THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG
An Introduction, Notes, and Musical Examples
Part 1: Rhinegold
By Dr. Larry A. Brown
Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Please email comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
Introduction Valkyrie Siegfried Twilight My home page
Numbers in the notes are 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 all the notes for further reading.
Note: the musical MP3 files are somewhat large, so it may take a few seconds to load them.
Overview of the major themes of the four music-dramas:
RHINEGOLD (Das Rheingold)
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
as guardians of their father's gold. They are more popularly known as
Rhine "maidens" but as Fricka notes in scene two (32), 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).
stands as a symbol of light, beauty, 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 magician 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
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 scene is difficult to imagine on stage: 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
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
Woglinde sings of
as the price for possessing the ring's power (15). This plot device was
Wagner's invention. Alberich soon repeats the renunciation motif when he
curses love (16).
Alberich thinks to
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, 111).
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
The Valhalla motif is based on the
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 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 (the Norse
Apocalypse), roofed with shields, and 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 (rather than Asgard),
symbol of authority and power, built by the giants Fafner and Fasolt.
Wotan is a character
full of contradictions:
He is a seeker of truth (he lost
an eye to obtain it), 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.
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 I.2) as a branch broken from the
World Ash Tree (called Yggdrasil in the sources). The
spear is a symbol of law
and authority, with its engraved runes.
Wotan has already
demonstrated his own willingness to trade love for power, as he offered Freia
(whom Wagner depicts as goddess of love and youth) for Valhalla. Fricka makes
this renunciation of love clear (21) 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
Wotan's tearing the
limb from the World Ash Tree (172) 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 (21), but later the Norns say
that he lost it when he tore the limb from the tree (Twilight 248).
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
however, Wotan has bound himself by contracts engraved on his spear (24).
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
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. From this
unusual mating, Loki has an 8-legged offspring Sleipnir who becomes Odin’s
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 mistrust. 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
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 (all except the
warriors chosen for Valhalla). 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 (32).
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
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
as joy in the gold turns to servitude and woe.
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
Wagner invented the
tarnhelm as a transformation device, although transformations do occur in the
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 12-fold.
Loge claims kinship
to Alberich, who says he betrayed them (46); 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
He threatens to take
women by force (foreshadowing Hagen's birth, 111).
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.
himself of love but knows Wotan, upholder of law, will forfeit much more if he
yields to the ring's temptation (57); the whole world will be shaken.
When Wotan takes the ring
by violence, 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
(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
(based on the
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
is first heard again at Fasolt's death (68).
When the text says
that Wotan is struck with a grand idea (70), the
theme plays in the orchestra, foreshadowing his future attempts to regain the
ring through Siegmund and Siegfried.
invokes his power over the storm clouds to create the
symbol of hope (and a variation on the
motif). 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 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.
Introduction Valkyrie Siegfried Twilight My home page
Page created 1999, latest revision April 2013 by Larry A. Brown