Big Bad Wagner - Game of Tones

As the great Anna Russell says in her famous parody of The Ring, ‘Analyses of The Ring are frequently given by great experts for the edification of other great experts…leaving the average person as befogged as before.’ (When next you have 20 minutes spare, watch this!)

My intent here is therefore to illuminate The Ring and its genius for people who don’t even know who Wagner is. So, here we go.


The word most often associated with Richard Wagner’s music is ‘leitmotif’ (pronounced light-motif.) A leitmotif is a short musical phrase that is associated with an idea (such as Fate), a character (such as Siegfried), or an object (such as a Sword.) Wagner developed this idea as a means with which to impose unity on the otherwise sprawling story of The Ring. But he had another, deeper purpose in mind.

You remember how Wagner began the story of The Ring at the end, with Siegfried’s death, and then kept writing prequels? You remember that he decided to do this so that the audience would have emotional baggage and connections to the characters by the time they see the world fall apart in the final installment? Wagner wanted to create a network of musical triggers that would immediately evoke the dramatic history of a person, object, or concept, for the audience. As he himself puts it, ‘to bring that previous history within the sphere of sensory recollection.’ The way that he does this in practicality is by using leitmotifs.


The most obvious place to start for the uninitiated is in film music, and specifically, the music of Star Wars by John Williams. In the films, Darth Vader, Luke, Leia, The Force, et al., all have musical motives associated with them. BUT – and this is a big one – the genius of the leitmotif is not its overt ‘Oh, there’s the sword theme again.’ It is the fact that the nature of the leitmotif – and therefore its ‘meaning’ – can change significantly. Here is an example of how Luke’s theme morphs and evolves. 

And now here is an example from The Ring. In this example, the way the Fate motif resolves can convey a cruel Fate, a kind Fate, or even a tricky Fate. Watch my favorite, Leonard Bernstein, illustrate this point.


Another brilliant aspect of the leitmotif technique is that a character can be talking about one thing while the orchestra articulates another idea. in this way, the orchestra comes to function as a kind of omnipotent all-knowing Greek chorus that can lend insight and comment on the action. This is of course an extraordinarily novel means of conjuring dramatic irony, where the audience knows things the characters don’t. We are actually all familiar with this from cinema, where we take cues for our emotional reaction from the music. Watch these two clips (1) & (2) with different music and notice how your emotional reaction differs. 


Yet another facet of the leitmotif technique is the relationships Wagner can convey between different ideas and characters. In this way, Wagner creates groups or families of motives that offer different perspectives on related concepts. For instance, here are the leitmotifs for Nature, The Rhine river, and Erda the clairvoyant mother-earth goddess. Notice how they are all distinctly different but clearly permutations of one basic musical idea. (Full credit to Mr. Jason Pano who went to the great effort of putting all the leitmotifs on YouTube.)   


The Rhine

Erda, clairvoyant mother-earth goddess


The prime example I wish to look at is taken from the end of The Valkyrie. Here, the head-god, Wotan, is commanding Loge, the god of Fire, to encircle the mountaintop with magic fire to protect the banished Brünnhilde.

But before we watch that scene, let’s have a quick listen to these very short leitmotifs that appear in this clip.

Wotan’s Spear, which is carved with all of his treaties and alliances

Loge, demi-god of Fire

Magic Sleep or Oblivion

Siegfried, the Hero



Wotan compels Loge to obey him by calling on the treaty between them, represented by Wotan's Spear. Loge does as he is bid, and appears not as a character but as his music. Thus the music paints the stage action of Loge's Magic Fire. Brünnhilde is cast into her slumber, communicated via the Magic Sleep / Oblivion motif. Wotan declares that anyone who is afraid of his Spear shall not pass through the fire, but the motif he sings is in fact Siegfried’s Hero theme. So the orchestra presages Siegfried's rescue of Brünnhilde in the next opera. The orchestra even makes an allusion to the Love motif, suggesting that Siegfried will not only save Brünnhilde but that they will fall in love. And then, as a final insight, the orchestra plays the Fate motif, because the love between those characters ain’t gonna end so well...

Now watch the whole clip and see if you notice some of the leitmotifs. (Even if you don’t catch them all, the music is pretty amazing and can totally stand on its own.)


Kirsten Hicks