What is Wagner's Ring Cycle?
Wagner’s vast Ring cycle ultimately takes us back to where we started, so what was the composer trying to tell us? Tom Service goes in search of some epic answers
It’s a question that has taxed musicians, philosophers, politicians and audiences ever since its sensational premiere in 1876 in a specially built theatre in Bayreuth, a temple to the ego and ambition of its creator, Richard Wagner: what does the Ring cycle mean?
Is it an exercise in futility, as the mid 20th-century musical satirist Anna Russell says, in which you end up in
the final bars of The Twilight of the Gods exactly where you started four operas earlier, with the same Rhinemaidens, the same river, the same gold ? Or is the Ring a philosophical discourse on the limits of power and the limitlessness of love? Or a creation myth that contains its own destruction in the conflagration of the Gods and Brünnhilde’s suicidal immolation on the funeral pyre of her lover, the tainted hero Siegfried?
No one has found a universally accepted verdict. Yet what hasn’t been achieved in 144 years of countless books and treatises, Radio 3 listener Robert Boot attempted in just 10 words: ‘Gods homeward headed’ – that sums up the first Ring opera, Das Rheingold; ‘Close relations wedded’ – that’s Die Walküre, as Siegmund and Sieglinde consummate their incestuous love; ‘Auntie bedded’ – the third opera, Siegfried, since Brünnhilde and Siegfried are aunt and nephew through Wotan, the leader of the Gods; ‘Hero deaded’ – that’s the trajectory of The Twilight of the Gods.
- A guide to Wagner's Das Rheingold
- A guide to Wagner's Die Walküre
- A guide to Wagner's Siegfried
- A guide to Wagner's Götterdämmerung
It’s a brilliant summation, but it’s not what the Ring means. Mind you, it’s easier to say what it doesn’t mean: the Ring isn’t a political prospectus, despite the influence of Wagner’s anti-Semitism on the Nazis’ ideology. In fact, if you tried to build a political belief system from the Ring cycle, you would end up saying that all leaders are corrupt, that any attempt to control the forces of nature or destiny inevitably results in destruction, and that the people who you think are your heroes only ever betray you: that’s what happens in the Ring’s story to Wotan, Siegfried, Brünnhilde and all the rest.
Wagner said the Ring existed in order that his heroine could become wise, yet Brünnhilde’s hard-won wisdom doesn’t wrap up the Ring’s drama in a neat bow. Instead, the end of the Ring sounds an apocalypse in its music, in the overwhelming, cathartic maelstrom the orchestra creates from the cycle’s themes as the curtain comes down on The Twilight of the Gods. What is it saying?
The answer, I think, is a question, not a resolution: at the end of the Ring, the Gods and the Valkyries have failed, and the world is now in the hands of humanity. Will we – the human beings in the audience – do any better than Brünnhilde and Wotan? That’s the Ring’s moral, intellectual and emotional challenge. Wagner’s Ring cycle ends with an ultimate existential question that it’s our responsibility to answer in the world we choose to create. What does the Ring mean? Over to you...
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Illustration by Maria Corte Maidagan