An Introduction and Notes to
THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG
Part 2: Rhinegold
By Larry Brown
Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
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Numbers are to pages in the Andrew Porter translation (Norton publishers 1977), unless otherwise noted as SS, which indicates a quote from the translation by Spencer (see bibliography at the end of the notes for full credits).
Midi musical examples were created by Fabrizio Calzaretti.
Overview of the major themes of the four music-dramas:
- Rhinegold: Love vs Greed / Power
- Valkyrie: Love vs Law
- Siegfried: Love = Freedom
- Twilight of the Gods: Love = Resignation/Self-Sacrifice/Redemption
RHINEGOLD (Das Rheingold)
- The majestic waters of the Rhine are represented musically with a low E-flat arpeggio, symbol of pristine Nature, undefiled by man, 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 Rhinemaidens but as Fricka notes in scene two (32), they are not maidenly in virtue, having led many a lustful man astray. (In the sources, the Rhinedaughters appear only during Siegfried's fatal hunting expedition.)
- Gold stands as a symbol of light, beauty, purity. The Rhinedaughters sing, "Rhinegold, Rhinegold!" rejoicing in the gold 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 Norse Eddas, 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. Fafner and brother Regin (a dwarf) argue with their father over the gold and kill him, Fafner taking all, and transforming into a dragon.
- As Wagner describes it, the scene is difficult to imagine on stage: a layer of mist occurs below the waters of the river where the Rhinedaughters are swimming. From this lower region 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.")
- Woglinde sings of renouncing love 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).
- According to Wagner, the absence of sexual love is the root of all antisocial behavior; without it people turn to materialism or politics/power. Alberich quickly transfers his unsatisfied lust for the Rhinedaughters into lust for power.
- Alberich's evil desire transforms the Rhinedaughters' bright Ring motif into the sinister Ring motif, heard from now on.
- Alberich: "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 (111).
- Bernard Shaw: "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. In the sources, Valhalla was the place reserved in the afterlife for noble warriors, who became Odin's elite army. Built to survive Ragnarok, roofed with shields, and spears as rafters, Odin hoped to defeat his enemies at the final battle and avoid his predicted doom. For Wagner, Valhalla became home to the gods themselves (rather than Asgard), symbol of authority and power, built by the giants.
- Wotan is a character full of contradictions:
Strangely, Wotan doesn't have his own musical motif, only those concepts associated with him: spear, Valhalla, frustration, wandering, indicative of his complex nature.
- He is a seeker of truth (he lost an eye to obtain it), heeding the warnings of Erda (sc 4) and Fricka (in Valkyrie) 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, the spear theme plays but with an incorrect series of notes, symbolizing the distortion of law.
- 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 as the branch broken from the World Ash Tree (called Yggdrasil in the sources), as a symbol of law and authority, with its engraved runes (in Siegfried I.2).
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 motif.
In Siegfried Wotan admits that Alberich is only the dark side of his own covetous personality, calling himself "light Alberich" (172).
Wotan's tearing the limb from the World Ash Tree (172) is comparable to Alberich's rape 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 tell that he lost it when he tore the limb from the tree).
Wagner: "Alberich and his ring would have been powerless to harm the gods had they not themselves been susceptible to evil." (Aberbach 309)
Unlike Alberich, however, Wotan has bound himself by contracts engraved on his spear (Wagner's idea) (24). These laws and Wotan's futile attempts to circumvent them play a crucial role in the next drama.
The only real difference in Alberich and Wotan is the latter's long search for a higher self-consciousness; Alberich never learns anything about himself.
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.
Wagner's character of Loge is actually an amalgamation 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 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 Norse name for the doom of the gods).
Loge is the image of rationalism which Wagner and the Romantics mistrust. Loge provides not wisdom but guile and deceit (22).
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 of Siegmund and Sieglinde).
The giants represent the ignorant but hard-working labor class, exploited by the powerful (according to Shaw).
Loge searches the world, but finds no answer to the question, "What means more than woman's love?" (29). Finally he hears of Alberich's story and his gold, tempting both gods and giants.
A thief must steal from a thief (32).
Without Freia's apples, the gods lose their eternal youth and immortality, foreshadowing Götterdämmerung.
- Just as the transition music into scene 2 rose up to Valhalla, it now descends to Nibelheim.
- The Rhinegold motif becomes the sinister Power of the Ring / Servitude motif as Alberich enslaves his workers with its magic. Likewise, the "Heiajaheia" motif sung by the Rhinedaughters becomes the sound of Nibelungs' hammering. (note: to fully appreciate the ominous sound of hundreds of hammers on anvils, you must listen to an actual recording.)
- Mime the craftsman fashions the ring and the Tarnhelm from the raw gold but doesn't know the magic to use them; in Siegfried he likewise fails to reforge the sword. His motif mimics his constant whining and complaining.
- 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 disguise as Gunther is never explained except as magic. In the Poetic Edda, Siegfried takes a helmet of terror (all would fear the wearer) from Fafner's hoard; in Niebelungenlied he has a cloak of invisibility.
- 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 you" (47).
- 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.
- Alberich deprived 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.
- Wotan takes the ring by violence, provoking 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."
- Once the giants return, love is again bartered for gold, visualized by hiding Freia behind the hoard (somewhat like weighing her on scales).
- When Wotan refuses to surrender the ring, Erda appears. Wagner adapted this character from the prophetess Wala in the Norse sources. Her name means "earth" in German, and she is based more on Gaia in Greek myth than Norse (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 prophecy (65) is unconditional; she doesn't say, "unless you give up the ring, you will die." The doom she predicts is inevitable. Wotan's giving up the ring is not an alternative to the End but his first step in accepting it. Erda's mysterious rising motif (based on the Nature motif) is followed by its inversion, the falling motif of the Twilight of the Gods.
- Wagner: "Fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness, and it grows only where love itself is already fading" (Dahlhaus 99).
- Alberich's curse motif is first heard again at Fasolt's death (68).
- Valhalla motif is based on the ring motif, both symbols of absolute power, repressive of individual freedom (Freia also means free).
- 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.
- Donner invokes his power over the storm clouds to create the Rainbow bridge, symbol of hope (and variation on the Nature 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).
- The final cries of "Rhinegold, Rhinegold" by the Rhinedaughters, once joyful, are now sorrowful and longing.
Summary: As a symbol, the Ring has many referents, 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 only mean the booty won from the dragon, and for Brünnhilde 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).
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Copyright 1999 by Larry A. Brown