In the summer of 1876, in a theatre specially built for the occasion, Richard Wagner unveiled his most ambitious project: a “Stage festival drama over three days with a prologue”. Four operas, over fifteen hours of music and a libretto with more than eight thousand verses make up this monumental epic, representing some 26 years of steadfast work. The Ring of the Nibelung—or the Ring Cycle as it is more often called—draws inspiration from a kaleidoscopic array of sources ranging from ancient tragedies and Shakespearean drama to Norse and Germanic mythology. The work is also a reflection of the composer’s political convictions, particularly socialist theory and his penchant for revolutionary movements. In addition, it embodies his quest for a “total art” which could take its place at the heart of the human community and help prepare for the society of the future.
From Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Gluck’s Alceste to Cherubini’s Médée and Strauss’s Elektra, a major obsession punctuates the history of opera, namely, a desire to revive the ancient tragedy, or at the very least, since it was impossible to know with certainty what one truly resembled, to invent a form of performance capable of providing a modern analogue and placing theatrical, musically-based declamation at the heart of its aesthetic. And if there was a composer who would push that revendication to its ultimate conclusion it was Richard Wagner with his Ring of the Nibelung—a work intended to be performed in a theatre specifically built for it: the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Indeed, the writer-composer, who, in his famous Zurich essays, developed the theoretical definition of a form of musical drama supposed to supplant the traditional opera performance—which he judged to be devoid of meaning and asphyxiated by its own conventions—envisaged the return of Greek tragedy, not only in the poetic, dramatic, and musical implications for the staged work itself, but also in terms of an all-encompassing phenomenon which took into account the manner in which the audience responded to the drama.
Wagner’s great ambition for Bayreuth was to bring together the performers and the audience in a specific place dedicated to the performance of a “stage-festival” (in this instance, the Ring, which also bore the moniker of a “stage-festival drama”). In his view, musical theatre had to be reworked to make it a communal experience of an aesthetic, moral, and human nature, capable of reproducing what had brought bygone audiences to ancient Greek theatres to see the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. In the main, this was a utopian vision tinged with nascent revolutionary aspirations that had been fanned by the events of 1848 and 1849. Indeed, Wagner had initially intended for the project to bring together audience members from all social backgrounds in a temporary theatre so that the shared aesthetic experience could foster a new sense of social cohesion and a desire for revolution. However, over time, many changes were made and when the first Bayreuth Festival was held in 1876 to present the entire Ring in three cycles in front of a socially homogeneous audience (artists, intellectuals, personalities, the upper classes, aristocrats, and patrons of the arts), those initial revolutionary aims were no longer the order of the day. Nevertheless, at the heart of the Wagnerian project there remained the powerful notion that “the work of art of the future”—which he had called for and which had found form in the staged musical drama—had to allow the entire audience to undergo a “purely human experience rather than a catharsis, as was the case with the Greeks.
The genesis of the Ring was a long affair, since it was spread over a period of more than 26 years if we take into account the time passed between the writing of the very first dramatic outlines (1848) to the composition of the final notes of the score (1874). It was also a work of great originality: Wagner wrote the texts that made up this “stage-festival drama over three days and a prologue” in reverse out of an uncompromising desire to ensure a high degree of coherence and consistency in the narrative. Wagner was an avid reader and, as such, his project crystallised around multiple sources of inspiration (The Song of the Nibelungs and, of course, Norse mythology, but also the Greek tragedies and Shakespeare). His original intention had been to write and compose a “heroic opera” which was to have been entitled The Death of Siegfried but which later became The Twilight of the Gods (Götterdämmerung). However, Wagner soon realised that this drama could not exist independently, and that for dramatic reasons it needed to be preceded by an additional text, The Young Siegfried, which would become the precursor to the work that we now know as Siegfried. Yet there was also a need to explain the hero’s origins and introduce his parents, Siegmund and Sieglinde, as well as the connections between the world of men and that of the gods. And so, the diptych became a triptych with the addition of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie). A similar intellectual reasoning led to the composition of a dramatic prologue entitled, The Theft of the Rhinegold, which goes back to the origins of all things, including, through the musical realisation of Das Rheingold, the very origins of music in the world and a primordial sound which takes the form of an E flat major chord maintained for one hundred and thirty-six bars. Out of this etiological approach, reminiscent of the analytical structure of the short stories and narratives of Kleist—an author whom Wagner particularly appreciated—there remained in the final dramaturgy of The Ring of the Nibelung a permanent tension between the present, the past and the future, a multidirectional physiognomy of temporality in both the narrative that maps out The Ring and the musical fabric comprised of “fundamental motifs” (Grundmotive), commonly referred to as Leitmotivs. Like the chorus of a Greek tragedy, the orchestra, as commentator of the action, plays on this temporal sedimentation and enriches the audience’s perception of the events being depicted on stage. Thomas Mann would come to speak of “the Wagnerian stage […] at the foot of which, the music, in a deep, voluptuous and powerful breath, unleashes a wave of song, word and meaning”. If the writing of these “dramatic poems” was done in reverse, the musical composition followed the chronological sequence of the narrative, from the theft of the Rhinegold by Alberich to the immolation of Brünnhilde. It was also spread over a period of some twenty years –with a long interruption between 1857 and 1864 when Wagner, having reached the second act of Siegfried, embarked on two other major enterprises: Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
From the outset, Wagner had wanted a specific setting for his Ring Cycle, which would stand out by its exceptional character. His vision called for a venue designed with rows of boxes and the customary practises of a repertory theatre. In those early days, after the composer was forced to leave Dresden due to his participation in the revolutionary movements of 1849, the idea was to erect a temporary structure that would host a theatrical festival on the banks of the Rhine. Then, in the 1860s, when Wagner began to enjoy the protection of Ludwig II of Bavaria, the idea of a festival theatre for the Ring took on more precise contours. The composer began to develop a project with the noted architect Gottfried Semper, which in the end could not be built in Munich, but the fundamental aspects of which would be used later to determine the structure of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth: The auditorium was to be built in the manner of an amphitheatre, in order to highlight the connection to Greek Antiquity and to reinforce the cohesion of an audience gathered together to share the same tangible experience. (Furthermore, the choice of a mythical subject for the Ring was totally compatible with that requirement, because in Wagner’s view a legend was immediately accessible from an emotional standpoint, unlike the historical subjects of Grand Operas by figures like Scribe and Meyerbeer, which presupposed either a certain degree of knowledge on the part of the audience, or laborious explanations on the part of the librettist.) Above all, the orchestra had to be invisible. It was to be confined to an almost totally covered space below the stage in order to create “a mystical abyss” intended to separate the “reality” of the theatre in which the audience was sitting from the “mythical idealism” being depicted on its stage.
It was ultimately in the small Franconian city of Bayreuth, and not the Bavarian capital that the project to build a theatre for The Ring of the Nibelung would come to fruition. Aside from the fact that the work found a favourable reception in Bayreuth, Wagner now sought to distance himself from his benefactor Ludwig II, who had, without the composer’s permission, been presumptive enough to stage performances of Das Rheingold in 1869 and Die Walküre in 1870 in Munich. This was particularly ill-appreciated since the composer had conceived the Ring as an organic whole and did not want the various works to be performed separately. Bayreuth was also a city with a rich artistic history, including a magnificent manifestation of opera culture: the Margravial Theatre. The fact that the city was located some distance from Germany’s major urban centres should not be a cause for surprise either: it helped to reinforce the exceptional nature of a dramatic and musical event for which one would make a special trip and devote several days in a row, far from the trivialities of everyday life. Furthermore, Bayreuth’s peripheral geographical position was totally in line with the cultural polycentrism of Germany which boasted, among others, two characteristic examples of centres of artistic and cultural influence, namely Weimar (with Goethe, Schiller and Liszt) and Mannheim (whose orchestra had earned an international reputation). With the support of local figures like Bayreuth’s mayor Theodor Muncker and the banker Friedrich Feustel, Wagner was able to lay the foundation stone for the Festspielhaus on May 22 1872, the day of his fifty-ninth birthday, on land acquired by the municipality and situated on a rise colloquially known as “the green hill”.