RICHARD WAGNER (1813 - 1883)
The Ring, an orchestral adventure
symphonic compilation by Henk de Vlieger, 1991
2. Das Rheingold
5. Die Walküren
8. Siegfrieds Heldentat
9. Brünnhildes Erwachen
10. Siegfried und Brünnhilde
11. Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt
12. Siegfrieds Tod
14. Brünnhildes Opfertat
The Ring of the Nibelung is not only the most ambitious but also the most imaginative project in the history of music. It is a story of love and romance, of lust for power and intrigue, and courage and self-sacrifice. At the same time, it is a story about the balance of nature and the disasters which will afflict the earth if greed should disturb this balance. In this sense, The Ring of the Nibelung can be described as a kind of protest theatre, an environmental opera ahead of its time. The composer, Richard Wagner, initially designed the libretto for a big heroic opera entitled Siegfried's Death. While he was working on this, however, he came to the conclusion that the story was so extensive that one opera would not be sufficient. The one opera became four: The Rhinegold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried and The Twilight of the Gods. Together they make up the cycle The Ring of the Nibelung.
For the narrative of The Ring - the short name currently used for the cycle - Wagner drew mainly on the Icelandic Edda poems and the Burgundian Nibelungen saga. The protagonists from both cultures - Sigurd and Siegfried - were combined into one superhero. Scandinavian gods were given German names; and the story includes not only water-nymphs, dwarfs, giants, demi-gods, and a dragon but also real people. The literary quality of the libretti, which permit a wide variety of interpretations, has often been criticised. However, the story told in The Ring is expressed more in the music than in the text. It is through the overwhelmingly dramatic and visual power of the music that The Ring is continually able to excite whole new generations of listeners.
A characteristic feature of the musical style is the technique, developed by Wagner, of the leitmotifs: short musical phrases representing a person, object or idea. These leitmotifs play an important role as orientation points in The Ring's fifteen-hour-long ocean of sound and form an ingenious web in which the dramatic development is made audible.
Apart from the extraordinary demands which Wagner places on the singers, the accompanying orchestra plays a role which is at least as important. In terms of nineteenth century concepts, the composition of the orchestra is gigantic, especially as far as the brass wind instruments are concerned. A striking feature, for example, is the use of eight horns, a bass trumpet and a double-bass trombone. To ensure an optimal performance of The Ring, Wagner - supported financially by the King of Bavaria, Ludwig II - had a special theatre built in Bayreuth, with a sunken orchestra pit and acoustics which are still greatly admired today.
"Alberich" by Erwin Olaf
When The Ring had its premiere in 1876, the phonograph still hadn't been invented. In order to become familiar with an opera, one could usually obtain piano excerpts. Overtures and instrumental parts were also commonly performed in symphonic concerts. The Ring, however, has no overtures. The operas were 'composed in a continuous fashion'. One can hardly find a single excerpt which so forms a rounded whole that it may be performed independently. So, in order that a broader public could become familiar with the music, arrangements of the music were necessary.
Some of these arrangements, produced by contemporaries of Wagner, took on a life of their own as genuine highlights in orchestral literature: Wotan's Farewell and Magic Fire Music, Siegfried's Rhine Journey and especially also The Ride of the Valkyries. In these arrangements, the orchestra was relieved of its accompanying role and played a magnificent leading role. Although these pieces deviate strikingly from Wagner's original music here and there, the resounding result is so convincing that one could easily forget that they are arrangements!
Much more recent is the arrangement produced by Henk de Vlieger, percussionist in the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. He selected the most important orchestral excerpts from the cycle and managed to link them together in such a way as to create an unified, single symphonic work. In this work, the main line of the story is recognisable, as in a symphonic poem. The musical connection which the excerpts have with each other, as a result of Wagner's leitmotif technique, is retained and with it at least a part of the original coherence. The choice of the various components and the manner in which they follow one another is mainly determined by the principle of 'exposition, development and recapitulation' of the most important themes and motifs. The excerpts have been taken over without alteration where possible; only sporadically has an essential vocal line been replaced by wind instruments. The transpositions between the excerpts were 'composed' again, with strict adherence to Wagner's idiom. Conductor Edo de Waart called the result An Orchestral Adventure, and that is precisely what it has become: Wagner's Ring, four operas, compressed into a fiery musical spectacle: a challenge for the orchestra, a real experience for the listener.
The Ring, an orchestral adventure was commissioned by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra on the occasion of a concert tour in Germany in February 1992, and is dedicated to its chief conductor Edo de Waart.
Orchestra: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, english horn, 3 clarinets, bassclarinet, 3 bassoons,
8 horns (including 4 Wagner-tubas), 3 trumpets, basstrumpet, 3 trombones, contrabasstrombone, basstuba, 2 timpanists, 3 percussionists, 4 (or 2) harps, strings
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra / Edo de Waart
Challenge Classics CC 72338
Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Neeme Järvi
Chandos CHSA 5060
Royal Swedish Orchestra /
Baltic Sea Philharmonic /
“[...] The conductor is understandably fond of this arrangement, described as an orchestral adventure among the themes of the Ring. It represents perhaps the most succesful attempt so far to rescue for the concert hall music that otherwise is accessible on a regular basis only in the form of disconnected excerpts. One of the merits of De Vlieger’s unobtrusive workmanship is that he keeps the episodes of the music generally in the right order while emphasising wherever possible the work’s thematic continuity.”
Roger Covell, The Sydney Morning Herald, August 9, 1993
“[...] Forget reason. It’s possible in other words, that operaphiles will picket Orchestra Hall this week, protesting the fact that Edo de Waart is leading Minnesota Orchestra in a 67-minute, orchestra-only version of Wagner’s Ring. They are entitled to their views. Changes are though, if they stepped inside and listened, they would be enticed to stay to the end. What they would hear is really quite enthralling. [...] Another thing to forget: the opera-for-orchestra recordings that Andre Kostelanetz made in the 1950s in which operas by Puccini and Bizet were chopped up senselessly. The version that De Waart is using, and which received its American premiere Wednesday night, is the work of a fellow Dutchman, Henk de Vlieger. It’s more than clever. The way that De Vlieger has created transitions between scenes and acts, avoiding awkward key changes, is quite ingenious [...]”
Michael Anthony, Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 20, 1994
“[...] The main event was Henk de Vlieger’s Ring orchestration, entiteld “An Orchestral Adventure”, cobbling bits of the great cycle into one conterminous piece. Wagner’s Ring is intended to last three days, with an evening introduction. To boil it down to one hour - OK, a long hour - seemed impossible. Amazingly, it succeeded. Bits of Rheingold, Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung floated past, melded together as if some Wagnerian superman who understood the whole and articulated it in particular. Highlights were everywhere. Horns, sounded offstage and on, reminded listeners of the great arias, without the singers to sing it. De Waart had the whole score completely in his head, and molded the orchestra like putty. Towards the end, it actually seemed like we had experienced the entire Ring cycle - a tribute to the orchestrator’s talents.”
Keith Powers, Boston Herald, March 19, 2004