Century

The Ring Cycle’s plot and characters sound very familiar to today’s audience since the creation of “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings”. In fact, both of the makers of the movies drew parts and symbols almost directly from Wagner’s masterpiece. Below are some striking similarities between Wagner’s work written in 1876 and the works of these 20th century film writers.

Wagner’s The Ring Cycle
1. Became a tetralogy only after realizing that needed a prologue
2. Took 28 years for the whole work to reach audiences
3. The heroine, Brunhilde, sacrificed herself to save the humans and gods
4. In the beginning, the leader of the gods, Wotan, is a relatively average god. The lust that Wotan, the leader of the gods, has for power drives him to obsess over the ring
5. The two long lost twins of Wotan find each other as adults and fall in love
6. Wotan’s son, Siegfried, shatters his father’s sword
7. Siegmund had his all-powerful sword, however it failed him and he was killed

George Lucas’ "Star Wars"
1. Became a trilogy after adding a prologue and become a tetralogy after Episode I: The Phantom Menace
2. Took 28 years for the whole work to reach audiences
3. Both Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrificed themselves to save the galaxy
4. Anakin Skywalker’s lust for power encourages him to join the dark side as Darth Vader.
5. The two long lost twins of Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader) as adults and sort of fall in love
6. Darth Vader, Luke’s father, chops off Luke’s arm, however Luke returns for revenge and does the same to him
7. Luke had his all-powerful light saber, however it failed him when he got his arm cut off

The story was different for “The Lord of the Rings”. It has been said that Tolkien believed that Wagner had done a disservice to Norse and Germanic mythology by not accurately portraying it. He said of the difference between himself and Wagner, “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases!”

Wagner’s The Ring Cycle
1. Midgard (Middle Earth in English)
2. Nibelungen finds first finds ring in river
3. The Rhinegold ring enslaves the owner and is desired by others
4. Tarnhelm turns person who possesses invisible
5. Mysterious person reveals himself (Odin)
6. The characters are from Norse mythology

Tolkien’s "The Lord of the Rings"
1. Middle Earth
2. Ugly little creature first finds the ring in a river
3. The ring enslaves the owner and is desired by others
4. Ring turns the person who possess it invisible
5. Mysterious person reveals himself (Gandalf)
6. The characters are from Norse mythology


Richard Wagner Der Ring des Nibelungen: A Companion

Ring of Power