What is the Ring Cycle?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

The Ring Cycle, referred to in its entirety as Der Ring des Nibelungen, or The Nibelung’s Ring in English, is a set of four operas by German composer and librettist Richard Wagner based on the Nibelung Saga. They are quite long works, and designed to be performed on an evening and the three following days. Das Rheingold, The Rhinegold in English, is the first to be performed, and serves as a prologue. Die Walküre, The Valkyrie in English, is performed the second day. Siegfried follows on the third day, and Götterdämmerung, or The Twilight of the Gods in English, concludes The Ring Cycle on the fourth day.

The Ring Cycle was composed by Richard Wagner.
The Ring Cycle was composed by Richard Wagner.

The Ring Cycle was composed from 1869 to 1876 and was first performed as a cycle on 13, 14, 16, and 17 August 1876 in Bayreuth as the Festspielhaus. The first full performance in Britain was 1882 in London, and the first complete performance in the United States was at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City in 1889.

The sources that Wagner used for The Ring Cycle include the Elder Edda, the Prose Edda, and the Völsunga Saga from Iceland, as well as the epic poem Das Nibelungenlied. His intention was to create a new art form in which all arts were included, and which had continuous music and no material created for reasons extrinsic to conveying the story.

In creating The Ring Cycle, Wagner apparently first outlined his ideas on paper in 1848. He began is librettos with the death of Siegfried, and then created the earlier operas to provide the lead up to that event. In general, it is felt that his musical accomplishments outshine his work as a librettist.

One of the musical terms used in analysis of The Ring Cycle is leitmotif, or leading motif. This term refers to musical material closely associated with characters and themes, such that hearing it can signal meanings to the audience by repetition either directly or with alteration. The term may have been coined by a music historian A. W. Ambros, who had used it by 1865.

Important roles in The Ring Cycle include Wotan, Brünnhide, Siegfried, and Sieglinde. Noted conductors of the work include Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Colin Davis, Herbert von Karajan, James Levine, Gustav Mahler, and Georg Solti.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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