Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is utterly unique in the history of art: an ancient mythological tale spread over four interdependent operas spanning upwards of fifteen hours.
Featuring fire-breathing dragons, a magic sword, magic fire, and the cursed ring of power, it’s easy to draw comparison’s to J.R.R Tolkien’s literary masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. While Tolkien refuted the idea that his ring had anything to do with Wagner’s, the idea of the omnipotent ring must surely have come directly from Wagner mythic tale.
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The Lord of the Rings is just one example of how Wagner’s magnum opus continues to profoundly influence Western thought, art, culture, society, and politics to this day.Der Ring des Nibelungen was composed in 1853-1857 and 1869-1874. The complete four-opera cycle was premiered in August 1876 at Wagner’s Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany.
The lasting legacy of Wagner’s Ring Cycle is his ingenious use of recurring short musical themes — which later came to be known as leitmotifs — which created a whole world of gods, heroes, dwarves, and giants, while endowing them with distinct psychological and mythical depth.
The use of recurring musical phrases began occurring in orchestral music as early as the 17th century. But Wagner is the earliest composer specifically associated with the concept of the leitmotif. These themes can act as simple musical labels, reminding listeners what is what and who is who.
Perhaps the most well known of these themes is the “Ride of the Valkyries,” which has been utilized to great effect in popular media for over half a century, including in films such as Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers, and in Elmer Fudd’s tune to “Kill the Wabbit” from the Looney Tunes cartoon series.
The leitmotif has profoundly impacted composers and film scores for numerous legendary cinematic works of the 20th and 21st centuries, most iconically in the music of the Star Wars saga composed by John Williams. Williams also utilized the leitmotif in his scores for Jaws, Schindler’s List, and the first two installments of the Harry Potter film series. And fittingly, composer Howard Shore used a number of leitmotifs in his score for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Music Director Brett Mitchell and the Colorado Symphony conducted an onstage demonstration featuring a number of Wagner’s leitmotifs from the Ring Cycle prior to their performance in April 2018.
Despite its brilliance, the sheer scale of the production has made full performances of The Ring of the Nibelung an exceedingly rare occurrence. However, in 1987 composer Lorin Maazel created a condensed 75-minute arrangement of the Ring Cycle. Titled The Ring Without Words, Maazel’s arrangement represents a completely faithful adaptation of Wagner’s original work, showcasing many of the iconic themes and leitmotifs while creating a symphonic experience that is accessible and more manageable for audiences and musicians alike.
Maazel set strict rules while arranging his condensed orchestra-only excerpts from The Ring’s fifteen hours of musical material:
ONE: The synthesis had to be free-flowing (no stops) and chronological, beginning with the first note of Rheingold and finishing with the last chord of Götterdämmerung.
TWO: The transitions had to be harmonically and formally justifiable, the pacing contrasts commensurate with the length of the work.
THREE: Most all of the music originally written for orchestra without voice had to be used, adding those sections with a vocal line essential to a synthesis but only where the line was either doubled by an orchestral instrument or when it could be reproduced by an instrument.
FOUR: Every note had to be Wagner’s own.
The Ring Without Words was premiered in December 1987 by the Berlin Philharmonic and conducted by Maazel himself.
The Colorado Symphony’s 2018 performance of The Rings without Words was particularly special for Mitchell. A former protege of Maazel’s, the performance provided him with the opportunity to pay tribute to his late mentor.
“In my late twenties, I was very fortunate to be mentored by the great conductor Lorin Maazel,” said Mitchell. “One of the many pieces we delved into during our time together was his arrangement of orchestral highlights from Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, which Maazel affectionately titled The Ring Without Words. When I accepted my position at the Colorado Symphony, I knew right away that I wanted to bring this incredible masterpiece to our audience, not just because of the greatness of Wagner’s music, but also because of my personal relationship with Maazel. When I reached out to Maestro’s widow to let her know we’d be doing this piece, I was stunned and incredibly moved when, a few weeks later, I received from her one of Maestro’s last batons with which to conduct the weekend’s performances. For so many reasons, it remains one of the most meaningful programs I’ve ever led, and one I’ll certainly carry with me for the rest of my life.”
This performance was the subject of our May 22-24, 2020 Virtual Music Hour which included a special full video recording of the performance and an introduction by Brett Mitchell detailing some of the featured leitmotifs. From all of us at the Colorado Symphony, stay safe, healthy, and take care of one another. Please enjoy this weekend’s Virtual Music Hour featuring The Ring Without Words.