The Ring Cycle

The Ring Cycle – Der Ring des Nibelungen – The Ring of the Nibelung

Brunnhilde in flames

Brunnhilde in flames

The Ring Cycle is a common abbreviation for Der Ring des Nibelungen (English translation – The Ring of the Nibelung), by German composer Richard Wagner. The Ring of the Nibelung is made up of a cycle of four epic operas that if played consecutively would last for about 15 hours. Wagner wrote both the music and the libretto, taking his inspiration from the Norse sagas and the Nibelungenlied (a 12th century German poem). The four operatic dramas are actually a trilogy with a prelude making up the fourth part.

NOTE: Some people translate “Der Ring des Nibelungen” as “The Ring of the Nibelungs” but this is not correct. In German the ‘-en’ ending of ‘Nibelungen’ and the article ‘des’ preceding it denotes the possessive (genitive) case making the correct translation to be Nibelung in English and not Nibelungs.

Brunnhilde the Valkyrie

Brunnhilde the Valkyrie

In chronological order of the events contained in each opera, The Ring of the Nibelung consists of –

  • Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) – Prelude
  • Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) – First Day of the Trilogy
  • Siegfried (Siegfried) – Second Day of the Trilogy
  • Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods) – Third Day of the Trilogy

As well as being an epic production in its own right, Der Ring des Nibelungen was also an epic in writing taking Wagner about twenty-six years, from 1848 to 1874 to complete. Each opera can stand on its own but the authors intention was that they be performed as a series.

Wagner worked on and off again on the Ring during the twenty-six years between when it was first started and when it was completed. He wrote the poems of the four operas in the late 1840s and early 1850s; the music for Das Rheingold in 1853–54, that for Die Walküre in 1854–56; and in 1856–57 Wagner composed, though he did not score, the first two acts of Siegfried. However, at this point in time he took a break from The Ring for twelve years, in order to concentrate on Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. It was always in his mind to complete The Ring and in 1869 he got back to work on the epic again. Despite the long break his enthusiasm and inspiration had not diminished. He completed Siegfried between 1869–74 as well as Götterdämmerung. The first performance of Das Rheingold was in Munich on 22 September 1869, and it took until 13 August 1876 before it was performed as part of the complete Ring cycle at Bayreuth – where it is still performed today.

Today we can enjoy performances of the Wagner Ring Cycle as both live performances by world famous opera houses, or as high quality recordings on CD and DVD. In addition there are modern translations of Wagner’s libretto that make it easy to follow the storyline and understand the plot.

The passage of time has confirmed Wagner’s “Der Ring Des Nibelungen” as one of the classic operas of all time, and although it may not enjoy the heights of popularity it enjoyed before World War 1, it still attracts sold out houses wherever it is performed in the world today.

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