The most extensive drama by Richard Wagner (1813-1883), “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, originates in the 1840ies. His studies of the most tragic of the German epics had introduced him early on to the legend of the Nibelungen. In 1846 Wagner started on the Siegfried theme and in 1846 decided on the poetic composition of an opera with the title “Siegfrieds Tod” (Siegfried’s death), which was completed in November the same year.
From the same time comes the sketch “Nibelungen-Mythus” (Myth of the Nibelungen) for a drama that went much farther than Siegfried’s death, back to the origin of the myth, to Alberich, the Nibelungen dwarf, and Wotan, the ancient king of gods. Only in summer 1850, Wagner could finally resume his work in Zurich, here now the idea of a festival performance took form, growing stronger as Wagner had to realise that he could not do justice to the immense material with only one drama but that it would be necessary to precede the last, already written part with a “Junger Siegfried” (Young Siegfried), than for further completion the “Walküre” (The Valkyrie), finally as an introductory prelude the “Rheingold”. After he finished writing “Der Junge Siegfried” in June 1851, the plan for the festival was already fully developed, he intended to found a theatre especially for the performance of the huge work, which he hoped to finish over the next three years, as remote from the established theatres as possible and perform the whole cycle for his friends. 25 years should pass before the final realization of his plans. Wagner writes in November 1851: “So ausschweifend er ist, so ist er doch der einzige, an den ich noch mein Leben, mein Dichten und Trachten setzte.” (“As excessive as it (the plan) is, yet it is still the only effort in my life and my poetry.”)
The complete poetry was finished with the “Rheingold” in November 1852 and published as a manuscript with 30 copies instantly. In autumn 1853 Wagner started on the composition of the “Rheingold”, in January 1854 a sketch (on three staves) and by the end of May the whole score was finished.
The first performance of the “Rheingold” did not take place until September 22nd, 1869, when King Ludwig II. of Bavaria initiated a performance in Munich, without the personal participation of Wagner, who insisted that his work would only be performed as the prelude to the three subsequent main parts, over a period of four days. This first festival performance finally took place a further seven years later in 1876 in Bayreuth.
Introducing the mythical symbols, “Das Rheingold” forms the dramatic basis for the whole “Ring des Nibelungen”. The story begins with the dwarf Alberich’s robbery of the doomed gold, hidden and protected in the Rhine. Alberich curses love and can thereby forge the ring, which lends him boundless power. This contrast between love and gold is used as a leading idea of the drama for the gods and the giants. Wotan, the highest of the gods, after which the work should have been named originally, is fraught with a hunger for power but cannot renounce love. Bound by pacts, tempted by the sly god of fire Loge and hunted by his ambivalent desires, he himself falls for the curse of the ring, which he obtained from Alberich by deceit.
However, he may not keep it, as the giants demand the golden treasure in exchange for Freia, the goddess of beauty and youth. Warned by Erda, the eternal mother of the Earth, of the end of the gods, Wotan, filled with fear, moves to the castle of Valhalla, which, built by the giants, should guarantee eternal power to the gods. But already now in Wotan blooms the idea of how he can gain new powers to fight Alberich.
“Das Rheingold” dismisses us thus with pressing questions: Will Alberich regain his ring? What will the giant Fafner do with the golden treasure after he killed his brother for the ring? How will Wotan save himself, what does the name “Valhall” suggest?
A look at the score shows how “Das Rheingold” is an immense step on a new path in music. New instruments are employed to enlarge the similar sounding groups of the orchestra; the instrumentation must correspond in tonal richness to the representation of the element of water at the beginning of the prelude, than later of fire and at the close of the fascinating storm. But more importantly still is the actual introduction of these prototype motifs, especially for the elements and the most important symbols (the Rhine gold, pact, forging, Valhall, giants, golden apples, sword idea), which appear here first in a simple style, to be imprinted to the listener and then in the course of the “Ring” further unfolded, varied and combined. Where earlier only sporadically recurring motifs were employed in opera, now these have become the texture of the composition itself, so Wagner wrote in the beginning of 1854: “Das Orchester bringt fast keinen Takt, der nicht aus vorangegangenen Motiven entwickelt ist.”(“The orchestra does almost play no single bar, which is not developed from a preceding motif.”) With this Wagner created that unique, dramatic polyphony that would have such a lasting influence on the future development of music.