Today is what would have been Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday. Love him or hate him, Wagner is a giant among composers, he changed the game and you can still hear his influence today.
I’m going to have a look at a small but very important part of one of Wagner’s most impressive and ambitious works. ‘Vorspiel’ is the opening piece from the opera ‘Das Rheingold’: the first in a series of four operas (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung) which make up what is known as ‘The Ring Cycle’. Although these operas are sometimes performed as individual works, Wagner intended for them to be performed in series. It’s a long one at that – over 15 hours worth and normally spread over four consecutive evenings. The basic plot is about a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world, forged by the Nibelung dwarf Alberich from gold he stole from the Rhine maidens in the river Rhine.
The whole first opera ‘Das Rheingold’ was actually intended to be the prelude or Preliminary Evening for the trilogy that follows. Therefore the first movement ‘Vorspiel’ is in fact the prelude of a prelude – one piece setting up an epic story written in the a style of the Greek dramas (following gods, mythical creatures and mortal heroes) based on German and Scandinavian myths and folk tales.
I could go on, but the best thing to do is listen to the below, only about 4 mins long, which begins on low E (and sustains throughout) and builds and builds into more complex patterns meant to portray the motion of the river Rhine – where the whole story begins. It was used to great effect by Terrance Malik as the opening to his film ‘The New World’ and the birth of a new continent. It’s worth finding this on CD and listening to it but here’s the best youtube has to offer me!