By Anna Pulley
“The music shall sound in such a fashion that people shall hear what they cannot see,” Richard Wagner wrote to Franz Liszt, describing Das Rheingold, the prologue of his epic masterwork Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”).
On November 1, 1853, Wagner started working on this triumphant operatic prelude—the last in the series, as Wagner worked in reverse to tell the tale of the Ring to rule them all. (Oh, hey Tolkien! We see where you got that from. Wagner similarly borrowed the concept from Greek and Norse mythology.)
In the process of writing Das Rheingold, Wagner transformed the way operas were written.
As the excellent PBS program note put it:
By the time Wagner had arrived at Das Rheingold in 1852, he had come to the conclusion that the drama should not be interrupted by musical set pieces but ought to unfold seamlessly.
The vocal writing therefore had to be different from the way singers had been treated in operas before. At the same time, the orchestra would become as much an integral part of conveying the drama as the soloists onstage. … In order to realize his new conception of music drama, Wagner developed the system of leitmotifs — short segments of melody, rhythm, or harmony that are associated with a character, a dramatic event, an object, or an emotion. Beginning with Rheingold, Wagner’s music springs almost entirely from these building blocks, which he molds or combines to reflect shifts in the drama onstage. …
Musical motifs relating to specific characters or situations were nothing new in opera at the time, but the degree to which Wagner employed this idea had no precedent.
November 1st also marks another important day for Wagner. According to The Big Book of Classical Music by Darren Henley, Sam Jackson, and Tim Lihoreau, in 1871, Wagner wrote to the authorities in Bayreuth proposing a brand new opera house. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus has since become one of the most famous opera houses in the world.
Watch above for a stage production of Das Rheingold, filmed in 1980 at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, directed by Patrice Chéreau.
For a plot synopsis and further refreshers, check out the Met’s program guide.
If you don’t have 2.5 hours to spare for the gods, watch the famous opener of the low E-flat chord, which mimics the Rhine river, gradually wrinkling into broken chords, arpeggios, and harps to sonically express waves, undulations, and rippling.
Or watch from the 29-minute mark, where the gods spar on the trade-offs of power, wealth, destruction, and a woman’s love—then ponder a mythical time when gods, not humans, were responsible for mucking up the harmony of the known universe.