Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Ring of the Nibelung: Das Rheingold

Richard Wagner's musical drama Der Ring Des Nibelungen is a tour de force on many levels. Running sixteen hours over the course of four days, this operatic story-cycle retells the Nordic saga of Sigurd the dragon-slayer (here in his Germanic guise as Siegfried) using densely worded alliterative verse and thematic musical motifs to express on both emotional and intellectual levels the universal mythological significance inherent in this story of human spiritual evolution, as revealed through the psycho-theological archetypes of primeval gods and demigods. In other words, a story of Everyman.

Das Rheingold begins the story as a prelude, telling of the theft and cursing of the Rhinegold by the dwarf Alberich from the three Rhine Maidens, and of Odin's attempts to wrest it from him as payment to two giants who are holding the goddess Freya hostage for wages earned in building the golden hall of Valhalla for the gods of Asgard. As an introductory drama, this sets up a conflict between the forces of love and power which will play out among both gods and men in the subsequent trilogy.

Wagner, over the course of 28 years, created this mammoth work by drawing out the psychological and spiritual essence of the Old Norse story, deftly crafting it into a work more relevant and poignant to his modern audience, and one which has since become one of the benchmark epics of the operatic stage, and rightly so. Sadly, however, since few these days attend - or even listen to - opera, Wagner's brilliant work is in danger of once again disappearing into the haze of obscurity. It is for this reason that I've chosen to update the story in a newer medium more acceptable to us here in the 21st century.

In preparing to write and illustrate a prose novelization of this 19th century opera cycle, I've spent well over a year doing research, on top of the many years of study already undertaken in this area. As those of you who follow this blog will know, one of the tools I like to use when studying works in translation is the my "Comparative Study Guide" format, in which I line up various editions side by side to get a better look at what I've got. It helps me get a handle on the text by breaking it down and looking at it closely, line by line and word by word if necessary - and it often is: sometimes a single word can greatly alter the underlying meaning of a passage.

For Das Rheingold, I've employed three translations into English (from Wagner's original German), two of which are in the public domain, and so made it into my Study Guide. These are the 1877 Alfred Forman translation, which was not only the first translation into English, but the first translation of Wagner's Ring cycle into any language. The other is that done by Frederick Jameson and published in 1900. Forman's is the more literal, but less poetic of the two, so I find they complement each other nicely. The other translation I have is that of Stewart Robb, copyright 1960, on which I did a "book review" back in March.

For the Das Rheingold - Comparative Study Guide I have utilized a three-column format with the line-by-line English translations in the first two, along with running commentaries drawn from six sources in the third, these being:
  • George Dippold, Richard Wagner's Poem...Explained (1888)
  • Gustav KobbĂ©, How to Understand Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung(1895)
  • Jessie L. Weston, The Legends of the Wagner Drama (1896)
  • William C. Ward, A Study of the Inner Significance of Richard Wagner's Music-Drama (1889)
  • Richard Aldrich, A Guide to The Ring of the Nibelung (1905)
  • Gertrude Hall, The Wagnerian Romances (1907)
In this way you can not only study the primary texts quite closely, but also refer to the contemporary academic scholarship of the day as you go along, more effectively drawing out the deeper meaning and hidden subtext of complex passages. This is of particular use for those not well-versed in musical theory or the classical motifs of Wagnerian opera, which is a study all in itself. Two among the commentators describe for the reader the relevant musical phrases used to represent each character and action, so that the Comparative Guide may be used to study Wagner's music as well as the Siegfried story.

Visit the Ring Saga Research archives over on the Fantasy Castle Books website (or click on any of the titles) to access and download the Das Rheingold Comparative Study GuideAnd, of course, there are three more volumes yet to come....