The Ring Cycle and Norse Mythology

I’ve been interested by the Norse myths for quite a few years now, but it was only very recently that I read a version of the Volsunga Saga. This is an ancient Scandinavian saga of the Volsung family and their various adventures. The oldest surviving written copy was written in Iceland around the year 1400 AD and the oldest drawings of scenes from it are from Sweden and were made around 1000 AD. It is the main inspiration for the plot of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but there are quite a few key differences.

Warning: If you don’t yet know much about the plot of the Ring, you are unlikely to be able to make any sense of this at all.

Das Rheingold: This is the main opera as far as the gods are concerned. Most of them, including Froh, Donner and Freia make basically no other appearances. The part of the saga that corresponds to Rheingold is a part that comes about halfway through, in the form of a flashback. This, too, is the only appearance of any of the gods, other than Wotan (Odin). This flashback is where the Ring is first mentioned. There is no mention of Rhinemaidens anywhere in the entire thing. The ring belongs to Alberich (Andvari) in the first place and it is taken by Loge (Loki) to help the gods pay compensation to Hreidmar, a dwarf whose son he has killed. Fafnir is another of Hreidmar’s sons and he kills Hreidmar in order to take the Ring and the gold. Then he turns himself into a dragon in order to guard it, thereby rejoining with the plot of the operas. The part of the opera that involves the giants and the building of Valhalla is an adaptation of a completely separate Norse myth that Wagner has woven into the Volsung story.

Water-nymphs plead with the Flame-haired One

The Rhinemaidens talking to Loge (Loki)

Die Walküre: In this opera, Wagner has once again sewn together two different stories, both of them parts of the Volsungasaga. The story of Sieglinde (Signy) and Siegmund and the story of Brunnhilde being made mortal by Wotan (Odin) are separate and come at different times within the saga. Sieglinde (Signy) is a very different character in the two stories. While in Wagner she is a quiet, innocent (although incestuous) and fairly dull character, in the saga she is hell-bent on revenge (her husband Hunding (Siggeir) having had all her family (except Siegmund, who escaped) murdered) and ruthless to the extent that she kills two of her own children for being ‘traitors’. She also, instead of dying giving birth as in the opera, burns to death after she sets her house on fire. Crazy lady. Siegmund, however, continues to live a happy and fulfilling life after she dies until he is killed in battle by a mysterious one-eyed stranger. The character of Brunnhilde does not appear in this part of the story at all and the story of her banishment from Valhalla is only mentioned briefly later on.

Mime (the dwarf whom you are not supposed to feel sorry for) talking to a mysterious one-eyed stranger

Siegfried: Siegfried’s counterpart in the Volsungasaga is called Sigurd. He is the son of Siegmund and his second wife, Hiordis (the first wife doesn’t matter; she was a nasty lady who does not deserve to be mentioned) and he was born after his father tragically died (see above). The story goes that he was sent away to be looked after and brought up by a guy called Regin (Mime) (because there was the ever-present fear that if he stayed at home with his mum, he might grow up to be a human being with emotions, rather than a trained fighting machine). Regin (Mime) is the brother of Fafnir and he tells Siegfried (Sigurd) the story of all the stuff that happened in Rheingold (this is the flashback part). They then reforge Sigmund’s sword (which was shattered during his fight with the mysterious one-eyed stranger) and Sigfried (Sigurd) goes off and killed Fafnir (with some help from a mysterious one-eyed stranger who just happened to be there). The remainder of the opera is exactly the same as the saga. The birds start talking, Regin (Mime) turns out to be evil, he is killed, Siegfried (Sigurd) meets Brunhilde etc. etc.

Siegfried (Sigurd) gets distracted at precisely the wrong moment

Götterdammerung: This opera is probably the most similar to the saga. There are only two main differences. Firstly, Siegfried’s death is totally different. Hagen is a character who was made up by Wagner: he does not appear anywhere in the saga. Instead, Siegfried is stabbed in his sleep by Gunther’s (Gunnar’s) youngest brother, Guttorm (having been persuaded to do it by Brunnhilde). Ever the hero, however, Siegfried’s final act is to pick up his father’s sword and throw it at his murderer, thereby killing him as well. Secondly, Brunnhilde’s death is a lot more boring. She sits in her room and stabs herself. That’s it. No horses, no fire and absolutely no apocalypse. This is where Wagner (finally) finishes, but the saga does not. It carries on, telling the story of What Gudrun Does After Siegfried (Sigurd) Dies. This is also long and complicated and is probably best left to another day.

P.S. If you feel that you now have some vague understanding of what the differences are, well done. It’s a complicated thing and I don’t think I’ve explained it very well.

P.P.S. I would highly recommend reading some of the other Norse Myths if you like that sort of thing because they really are fascinating.

Me and Wagner

So, a few days ago I wrote an excited Tweet that went as follows:

Oh my god, I’ve just realised something. I LOVE WAGNER. #importantlifemoment”

Judging by the fact that this had 7 retweets and 5 favourites, I’m guessing that other people were a bit excited by it as well. It probably seems a bit weird, having the confidence to start a blog exclusively about opera without really appreciating one of the greatest ever opera composers. But the thing is, I knew this moment was going to come soon.

Up until about a year and a half ago, I had the same reaction as most people do when they encounter Wagner – “Ugh. This thing makes no sense.” Maybe part of this common dislike is the fact that you are always told “Now, you probably won’t like this, but it’s actually very good.” It’s true, I know that now, but it doesn’t really help when you’re trying to form your own opinion on something.

But recently I’ve begun to understand Wagner a lot more. This has happened very slowly, only just fast enough for me to notice it happening. Gradually, change has happened. Last year, when the Ring Cycle from the Met was broadcast on the radio, I was listening to it as a kind of background music. It happened to be on the radio, so I turned on the radio and carried on doing stuff. But then occasionally there would be a phrase or chord that would make me just stop what I was doing and listen. And so, I’ve gradually come around to love this music.

I now feel that I ‘understand’ Walküre, in a rather limited meaning of the word ‘understand’. I have, in a way, learned to love the Ring Cycle in particular. The thought of listening to Parsifal, even with Der Jonas in the title role, still provokes that ‘Ugh.’ But the Ring Cycle, I feel, now makes more sense to me. I like love it and I can understand opinions a lot more. And also, I feel almost closer to it than, say, Puccini, because I’ve made this journey of listening, watching and understanding. With Puccini, I love the music and the drama and more often than not it makes me cry. But I don’t feel quite so drawn into it as some pieces of Wagner, simply because there’s been no change. It’s been wonderful music that I love, right from the start. Wagner has changed, for me and with me and that makes it, in some ways, more special.

I think it was this video that was the turning point.

I was one of the few people, it seems, who really enjoyed the Met’s new Ring production. One particular part of it that I loved were the projections. It must have taken a lot of work and it looks magnificent. With this clip, I think the part that makes it wonderful is the orchestration. I’m not overly fond of the tenor here or the role he’s singing. But the part in the orchestra is perfect, although the singing is necessary. It wouldn’t be right or good without the singing.