The Ring


Das Rheingold: Vorspiel / The Ring / Richard Wagner


As early as 1840, in his novella “A Pilgrimage to Beethoven,” Wagner had anticipated a form of lyric drama in which the standard operatic divisions would disappear. Having completed his opera Lohengrin in April 1848, Richard Wagner chose as his next subject Siegfried, the legendary hero of Germanic myth. In October of that year he prepared a prose outline for Siegfried’s Death, which during the following months he developed into a full libretto.

After his flight from Dresden and relocation in Switzerland, he continued to develop and expand his Siegfried project, having decided meantime that a single work would not suffice for his purposes. In his enlarged concept, Siegfried’s Death would be the culmination of a series of musical dramas incorporating a network of myths from his sources and imagination, each telling a stage of the story. In 1851, he outlined his purposes in an essay sent just to friends that he does “propose to produce my myth in three complete dramas, preceded by a lengthy Prelude (Vorspiel).” Each of these dramas would, he said, constitute an independent whole, but would not be performed separately. “At a specially-appointed Festival, I propose, some future time, to produce those three Dramas with their Prelude, in the course of three days and a forevening.”

Soon after writing his essay to his friends, he published his book-length essay Opera and Drama, in which he expounded his emerging ideas around the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk or the “total work of art.” In the new kind of musical drama, he wrote, the traditional operatic norms of chorus, arias and vocal numbers would have no part. The vocal line would, in Gutman’s words, “interpret the text emotionally through artificially calculated juxtapositions of rhythm, accent, pitch and key relationships.” The orchestra, as well as providing the instrumental color appropriate to each stage situation, would use a system of leitmotifs, each representing musically a person, an idea or a situation. Wagner termed these “motifs of reminiscence and presentiment,” which carry intense emotional experience through music rather than words. According to Jacobs, they should “permeate the entire tissue of the music drama.” The Rheingold score is structured around many such motifs. Leading analysts have used different principles in determining the total number. Holman counts 42 while Roger Scruton, in his 2017 philosophical analysis of the Ring, numbers them at 53.

In accordance with this scheme Siegfried’s Death, much revised from its original form, eventually became Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). It was preceded by the story of Siegfried’s youth, Young Siegfried, later renamed Siegfried, itself preceded by Die Walküre (The Valkyrie). Finally, to these three works Wagner added a prologue which he named Das Rheingold.

Das Rheingold is the first of the four  music dramas that constitute Richard Wagner‘s Der Ring des Nibelungen, (English: The Ring of the Nibelung). It was performed, as a single opera, at the National Theatre Munich on 22 September 1869, and received its first performance as part of the Ring cycle at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, on 13 August 1876.

Wagner wrote the Ring librettos in reverse order. So, Das Rheingold was the last of the texts to be written. It was, however, the first to be set to music. This seems somewhat of an unusual artistic paradox where the part of writing becomes the first part of music. One of the major achievements of Wagner was to create a new art form from combining previous art forms together. Dramatic art and literature with music. Music could tell a story without the voices of Opera. In the media ecology of his art, this created an unusual artistic content. One that had not really been seen before: last written and first to be set to music. The musical creation from this juxtaposition of two art forms?

Perhaps one of the questions hardly ever asked about Wagner by his followers who become (understandably) caught up in his powerful music. Like fish in water, it is hard for his devoted fans and followers to think about these larger things that created the context of his art. The musical content of it was more than enough for them to consume. But anyone who undertakes to review the life and art of Richard Wagner needs to consider things like the symbolism and psychology of attempting to combine two art forms to express the ideas of an artist.

They need to consider him that rare breed of artist in the world: both a great author, philosopher, thinker, psychologist and certainly musician. His art was great but perhaps the greatest challenge to Wagner was combining two great artforms for the first time in modern history.

Here was the appearance of that rare artist that is stuck somewhere between his creative muses. Not captured completely by one and still in the power of the other one. Perhaps this power is cyclic, like the cyclic comings and goings of symbols. Perhaps the two art forms are at constant battle with each other?

Alberich’s seizure of the Rhine gold, as depicted in Scene 1 of Das Rheingold

The score for Das Rheingold was completed in 1854. However, Wagner was unwilling to sanction its performance until the whole cycle was complete. So, he worked intermittently on this music until 1874. The 1869 Munich premiere of Das Rheingold was staged, much against Wagner’s wishes, on the orders of his patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Following its 1876 Bayreuth premiere, the Ring cycle was introduced into the worldwide repertory with performances in all the main opera houses. Since this time, it has remained a regular and popular fixture.

As the “preliminary evening” within the cycle, Das Rheingold gives the background to the events that drive the main dramas of the cycle. It recounts Alberich’s theft of the Rhine gold after his renunciation of love, his fashioning of the all-powerful ring from the gold and his enslavement of the NibelungsWotan‘s seizure of the gold and the ring, to pay his debt to the giants who have built his fortress Valhalla; Alberich’s curse on the ring and its possessors; Erda‘s warning to Wotan to forsake the ring; the early manifestation of the curse’s power after Wotan yields the ring to the giants; and the gods’ uneasy entry into Valhalla, under the shadow of their impending doom.

Scene 1 of the musical drama of Das Rheingold finds us in a scene at the bottom of the Rhine. The three Rhine maidens, Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Floßhilde, play together.  Alberich, a Nibelung dwarf, appears from a deep chasm and tries to woo them. The maidens mock his advances and he grows angry and chases them. They elude, tease and humiliate him. A sudden ray of sunshine pierces the depths, to reveal the Rhinegold.

The maidens rejoice in the gold’s gleam. Alberich asks what it is. They explain that the gold, which their father has ordered them to guard, can be made into a magic ring which gives power to rule the world, if its bearer first renounces love. The maidens think they have nothing to fear from the lustful dwarf, but Alberich, embittered by their mockery, curses love, seizes the gold and returns to his chasm, leaving them screaming in dismay.

Wagner originally conceived the first scene of Das Rheingold as a prologue to the three scenes that follow it. As such, the structure replicates that of Götterdämmerung, and also that of the full Ring cycle.

Richard Wagner

I don’t claim to be an expert on the content of Wagner’s work. Rather, I think my study of media theory and symbolism gives me a certain perspective on the context of Wagner’s life. The existence of this context has created an unusual battle between two artistic muses. Only those who experience this battle between muses can even begin to understand.

Wagner created a huge land (kingdom) to discover and explore in his massive Ring. The work is available on iTunes for $79. Four major parts and close to a hundred movements or dramas within all of these. It was amazing to see the whole work in front of me on my computer screen this morning. For those who first went to hear the grand new work of art, it was a work of art that could only be experienced in full over a number of evenings. No one evening could contain its massive theme and intentions. Arguably, it is the greatest piece of music produced by Germany. And also, arguably, the greatest piece of music produced in the modern era. Not surprising it is little understood today in our era of focusing on smaller and smaller works of art. Perhaps for these reasons, many shy away from attempting an exploration of the Kingdom of The Ring. The journey – like a trip to the top of Everest – seems too daunting.

To those who shy away from The Ring, they might want to listen to just one of the movements or musical dramas of The Ring. They might want to listen to the first piece in The Ring music as the Prelude at the beginning of the Das Rheingold section of the four-part Ring. The Prelude is referred to as Vorspiel in German. So, it is with Vorspiel that it opens the gate to a magnificent new rendering of the world by the forty-year-old Richard Wagner. We cannot forget when listening to it that it was the last thing written by Wagner and yet the first thing put into music from his writings. But in the end, we need to forget all this context of the music I’ve talked (probably too much) about. Forget all of what has been said about art and simply listen to the art for the first time without the critiques of all the others out there.

This describes my discovery of Vorspiel at the front of the entire Wagner onslaught. Is there a reason for running on to explore other parts of the Ring after listening to this mesmerizing piece of music? I will offer interesting comparisons to Verspiel with a new genre of jazz that might be called spiritual jazz. One of the characteristics of much of this type of jazz is that there is a constant drone sound as a foundation for the music. Always in the background of the music. This drone sound.

Miles Davis

The sound of Vorspiel has a drone sound in the background. It continues to build. It is a drone sound not necessarily invented by Wagner but instead passed onto him from a long line of artists. It is a sound that many claim originated in the middle east in the drone of the snake charmer. It is a sound that dominated much of the music of John Coltrane in the mid-60s.

What is this sound of Verspiel? Upon listening to it, I realize it directly relates to two pieces of music for me: “In A Silent Way” from Miles Davis In A Silent Way album of 1969. The album was recorded in one session date on February 18, 1969 and marked the beginning of Davis’ “electric period.” In a Silent Way has been regarded by music writers as Davis’ first fusion recording, following a stylistic shift toward the genre in his previous records and live performances.

Almost fifty years later, the drone sound is heard at the end of the 2018 film Hereditary in the piece “Reborn” by Colin Stetson. Two of the most powerful pieces of music in modern times. Both, directly related to Wagner’s Verspiel and its powerful drone sound. Hear for yourself the connections between the below pieces.

Richard Wagner’s “Vorspiel.”

Miles Davis’ “In A Silent Way.”

Colin Stetson’s “Reborn.”

It is heard in the music of many other modern artists. The sound hovers around a certain hypnotic frequency. It can be heard in the guitar of Carlos Santana; the harp of Alice Coltrane; the piano of McCoy Tyner; the saxophone of Colin Stetson; in the song “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds. It is not so much a sound that one creates but rather a sound that one simply channels. It is the sound of an awakening to a connection to something primal and eternal. It is the sound of Wagner’s great Prelude “Vorspiel” to his magnificent kingdom of The Ring.


Afterward. Once I posted the above, I heard from my cousin David in California. He wrote that he liked the juxtaposition of Wagner, Miles Davis and Reborn. He wanted to know if the following link he sent would qualify. It is the Introduction to Bartok’s “Wooden Prince.” Yes, I think so David! Thanks for sending!


(John Fraim is the author of Spirit Catcher: The Life & Art of John Coltrane – GreatHouse, 1993).


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