There is no way to fully experience Wagner's Ring Cycle except by sitting through all 14.5 hours of it. Yes, it's long. Yes, parts of it are deathly boring. But by the time it's over, you'll be convinced that it is one of the greatest cultural milestones of all human history.
First, a little background on the composer. Wagner was a 19th Century pop star, one of the most arrogant and eccentric geniuses ever. He engaged in hallucinogenic drugs. He wore something akin to tie-dye shirts. He maintained that he had to live continually in the lap of luxury in order to compose his music. He said that the world had a duty to let him live "for free" because of his genius, so he spent most of his life mooching off of friends and running from creditors. He, like nearly every other person in Germany at the time, hated Jews. Yet scholars maintain that he would have in no way condoned Hitler or the Nazi movement. He was a blatant pimp. He had something like 2 wives and uncountable mistresses. He was not a homosexual, although mad King Ludwig tried continually to seduce him. Many regard him as one of the biggest assholes to walk the earth.
Yet this freak composed some of the most endearing music of all time. The Ring cycle actually took 27 years to compose, and is comprised of four operas: The Rhinegold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried, and Twilight of the Gods. Let me rephrase that - these aren't operas. Wagner despised the term, because opera up to that time had meant fat Italians singing their hearts out to the most inane, soap-operatic plots that the librettists could come up with, set to hideous, often circus-like "classical" music. Instead, Wagner composed "Music Dramas," and these were somewhat like the 19th Century equivalent of a blockbuster film. Deep psychological themes... Complex plots... Multi-faceted characterization... Exciting action scenes... Graphic sex... Gratuitous violence... Mind-blowing special effects... Unfortunately, the traditional opera house was the only place for him to produce these "total art works," so much of the cinematic potential of the tetralogy has yet to be realized - even today, we're stuck in a world of animatronic dragons and cardboard oceans. If only Stanley Kubrick could have gotten his hands on this...
Thus, the best way to experience the Ring cycle is in the theater of the imagination. As much as we may yearn for it, there's little possibility that the Metropolitan Opera is going to be able to give us beautiful, nude Rhinemaidens who swim at the bottom of the ocean and tackle their astoundingly difficult vocal parts. A studio recording is therefore the best way to go. My favorite is the box set conducted by Sir Georg Solti, which, as well as containing one of the best performances and finest recording standards in the history of the gramophone, also attempts to recreate the theatrical aspects of the works by inserting aural special effects. Wagner didn't really expect you to sit through all 15 hours at once - he intended the four components to be shown in the course of a whole week. And keep in mind that this is in German (although there are a few good English versions on Chandos), so you're going to need to read a plot synopsis beforehand and keep the English translations in hand while listening.
Wagner, as mentioned above, wanted his "music dramas" to be Gesamtkunstwerken - Total Art Works - that combined the worlds of theater, literature, and music. He probably succeeded the least in the theatrical world, mainly because of the limitations mentioned earlier. Literature-wise, the Ring cycle contains a great script that unfortunately seems somewhat workmanlike at times (although it does manage to pack in lots of great lines and psychological subtexts). However, the musical aspect of the work is flawless. He invented a new narrative concept known as the leitmotif - leading theme - that allows him to concoct literally hundreds of memorable, often moving musical themes that symbolize anything from fear of death to golden apples. For a modern example of this technique, check out the Star Wars scores. Another innovation is his concept of "endless melody," which means that every musical episode flows seamlessly into each other over the course of anywhere from 30 minutes to 2.5 hours. Think Pink Floyd. (Wagner's music can also be quite psychedelic - good to smoke out to. OK, maybe that's pushing it - although it would be interesting to try sometime...). Unfortunately, sometimes, the melody indeed seems to be endless. It's rather awesome when he combines several of these themes at once with different instruments of the orchestra.
Which brings me to my next point. This music is huge. Solti's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic employs about 150 players. Yet Wagner can seamlessly mutate from a thunderous passage for 8 trumpets, 60 violins, 12 harps, 15 horns, 20 trombones, 30 woodwinds, and percussion, to nearly transparent, atmospheric textures for a solo violin and clarinet. His method of writing epitomizes the lush Romantic period, often pushing chromaticism to its breaking point. But you don't care about that. Suffice it to say that this music is absolutely thrilling. And what's more, as George Bernard Shaw says in The Perfect Wagnerite:
There is not a single bar of "classical music" in The Ring. In true "classical music" there are, as the all-knowing analytical programs tell us, first subjects and second subjects, free fantasias, recapitulations, and codas; there are fugues, with counter-subjects, strettos, and pedal points; there are passacaglias on ground basses, canons ad hypodiapente, and other ingenuities, which have, after all, stood or fallen by their prettiness as much as the simplest folk tune. Of course, the professors, when Wagner’s music is played for them, exclaim at once "What is this? Is it aria or recitative? Why was that discord not prepared; and why does he not resolve it correctly? How DARE he indulge in those scandalous and illicit transitions into a key that has not one note in common with the key he has just left? What does he want with six drums and eight horns when Mozart worked miracles with two of each? The man is NO musician!" Of course, the layman neither knows nor cares about any of these things.
In other words, Wagner wrote his music as entertainment
, not to appease the stuffy intellectuals, although Shaw later completely contradicts himself and presents one of the most obtuse and pretentious analyses of all modern literature - even if it is highly entertaining at times.
One final thing - although this is one of the most analyzable cultural icons ever (a common myth states that more books have been written on Wagner's life and works that any other subject except Jesus Christ), it's best to just enjoy it as a really exciting, emotional story. I once talked to one opera singer who complained that Wagner only appealed to his brain, not his emotions. Utter bullshit. It's one of the most satisfying experiences ever.
But what about those leitmotivs? Wagner wrote the Ring cycle with both the music major and the average joe in mind. His score his chock full of musical themes that, as stated above, each symbolize different things (Deryck Cooke, in his 2CD Introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen, divides the themes into 4 families – objects, characters, ideas, and emotions or something along those lines). Most listeners can pick up on them and what they represent within their first experience of the cycle. For instance, in Das Rheingold Scene 4, when Wotan picks up a sword for the first time, the Sword motif makes its first entrance, and it reoccurs thousands of times in the rest of the dramas – when Siegmund pulls the sword out of a tree, when Siegfried reforges it, when Siegfried dies, etc. In other words, if a unique-sounding musical phrase accompanies a major plot element, odds are it’s a leitmotif and will continue to develop throughout the work – listen for it. Just to show you how complex this can get, the orchestral Prelude to Act III of Siegfried, surely one of Wagner’s best musical moments, contains (in order in case you want to try to pick them out) the Riding motif as a violin accompaniment; Erda’s motif; the Power of the Gods motif; Wotan’s frustration motif (all of this is within the first 10 seconds); the Spear motif; the Nature motif, Twilight of the Gods motif, and the Wanderer motif all played at the same time; the Rhinegold motif, and the Magic Fire motif. 10 themes in 3 minutes.
Wagner fans are often portrayed as the most rabid and insane people on earth. The traditional metaphor is that they are the Grateful Dead fans of classical music - "Wagnerheads" follow the composer through thousands of performances, and while many are stuffy, "cultured" opera goers (actually the modern reincarnation of all the people Wagner hated in real life), many others are so-called "normal" people, who even listen to - gasp! - rock music, only with the deep, dark secret of being a closet Wagnerite. The average fan owns recordings of all the music dramas and attends several performances, while others are somewhat more obsessive. I once talked to an online Wagnerian who spent many, many years with no job and no financial support developing a theory of the Ring cycle and writing a 3000-page book, which has yet to be published to my knowledge. As an interesting sidenote, the Grateful Dead analogy is not wihout bearing - the band actually canceled one of the concerts during a tour in order to attend a performance of the Ring cycle. Thousands of their fans followed them to the performance, and the theater was completely overrun with Deadheads. So you may want to turn back now - Wagnerism may become an expensive lifelong obsession - a disease with no cure.
Enough talk, let's check some of this shit out...
What's the best way to tackle Wagner's Ring Cycle? Most people begin by listening to several "bleeding chunks" - highlights that introduce Wagner's musical vocabulary and emotional summits. After becoming familiar with several suites and some of the leitmotivs, I recommend expanding to full acts in random order (after having become familiar with the plot). Try Die Walküre Act III for some of Wagner's most emotionally thrilling writing, Die Walküre Act I for some of his most vibrant action and love music, and Götterdämmerung Act III for the climax of the whole cycle. When you're ready to try a full drama (after having experienced its highlights separately), I recommend Die Walküre first - it's probably Wagner's best work of all time. After that, Siegfried is really great - somehow the music manages to remain entertaining through nearly the entire running time - a trait lacking in other sections, especially Götterdämmerung. Twilight of the Gods should come next, however, with Rheingold left over for last. Why tackle the seemingly innocuous Prelude to the cycle last? Because it's pretty boring, at least if you don't want to delve into deep political allegories and symbolism. Even Shaw, who believed it was the greatest of the cycle, admits to it:
To most people, Rheingold is a struggle between half a dozen fairytale personages for a ring, involving hours of scolding and cheating, and one long scene in a dark, gruesome mine, with gloomy, ugly music, and not a glimpse of a handsome man or pretty woman. At Bayreuth I have seen a party of English tourists, after enduring agonies of boredom from Alberich, rise in the middle of the third scene, and almost force their way out of the dark theatre into the sunlit pinewood without. Roughly speaking, people who have no general ideas, no touch of the concern of the philosopher and statesman for the race, cannot enjoy The Rhine Gold as a drama. They may find some compensations in some exceedingly pretty music, at times even grand and glorious, which will enable them to escape occasionally from the struggle between Alberich and Wotan, however.
Translation: unless you want to ponder for hours over complex philosophical doctrines, Rhine Gold is the weakest of the dramas
- although still quite good in parts.
And now, you're off... Don't come back until you've experienced at least a little of this musical marvel...