Author J.K. Holman Walks Us Through a Single Motif in the Ring Cycle

Tracing a Motif Through the “Ring”

In his book, Wagner’s Ring: A Listener’s Companion & Concordance, J.K. Holman attaches an Appendix that stands as tribute to our inexhaustible admiration for Wagner’s storytelling through music.  Holman follows a single motif from its first appearance in the first scene of Rheingold through the entire Ring, to its final appearance in the final scene of the final act of Götterdämmerung.  Forty-three instances, and in the aggregate a testament to the peculiarly futile exercise of assigning a single “meaning” to a motif.

The theme at issue is a tantalizing one:  The downward almost-scale that is sung by Loge when describing the value that men place on women.  (In the Schirmer piano-vocal score it is first seen at page 85, fourth system, first bar, “Weibes Wonne und Werth!”).

The reason the motif is so provocative is very quickly discovered.  It is used ominously during the scene change into Niebelheim and also serves as the musical basis for Alberich’s plaint that he is “of wretches, the wretchedest slave.”  While Fasolt sings it while contemplating the loss of Freia, Wotan also sings it during the Walküre monologue describing himself as “the saddest of all men.”  And the orchestra plays it when Wotan commands Brünnhilde to work the death of Siegmund in that same scene.

It gets better.  Why, when the Wanderer tells Erda that the Norns cannot alter history, is this motif heard? Why do both Wanderer and Erda sing it when they refer to Erda’s endless sleep?  Why does Hagen use it to describe the powers of the Nibelung horde in Götterdämmerung Act I?  Why, in the dream sequence with Alberich, does Hagen use it when he says he hates the happy?  And imagine, after all the various permutations of meaning that this poor innocent motif has been made to carry, the import of Hagen’s singing it when he tells Gutrune that, in death, “no more can [Siegfried] woo lovely women.”  “Woman’s Worth,” indeed!

Holman’s volume is of main interest to those new to the Ring, looking for an explanation of the story, the various uses of symbols, good recordings to try, and so on.  But these slight pages alone are worth the whole volume’s price, showing us yet again that musical analysis of the Ring can never be complete, and standing in wonder of the mind that gave rise to so subtle and complex a work of art.

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