(from Alan Blyth's Wagner's Ring: An introduction, 4-5).
"In November 1851, Wagner drafted a first scenario for Das Rheingold, projected in three acts, with the title The Rape of the Rheingold. Then came a tentative sketch for Die Walkure, or at least two acts of it... by December 1852 he was able to write at the end of his huge manuscript: 'Close of the stage-festival play'. By now he had come to see that no known stage could present his vast work adequately: a specially built festival theatre would be required."
"So, by 1853 Wagner was at last ready to begin composing the
music. For this he began at the beginning with Das Rheingold,
now reduced from three acts to one. That work took him...six months.
Die Walkure was begun in the summer of 1854 and completed in
the spring of 1856, when Siegfried was started. The first two
acts took him from September that year until July 1857. Then came the
big break during which he wrote Tristan und Isolde and Die
Meistersinger no less, before he resumed work on Siegfried
in March 1869. Gotterdammerung was begun in the autumn of that
year and completed on 21 November 1874."
Plot Summaries of the Four Operas of the Ring Cycle
1. Das Rheingold: "Rhinegold"
The first act of this first opera begins with a scene in which a dwarf named Alberich seizes the gold of the Rhinemaidens. Alberich denounces love in order to gain possession of the magic ring which gives its wearer ultimate power. This scene sets up the Ring as the most desireable object in the world, and thus it establishes the fundamental intrigue that lasts throughout the entire cycle of the Ring. Rhinegold is the story of the gods, possibly more so than the rest of the operas. One learns of the suffering of Wotan and the problems the gods have in repaying Fafner and Fasolt, the giants who built Valhalla. Since Wagner created Rhinegold to be the "Prelude" to the Ring, this opera perhaps is not as "free-standing" as the other works. Nevertheless, Rhinegold introduces "the main lines of The Ring's dramatic conflict" and "many of the cycle's main musical ideas" (Blyth, 29).
2. Die Walkure: "The Valkyries"
Brunnhilde and her father Wotan respectively struggle with their pride in order to decide the ultimate destiny of mortals. The Valkyries deals with the deep, but difficult relationship between gods and mortals. These gods also play games with one another, picking favorites and taking sides. Nobleness, especially in love, seems to come second to oaths--the divine promises--of the gods. Siegmund, the mortal hero, essentially dies because his father, Wotan, is under obligation to obey his lawful wife, Fricka.
"Siegfried is often called the Scherzo of The Ring, suggesting that it is the lightest of the four dramas..." (Blyth, 83). It is the story of a hero, Siegfried, and how he grows into manhood to discover fear and love. Raised by the Nibelung Mime, Siegfried is young, innocent and cocky. With the help of a mysterious Wanderer (who is really Wotan in disguise), Siegfried finds the pieces of his father's sword, Notung, reforges them and uses the instrument to kill the dragon Fafner who guards the hoard of Nibelung gold that formerly belonged to the Rhinemaidens. As a result of his killing of Fafner, Siegfried comes into possession of Alberich's cursed ring. But, Siegfried faces his ultimate challenge when he follows a birdsong to find the sleeping Brunnhilde whom fate has destined Siegfried to awaken and fall in love with. At the end of the opera, Siegfried gives the Ring to Brunnhilde to prove and symbolize his oath of love and fidelity to her.
4. Gotterdammerung: "The Twilight of the Gods"
An ambiance of doom overabides The Twilight of the Gods. Wotan and the rest of the cycle's characters face the consequences of the choices they made throughout the stories of the first three operas. As predicted by the three Norns in the "Prelude" to this opera, the Nibelung Alberich's curse upon the Ring proves to be prophetic. Everyone who comes into possession of it is ultimately destroyed. Although Wotan's disempowerment was foreshadowed in Siegfried by the breaking of his spear by Siegfried, the doomed fate of the gods and their All-Father Wotan is sealed when Alberich's evil son, Hagen dupes and cruelly murders the brave mortal hero Siegfried. Thus, The Twilight of the Gods , which is "a panorama of love and betrayal, good and evil, subconscious and overt events, grand, pictorial and private, intimate scenes" is "the climax of the whole Ring cycle" and "shows Wagner at zenith of his powers" (Blyth, 115).
and Wagner's Ring