The Ring of the Nibelung
An Introduction and Notes with Musical Examples
Part One: Rhinegold
Introduction to The Ring
Richard Wagner took 25 years (1848-1874) to complete what he called his master artwork of the future. The first presentation of the entire Ring Cycle occurred in 1876 at Bayreuth in the festival house built specifically for Wagner’s works. The music dramas are performed over four nights and last 16-17 hours.
Wagner created his story for the Ring by adapting myths from several sources (13th century AD): the Icelandic Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, and Volsungasaga, and in German the Niebelungenlied are among the major sources. Throughout the notes, we will review how Wagner transformed the original myths to meet his dramatic requirements.
Numbers in the notes refer to pages in the Andrew Porter translation (Norton publishers 1977), unless otherwise noted as SS, which indicates a quote from the translation by Stewart Spencer (Thames & Hudson 1993). See the bibliography at the end of Twilight for further reading.
RHINEGOLD (Das Rheingold)
Alberich, a dwarf from the underground caverns of Nibelheim, steals gold from the Rhinedaughters, a deed which can only be achieved by renouncing love. Alberich then makes a ring from the gold which gives its owner great power. Meanwhile Wotan, ruler of the gods, searches for a way to pay the giants Fafner and Fasolt for building his new fortress Valhalla. He had promised to give them Freia, goddess of youth and love, but when she leaves with them, the gods begin to age. Wotan searches for another means of payment. With the help of Loge, god of fire and cunning, he forces Alberich to give up the ring, whereupon Alberich puts a curse on whoever owns it. Wotan gives the ring to the giants, and Alberich’s curse strikes immediately: Fafner kills Fasolt in order to become the sole possessor of the ring. As he carries off his golden bounty, the gods march into their majestic new home.
Wagner invented most of the story of Rhinegold by combining three unrelated myths from the Icelandic Eddas: (1) Odin offers Freia in payment to a giant for building the walls around Valhalla; (2) the apples of youth are lost (from another goddess named Idunn); (3) Odin and Loki steal gold from a dwarf named Andvari to pay for the wrongful death of Fafner’s brother, after which Fafner murders his father to obtain the gold. Additional new material includes the Rhinedaughters guarding the gold, the Rhinegold as the source for the ring, the act of forswearing love to obtain the ring’s power, and Wotan being bound by the contract of runes on his spear.
Read an English paraphrase adaptation of Rhinegold here.
Before the curtain rises, the majestic waters of the Rhine are represented musically with an E-flat arpeggio, symbol of pristine Nature, as yet undefiled by human greed, a “garden of Eden” into which the serpent Alberich enters (Wagner’s analogy). Soon the Rhine begins rushing along as the motif develops.
Wagner invented the role of the Rhinedaughters as guardians of their father’s gold. They are more popularly known as Rhine “maidens” but as Fricka notes in scene two, they are not maidenly in virtue, having led many a lustful man astray. In the mythological sources the Rhinedaughters appear only during Siegfried’s fatal hunting expedition and have no connection with a ring (see part four, Twilight of the Gods).
Gold stands as a symbol of light, beauty, and purity. The Rhinedaughters sing, “Rhinegold, Rhinegold!” rejoicing in their treasure as something beautiful and valuable in itself, not as a medium of exchange, certainly not as a means to gaining wealth or power.
Wagner created his own story for the origin of the ring. In the Volsungasaga, Odin (Wotan) and Loki (Loge) kill an otter, who is actually Fafner’s shape-changing brother Otr. His father demands payment for the wrongful death. Loki coerces a golden hoard and a magic ring from the dwarf Andvari (Alberich) who curses the ring (which is not, in the myth, the ring of ultimate power). Fafner and brother Regin argue with their father over the gold and kill him, Fafner taking all, and transforming himself into a dragon. Later Regin (similar to Mime) raises Sigurd (Siegfried) and challenges him to kill Fafner.
As Wagner describes it, the opening scene is difficult to imagine on stage (providing a creative challenge to set designers): a layer of mist exists below the waters of the river where the Rhinedaughters are swimming. From this lower region of Nibelheim Alberich appears, seeking pleasure from one of these lovely creatures. (The word nebel is old Norse for mist, so Nibelheim may mean “land of mist.”)
The Rhinedaughters tease and torment Alberich, too ugly to attract a mate and too slow to catch one and have his way by force. His unsatisfied lust for sexual pleasure soon turns to the lust for the gold. According to Wagner, the absence of sexual love is the root of all antisocial behavior; without it, people turn to materialism or politics/power.
Woglinde sings of renouncing love as the price for possessing the ring’s power. This plot device was Wagner’s invention. Alberich soon repeats the renunciation motif when he curses love and steals the gold.
Alberich thinks to himself, “Though love can’t be gained by force, through cunning might I enforce its delights?” (SS). Note that he renounces love, not sexual gratification; later he has a son Hagen by bribing the mother with gold (Valkyrie Act 2). Bernard Shaw in The Perfect Wagnerite notes, “Alberich knows that life will give him nothing that he cannot wrest from it by plutonic power.”
The transition music between scenes rises higher and higher as we ascend to Valhalla. The Valhalla motif is based on the ring motif, both symbols of absolute power, repressive of individual freedom (Freia also means free). As we will see, both Wotan and Alberich are willing to trade love for power.
In Wagner’s mythological sources, Valhalla, “hall of the slain,” was the place reserved in the afterlife for noble warriors who became Odin’s elite army. Built to survive Ragnarok, roofed with shields and with spears as rafters, Odin hoped to defeat his enemies at the final battle and avoid his predicted doom. For Wagner’s story, Valhalla became home to the gods themselves, symbol of authority and power.
Wotan is a character full of contradictions: (1) He is a seeker of truth (he lost an eye to obtain wisdom), who heeds the warnings of Erda (sc 4) and Fricka (in Valkyrie, Act 2) against his own wishes, but he is also willing to be led by Loge’s trickery and cunning. (2) He rules by law, the runes of his contracts engraved on his spear, but he attempts to circumvent it. When he tries to get out of the contract with the giants, the spear theme plays but with an incorrect series of notes, symbolizing the distortion of law. (3) He attempts to exert his own free will against fate, while manipulating others to work “freely” for his goals (seen in Valkyrie and Siegfried).
Wagner invented the spear’s origin (told in Siegfried 1.2) as a branch which Wotan broke off the World Ash Tree (called Yggdrasil in the original myths). The spear is a symbol of law and authority. Wotan’s tearing the limb from the tree is comparable to Alberich’s theft of the gold, both violent acts against nature. Note that Wotan can’t always be trusted: he says he lost his eye to win Fricka (scene 2), but later the Norns say that he lost it when he tore the limb from the tree (Twilight prologue).
Wotan has already demonstrated his own willingness to trade love for power when he offered Freia (whom Wagner depicts as goddess of love and youth) for Valhalla. Fricka makes this renunciation of love clear when she complains about losing Freia, singing the same motif as Alberich did when he took the gold. In Siegfried Wotan admits that Alberich is only the dark side of his own covetous personality, calling himself “light Alberich” (172).
Wagner: “Alberich and his ring would have been powerless to harm the gods had they not themselves been susceptible to evil” (letter to Röckel, in Spenser 307).
Unlike Alberich, however, Wotan has bound himself by contracts engraved on his spear. These laws and Wotan’s futile attempts to circumvent them play a crucial role in the next drama, Valkyrie.
The only real difference in Alberich and Wotan is the latter’s long search for a higher self-consciousness, the central plot running throughout the entire cycle. Alberich never learns anything about himself.
Freia enters, running from the lumbering giants who represent the ignorant but hard-working labor class, exploited by the powerful (according to Shaw). Deryck Cooke corrected the long-held misconception of the “flight” motif. Actually Freia’s motif is a hurried version of the love motif heard especially in the love theme of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Valkyrie.
Wagner adapted this part of his plot from the Prose Edda: one giant is commissioned to build walls around Asgard with Freyja as payment, along with the sun and moon. Loki transforms himself into a mare to distract the giant’s horse, and when he doesn’t finish the work in time, Thor kills him.
When Wotan tries to get out of his agreement with the giants, Fafner accuses him of deceit, singing a slow version of Loge’s cunning motif. Loge is the image of rationalism which Wagner and the Romantics mistrusted. Loge provides not wisdom but guile and deceit (22).
Wagner’s Loge is actually a combination of two Norse gods: Logi (god of fire) and Loki, trickster and enemy of the gods most of the time. From these two gods, Wagner drew the two major characteristics of Loge, represented by two distinct musical motifs: fire and cunning.
In the original Norse myths, Loki mated with a giantess to produce three monstrous offspring: Fenrir the giant wolf whose open jaws reach from earth to heaven, Jormungandr the World Serpent, and Hel, queen of the dead. These monsters will battle the gods at Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods.
Loge searches the world, but finds no answer to the question, “What means more than woman’s love?” (29), to which we hear the lovelessness motif, a theme which appears in all four dramas. Its first three notes are taken from the Renunciation of Love first sung by Alberich.
Finally Loge hears of Alberich’s story and his gold, tempting both gods and giants with a new lust. Ever resourceful, Loge suggests a plan: a thief must steal from a thief.
The giants hold Freia hostage until the gold arrives. Without Freia’s apples, the gods lose their eternal youth and immortality, foreshadowing their final demise in Twilight of the Gods.
Just as the transition music into scene 2 rose up to Valhalla, it now descends to Nibelheim.
The Rhinegold motif sung by the Rhinedaughters becomes the sinister Power of the Ring motif as Alberich enslaves his workers with its magic. Likewise, their shout of “Heiajaheia” becomes the rhythmic beat of Nibelungs’ hammering, as joy in the gold turns to servitude and woe.
Alberich’s brother, Mime the craftsman fashions the Tarnhelm from the raw gold but doesn’t know the magic to use it. In Siegfried he likewise fails to reforge the sword. His music mimics his constant whining and complaining. The magic Tarnhelm motif derives from the harmonies of Loge’s magic fire.
Wagner invented the tarnhelm as a transformation device, although transformations do occur in the mythical sources in other ways. In the Eddas Fafner and Otr are natural shape-changers, and Siegfried’s magical disguise as Gunther is never explained. Siegfried (Sigurd) takes a helmet of terror from Fafner’s hoard. In Niebelungenlied he wins from Alberich a cloak of invisibility which increases his strength twelve-fold.
Loge claims kinship to Alberich, who says he betrayed them; this history with the Nibelungs is never explained.
Alberich plots to master the world but not through magical power alone. He describes the whole world renouncing love for greed: “Enchanted by gold, your greed shall enslave you” (47).
He threatens to take women by force (foreshadowing his son Hagen in Twilight).
Alberich’s transformation into a dragon also foreshadows Fafner’s later change.
The gods drag the unlucky dwarf back to Valhalla. Reluctantly, Alberich gives up the ransom, unshaken as long as he thinks he’ll keep the ring.
Alberich deprived himself of love but knows that Wotan, upholder of law, will forfeit much more if he yields to the ring’s temptation; the whole world will be shaken.
When Wotan takes the ring by force, Alberich proclaims himself the saddest of all slaves, sung to the loveless theme: he has forsaken love but now has nothing to show for it. This act provokes Alberich’s curse (58): “Care shall consume the man who commands it, and mortal envy consume those who don’t … whoever owns the ring is its slave.” Thus the curse on the ring, its power over others, is not so much magical as it is psychological, a symbol of human greed.
Once the giants return, love is again bartered for gold, visualized on stage by hiding Freia behind the hoard (somewhat like weighing her worth on scales). Only if Fasolt can no longer see her beauty will he give her up. We briefly hear the lovelessness theme in his lament.
When Wotan refuses to surrender the ring, Erda appears. Wagner adapted this character from the prophetess Wala in the Norse sources. Erda means “earth” in German, and she resembles Gaia in Greek myth (one of many Greek influences in The Ring). Like her daughters the Valkyries who appear before the death of warriors, Erda announces the gods’ impending doom. Erda’s mysterious rising motif (based on the Nature motif) is followed by its inversion, the falling motif of the Twilight of the Gods.
Notice Erda doesn’t say, “Unless you give up the ring, you will die.” Her prophecy is unconditional: “All things that are, perish. An evil day dawns for the immortals. I warn you, yield up the ring” (65). The doom she predicts is inevitable. Wotan’s giving up the ring is not an alternative to his doom but his first step in accepting it.
Wagner: “Fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness, and it grows only where love itself is already fading” (letter to Röckel, in Spenser 306).
Alberich’s curse motif is first heard again at Fasolt’s death, its first victim.
When the text says that Wotan is struck with a grand idea (70), the sword theme plays in the orchestra, foreshadowing his future attempts to regain the ring through Siegmund and Siegfried.
In stark contrast to this bright scene, Loge foreshadows the doom of the gods by fire, saying “Who knows what I’ll do?” (71). “Loge has seen through the sham of this triumphant entry, has seen that it is not the consolidation of Wotan’s power but the beginning of the end” (Kitcher 47).
The final cries in the distance of “Rhinegold, Rhinegold” by the Rhinedaughters, once joyful, are now sorrowful and longing.
As a symbol the Ring has many meanings, different for each person who desires it: for Alberich the ring equals power through wealth; for Wotan the ring means securing power already held; for Fricka, power over an unfaithful husband; Fasolt sees it as an unsatisfactory substitute for Freia; Fafner sees only the value of the hoard. Later in the cycle, for Siegfried the ring will mean the booty won from the dragon, and for Brunnhilde the ring will first be the symbol of Siegfried’s love, and later his betrayal, when she sees it on his hand rather than on Gunther’s.
These pages were originally uploaded in 1998. Latest revision September 2018.