Musical marathon: A ten-minute guide to the ring cycle

As BBC Radio 3 prepares to broadcast all four operas in one day, Louise Jury tells you everything you wanted to know but were too scared to ask about classical music's most daunting work
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The Independent Online

Every once in a while, the BBC decides to do something so stylish and so daring that you are reminded all over again why the national broadcaster remains the envy of the world. Broadcasting the complete works of Bach before Christmas was one such project. Radio 3's latest present to its listeners is to broadcast the whole of Wagner's Ring cycle on Easter Monday - 15 hours from overture to finale.

For Wagner enthusiasts, this is a feast beyond our imaginings. The scale of the Ring means it cannot be staged live within one day with the same cast. These consecutive recordings will be as good as it gets. This is also a brave undertaking for quite different reasons.

The operas of Richard Wagner, and the Ring in particular, are risky, some would argue tainted, properties. That "The Ride of the Valkyrie" (from Die Walküre, the third opera in the cycle) is, according to the RAC two years ago, the music most often found playing in vehicles involved in accidents - is the very least of it. But it is not irrelevant. Wagner's music is associated in the English-speaking world with a macho, godless, Nietzschean view of the world that recognises no physical or moral restraint.

Specifically, of course, it is associated with the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany. Although the music has gradually emerged from the shadows in recent years, it retains risqué connotations, which heighten its appeal in some circles and keep it taboo in others.

In Germany, Wagner's popularity has grown along with the new sense of nationhood that has followed reunification and the transfer of the capital to Berlin. The new Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her husband are ardent fans.

There has not been the same warming to Wagner in Israel. It was not until 2001 that any of his music was played there, and even though it was under a Jewish conductor, Daniel Barenboim, and only an encore, it attracted huge controversy. It may not be coincidence that the BBC has chosen a version of the Ring recorded by Barenboim for its broadcast. Easter Monday will offer exhilarating listening.

The composer: Richard Wagner

One of the most controversial as well as one of the most brilliant composers of the 19th century, Richard Wagner was important not only for his music but for his influence on German culture and history - including, notoriously, his impact on Hitler.

Born in Leipzig in 1813, Wagner was writing his first compositions by the age of 16 and studied music at Leipzig University. Assorted posts as a chorus master and opera conductor followed, and he married a singer called Minna Planer.

Debts prompted the couple to move to London and Paris and he wrote Die fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman), the first of the operas for which he is now famed. The idea of redemption through a woman's love became one of the key themes in his subsequent work.

He was made Kapellmeister at the Dresden court but in 1848 was caught up in the revolutionary spirit of the times and left Germany, not returning for more than a decade.

In 1850-1851, he wrote Jewishness in Music, a viciously anti-Semitic diatribe which has made him a hate figure among many Jews since, and also Opera and Drama, which set out his views on musical theatre. Political and polemical writing continued throughout his career.

At this time, he also began work on what would eventually become Der Ring des Nibelungen, now commonly known as the Ring Cycle.

After splitting from Minna, he was invited by King Ludwig II to settle in Bavaria, where he began an affair with Cosima von Bülow, the wife of conductor Hans von Bülow and the daughter of the composer Franz Liszt. Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde which premiered in 1865.

Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) followed before Wagner returned to writing the Ring. He also produced two children by Cosima, and he eventually married her.

Das Rheingold (The Rheingold) and Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), the first two parts of the Ring, were premiered in 1869 and 1870 by which time Wagner was determined to present the completed work in a special festival opera house with the lighting and staging he wanted. Bayreuth was eventually built with the support of King Ludwig and the completed cycle was presented in 1876.

The momentous work, a complete piece of dramatic art with unparalleled orchestration, is widely regarded to have changed the face of opera. Performances are still major events with new productions usually being presented over several years, as is happening now at the Royal Opera House in London.

Wagner died in Venice, still in debt, in 1883. Although few doubt his musical importance, his political ideas have left a less savoury legacy, most notably because of their anti-Semitism and their influence on Hitler.

The music: The smell of napalm and a secret love song

Wagner is not the most hummable of opera composers compared to, say, Verdi or Puccini, but there are two big numbers associated with the Ring Cycle which have become public favourites. The first, The Ride of the Valkyrie, owes its current popularity to the film Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and containing the famous line: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

The Valkyries were the daughters of Wotan, known as the Wanderer because of his habit of wandering the Earth to see what was going on. Wotan was a bit of a wanderer as far as women were concerned, too, and the Valkyrie were not the children of his official wife, Fricka, but by Erda, the goddess of the earth. Traditionally they were shieldmaidens who rode on winged horses and gathered up heroes who had died in battle to take them to Valhalla. In Coppola's movie, the stirring leitmotif that heralds the arrival of Brünnhilde at the beginning of Die Walküre is used as the soundtrack for a US gunship attack on a Viet Cong compound.

The second piece of music is the Siegfried Idyll, based on the final duet in Siegfried, where the hero awakes Brünnhilde with a kiss. This composition was never intended for public consumption. Wagner wrote it for his wife Cosima's 33rd birthday, in 1870. It is unashamedly romantic and when in a moment of financial embarrassment, Wagner sent it off to his publisher, Cosima was distraught, writing in her diary: "The secret treasure is to become public property."

The plot: One ring to rule them all...

Four operas make up the Ring cycle - Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). At their heart lies a magic Ring which grants the power to rule the world. It is forged by the curmudgeonly dwarf Alberich from gold - Rheingold - stolen from the Rhinemaidens.

Alberich is mocked by the Rhinemaidens for his ugliness and curses love, the key to the Ring's power. Thus the struggle for possession of the Ring will doom the participants, including Wotan (or Odin), the chief of the Gods, to disaster.

In Norse mythology, the gods are not all-powerful. Wotan is aware of his limitations, which are made clear in Das Rheingold when he has to enlist the help of the giants Fafner and Fasolt to build his city, Valhalla. His strategy to compensate for these weaknesses drives much of the action in the story.

He resorts to trickery, aided by Loge, the fire god, first to steal the Ring from Alberich and then to cheat the giants, who fight each other over it. As Wotan, warned by Erda, the goddess of the earth, realises that the Ring has terrible powers, Fafner kills his brother and takes the Ring.

The second opera, Die Walküre, deals with Wotan's search for a hero who will go after Fafner and retrieve the Ring. His estranged twin children Siegmund and Sieglinde meet and fall in love, but because this (inadvertently) contravenes the sanctity of the family, they must die. Brünnhilde, Wotan's Valkyrie daughter by Erda, tries to save Siegmund, but is punished by losing her immortal status. A heartbroken Wotan puts her into an enchanted sleep and protects her with a circle of fire that will deter all but the bravest hero. This hero will be Siegfried, Siegmund's child, safe in Sieglinde's womb.

In Siegfried, the hero has grown to manhood without ever knowing fear. To try to discover it, he sets off to fight Fafner, who has transformed himself into a dragon. He kills Fafner who, with his dying breath, warns him of treachery and gives him the power to read the thoughts of men and animals. As Siegfried takes the Ring he hears a bird sing of a beautiful maiden - Brünnhilde - sleeping on a rock surrounded by fire. On his way, he meets Wotan and shatters the god's spear, the key to his power.

Siegfried finds Brünnhilde and breaks through the fiery circle. For the first time in his life, he knows fear and uncertainty as he gazes on her. He kisses her, she awakes and they fall in love, sealing their vows with the Ring.

In Götterdämmerung, Siegfied and Brunnhilde are tricked by Gunther, king of the Gibichungs, and his brother Hagen into betraying their love. Hagen kills Siegfried and Brünnhilde takes the Ring and rides her horse into a huge funeral pyre, telling the Rhinemaidens they can have the Ring once the fire has cleansed it of its curse. As the Ring sinks beneath the water, the Rhine floods and Valhalla is consumed by flames.

The venue: Bayreuth and the family legacy

Even before Wagner had completed the Ring cycle for which he is now famed, he had set his heart on a special festival opera house in which to present it. He spent a lot of energy trying to raise money but the project seemed doomed until King Ludwig of Bavaria stepped in.

The opera house was built to Wagner's own design in the northern Bavarian town of Bayreuth and the first festival was held in 1876 when the completed cycle - or Der Ring des Nibelungen, to give it its official title - was presented in full. (The word leitmotif was coined the same year, to explain Wagner's innovative use of musical themes to Bayreuth audiences.)

Despite critical praise, the festival was a financial disaster and Wagner was forced to take on conducting engagements in London to help recoup his debts. Today, of course, the annual festival is one of the hottest tickets in opera, attracting thousands of visitors. Run by Wagner's descendants, including his grandson, Wolfgang, there is a fabled 10-year waiting list.

One of the most controversial periods in its history came under the leadership of Wagner's daughter-in-law, Winifried Wagner, who was very close to Hitler.

The politics: Wagner and the Nazis

The link between Wagner and Hitler has now become so automatic that the composer is sometimes regarded as the master of the Führer's music - even though the two belong to different centuries and Wagner died six years before Hitler was born.

But Wagner was useful to Hitler. Wagner's use of Teutonic mythology for his operas belongs to the 19th century, when the states that were united by Bismarck into the country that became the modern Germany were forging a common cultural identity and discovering a mythology for their past.

The 13th-century Song of the Nibelungen, on which the Ring is mostly based, has its roots in ancient epic and takes its form from the rituals and manners of the medieval court. It is a classic text, part of the cultural heritage, that every German schoolchild is expected to know. But this saga of a common German past, set to music which is at once imperious and overwhelmingly emotional, explains the appeal of Wagner to Hitler and his coterie, who exploited it in support of their cult of German nationalism.

The critics: 'Take a sedative...'

Richard Wagner took his work (and himself) extremely seriously. He saw himself as a major force in the creation of a new operatic idiom - the music drama - and wrote his own libretti so that the musical and dramatic elements could be fused together from the start. He had admirers and detractors in almost equal measure - and many of the latter did not take him as seriously as he might have liked. Here are some reactions to Wagner's music down the years:

* "If one has not heard Wagner at Bayreuth, one has heard nothing! Take lots of handkerchiefs because you will cry a great deal! Also take a sedative because you will be exalted to the point of delirium!" Letter from the French composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) in 1884.

* "Is Wagner a human being at all? Is he not rather a disease? He contaminates everything he touches - he has made music sick." German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), from Der Fall Wagner (The Case of Wagner), 1866.

* "Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour." Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), in 1867.

* "I have been told that Wagner's music is better than it sounds." The American writer Mark Twain, in Autobiography, 1924.

* "Damn Wagner, and his bellowings at Fate and death." English writer D H Lawrence, in a letter dated 1 April 1911.

The broadcast: 15 hours of non-stop opera

In a broadcasting first, the entire 15 hours of Wagner's Ring cycle will be presented in a day from 8am to midnight on Easter Monday, 17 April.

The performance, conducted at Bayreuth by Daniel Barenboim, will feature Anne Evans as Brünnhilde, Siegfried Jerusalem as Siegfried and John Tomlinson as Wotan. The demanding score means it would be impossible to do this live. A time-delay service will mean listeners can start the experience later if convenient and the broadcast will be available online for a week afterwards.

The presenter, Donald Macleod, will guide listeners through the day. His advice will include when to take a lavatory break.