Issue 262: 2021 01 14: Wagner’s ‘Ring’

14 January 2021

Wagner’s Ring

Revealed and explained (2).

By Philip Throp


Somewhere in the depths of the river, three Rhinemaidens are the guardians of the secret treasure, the Rheingold.  The dwarf Alberich is drawn to the shine of the gold rays and, as result of a mutual teasing bout between the maidens and the dwarf, the maidens foolishly reveal the secrets of the gold.  Whoever can craft the gold into a ring will become master of the world, but only one who renounces “love” can fashion the ring.  Alberich duly enters a vow of renunciation and tricks them into giving up the gold to him.

I think one can distil the symbolic meaning of the ring itself as “the potential in humankind to forge its own progress in a natural, self-determined way”.  However, this potential can also lead to/be used to progress evil when wielded by people acting without “love”.  Love, I think, meaning empathy etc and not necessarily erotic love.  This is seen as being necessary in a society which no longer feels itself guided by “rules” / the rule of  “the gods”.

Wotan, the chief of the gods, the guardian of law and sanctity of oaths and contracts, has foreseen the weakening of the gods’ power and persuades two giants to build a fortress (Valhalla) in which the gods can live on, undisturbed by unfavourable events down in the world below.  Wotan cannot meet the giants’ price for the construction, but Loge, Wotan’s messenger, tells him that down in the cavernous depths of the world (‘Nibelheim’) an evil dwarf is using the power of a gold ring to force enslaved dwarfs to make endless gold for him.  Loge suggests he and Wotan steal the gold so as to meet the giants’ price.  The giants agree to the bargain, but Wotan has to agree, reluctantly, to hand over Freia, the goddess of eternal youth, as surety until the debt is paid.  Freia is the provider to the gods of the golden apples which keep them nourished.  Supply of these is suspended while she is held hostage by the two giants.  The gods begin to weaken and age.

Wotan and Loge travel to Nibelheim and, using Alberich’s pride (showing off) in his abundant riches and mastery of the gold production process, they trick him into using a magic gold cloak-helmet (the ‘Tarnhelm’) he has created from the gold, to turn himself temporarily into a mouse, whereupon Wotan seizes the gold and flees back to the land of the gods, to the sound of Alberich placing an eternal curse on whoever shall have possession of the ring.

Alberich the dwarf and his enslavement and exploitation of the dwarf population in underground darkness is, I think, a metaphor for industrial revolution-type capitalist exploitation of the masses.  It’s ironic that Wagner was writing this part of The Ring during his years of political exile in Zurich from the principality of Dresden.  “The Gnomes of Zurich?”

Back outside the completed Valhalla construction site, the giants arrive to receive their payment.  They demand the weight of Freia in gold, and she, the innocent beloved of the gods, is taunted and humiliated by being placed on a weighing balance as the giants pile up the entire horde of gold, including the Tarnhelm, around her to match her weight.  The giants find a final small niche in the pile of treasure when she exits the hoard, and demand the gold ring to fill the niche.  Wotan knows the infinite magic value of the ring in wielding power and production of gold, but, being the universe’s guardian and overseer of kept bargains, is required by his wife, the goddess Fricka, to complete the bargain.  One of the giants has grown very partial to Freia during her captivity and tries to persuade his brother giant to demand Freia rather than the ring, but his plea is in vain, and his brother kills him viciously, taking all the spoils for himself.  The menacing theme of the curse of the ring and the theme of the perversion of power are heard in the orchestra, changing first to the noble theme of Valhalla as the gods walk together over the rainbow bridge into their new home, but the motif quickly morphs into the motif of “the frustration of Wotan’s will” and then the “twilight of the gods”, over the lamenting voices of the Rheinmaidens.

I referred in a previous article to Wagner’s innovation in the mature operas of using ingenious musical motifs, symphonically-developing (mutating!) throughout the cycle as the action progresses.  This is an interesting example.  When the power of the ring is being used by evil forces for perverted purposes, the motif of the ring is played in the orchestra as a progression of notes that are, on the page of the musical score, an upside-down version of the “clean” ring motif.  There are literally thousands of motifs and variations of the motifs on an ongoing basis throughout ‘The Ring’ and there are many works and records available with personal opinions on the meanings of the thousands of motifs and their progressive variations.  The orchestra acts like a Greek chorus, being forefront of the action, as if on stage, and using the motifs to musically comment on the actions or sometimes on the “forked tongues” of the characters.


In a prelude, we hear that much time has passed, and we hear that Wotan has produced nine daughters, immortal like the gods, who seize fallen warriors from battlefields and take them back to Valhalla, to ensure future protection of the gods from attack.  Wotan has also consorted with the Earth Spirit, Erda, to produce human (therefore mortal) twin brother and sister, Siegmund and Sieglinde, to represent his interests in the mortal world.  The two have been separated at birth, but in the first act of Valkyrie they are adults who meet up again, eventually recognise each other, and Sieglinde implores Siegmund to fight and slay the husband who has seized, ravished and enslaved her in domesticity.  The twins become so enthralled with their new-found similarity that they fall in love and make love (off-stage).  A battle between Sieglinde’s husband and her brother/lover Siegmund is arranged.  Siegmund finds a magic invincible sword thrust into an ash tree (“the World’s Great Ash Tree”).  The sword has been left there years ago by Wotan, and only a descendant of Wotan can release the sword from the tree.  The sword has a name, ‘Notung’ (need, or necessity), and like all the other objects and concepts mentioned so far, has its own musical motif/theme.

Wotan intends that the being he has put in the mortal world to represent his interests there will be invincible when wielding Notung.  There is the most enormous domestic argument between Wotan and his wife Fricka, as she vents her mighty anger at his union with Erda to beget the twins and the notion of Wotan intervening in the lowly, ungodly concerns of mere mortals, citing again the breaking of his marriage oath to her, and his own rules for the governance of the world (etched on his spear).  She demands that he does not help Siegmund in the duel in any way.

Fricka in fact intervenes twice in the operas to suppress and change Wotan’s intended actions to influence the events in the human world.  In both cases these are game-changing in the plot.  Her arguments are based on a homely, conformist view of the world and the position of the gods.  It is difficult not to see behind this character, Wagner’s own first marriage, to a woman who was little interested in art, a marriage of which both participants quickly tired, but which formally lasted for many years in which Wagner continued to support his estranged wife.  The character of the goddess Fricka looks like another swipe at domestic ties, rules, bourgeois value, as is the incestuous union of Wotan’s earthly twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, which, as we will see, in another work-around of the promises made by Wotan to Fricka’s demands, will  produce “the world’s great hero”.

Siegmund dominates the duel, but as he is about to strike the fatal blow to Sieglinde’s cruel husband, Wotan’s spear appears (on which the oaths of the world and Wotan’s commitments to the world are carved) to break the blow and shatter Notung to splinters.  The motif of the frustration of Wotan’s will is heard in the orchestra.  The Valkyries appear to take the body of the fallen warrior to Valhalla, but the chief Valkyrie, Brunnhilde, also finds the desperate Sieglinde at the edge of the battlefield, heavily pregnant with Siegmund’s child.  Despite Wotan’s instructions, as ordered by his wife Fricka, not to afford any special treatment to the twins, Brunnhilde flies away with the pregnant Sieglinde, and, significantly for the future, the shattered splinters of the sword Notung.

The Valkyries gather on a mountain top but all flee when a livid Wotan arrives, furious with Brunnhilde.  She has completely disobeyed his instructions.  Brunnhilde protests that no, in loyalty and love for him, she, his favourite daughter, has done exactly what his inner self desired.  He has no option but to mete out horrendous punishment to her.  She is to be stripped of her status as a goddess, be rendered mortal and left on a lonely mountain top in the mortal world, a prey to any man who happens upon her.  She pleads for some kind of mediation of the punishment.

Wotan finally agrees that she shall be asleep on the mountain top surrounded by rings of fire.  Only a superlative hero, a man worthy of her, with the courage to walk through the fire, may awaken her from her sleep.

The third and final part of this series, dealing with the third and fourth operas in the Ring cycle, ‘Siegfried’ and ‘Twilight of the Gods’, appears in the following week’s Shaw Sheet.  The first part of this series, the introduction, can be found in last week’s Shaw Sheet.



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