By Culturekiosque Staff
NEW YORK, 4 JANUARY 2016 In 1848 Richard Wagner (18131883)
began work on what eventually would become his monumental cycle of four
music dramas, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).
It would be twenty-six years before his masterpiece was fully completed in
Now, in a new exhibition opening 29 January 2016, the Morgan
Library & Museum explores the challenging creation of Wagners epic,
and the staging of its 1876 premiere in Bayreuth and its 1889 American
debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The exhibition includes
rare music manuscripts, letters, books, costumes and stage designs,
photographs, and historical artifacts. A number of the items are on loan
from the Richard Wagner Museum in Bayreuth and have never before been on
public display. Additional material comes from the Morgans music
holdings, the Metropolitan Opera Archives, Columbia University, and from
several private collections. Wagners Ring: Forging an Epic is on
view through 17 April 2016.
"To bring the grand spectacle of the Ring to the public stage, Richard
Wagner labored for decades on the text and musical score, and spent years
working to see it premiered in a theater built to his exacting
specifications," said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan Library
& Museum. "Wagners Ring: Forging an Epic dramatically brings
to light the twists and turns of this engrossing narrative, and the
sensation of its first performances in Bayreuth and New York. The Morgan
is especially grateful to Dr. Sven Friedrich, director of the Richard
Wagner Museum, who made possible the loan of many unique items from his
Genesis of the Ring
In the mid-nineteenth-century Richard Wagner was intent on creating a
specifically German operatic art form. Looking for inspiration, he
explored Nordic myths such as the Edda, the Völsunga Saga, and
the Nibelungenlied, all preserved in thirteenth-century sources.
Traditionally, opera composers set music to text written by a librettist;
Wagner, however, wrote his own, beginning in 1848 with a poem,
Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfrieds Death) which was later renamed
Götterdämmerung. Sensing he needed to give more background to
the drama he was envisioning, he wrote the additional poems Der junge
Siegfried (Young Siegfried, later renamed Siegfried),
Die Walküre, and finally Das Rheingold. Thus began the
Ring. In a letter dated 11 November 1852, on view in the
exhibition, Wagner wrote to his sister Luise that he had now almost
finished what he called the "Nibelungen" poems.
In 1853 Wagner had his work privately printed at his own expense in a
limited edition of fifty copies for distribution to his friends. His
personal copy, on view in the exhibition, was interleaved with extensive
corrections and additions in his own hand. After completing what would
become the sung text of the Ring, the composer sketched the music
for each of the poems or "music dramas." The exhibition includes
never-before-exhibited compositional drafts. From these, Wagner would
later compose the orchestral score.
His next major hurdle was securing the financial support that would
make production of his work possible. He revised the text and had it
commercially published in 1863, adding a twenty-page Foreword
detailing the necessary requirements for its successful realization, among
them an amphitheater-shaped auditorium, an "invisible" orchestra,
first-rate singers, stage designers, and machinists. He concluded with
suggestions on how his plan could be realized and with a plea for a
"German Prince" to offer funds to support the project. Wagner underscored
his belief that by supporting the work, the patron would influence German
operatic art forever. In the Foreword, on view in the exhibition,
he asks if this Prince will be found ("Wird dieser Fürst sich
In January 1854, he wrote a letter to his friend Franz Liszt begging
for money. A day later he wrote to Liszts companion, the Princess
Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, excusing his behavior. He ends the letter with
the closing measures of Das Rheingold, which, he explains, he
just completed two days previous. Liszt was a staunch supporter of Wagner,
but ultimately it was royal support that launched the Ring
King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Funding the
With the death of his father, Maximilian II of Bavaria, in March 1864,
Ludwig (18451886), at the age of eighteen, became King. As a youth, he
had been fascinated with the operas of Wagner and studied his writings.
Shortly after his accession to the throne, he answered Wagners call for
support. He sent his minister to find the composer, who was in debt and
fleeing his creditors, and bring him to Munich.
In May 1864, Wagner met Ludwig II for the first time. Later, from a
house provided for him by the King, he wrote to a fellow composer about
the good fortune he had encountered, adding that his opera
Tristan was to be performed, and that work on the
Nibelung was proceeding according to plans.
In October Wagner signed a contract which, among other things,
stipulated that a copy of the Ring scores was to be delivered
within three years, that the work was the property of the King, and that
in addition to a monthly salary, he would receive money to cover debts and
furnish his house. On view in the exhibition is a copy of the first
edition full score of Das Rheingold open to the dedication to the
The Ring of the Nibelung: A Stage Festival Play for three days
and a preliminary evening, in dedication to the German Spirit and to the
glory of its most high benefactor King Ludwig II of Bavaria, completed by
The full score of Walküre was published in 1874,
Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung in 1876. For the
premiere performances in Munich of Rheingold (1869) and
Walküre (1870) that the King demanded, manuscript copies made by
Hans Richter from Wagners autograph score were used. Richter would
eventually become the conductor of the Bayreuth premiere.
Bayreuth: Plans and Challenges
Although Wagner had agreed with Ludwig to premiere the Ring in
Munich, conflicts with the management of the opera house and its
inadequacies caused him to seek a new venue. Bayreuth had an opera house
with no resident company and a deep stage, but unfortunately too small a
pit for Wagners needs. Risking the Kings support, the composer decided
to build a house to his own specifications for the performance of the
Ring in Bayreuth (but still, fortunately, within Ludwigs
domain). In a draft for a pamphlet issued in Berlin, displayed in the
exhibition, Wagner details his plans and, for the first time, publicly
announces Bayreuth as the site of his theater. The laying of the
foundation stone took place on Wagners fifty-ninth birthday and the
festivities included a telegram from King Ludwig. It read:
From the depth of my soul I send you, dearest Friend, my warmest
and sincerest congratulations on this day that is so significant for all
Germany. May blessing and good fortune attend the great undertaking during
the coming year. Today I am more than ever one with you in
Construction on the Festspielhaus (Festival Theater) was completed in
1876. With the aim of focusing the viewers attention solely on the drama,
there were no tiers of boxes and no ornamentation as in traditional opera
houses. Moreover, all seating had excellent sightlines.
Wagners decision to stage the production in Bayreuth was in defiance
of his contract with the King, and he needed to raise funds to build the
theater. The King did eventually come to his aid, but in the meanwhile,
the composer relied on many Wagner societies that had been initiated for
fundraising purposes and gave benefit concerts. The exhibition presents
Wagners draft for such a program in Vienna in March 1875, in which he
conducted excerpts from Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods).
Amalie Materna, who would create the role of Brünnhilde, and Franz Glatz
were soloists. After Vienna, Wagner traveled to Pest where Franz Liszt
lent his services. Although retired from the concert stage, Liszt, ever
Wagners champion, performed Beethovens Emperor Concerto with Hans
Richter conducting, greatly increasing ticket sales.
Brünnhilde costume design by Carl Emil Doepler for the
Bayreuth production, from Der Ring des Nibelungen:
Berlin: Berliner Kunstdruck- und Verlags-Anstalt, 1889.
The Morgan Library & Museum, Photo: Graham S. Haber,
In 1872, Wagner had commissioned Joseph Hoffmann, a Viennese landscape
painter, to create stage designs. Photographs of Hoffmanns sketches are
on display as well as a selection of chromolithographs of costumes
designed by Emil Doepler, who had been a costume designer at the Weimar
Court Theater. Ironically, though Wagner hand-picked Doepler, the composer
was never pleased with his designs. Nonetheless, they were used for Anton
Seidls Metropolitan Opera productions and maintained their authority for
many years. On view in the exhibition is a 1911 Metropolitan Opera costume
for Brünhilde based on Doeplers design.
In August 1876, the first complete public performance of Der Ring
des Nibelungen was presented over four days (13, 14, 16, and 17
August ) with Hans Richter conducting. Two more complete cycles followed
later that month.
Royalty, dignitaries, musicians, and artists from around the world came
to witness what many considered to be the musical event of the century.
Although Wagner, ever the perfectionist, cautioned that the performances
fell short of his ideal, the audience reception was extraordinarily
Abhorring publicity and wishing only to experience the work free of
curious onlookers, Ludwig, Wagners principal benefactor, expressed the
desire to hear the Ring in private. Catering to his wishes, the
composer arranged for the Prince to attend the general rehearsals for the
premiere, and provided a private box for him to view the public
performance of the Third Cycle.
Within twenty-four hours of the Bayreuth performances, readers of the
New York Herald were able to learn about the ongoing musical
event via transatlantic cable, the first time it was used to to transmit
music criticism. Wagners work had been known to New Yorkers since 1859
with the performance of Tannhäuser at the Stadt-Theater on the
Anton Seidl, the future principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera,
came to Bayreuth as an apprentice in 1872 on the advice of Hans Richter.
Seidl lived with the Wagner family for six years, and among other things
was a copyist on the Ring. Working as a coach and staging
assistant on the 1876 performances positioned him to conduct the work
throughout Central Europe and England. Much sought after by the
Metropolitan Opera, Seidl came to New York in 1885 and spread the Wagner
canon to the United States. He conducted the spectacular American premiere
of the complete Ring cycle in March 1889.
The Rings Importance to Music History
Wagners music dramas influenced the work of all operatic composers who
followed and changed the musical landscape forever. Gone were the set
arias that sacrificed dramatic flow to show off the vocal abilities of the
singer. Vocal lines were more speech-like than lyrical. The dramas
developed over large expanses of time in an uninterrupted flow of music,
with a network of leitmotifs or themes associated with people, emotions,
and objects. Today, 140 years after its premiere in Bayreuth, the
Ring remains a staple of opera companies the world over and an
ongoing musical event whenever it is performed.
Lecture: The New Richard Wagner Museum Bayreuth
The legendary former house of Richard Wagner in Bayreuth, "Wahnfried,"
became a museum in 1976. After a five year renovation and expansion, it
reopened in summer 2015 to coincide with the annual Baryreuth opera
festival. Museum director Dr. Sven Friedrich talks about the eventful
history of "Wahnfried," its collections, and how their new museum
contextualizes Wagner's work in later decades. This lecture is
co-sponsored by the Wagner Society of New York and precedes the Morgan's
upcoming exhibition Wagner's Ring: Forging an Epic, opening on 29
Friday, 22 January, 6:30 pm
Tickets: Free with museum admission.
Free for Morgan and Wagner Society members, and students with valid ID.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to
How do we bring such masterpieces as Wagners Ring from the
page to the stage? Francesca Zambello, Artistic Director
of the Washington National Opera explores how she takes the words and
music of Wagner and translates them into the visual ideas for the sets and
costumes. The presentation will include visuals and musical selections
performed by artists from the WNO Ring production.
Tuesday, 2 February, 7 pm*
Tickets: $25; $20 for Morgan and
Wagner Society members
*The exhibition Wagners Ring: Forging an
Epic will open at 6 pm for program attendees.
Gallery Talk: Wagners Ring: Forging an
Frances Barulich, Mary Flagler Cary Curator of Music
Manuscripts and Printed Music
Friday, 12 February, 6:30 pm
Concert: Forging an Epic: On the Page and on the
Tickets: All gallery talks and tours are free with museum admission; no
tickets or reservations necessary.
Film: Die Nibelungen Director: Fritz Lang
12 pm 5:45 pm
Based on the same Nordic legend that inspired Wagners Ring, Die
Nibelungen is one of the greatest artistic and technical achievements
of the German silent cinema. Presented in two parts, the epic film was
restored in 2012 by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung and includes the
original score by score by Gottfried Huppertz.
The exhibition Wagners Ring: Forging an Epic will open for
program attendees before the screening.
(1924, 149 minutes)
Scripted by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou the saga begins by
constructing an enchanted kingdom populated by dragons, magical trolls,
and heroic figures defined by rigid codes of honor.
(1925, 131 minutes)
In the long-underrated second half, the death of Siegfried causes
fantasy to devolve into nightmare, as his beloved Kriemhild enacts a
vengeance that contaminates everyone in its patha vengeance as ferocious
and uncompromising as anything the cinema has ever depicted.
Sunday, 28 February, 12 pm
Tickets: Exhibition-related films are
free with museum admission. Advance reservations for members only. Tickets
are available at the Admission Desk on the day of the screening.
The film will be shown in two parts, Siegfried will start at
12 pm and Kriemhilds Revenge at 3:30 pm
Film: Wagner & Me
Patrick McGrady (2010, 89 minutes)
English actor and raconteur Stephen Fry explores his
passion for Richard Wagners music as well as his troubled legacy. Set
against the backdrop of the annual Bayreuth Festival in Germany, this
fascinating documentary reveals the life and legacy of one of musics most
complicated geniuses, and features a soundtrack of Wagners extraordinary
The exhibition Wagners Ring: Forging an Epic will be open for
program attendees before the event.
Friday, 1 April, 7 pm
Tickets: Exhibition-related films are free
with museum admission. Advance reservations for members only. Tickets are
available at the Admission Desk on the day of the screening.
Films introduced by filmmaker and writer Hilan Warshaw, President,
Overtone Films LLC.
Tickets: All gallery talks and tours are free with
museum admission; no tickets or reservations necessary.
Concert: George London Foundation Celebration
Ben Heppner, Master of Ceremonies
Christine Brewer, soprano
Ailyn Peìrez, soprano
Matthew Polenzani, tenor
Eric Owens, bass-baritone
Craig Rutenberg and Ken Noda, piano
Wednesday, 6 April, 7 pm*
Tickets: $75; $65 for members. Limited
*The exhibition Wagners Ring: Forging an
Epic will open at 6 pm for program attendees.
The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue, at 36th
New York, NY 10016-3405
Tel: (1) 212.685.0008
TuesdayThursday, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; extended Friday hours, 10:30
a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.;
closed Mondays, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day. The
Morgan closes at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve.
$18 for adults; $12 for students, seniors (65 and over), and children
(under 16); free to members and children 12 and under accompanied by an
adult. Admission is free on Fridays from 7 to 9 p.m. Admission is not
required to visit the Morgan Shop, Cafeì, or Dining Room.
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