#11: The Impact of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle

Episode Transcript

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You’re listening to micron a one man podcast with weekly episodes about life learning laughter and the people who make this world an interesting place. I am your host, the writer, editor, and producer the man with the mic. Ron Stauffer micron is a podcast by me, but it isn’t about me. It’s about what I’ve seen lessons.

I’ve learned things I’ve tried or discovered. Things I’ve failed at. And most importantly, it’s about the people I’ve met along the way. This series is all about Ricard Wagner’s, operatic, tetralogy, the ring cycle. In 2018 for my senior year in college, I flew to San Francisco to cover the San Francisco opera’s production of the massively popular mind-blowingly long and astonishingly expensive event where four operas in a row were performed to a sold-out audience.

Over a period of six days. I covered the event as a reporting exercise for one of my journalism courses, this included writing a concert review for the shows I attended. Sharing my research into just how massive the ring cycle is as an artistic production. And finally writing an article, explaining how Wagner his ring cycle has impacted our culture and most of Western music, even in ways, most people don’t realize.

This is episode one of three, where I’ll read my article on how impactful the ring cycle has been on music, movies, books, and even children’s TV cartoons. Now I know reading a college paper doesn’t sound very exciting, but I’ll try to make it interesting. I think the topic is absolutely fascinating and I think you’ll find it interesting as you realize that Wagner’s music and his musical inventions have influenced the way that you think and appreciate music without you even

Looney tunes, star Wars. Jaws apocalypse. Now here comes the bride ride of the Valkyries Lord of the rings, Indiana Jones, a little bird told me what do all these movies, TV shows, melodies and idioms all have in common. They were all heavily influenced by the German romantic era composer, Ricard 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 people who might not think they’re familiar with Wagner probably are. It is a fascinating insight and a historical journey to sit through an entire ring cycle. The tetralogy is a collection of four operas. He finalized in 1876 as a complete story of an all powerful gold ring, which features gods and goddesses who gained 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. Even for the first time opera goer, 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.

The author J R R Tolkien was apparently quite irritated when his novel was compared to the ring cycle, claiming both rings were round and there the resemblance ceases yet 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, naive, and unprepared for the task set before him, which is ultimately to save the world, Wagner, his heroes, Siegfried and Tolkiens hero Frodo, both find a ring that grants them eternal youth and invincibility yet perverts the wearer into a power crazed Savage, 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 Tarn helm, a special helmet that allows the wearer to become invisible or shapeshift in the Lord of the rings. The ring itself grants, the same power.

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, involved, dragons, giants, dwarves, Kings, gods, and more on and on. You could go linking the two stories neatly. In fact, in a 2012 booklet titled Wagner and Tolkien myth maker, author Renee Vink identifies at least 28 striking similarities between Tolkien story of hobbits written in 1937 and Wagner his earlier story of the nibbling completed in 1867 in a pre-concert lecture at the San Francisco.

Opera’s 2018 production of the ring cycle. Opera expert Deseret Mays explained the background of the stories, origin quote, 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, DIA knee balloon ballooning lead 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 voted Zynga 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. And quote, 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 wild 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, to 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 for music period. She said another artist in the same article 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.

Now 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 actually be traced back to Wagner. Even though the ring cycle was completed in 1876, which was a full 16 years before Thomas 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, Casa Blanca in 1942 and gone with the wind in 1939.

Yeah, he wasn’t shy about deflecting praise and complimenting the German composer of the ring cycle. Instead when publicly credited as the originator of movie music Steiner has been 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 his most famous innovation was the use of late motifs in the ring cycle, which are short musical themes that announce a character, a subplot, 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 the star Wars film, 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 for a triumphant rescue because it’s announced musically before the character arrives on screen.

And who could forget perhaps the most famous late motif in all of Hollywood. The simple two note, late motif Williams composed for the movie jaws. These two notes have been parodied endlessly since they first frightened audiences. Over 40 years ago, the ring cycle is filled with late motifs 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 so much more, a comedic illustration of how late motifs 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 coming in Arnie, minor key, even movies that don’t use late motifs 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 aged children, large speakers are attached to the helicopters and the music plays loudly.

As they start shooting 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 him. My boys love it. He explains the Valkyrie, soprano whale, their battle cry in the background as soldiers and Huey helicopters, fire rockets, and Gatling guns.

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’s happening on stage.

Some turns of phrase in the American English lexicon can even be traced back to Wagner the idiom. It ain’t over till the fat lady sings is a direct reference to Bruin Hilda’s immolation scene. At the end of the final act of God to domino the Twilight of the gods. By this point, the audiences have sat through 16 hours of one of the longest stories ever told on stage.

And when the fat lady sings. Everybody knows that mercifully the end has arrived in the official program for the ring cycle. The San Francisco opera rights, Ricard 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.

Thanks for listening.

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