Books

A big help in understanding performances of The Ring Cycle is a libretto (opera text) in a language you are familiar with. Over the last 100 years the original libretto written in German by Richard Wagner has been translated into different languages and combined with illustrations by world famous illustrators in editions that are highly prized by collectors. Ring librettos are even available as Kindle ebooks!

Brunnhilde with her horse

Brunnhilde with her horse

In summer 1848 Wagner wrote The Nibelung Myth as Sketch for a Drama, very similar to the plot of the eventual Ring cycle, but nevertheless with substantial differences. Later that year he began writing a libretto entitled Siegfrieds Tod (“Siegfried’s Death”). He was likely encouraged by a series of articles in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, inviting composers to write a “national opera” based on the Nibelungenlied, a 12th century High German poem which, since its rediscovery in 1755, had been hailed by the German Romantics as the “German national epic”. Siegfrieds Tod dealt with the death of Siegfried, the central heroic figure of the Nibelungenlied.

By 1850, Wagner had completed a musical sketch (which he then abandoned) for Siegfrieds Tod. He now felt that he needed a preliminary opera, Der junge Siegfried (“The Young Siegfried”, later renamed to “Siegfried”), to explain the events in Siegfrieds Tod. The verse draft of Der junge Siegfried was completed in May 1851. By October, he had made the momentous decision to embark on a cycle of four operas, to be played over four nights: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Der Junge Siegfried and Siegfrieds Tod.

The text for all four operas was completed in December 1852, and privately published in February 1853.

The English translation of The Ring of the Nibelung with illustrations by Arthur Rackham consisting of Volume 1 from 1910 containing librettos for “The Rhinegold” and “The Valyrie”, and Volume 2 from 1911 containing librettos for “Siegfried” and “The Twilight of the Gods” are sought after items by book collectors and fans of The Ring Cycle. Sets in good condition can fetch thousands of dollars. For those with smaller budgets there are numerous other versions and reprints.

Some translations are a literal line by line translation that is difficult for modern readers to understand, but lauded by purists. Some translators try to preserve the rhythm of the poems while others are content to just create readable copy in the modern style of English. Basically there is something for everyone. To see what I mean take a look at the different versions of The Ring of the Nibelung available on Amazon. The reader reviews give an excellent indication as to the content, readability, methodology and style of the translation.

Examples of 100 year old prose versus modern English

The two Brunnhilde speeches in verse form below are from a 1911 publication that uses the Margaret Armour translation, and the paragraphs that follow them are a modern translation by Dan McGlaun. They are both taken from their respective versions of “The Twilight of the Gods”.

Brünnhilde: For Brünnhild’s sake Warfather’s ban
Hast thou thus bravely broken?
Or perchance–O say!–
Has he at last
Softened to his child?
When against the God
I sought to shield Siegmund,
Vainly–I know it–
My deed fulfilled his desire.
And I know that his anger
Was assuaged,
For albeit in slumber deep
Here to the rock I was bound,
Doomed to be thrall to the man
Who should wake the maid as he passed,
To my anguished prayer
He granted grace;
With ravening fire
He surrounded the rock,
To bar to all cowards the road.
Bane and chastisement
Turned so to blessing;
A hero unmatched
Has won me as wife;
Blest by his love,
In light and laughter I live.
Hast thou been lured by my lot,
And wouldst thou, sister,
Feast on my gladness,
Sharing in my delight?

Brunnhilde: You came to see me, when you knew you weren’t supposed to? Or did Father let you come? He’s not so mad at me any more?! I knew I was doing the right thing when I protected Siegmund! I knew he couldn’t stay mad at me! He kept me locked up here on this mountain, and left me to whoever could find me. But, remember, he showed mercy on me by putting a magic fire around the base of the mountain, and not letting anyone but the greatest hero in the world find me! Now, I’m that hero’s wife, and I love it!

(she goes to hug Waltraute, who shrugs her off)

So, are you here to tell me more good news, and be happy along with me?

Here is another example

Brunnhilde: Sheer golden sunshine
Streams from his face;
None was so pure
As he who betrayed.
To wife forsworn,
To friend too faithful,
From his own true love–
His only belovèd–
Barred he lay by his sword.
Never did man
Swear oaths more honest,
No one was ever
Truer to treaties;
Never was love
Purer than Siegfried’s;
Yet oaths the most sacred,
Bonds the most binding,
And true love were never
So grossly betrayed!

Know ye why that was?

Ye Gods who guard
All vows that are uttered,
Look down on me
In my terrible grief,
Your guilt never-ending behold!
Hear my voice accusing,
Mighty God!
Through his most valiant deed–
Deed by thee so desired–
Thou didst condemn him
To the doom
That else upon thee had fallen.
He, truest of all,
Must betray me,
That wise a woman might grow!

Know I all thou wouldst learn?

All things! All things!
All I know now:
All stands plainly revealed.
Round me I hear
Thy ravens flapping.
By them I send thee back
The tidings awaited in fear.
Rest in peace now, O God!

Brunnhilde: He’s so wonderful. Even dead, his face shines brighter than anyone’s I’ve ever seen! Even when he was being tricked, he always kept his word. Even if it meant pushing me away, he always did what he thought was right. No one was ever more honest than him! No one ever made a promise they intended to keep more than him! No one ever loved anyone more than he did me! And, even with all that, no one ever betrayed everything in their life more than he did. Do you want to know why? I’ll tell you why!

(looking up)

Wotan, look at me! Look at what you’ve done! I hope you feel everything I’ve gone through; I hope you’re ashamed about your part in it for all time! You took the curse that was put on you, and made Siegfried take the punishment for it! When he did what he did to me, I saw everything clear as day. And now, I know what’s going to happen to you. I hope those ravens of yours are telling you, because I won’t. Good night, Wotan. I hope you sleep well!

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