skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map


About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Richard Wagner
© Peter Laki
The four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) occupied Wagner for over a quarter of a century. Based on ancient Nordic myths and the medieval German Nibelungenlied, it is, without a doubt, the longest piece of music ever written. The four music dramas (Das Rheingold [“The Gold of the Rhine”], Die Walküre [“The Valkyrie”], Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung [“The Twilight of the Gods”]) encompass the entire history of the world: the motionless harmonies at the beginning of Rheingold symbolize the primeval conditions prior to the emergence of life, and Götterdämmerung ends with a conflagration in which the whole universe as we have come to know it goes up in flames. In between, a magic ring--a symbol of world power--is created and fought over by creatures of heaven, the earth, and the underworld, bringing doom and destruction to all.

The fate of the world is sealed in Götterdämmerung, completed in 1874 and first performed in 1876 at the new festival theatre in Bayreuth. Siegfried, a fearless but naïve hero, is defeated by a corrupt and treacherous society. It is in Siegfried's Rhine Journey, in Act I, that the fateful passage from a mythical world into the land of grim reality takes place. Having broken through the magic fire and awakened Brünnhilde, a divine warrior turned human Sleeping Beauty, Siegfried leaves in search of new adventures. The musical material of this orchestral intermezzo is derived from a number of leitmotifs, a web of themes unifying the four operas. One may follow Siegfried's journey step by step if one realizes that the excerpt begins with Brünnhilde's love theme and continues with fire music, as Siegfried goes through the magic fire for the second time, now in the opposite direction. When the hero reaches the river Rhine, vast stretches from the opening scene of Rheingold reappear. The quotes are never literal, however; the water splashes much more joyfully now that it has a superhero to carry on top of its waves. Only toward the end of the intermezzo does the horizon grow darker with a theme that, in Rheingold, was connected to the idea that there could be no substitute in the world for a woman's love. This theme appears at the precise moment when Siegfried enters the hall of the Gibichungs, the feudal clan whose vanity and boundless ambition will destroy him. Soon Siegfried will forget all about Brünnhilde, after drinking a magic potion which, here as in Tristan, is merely a dramatic device to bring about the inevitable.