Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
arr. Henk de Vlieger (born 1953)
The Ring – An Orchestral Adventure
from Das Rheingold
Prelude – The Rhine Gold – Nibelheim: the smithy – Valhalla
from Die Walküre
The Valkyries – The Magic Fire
Forest Murmurs – Siegfried’s Deeds of Heroism – Brünnhilde’s Awakening
Siegfried and Brünnhilde – Siegfried’s Rhine Journey – Siegfried’s Death – Funeral Music – Brünnhilde’s Sacrifice
Considering that Wagner is widely regarded as the towering genius of 19th-century music, it is remarkable that he didn’t write more instrumental music. But his overriding aim was to elevate the dramatic integrity of opera. He sought to achieve a new art form using lessons from the symphonic music of Beethoven to inform theatrical works constructed along the lines of classical Greek drama and based on myths which elevated the German consciousness. His crowning achievement is the 15-hour opera, presented over four nights, Der Ring des Nibelungen, drawn from Nordic myths and the Burgundian Nibelungenlied.
Critics have sometimes assumed that Wagner wasn’t interested in symphonic music. Wagner had derided Brahms for concentrating on a musical form that Wagner considered outmoded the moment Beethoven introduced voices (and therefore texts) into his Ninth Symphony. But according to Cosima, Wagner’s wife, the composer was considering writing a symphony around the time he was composing his final opera, Parsifal.
Over the years there have been numerous attempts to create concert works out of extracts from The Ring. Herman Zumpe in the late 19th century popularised extractable moments such as The Ride of the Valkyries. More recently there have been attempts to render the Ring as a symphony-length orchestral work. Henk de Vlieger wrote this ‘Adventure’ in 1991 for Edo de Waart and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.
What helps these arrangers create a purely orchestral work is a device that Wagner invented to aid the drama – the ‘leitmotif’, a musical phrase or gesture whose changes plot the development of an associated character, object or concept throughout the drama. Considering the length of the Ring, the system of leitmotifs is an important mnemonic device. But the leitmotifs also perform a purely musical function. Their transformation and interweaving, creating variety while positing an underlying unity, allows the development of something like a Liszt-style symphonic poem.
De Vlieger’s ‘Ring Adventure’ follows the broad progress of Wagner’s plot. Three minutes’ play on E flat harmony at the beginning portrays the pure environment of the Rhine where the dwarf Alberich, denied love by the Rhinemaidens, steals the gold that sits on the bottom of the river. In Nibelheim, he forges a ring giving him power over all the world (you’ll hear anvils!). Wotan, king of the gods, must pay the giants Fasolt and Fafner for building Valhalla and steals the ring, incurring Alberich’s curse. We then follow the course of the ring from owner to doomed owner. One of Wotan’s valkyrie daughters courts his anger when she rescues a flawed human who was intended to help Wotan evade the curse. Wotan puts her (Brünnhilde) to sleep surrounded by magic fire which none but a true hero can penetrate. That hero is Siegfried, whom we first encounter in the forest. But, after waking Brünnhilde, Siegfried travels up the Rhine where he is murdered by Hagen who wants the ring, now in Siegfried’s possession. Brünnhilde decides to put the world back to rights through self-sacrifice. She rides her horse into Siegfried’s funeral pyre. The fire flares up; Valhalla bursts into flames and the flooding Rhine sweeps away Hagen, restoring the golden ring to the river depths.
De Vlieger’s intention in this arrangement was to achieve something like a four-movement symphony – ‘Siegfried’ is the slow movement, for example. And De Vlieger wanted the piece to come across as if perhaps The Ring was conceived in this form in the first place. He maintains Wagner’s orchestration (except for wind instruments occasionally taking vocal lines) and only occasionally alters a transition to keep Wagner’s music in the original key.
What you get is not Wagner’s detailed depiction of downfall caused by denial of love in the quest for power, but something which reveals why Wagner’s music works in the concert hall and perhaps some indication of what a Wagner symphony might have been like if he’d lived to write one.
Gordon Kalton Williams © 2012