Wagner’s Ring Cycle: Impact on Culture and Modern Music

By Ron Stauffer

Looney Toons. Star Wars. Jaws. Apocalypse Now. Here Comes the Bride. Ride of the Valkyries. The Lord of the Rings. Indiana Jones. “A little bird told me.”

What do these movies, TV shows, melodies and idioms all have in common? They were all heavily influenced by the German Romantic-era opera composer Richard Wagner.

Wagner, whose name might not be quite as universally-recognizable as Beethoven or Mozart, has still had a tremendous influence on music and art in the 21st century. Even those who might not think they are familiar with Wagner likely are.

It is a fascinating insight and historical journey to sit through an entire Ring Cycle—the tetralogy of operas he released in 1876 as a complete story of an all-powerful gold ring, which features gods and goddesses who gain ultimate power, build a castle in the sky, and all die tragically by fire at the end. There are many quotes, archetypes, musical melodies, and storylines that are easily recognizable for even the first-time operagoer.

For example, fans of the 20th century novel “The Lord of the Rings” and its subsequent movie trilogy of the same name have much to recognize in the story of the Ring Cycle.

Despite the fact that the author, J.R.R. Tolkien, was apparently outraged when his novel was compared to the Ring Cycle, writing “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases,” there are a truly surprising number of similarities between the two. Even the most casual observer would notice that the “Lord of the Rings” repeats much of what the German composer writes in his operas.

Both stories contain a hero who is young, naïve, and unprepared for the task set before him, which is, ultimately, to save the world.

Wagner’s hero Siegfried, and Tolkien’s hero Frodo both find a ring that grants them eternal youth and invincibility, yet perverts the wearer into a power-crazed savage.  They both refuse to give it up even at the point of death, and will stop at nothing and potentially kill anyone who tries to take it from them.

In both stories, the magic gold ring is forged in the fires of the underworld by evil mutants intent on ruling the universe.

The Ring Cycle features the “tarnhelm;” a special helmet that allows the wearer to become invisible or shape-shift. In the Lord of the Rings, the ring itself grants the same powers.

Ultimately, the ring in both stories is finally destroyed in a fire and is famously returned to the place “from whence it came,” and everyone who survives lives happily ever after.

Both stories involve dragons, giants, dwarves, kings, gods, and more.

On and on you could go, linking the two stories neatly. In fact, in a 2012 book titled “Wagner and Tolkien: Mythmaker,” author Renée Vink identifies at least 28 striking similarities between Tolkien’s story of Hobbits written in 1937 and Wagner’s earlier story of the Nibelungs completed in 1867.

In a pre-concert lecture at the San Francisco Opera’s 2018 production of the Ring Cycle, opera expert Desiree Mays explained the background of the story’s origin.

“Where did this fantastical tale come from? It turns out that Wagner combined many sources for this great work. As a student, he was intrigued by Greek mythology. The Nibelungenlied was a 12th century German epic set by the Rhine river; a medieval Christian version of an ancient cycle of pagan myths. Wagner searched further back, reading the Edda and Völsunga sagas, which were more Norse than German. Wagner took the characters, incidents, and scenes from many of these sources, and welded them together in his imagination. So no one source can be said to be the true one source of the ring.”

Certainly, Tolkien was familiar with and drew from the same roots of these myths to create his own version of a very similar story.

Even for children in America who didn’t grow up under Wagner’s influence by way of the Lord of the Rings books, those born in the second half of the 20th century may recall melodies and characters from another source: Saturday morning cartoons.

Frequently, the Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes used operatic music as a comedic backdrop, such as the time Bugs Bunny acts the part of a barber shaving Elmer Fudd’s already-very bald head, while Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” plays in the background.

In fact, in an ironic twist, it was actually the eight-minute short by Looney Tunes called “What’s Opera, Doc?” featuring Wagner’s music as the central theme, that inspired some children to grow up and become the opera singers of today who now sing Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

In an article published in 2016 in the Wall Street Journal titled “How Bugs Bunny and ‘Kill the Wabbit’ Inspired a Generation of Opera Stars,” Jamie Barton, (who, incidentally, played Fricka, Wotan’s wife, in the San Francisco Opera’s Ring Cycle in 2018), actually credits the cartoon as the starting point of her awareness of Wagner’s musical magic.

“Kill the wabbit! Bugs Bunny was really, kind of, the kernel of the start, for me in a big way, with opera music. Period.”

Another artist commented on the powerful impact the cartoon has had in bringing Wagner to the masses.

“You probably know more of this music than you realize. If you hear Wagner, you already know it because you’ve heard Bugs Bunny,” said Anne Ford-Coates, a hair and makeup designer at the Washington National Opera in Washington, D.C.

While a few silly cartoons alone don’t make for an impressive legacy, in a sense, the whole concept behind modern music for film can be traced back to the composer.

Even though the Ring Cycle was completed in 1876, which was a full 16 years before Edison invented the motion picture camera, it was Wagner who elevated the music drama to such a level that by the time films were commonplace, composing music for them in his style was the norm.

Max Steiner, for example, was an impressive composer in his own right, with such compositional film music credits as King Kong in 1933, Casablanca in 1942, and Gone with the Wind in 1939. Yet he wasn’t shy about deflecting praise and complimented the German composer of the Ring Cycle instead.

When publicly credited as the originator of movie music, Steiner was quoted as saying “Nonsense. The idea originated with Richard Wagner… if Wagner had lived in this century, he would have been the number one film composer.”

Even in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Wagner’s influence still holds strong. In a 2009 New York Magazine article titled “The Fellowship of ‘The Ring,'” classical music critic Justin Davidson confirms just how influential Wagner has been on today’s movie composers such as John Williams.

“Neither Star Wars nor The Lord of the Rings could have been conceived without Wagner’s precedent, and it’s no coincidence that all three attract a crazed allegiance,” he writes.

Wagner’s most famous innovation was the use of “leitmotifs” in the Ring Cycle, which are short musical themes that announce a character, a feeling or a location, and can be used and reused throughout the composition to refer to these.

As a modern example, before Darth Vader walks onto the screen for the first time in Star Wars’ The Empire Strikes Back, the Imperial March plays to announce the entrance of a dark and frightening character. The same effect takes place in Indiana Jones films, where you know the hero is coming to a triumphant rescue because it is announced musically before the character arrives on screen.

And who could forget perhaps the most famous leitmotif in all of Hollywood: the simple two-note leitmotif Williams composed for “Jaws.” These two notes have have been parodied endlessly since they first frightened audiences over 40 years ago.

The Ring Cycle is filled with leitmotifs, and it’s nearly impossible to count them all. There’s a musical theme for Valhalla, thunder, gold, love, the Ring, Siegfried, the Valkyries, the Rhine river, and much more.

A comedic illustration of how leitmotifs have become an inescapable part of our modern understanding of musical storytelling can be seen in “The Far Side,” a one-frame newspaper cartoon by Gary Larson. In one comic strip, a banjo player sitting on a stool in a western saloon eyes a troubling character at the front door and says to his piano-playing partner: “Bad guy comin’ in, Arnie! Minor key!”

Even movies that use don’t use leitmotifs still show a significant influence from Wagner. In a grotesque example, the Vietnam war epic Apocalypse Now has a bone-chilling scene where a formation of American attack helicopters fly in and decimate a village full of farmers, women, and school children.

Actor Robert Duvall’s character tells another man as they get closer to the village: “About a mile out, we’ll put on the music. I use Wagner. It scares the hell out of the [derogatory term for Vietnamese],” he explains. “My boys love it.”

The Valkyrie sopranos wail their battle cry in the background as soldiers in Huey Helicopters fire rockets and Gatling guns.

In addition to his music, Wagner’s ideas on stagecraft have also greatly affected performances today. Many of the theatrical innovations he championed at his Bayreuth Festspielhaus have become standard operatic procedure. These include dimming the lights during a production, and hiding the orchestra in a pit to minimize distraction from what is happening on stage.

Some turns of phrase in the American English lexicon can be traced back to Wagner. The idiom “it ain’t over ’till the fat lady sings.” is a direct reference to Brünnhilde’s immolation scene at the end of the final act of Götterdammerung. After audiences have sat through 16 hours of one of the longest stories ever told on stage, when “the fat lady sings,” everyone knows that—mercifully—the end has arrived.

In the official program for the Ring Cycle, the San Francisco Opera writes: “Richard Wagner is the most written-about musician in history.” Perhaps now we have a glimpse of how true this is, and the famously-ambitious composer likely wouldn’t have it any other way.

Cover Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera