Friday, August 17, 2018

August 17, 1876: Wagner's Ring Cycle completes its first full performance

Last updated August 30, 2018.

Der Ring Des Nibelungen (The Ring Cycle)

Richard Wagner (composer)


Composed: 1848-1876


First Performed as a Cycle: August 13-17, 1876


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Genre: classical > opera


Works/When Composed (w)/When First Performed (p)/Average Duration:

  1. Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), opera, WWV 86a (w. 1853-54, p. 9/22/1869) [148:00]
  2. Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), opera, WWV 86b (w. 1854-56, p. 6/26/1870) [220:00]
  3. Siegfried, opera, WWV 86c (w. 1856-71, p. 8/16/1876) [235:40]
  4. Die Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), opera, WWV 86d (w. 1869-74, p. 8/17/1876) [259:10]

Review:

Stretched out over 15 hours, Wagner’s Ring Cycle comprises “one of the most extended of all artistic creations.” AMG His series of four operas, created over a quarter century, are sometimes performed separately, but Wagner intended them as a series. The first opera, Das Rheingold, is the shortest, typically running about two and a half hours, while Götterdämmerung , the last of the four, can run five hours. WK He eventually premiered the full cycle from August 13-17 in 1876 WK at his Festival Theater in Bayreuth. TM1 The four-day event was seen by audiences as comparable to visiting a shrine. To this day, the staging and attending of the full Ring Cycle is considered “the most significant events in the lives of both opera companies and opera-going fans.” AMG

The story centers around characters based on the Norse sagas, following three generations of protagonists. Alberich is a dwarf who, with gold stolen from the Rhine maidens in the river Rhine, fashions a magic ring which gives him the power to rule the world. WK Wotan, the chief of the gods, oversees the existing world order ruling through adherence to contracts, which he keeps on a spear. AMG He schemes to regain the ring and also sacrifices an eye to gain the hand of Fricka, the goddess of marriage. AMG Alberich and Wotan are opposites, in that one has sacrificed love for power and the other sacrifices for love. AMG

Musically, there are suites of motives headed by the Ring which are marked by a simple pair of chords while “an imposingly-rhythmed downward major scale” AMG marks the motives ruled by the Spear. Nature, a third force from the beginning of the opera which represents the power between Man and Gods, “is represented by a single chord, unwound into a slow upward arpeggio.” AMG

“The music of the cycle is thick and richly textured and grows in complexity as the cycle proceeds. Wagner wrote for an orchestra of gargantuan proportions, including a greatly enlarged brass section with new instruments such as the Wagner tuba, bass trumpet and contrabass trombone” WK and minimal use of a chorus. WK

In the first opera, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), greed and the lust for power are beginning to corrupt the world. The Ring, Wotan’s spear, and the renunciation of love are introduced. Wotan’s human children, Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, inherit situations brought on by a series of “gods, nymphs, giants, and dwarves.” TM1

The second opera, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), is the one most often performed separately and is arguably Wagner’s best-loved work. The story focuses on the incestuous love between Siegmund and Sieglinde “and the father-daughter relationship of Wotan and Brünnhilde.” TM2

Wagner halted work on Siegfried, the third opera, in 1857 when the Ring project hit financial obstacles. Wagner moved on to other works, including Tristan and Die Meistersinger, before finally returning to the Ring in 1869, TM3 during which time Wagner moved from his initial intent to make Siegfried as the drama’s hero to a greater exploration of Wotan. He also developed a more pessimistic stance in which greed and corruption could not be overcome by the power of love alone. TM3

As the longest of the four operas, Die Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) is “one of the longest evenings of opera in the standard repertory.” TM4 “‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ probably comprise the longest continuous stretch of music heard in any operatic work.” TM4 “Despite this, the drama is so compressed that events seem almost to race to their cataclysmic end.” TM4 “Musically, Wagner has gained such mastery of his drama and musical motives, that he treats both with superb fluidity.” TM4 Wagner completed the entire opera on November 21, 1874. TM4


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