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The Myth, Magic, and Music of
Wagner's Ring Cycle

Text by: Amy Carpenter

A woman in flowing clothes stands before a crowd of cowering people. Her powerful voice is heavy with sweeping judgment and sorrowful wisdom. The man she loves, the man who unwittingly betrayed her, lies dead on a pile of logs beside a river, and she grips the torch that will set him aflame. Her body convulses with rage, and her eyes are wild with fury. She hurls the torch at the funeral pyre. As the flames reach toward the heavens, she throws herself into the inferno. While the fire eagerly consumes its offering, the people see a magnificent castle appear in the flames, its inhabitants standing in mute acceptance of their fate. Thus is the end of the gods, the end of a tragic love, and the end of the cause of all this terrible suffering: the curse of the ring of Alberich.

This scene is part of the magnificent ending of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, or "The Ring of the Dwarf," also known in its entirety as the Ring cycle. It is opera's version of a blockbuster movie series, unparalleled both in its own time and our modern day. It is comprised of four separate operas to be performed over four days, the sum total of which spans over 15 hours. The first opera in the cycle, Das Rheingold ("The Rhinegold"), is meant to be a sort of prequel to the rest of the operas. Wagner himself called this prequel the "preliminary evening" before the start of the three days of musical drama. The three operas that make up the other three days are: Die Walkure ("The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung ("Twilight of the Gods").

The Ring cycle is incredibly rich in psychology, history, and music. It is complex and, like many masterpieces, cannot be understood in one sitting. It also has quite a cult following. Wagner societies around the world analyze the messages and nuances of the Ring cycle. Scholars focus their PhDs on the series, and many, many books have been written in an attempt to tame and capture the essence of the Ring cycle. But strip away the intellectual philosophy and complicated musical analyses, and what we are left with is the story of a woman who was born of the gods, has fallen from grace, is hopelessly in love with a foolish but brave hero, and is both destroyer of the gods and savior of man. Her name is Brunnhilde. This is her story.

Das Rheingold

Although Brunnhilde does not appear in this preliminary opera, the story of the Rhinegold gives the audience the background of Brunnhilde's story. As the orchestra's prelude ends, we see three beautiful maidens playing in the river Rhine, a majestic and important waterway running through Europe, including Germany. They sing happily of the shining gold that lies at the bottom of the Rhine. It is their job to protect the glinting treasure. The loathsome dwarf, Alberich, soon appears, however, and attempts to woo the maidens. Repulsed by the ugly creature, the maidens cruelly spurn him. Since he cannot have love, Alberich steals the maidens' Rhinegold. He fashions a ring (which the maidens have foolishly told him how to make) out of the gold, a ring which will give him infinite power.

The Rhine maids appeal to Wotan (known in English as Odin), the high god who lives on the mountaintop. His new fortress castle, Valhalla, is complete, and the giants who built it demand payment. Their price is Wotan's beautiful sister-in-law, Freia. Wotan has sent the god of fire, Loge, to find a way out of the promise, but where a contract has been made, protected by the runes of Wotan's spear, the contract must be kept. The giants take Freia away, and the gods weaken because Freia is no longer there to cultivate the golden apples that preserve the gods' eternal lives. Meanwhile, Loge has returned and tells Wotan of the ring of Alberich, convincing him to steal the ring and the rest of the Rhinegold loot from the dwarf. Wotan can keep the powerful ring for himself and give the gold to the giants in exchange for Freia. There is a hitch, however. After Wotan steals Alberich's ring, the dwarf curses the ring. Whoever wears the ring will die by an assassin's hand. All around him will envy his power and seek to steal the ring. The ring will bring nothing but death and destruction until Alberich possesses it again.

The Rhine maids have heard that Wotan has recovered the Rhinegold, but instead of returning the treasure to the maids, he gives it to the giants in exchange for Freia. The giants see the ring and demand it as payment as well. The earth goddess, Erda, appears and foretells that the ring will bring about the doom of the gods. Wotan reluctantly relinquishes the ring, as well as a magical helm made from the Rhinegold. The giants fight over the ring, but one prevails: Fafner. Fafner puts the ring on his finger, and with the help of the helm, turns himself into a fearsome dragon. He hides in the woods, keeping guard over his horde of Rhinegold. The gods retreat to Valhalla by means of a rainbow bridge.

Die Walkure

Die Walkure is the story of the breaking of Wotan's will, quite literally by the breaking of Brunnhilde. A stranger comes to a woman's door seeking shelter. He has been in battle and needs healing and rest. The woman's husband is not home, but she extends hospitality to the stranger anyway. Eventually, her husband, Hunding, comes home.

The stranger tells his story. He is lonely and wanders the world in search of love. He once had a twin sister, but one day, as he was out hunting with his father, robbers came and burned their home, killing his mother and kidnapping his sister. Later, he lost his father in battle. He has just escaped a battle in which he sought to save a maiden from an unwanted marriage. Her kinsmen fought him to avenge the treachery, but he got away from them. In an ironic twist, Hunding reveals himself to be one of the kinsmen who tried to attack him, but he arrived after the stranger had escaped. Though he would love to kill the stranger on sight, Hunding follows the laws of hospitality and allows the stranger to stay in their home until sunrise when he will fight him. The woman gives her husband a potion to make him sleep so she can tell the stranger a secret. It turns out, she is his long-lost sister Sieglinde, and she knows his name: Siegmund. She points him to an ash tree from which a sword hilt glints in invitation. It is a sword that an old man sunk into the tree in the hour of her greatest need. No man has yet been able to pull the sword from the tree. Siegmund recognizes it as the sword his own father promised would appear when he was most in need of it. Siegmund pulls the sword from the tree calling it "Nothung" (which means "need" and is pronounced "note-hoong") and runs off with Sieglinde, with whom he has fallen into a forbidden, incestuous love.

Enter Brunnhilde. Brunnhilde is the daughter of Wotan and the goddess Erda (whom Wotan tricked with a love potion to learn the full prophecy of the gods' doom). She is also a Valkyrie, a fearsome womanly creature who carries out Wotan's will to save or destroy warriors on the battlefield. She and her sisters bring the chosen warriors to Valhalla to join the ranks of Wotan's mighty army, which he is raising to defeat the dwarf Alberich. It is Wotan's plan that Siegmund beat Hunding in battle. Wotan's wife, Fricka, goddess of marriage and home, shows up and tells him Siegmund cannot be allowed to win. Hunding is Sieglinde's rightful husband, and her relationship with Siegmund is wrong. Wotan sorrowfully gives in and orders Brunnhilde to make sure Siegmund dies in battle. She is to bring him to Valhalla so he can become one of Wotan's warriors.

Brunnhilde attempts to carry out Wotan's will, but when she sees Siegmund's dismay at the turn of events, she takes pity on him and Sieglinde. She tries to protect Siegmund from Hunding, but Wotan appears on the battlefield and shatters Nothung with his spear. Brunnhilde flees and finds Sieglinde, who she knows is pregnant with Siegmund's son. She hides her in the woods, telling her that she is pregnant with Siegmund's child and needs to live for the baby, though she wants to die now that her lover is dead. Brunnhilde prophetically names the child of Sieglinde's womb "Siegfried." She goes to her sister Valkyries for help, giving Sieglinde the shattered remains of Siegmund's sword and leaving her to fend for herself in the forest near the dragon Fafner.

Wotan confronts Brunnhilde. His precious daughter, who is the arm of his will, has disobeyed his will. In grief and anger, he banishes her from the abode of the gods. He condemns her to become mortal (and, even worse, a wife!) and tells her she will sleep on a rock on the mountain until a man comes and awakens her. This man will be her husband. Brunnhilde pleads that her punishment is too great, for she has only done the will of Wotan, the truest and deepest desires of his heart which his rational mind shut out. She will be left vulnerable to whatever man shows up, no matter his character. Wotan shows compassion by placing a ring of Loge's fire around Brunnhilde's sleeping form. Only the man who knows no fear will be able to walk through that fire and kiss the sleeping maiden awake. Thus Brunnhilde becomes a kind of Sleeping Beauty, awaiting her handsome hero's kiss of true love.

Siegfried

Alberich's brother, the dwarf Mime, has raised Siegfried, the son of Sieglinde (who died in childbirth). Mime plans to send Siegfried to slay the dragon and bring him Alberich's ring. Siegfried is now a strapping young man who loves to go hunting. He is strong and adventurous, but he doesn't have the brains to match. Siegfried demands swords of Mime, who is an expert at forging, but Siegfried breaks every sword Mime makes. While Siegfried is out in the woods, Wotan appears to Mime as the Wanderer. Mime has tried many times to repair the shattered Nothung, but Wotan tells him only the man who knows no fear will be able to repair the sword. This man will also kill Mime.

Wotan exits. Mime recognizes Siegfried as the one who will restore the sword and hands the sword over to him for repair. Siegfried is indeed able to fix the sword, though he ignores all of Mime's expertise and advice. In an attempt to avoid his fate, Mime tries to teach Siegfried what fear is. But Siegfried cannot learn fear from Mime, who he thinks is a terrible teacher. Siegfried takes Nothung into the woods and finds the dragon Fafner. He slays the dragon and accidentally licks up the dragon blood from his burned finger. This act gives him a special power to understand the song of the birds. One little bird tells him of Mime's treacherous plan to give him a sleep potion and then kill him with Nothung. She sings to Siegfried that he must put on the ring, put on the magic helm, and listen to Mime's thoughts. Siegfried is able to listen to Mime's intentions rather than the words coming out of his mouth. He learns of Mime's plans and kills Mime with Nothung. The little bird leads Siegfried to the sleeping maiden on the mountain. Wotan appears and, irritated with Siegfried's disrespectful attitude towards him, tries to prevent him from going through the fire. Siegfried takes up Nothung and shatters Wotan's spear (fitting revenge for Wotan's spear shattering his father's sword, though he does not know it). Siegfried walks through the fire, wakes the sleeping Brunnhilde with a kiss, and then learns what fear is. Though he does not fear death or battle, he does fear the love of a woman. In his virginal innocence, Siegfried has at last learned fear! Brunnhilde helps him get over it, however, and they join together in wedded bliss. Brunnhilde has her "happily ever after."

Gotterdammerung

Brunnhilde's "happily ever after" does not last, though. At the beginning of the final opera in the Ring cycle, Brunnhilde and Siegfried joyfully sing of their love. Siegfried gives Brunnhilde the ring of Alberich as a token of his love, and Brunnhilde sends Siegfried off to new adventures, giving him her shield and trusty steed, Grane. Siegfried leaves Brunnhilde, who is protected by the safety of Loge's fire. While Siegfried is gone, Brunnhilde's Valkyrie sister, Waltraute, visits her to tell her dire news. Wotan has gone off the deep end and gathered together a council of the gods at Valhalla. There he sits in silence as he awaits news from his raven spies. He has ordered the warriors of Valhalla to cut down the sacred ash tree and pile up the logs around Valhalla. He has told Waltraute the only way the gods can be saved is if Brunnhilde takes Alberich's ring back to the Rhine maidens. Brunnhilde, of course, refuses.

Siegfried journeys to the hall of the Gibichungs, a community of mortals who live on the banks for the Rhine. He meets the king, Gunther, and his sister, Gutrune, along with Gunther's half-brother, Hagen. Unbeknownst to Siegfried, Hagen has convinced his siblings to split Siegfried and Brunnhilde. Gunther will marry Brunnhilde, and Gutrune will marry the handsome hero Siegfried. Gutrune gives Siegfried a love potion, which makes him forget Brunnhilde. He puts on his magic helm and disguises himself as Gunther. He walks through the fire to claim Brunnhilde as Gunther's bride and demands the infamous ring which she proudly wears on her finger. Brunnhilde is understandably more than a little distressed. Seeing she has no choice, she hands over the ring and goes with the imposter who is actually her real husband. Infuriated and disgraced, she shakes her fist at Wotan's betrayal.

Soon Brunnhilde meets the Gibichungs and recognizes Siegfried and his betrayal. She, Gunther, and Hagen plot to kill Siegfried. Brunnhilde tells Hagen that she cast protecting spells on Siegfried, and the only way he can be killed is through a spot on his back. While out on a hunt, Hagen kills Siegfried by spearing him in the back. The hunters return Siegfried's body to the hall of the Gibichungs. Brunnhilde orders a funeral pyre be built for him. Hagen (who is actually the son of Alberich) tries to get the ring off of Siegfried's finger. It has been his aim all along to claim the ring for his father, thereby obtaining all power over the gods and man. Brunnhilde, however, claims the ring as her right, since, after all, she is the true wife of Siegfried. She throws herself into the funeral fire, and the ring is cleansed of the curse by the fire. Valhalla is seen in the fire, succumbing to the fire of the ash tree logs. The Rhine overflows the banks, and the Rhine maids snatch the ring as Hagen tries to obtain it. They drag him down to the depths of the Rhine, and he is never seen again. The Rhine maids have their gold back, the curse of the ring is reversed, the gods are dead, and Brunnhilde has had her revenge. Now is the age of man, independent of the whims of the gods.

Mythical Origin

Richard Wagner was a genius, to say the least. In school, he studied literature as well as music, a sort of double major. He took a break from school but later returned to study German epic poetry. His love of German poetry greatly influenced his operas. He wrote not only the music for the Ring cycle, but the libretto (text) as well, a feat unheard of in his day. His main source of inspiration was the Nibelungenlied, a German epic poem written in the 12th century, which was rediscovered in 1755. He also drew upon other German epic poetry as well as Norse mythology, whose gods and characters have many parallels with the German mythology (for example, Wotan is also the Norse god Odin the Wanderer, and Donner, who appears in Das Rheingold, is also known as the famous Thor, god of thunder). Wagner was also greatly influenced by the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (who also had a strong influence on Karl Marx's philosophy), which is why many scholars see lessons on society and capitalism in the Ring cycle.

A work of such scale and magnitude as the Ring cycle is not written overnight. The earliest beginnings of the operas can be traced back to a musical sketch Wagner created in 1848. Over the years, this sketch and another story about Siegfried evolved. Wagner found he needed to add more background so the audience could understand Siegfried and Brunnhilde's story. He finished Das Rheingold in 1854, Die Walkure in 1856, Siegfried in 1871, and finally Gotterdammerung in 1874 but did not have the operas performed until they were all complete. He staged the first production at his theater Festspielhaus in Beyreuth, Germany, in 1876. The rest is musical history.

The Magic of Love

At the center of the Ring cycle is Brunnhilde's love. It is her daughterly love for Wotan, her knowledge of the true will of his heart, which inspires her to defy him and save Siegmund. It is her compassion, a love that extends mercy and kindness, which moves her to take pity on Sieglinde and her unborn child. It is her love for the man who betrayed her which spurs her to sacrifice herself in a bold move to return the Rhinegold ring to its rightful place. It is her love for mankind that helps her ultimately destroy the gods, saving humanity from their capriciousness. Her love brings life, death, and renewal.

The antithesis of Brunnhilde's love is the ring of Alberich. Alberich forsakes all love in order to make the Rhinegold ring, a condition the Rhine maids tell him must be met in order for the ring to be created. The ring causes all who possess it to spurn love in pursuit of power. The giant Fasolt loves Freia, but he wants the power of the ring more, and so he trades his love for the cursed ring. Fasolt's brother, the giant Fafner, betrays brotherly love in order to wrest the ring from his brother. Wotan turns against his own son, a violation of filial love, in order to keep the ring away from Alberich. Mime could have loved Siegfried as a son, but his greed for the ring leaves no room in his heart for such a noble emotion. Even Siegfried, who is oblivious of the ring's power and therefore the most protected from its curse, unknowingly betrays the great and only love of his life. The ring is the great destroyer. It is hate, the blackest of all magic. But hate is weak. It can be defeated by one other power: love.

Though Brunnhilde's revenge is filled with righteous anger, her love for Siegfried never tarnishes. Though she despises what Wotan has done to her, she knows what she must do as his dutiful daughter. In the end, she carries out his last will and testament by casting the ring to the Rhine. As she and Siegfried burned in the fires of love at her mountain abode, Brunnhilde and her love burn in the fires of his funeral pyre, a fire of love that purges the ring of its curse. Love is, indeed, the purest, whitest of all magic, and it truly conquers all.

Musical Heights and Depths

Without musical setting, Wagner's story would just be a story, a story which has already been told in epic poetry. Wagner's music gives emotional and literal flight to the story of Siegfried and Brunnhilde. He used a myriad of techniques to weave an ordinary story into a magical epic. His use of musical motifs guides the audience through all four operas, tying the stories together and reminding the listener of earlier references forgotten in the span of time between performances. Wagner's abundant use of chromatic scales (a chromatic scale uses all the keys on a piano keyboard - white and black - in ascending or descending order) lifts the audience into the highest reaches of human emotion and then lets them drop into the depths of fallen love. Even without the visual cue of the destruction of Valhalla, the music itself paints a picture of rock and wood tumbling down to oblivion. Unlike most operas, the Ring cycle does not have one single aria (actual structured singing song). The entire operatic cycle is written in "through-composed" style, in which there are no breaks between songs, and each line is different from the others. (For this reason, one does not usually find song selections from the Ring cycle in any opera singer's anthology.) Because of this "through-composed" style, the emotions of the singers are carried through without interruption, which can be emotionally exhausting to the audience.

The most famous passage of music from the Ring cycle is the "Ride of the Valkyries." Even if someone has never heard of the ring of Alberich, they have most certainly heard "Ride of the Valkyries." This music has been used in movies, commercials, and even children's shows. It sweeps into the listener's ear and carries them off like a bird swooping up to the clouds. The Valkyries' voices arpeggiate down and then rise up in playful yet fearful near-shrieks, filling the opera hall with eerie echoes of violence and glee. This is Wagner's genius at its best: emotional, grand, terrible, and as moving as a tornado. And Brunnhilde — beautiful Brunnhilde, loving Brunnhilde — is one these enthusiastic creatures who delights in the awful grandeur of battle.

The Ring cycle is four nights of enthralling music, heart wrenching love, and tragic redemption. It is the story of the fall of the gods and the triumph of love over the curse of the Rhinegold ring. It is uplifting and humbling. It is heaven and hell. It is sublime and base. It is everything you ever wanted in a love story and more.