Virtual Music Hour

  Wagner Archive

  Introducing Wagner's The Ring Without Words

  Watch & Listen to the Music


Welcome to Virtual Music Hour. In preparation for your listening experience, Assistant Principal Violist Catherine Beeson has made guides with activities that can be enjoyed alone, with your quarantine buddies at home and online, or with your students. These activities can be mixed, matched, and altered to create an experience that’s right for you, or as inspiration to create your own. Get as creative as you’d like. Share it with us on social media! If you like seeing and hearing the Colorado Symphony musicians online, imagine how uplifting it would be for us to see and hear you too!

Wagner wrote his epic set of operas Der Ring des Nibelungen, often referred to as The Ring cycle, over a period of 26 years finishing it at the age of 63 just seven years before he died. Its scope of influence in the classical music world and on pop culture is impossible to adequately measure. Enjoy experiencing this work from an orchestral perspective!

  Wagner spent more than a third of his life composing The Ring. He was so dedicated to overall production aspects that he even required the construction of a new concert hall built to his detailed specifications. It was premiered there at Bayreuth Festspielhaus over the course of four days in August 1876.

  The entire cycle lasts approximately 15 hours and is divided into four operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung. The first opera is considered a prologue or introduction. The following three operas tell a story spanning three generations and involve gods, mortal humans, mythical creatures, and magic.

  Lorin Maazel devised a purely instrumental rendition of the major themes in his 1988 “Ring Without Words,” reducing the length to a little more than one hour and effectively allowing the listener to completely focus on Wagner’s compositional prowess due to the absence of acting, costuming, sets, and other extra-musical dramatic elements.

  You may have already experienced an even shorter version: Chuck Jones, the director of the 1957 Looney Tunes animated short film What’s Opera, Doc? described it as “our attempt to squish the entire Ring cycle down to six minutes.” Of special note in this version is the lyric assigned to the famous ‘Siegfried horn call’ when Bugs Bunny sings “O mighty warrior of great fighting stock / Might I inquire to ask ‘Ehh, what’s up Doc?” Also noteworthy is Elmer Fudd singing “Kill da wabbit!” to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyrie.”

  For a great behind the scenes look into operational aspects for this colossal production, check out the 1999 documentary Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring cycle. Fair warning for those who might take offense: there is some coarse language, and definitely dated hair and clothing styles.

  Wagner’s original score requires piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 8 horns, 4 Wagner tubas, 3 trumpets, bass trumpet, 3 tenor trombones, bass trombone, contrabass trombone, contrabass tuba, steerhorn, 4 timpani, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, glockenspiel, 18 anvils, tam-tam, 6 harps, and a large string section of violins, violas, cellos, and basses.

Here is a listening map that can guide you through the piece. Read it in advance or while you’re listening! The music follows the order of the four operas:

The Rheingold

The first music we hear is a buildup of just one chord. This gets started in the horns and cascades through about five minutes of a sort of minimalistic sound painting of the Rhine river.

Listen for Wagner tubas, French horn related instruments designed by Wagner, as they shine in the Valhalla theme of the gods.

When Wotan descends into Nibelheim we hear the Nibelung blacksmiths at work, here depicted by off-stage percussionists playing anvils.

Donner, god of Thunder, summons a storm. Listen for Donner played by the trombone in this arrangement.

Finally a hammer blow, signifying a bolt of lightning, sends us into our next segment, The Valkyrie.

Wagner used the technique of leitmotif, or guiding theme, to signify characters, places, and feelings. These short musical ideas could be altered to suit various situations within the plotline as needed. If you listen carefully to some portions it’s possible to follow these leitmotifs as they twist, turn, grow, shrink, combine, and disintegrate – even when there are multiple different leitmotifs being expressed. This technique is also used very effectively in cinematic scores. John Williams’ Jaws motif is just two notes, but it can signal presence, foreboding, and imminent danger depending on the way it is expressed.

  Watch as Music Director Brett Mitchell leads an onstage demonstration (prior to the Colorado Symphony's 2018 performance) featuring a number of Wagner’s leitmotifs from The Ring cycle.

  Think of some other themes or motifs from cinematic or symphonic sources. What elements do you think are most effective about them?

  How are they able to shift or change depending on the plot?

  Have some fun considering theme music for your favorite stories!

First choose a story or book to work with — Maybe you’ve made up one of your own! Then consider the setting, and the main characters.

  What sorts of instruments would you choose to set the scene or depict the characters?

  How would you want those instruments to be played?

  In what ways could the sounds change when the setting or characters are having a different feeling/mood/attitude?

  Do you think you could “tell” the whole story just using music?

  How might that change the way someone could connect with the story?

Journal your thoughts and plans for this activity. You never know when you might come back to it and create that music yourself!

Now that you’ve had a chance to consider, discuss, and get active around Wagner’s music from The Ring cycle, it’s time to listen to the Colorado Symphony performance. There are all sorts of ways to engage as a listener, especially when listening at home instead of the concert hall. Sing/hum/whistle along, move and dance, journal or draw what you hear, or just turn the volume up and listen for sheer pleasure!



Please share your musical adventure with us through social media! We would love to hear about it or see any of your activities, journaling, or creations!


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