Richard Wagner's


An Introduction, Notes, and Musical Examples

By Dr. Larry A. Brown

Nashville, Tennessee, USA

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 Rhinegold    Valkyrie    Siegfried    Twilight    My home page



Richard Wagner took 25 years (1848-1874) to complete what he called his master artwork of the future.

After writing a full prose sketch of the main narrative in 1848, Wagner first wrote the poetry for the tragedy of Siegfried's Death (Gotterdammerung in its final form) with extensive exposition explaining the mythical past. He soon came to realize that he needed to present the events leading up to Siegfried's death in more detail and in dramatic form, that is, acted in full on stage rather than as narration. So next he added a "prequel" Young Siegfried, then eventually wrote the text to Rhinegold and Valkyrie to complete the four-part cycle.

He completed composition of  the music to Rhinegold in 1854, Valkyrie in 1856, but after composing Acts 1 and 2 of Siegfried he despaired of ever finishing his masterwork, and didn't complete the third opera until 12 years later. The first festival presentation at Bayreuth of the entire Ring Cycle occurred in 1876.

Mythological Sources

Wagner created his Ring by adapting the myths from several sources (13th century AD): the Icelandic works Poetic Edda, Prose Edda (by Snorri Sturluson), 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.

 Wagner's major contributions to the mythology of the Ring


Wagner invented most of Rhinegold in its present form by combining three unrelated Edda stories: (1) Odin offers Freia in payment to a giant for building the walls around Valhalla. (2) The apples of youth 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 in Rhinegold: the Rhinedaughters, the Rhinegold as the source for the ring, the act of forswearing love to obtain the ring's power, Wotan being bound by the contract of runes on his spear.


Wagner makes Siegmund and Sieglinde Wotan's children and his intended means to regain the ring.

He made Brunnhilde and the Valkyries the daughters of Wotan, and invented Brunnhilde's rebellion against Wotan by rescuing Sieglinde, with the idea of acting as Wotan's alter ego.

Wotan shatters Siegmund's sword in the original sources, but no reason is given why he does so.


Wagner envisioned Siegfried as a "free human being" who can change the world order.

He will accomplish this feat with the sword which he reforges himself, breaking Wotan's spear.

In this way Wagner links Siegfried's story to Wotan's ultimate plan to regain the ring. This connection is Wagner's major contribution to the entire plot of the Ring.


Wotan tears the branch from the world ash tree, thus causing the tree to die.

Wagner identified Gunther's half-brother Hagen as Alberich's son, linking Siegfried's murderer (with the ring as his ulterior motive) to Wotan's old adversary.

Although never suggested in his sources, Wagner also makes the connection between Siegfried and Brunnhilde's deaths and the doom of the gods.

The finale returns the ring to the Rhine and symbolizes the restoration of nature.


 Rhinegold    Valkyrie    Siegfried    Twilight    My home page

 Also see my article, "Wagner, Nietzsche, Shaw: Prophets of the Superman"


Read English adaptations of Rhinegold and Valkyrie.


Page created 1999 by Larry A. Brown

Latest additions: December 2016



Fabrizio Calzaretti's Richard Wagner site with musical examples from all the operas


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