Program Notes | Jan 17–19, 2020

Wagner’s The Ring Without Words
By Laurie Shulman ©2019

One-Minute Notes

Wagner: Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin

Shimmering violins in their upper register establish a heavenly, reverential atmosphere in this gorgeous movement. Wagner adds instruments gradually, building to a gentle pinnacle before subsiding to prayerful quiet.

Lizst: Piano Concerto No. 2

We associate Liszt with piano pyrotechnics and flashy virtuosity. His Second Concerto is more poetic than the first. It smolders rather than explodes. To be sure, there are plenty of double octaves and flying fingers, but this concerto makes sure we know that the pianist is a musician as well as an athlete.

Wagner/arr. Maazel: The Ring Without Words

An ingenious reduction, Maazel’s arrangement condenses Wagner’s massive Ring cycle to a 60-minute narrative symphony. Highlights from all four operas unfold in chronological order, sweeping us along on Wagner’s epic journey of gods, love, jealousy, violence and redemption.

WAGNER: Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin


Born: May 22, 1813, in Leipzig, Germany
Died: February 13, 1881, in Venice, Italy
Composed: 1846–47
World Premiere: August 28, 1850, in Weimar.
NJSO Premiere: 1945–46 season. Frieder Weissmann conducted.
Duration: 8 minutes

Opera or music drama? That question is central to understanding Wagner’s theory of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or complete art work. Lohengrin was the last of Wagner’s stage works that can really be classified as an old-style opera, as opposed to the newer music drama. He worked on it 1845 to 1848. The first production took place in Weimar in August 1850. Lohengrin’s subtitle is “Romantic Opera in Three Acts,” and its plot is the essence of 19th-century romanticism. In 10th-century Antwerp, Elsa of Brabant has been unjustly accused of murder. An unknown knight appears on the river in a barque drawn by a swan. He redeems her honor and marries her, cautioning her that she must never question him about his identity. Of course, she does ask, and the tragedy unfolds.

The opera’s prelude opens with shimmering, reverent violins and flutes. Not until more than two minutes in do the brasses join. Wagner spins his prelude from a single theme representing the Holy Grail. So gradually we hardly notice the expansion, he builds to a splendid and colorful climax, then fades away into hushed silence.

Instrumentation: three flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals and strings.

LISZT: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major


Born: October 22, 1811, in Raiding, Hungary
Died: July 31, 1886, in Bayreuth, Germany
Composed: 1839; revised three times, with the final version in1861.
World Premiere: January 7, 1857, in Weimar.
NJSO Premiere: 1977–78 season. Claudio Arrau was the soloist; Oleg Kovalenko was the conductor.
Duration: 21 minutes

Before rock and roll, movies and social media, the big stars were performing musicians and stage actors. In the 19th century, as concert- and theater-going became accepted middle-class public pastimes, such artists drew large and enthusiastic crowds. Liszt was the greatest pianist of the 19th century. Like other musicians of his era, he composed many works for his own use. Both of his piano concertos were written at the height of his touring career. He was also extremely handsome in his youth, and women adored him. Not surprisingly, scandal swirled about him wherever he went, particularly during his 20s and 30s, when he was most active as a touring concert pianist.

Keeping the best for himself

Like most musicians of the day, Liszt composed many works for his own use. Today, when we attend a concert of classical music, we expect to hear works by composers who are dead, or famous, or both. In Liszt’s day, performers frequently wrote and played their own music, much as rock musicians do today. That way, they were assured of individuality and exclusivity, making certain that others did not have access to their original compositions. Both of Liszt's piano concertos were composed for these reasons, before he turned 40, when he was at the height of his career as a performing virtuoso. He did not publish the Second Concerto until 1863, when he had largely ceased public performance.

It is tempting to dismiss Liszt’s two piano concertos as virtuoso showpieces of little musical substance. In fact, Liszt’s greatest contribution as a composer for piano lies in the solo music, rather than these two works. Both concertos are beautiful, however, and show a profound understanding of the integration between soloist and orchestra.

Poetry in arpeggios

The A-major concerto, which we hear on this program, is the more lyrical of the two. If Liszt was the quintessential romantic composer, then this piece is the standard-bearer of romantic concertos. The opening theme, rich with delicious harmonies, is nothing short of poetic. No dramatic statement here; before the soloist so much as declares a passage in octaves, he has the opportunity to shape elegant arpeggiated phrases and to elicit a beautiful sound from the piano.

Liszt the innovator

The Second Concerto breaks from tradition in several other ways.  Rather than composing separate movements, Liszt wrote one long movement that subdivides into a number of contrasting sections. The concerto begins and ends in A major, but it travels through several other tonalities. Brief cadenzas occur in several places, usually effecting his transition to a new section with a tempo change. Rarely does Liszt employ full orchestra, preferring to focus on individual timbres. Flute, oboe, horn and especially cello all have wonderful solos.

Unlike the Chopin concertos, in which the orchestra plays a largely subordinate role, the Liszt concerti give the orchestra plenty of chances to shine. Rarely does he call for the full force of the ensemble, preferring to focus on the individual timbres of instruments. Flute, oboe, horn and especially cello all have wonderful solos in the A-major concerto.

One of Liszt’s major contributions was the technique of thematic transformation. The method is related to thematic development in sonata form. A melodic idea is reworked, altered rhythmically or presented in a different tempo. The music is thereby transformed, while maintaining unity of material. The opening theme of the A-major concerto recurs several times later in the work in different guises. If one listens carefully, there are two other musical ideas that Liszt treats similarly, binding his concerto together with thematic logic.

Instrumentation: three flutes (third doubling piccolo); oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets in pairs; three trombones; tuba; timpani; cymbals; strings and solo piano.

WAGNER/arr. Maazel: The Ring Without Words: Orchestral Highlights from the Ring Cycle


Arranged by Lorin Maazel
Born: March 6, 1930, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France
Died July 13, 2014, in Castleton, Virginia

Composed: Wagner’s Ring cycle was composed 1848–74. Maazel’s adaptation dates from 1987.
World Premiere: October 17, 1990, at Avery Fisher Hall. Maazel led the Pittsburgh Symphony.
NJSO Premiere: These are the NJSO premiere performances.
Duration: 60 minutes

Controversial composer

If you want to press some hot buttons, bring up the subject of Richard Wagner among music lovers. As opera composer, philosopher, dramatist, political theorist and colorful romantic figure, he left a powerful imprint on the Europe in which he lived. Modern Western culture remains touched in profound ways by the Wagnerian legacy, and Wagner has inspired more impassioned writing and rhetoric than any other composer. Few react neutrally to Wagner. His proponents defend and celebrate him with passion and inexhaustible energy. Anti-Wagnerites attack his prejudices and other flaws with equal ferocity. Virtually no one, however, disputes the power and originality of his music.

Divinity and dysfunction

Wagner’s magnum opus is The Ring of the Nibelungen, four operas collectively known as the Ring cycle. Writing his own librettos, Wagner drew on Nordic legend and a medieval epic poem for his subject matter. The saga revolves around a dysfunctional family of gods whose patriarch is Wotan. Other elements that play important roles in the plot are enchanted gold stolen from Rhinemaidens and later bearing a curse, a race of treacherous subterranean dwarves called Nibelungs, a giant who changes himself into a dragon, magic swords, helmets and potions.

It is complicated and detailed. The operas range in length from approximately two and a half hours (the one-act prologue, Das Rheingold) to a monumental five hours. The complete cycle often extends over a period of seven days, allowing the performers a day off between each segment.

Composition of the Ring cycle occupied Wagner for more than a quarter-century, from 1848 to 1874. Inevitably his musical style altered during this period. In light of that, the overall unity of atmosphere and spirit of continuity that flows through the music of the Ring is doubly extraordinary. Wagner’s vision was cosmic. Nowhere is his large-scale thinking more successful than in his treatment of these great Nordic legends.

Journey from opera house to concert hall

Although Wagner composed almost exclusively for the operatic stage, his influence on the music of his own time and the generations that followed stretches far beyond the confines of the opera house. His perception of the orchestra was such that the instrumental ensemble functions almost as a character in many of his operas, in some respects analogous to the chorus in ancient Greek drama.

Much of the music in the Ring cycle relies on the orchestra to deliver the drama. Consequently, many excerpts from the operas besides their preludes and overtures have found their way into the concert hall.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several composers excerpted Wagner’s scores for symphonic performance. Among them were the Dutch conductor and composer Wouter Hutschenruyter (1859–1943), the German Engelbert Humperdinck (1854–1921), who was the composer of the opera Hansel und Gretel, and Ludwig Stasny (1823–83), a Bohemian bandmaster and composer noted for his popular dances and his potpourris from Wagner’s operas. Their arrangements alter the orchestration and often adjust to compensate for the absence of singers’ lines.

Origin of Maazel’s The ‘Ring’ Without Words

In the 1980s, the American conductor and violinist Lorin Maazel chose a different path, tackling the complete Ring cycle in a seamless orchestral compendium. He identifies the impetus for his Ring Without Words to Wagner’s grandson, Wieland Wagner, who directed Germany’s Bayreuth Festival from 1951 until his death in 1966. Maazel recalls Wagner declaring, “The orchestra: that’s where it all is, the text behind the text, the universal subconscious that binds Wagner’s personae one to the other and to the proto-ego of legend.” Maazel thinks of the orchestral score as “the Ring itself, coded in sound.”

An experienced Wagner conductor, Maazel led many performances of the complete tetralogy, as well as its individual component operas. When Telarc Records proposed that he fashion a Ring without words—i.e., without singers—he stipulated a stern list of conditions for accepting the project:

First: The synthesis must be free-flowing (no stops) and chronological, beginning with the first note of Rheingold and finishing with the last chord of Götterdämmerung.

Second: The transitions must be harmonically and periodically justifiable, the pacing contrasts commensurate with the length of the work.

Third: Most of the music originally written for orchestra without voice must be used, adding those sections with a vocal line essential to a synthesis and only where the line is either doubled by an orchestral instrument, “imaginable” or, in the rare instance, when it can be reproduced by an instrument.

Fourth: Every note must be Wagner’s own.

His sequence of excerpts in The Ring Without Words corresponds to their order in the operas. Maazel made no conscious effort to incorporate all Wagner’s Leitmotifs (see sidebar) in the Ring, but he acknowledged that most of them occur in some form. Each segment has a dramatic purpose within one of the operas, yet all function splendidly on their own musical terms.

The plot: a refresher

Maazel begins with what he calls the “greenish twilight” of the Rhine in Das Rheingold. He moves directly to “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla.” Wotan, the ruler of the gods, heads the procession into the splendid castle Valhalla that the giants Fasolt and Fafner have built for the deities. The gods travel to Valhalla by crossing a rainbow bridge arching across the valley. Those who know Wagner’s operas well will recognize the principal leitmotifs he uses in the Entrance music as those of the Rhine and Valhalla. Strings and winds to evoke the magic of the rainbow, and brasses punctuate the gods’ triumphal procession. Wagner’s music conveys the magnificence of the scene, as well as the gods’ certainty that all will be well.

Before moving to music from Siegfried, we pay a brief visit to the subterranean lair of the evil dwarf Alberich. His fellow Nibelungs toil away with hammers and anvils.

In Die Walküre, Brünnhilde defies her father Wotan’s instructions, helping the lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde escape from Sieglinde’s brutal husband. We hear brief quotations from the lovers’ music and their flight—then Wotan explodes with fury at his favorite daughter’s disobedience.

What follows is the best-known excerpt of all: the “Ride of the Valkyries.” Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now used this astonishing music to accompany the specter of American helicopters waging war on North Vietnamese guerrillas and citizens. In the opera, the Valkyries are Wotan’s nine daughters by the earth goddess Erda. They are warrior maidens who recruit fallen heroes to populate the rarefied air of Valhalla, flying through the air riding magical steeds that have almost equally impressive supernatural powers as these daughters of Wotan. Brünnhilde is their leader.

The Ride takes place at the opening of Die Walküre’s Act III, as the Valkyries gallop on winged horses through the storm-wrought Nordic heavens. They are headed to their accustomed reconnoitering spot before proceeding home to Valhalla together. The main theme is the Valkyries’ motif; the secondary theme is their fierce war cries, here delivered by the dazzling leaps in the strings. The rapid descending chromatic lines depict the maidens’ mad flight on winged horseback amid the lightning flashes of the heavens. Wagner vividly paints pounding hooves, whinnying steeds and the excitement of the Valkyries’ reunion as they compare battle stories.

Brünnhilde faces punishment, however. Stripping her of divinity, Wotan sentences her to eternal sleep, surrounding her with magic fire at the top of a forbidding mountain. Only a great hero will penetrate the conflagration. Wotan’s farewell to his beloved daughter and the ensuing “Magic Fire Music” are one of opera’s most heartrending scenes.

Siegfried chronicles its title character’s coming of age. The love child of Siegmund and Sieglinde, Siegfried has been reared in the forest by the evil dwarf Mime. He has grown exceptionally strong, terrifying Mime as he forges together the broken pieces of his father Siegmund’s sword. In “Forest Murmurs,” Mime has left the naïve youth Siegfried alone to muse about the possibility of killing the fearsome dragon. Wagner evokes the peaceful forest through woodwind solos supported by muted strings. His dramatic shift from bucolic music to the ominous dragon-slaying music (listen for low brass and thundering percussion) is spine-tingling.

The scene now shifts to the top of the sleeping Brünnhilde’s fire-ringed mountain. Siegfried makes his way through the conflagration to claim Brünnhilde as his bride. Götterdämmerung opens at dawn after their night of passion. “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” takes place after Siegfried and Brünnhilde exchange tokens of faithfulness. In parting, he has given her the ring; in return, she gives him her steed, Grane. Unaware that the ring is cursed and that his future holds treachery and doom, Siegfried rides off on Grane to pursue glorious deeds. He is full of optimism and courage.

The leitmotifs that have formed Siegfried’s heritage and foretell his future comprise the musical building blocks: his horn call, music of the Rhine and the Rhinemaidens, fire music, love music. As Siegfried and Grane continue their journey, shadows of evil and forthcoming tragedy creep into the score via the ring motif and the song of the enslaved Nibelungens. The shift from exuberant confidence to sinister danger—the murderous Hagen’s call to his clan—is subtle and effective.

“Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music” is drawn from Act III of Götterdämmerung, after Hagen has betrayed the drugged hero and stabbed him in the back (yes, literally) with a spear. The funeral march for the fallen hero recapitulates his life as Wagner has had us hear it through the course of Die Walküre (during which Siegfried is conceived), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Ultimately, the inherent nobility of Siegfried’s character prevails.

Brünnhilde orders a funeral pyre to be built by the banks of the Rhine. Before immolating herself on Siegfried’s pyre, she cleanses the ring of its curse and returns it to the Rhinemaidens. Her death is a redemption through love. The rapture she shared with Siegfried becomes one and the same with the flames about to consume her.

“Brünnhilde’s Immolation” is not only her own farewell to life and love in this world but also a valediction to the gods, whose demise is the ultimate consequence of the ring’s curse. Thus, the rich orchestral underpinning to her music includes the motifs of the Curse, the Rhine, and Valhalla, as well as those of the Valkyries, the Rhinemaidens and Brünnhilde’s own glory.


The term leitmotif means “leading motive.” In opera, it refers to a recurrent snippet of music related to some aspect of the drama. The term has become closely associated with Wagner’s operas, particularly the four of the Ring cycle.

Wagner employed leitmotifs to symbolize objects (a sword, a ring, a rainbow) and characters (Wotan has his own leitmotif—but it also symbolizes his treaty with the giants Fasolt and Fafner, who have their own motive; Siegfried’s horn call is another example). More abstract applications, such as emotions, concepts or prophecies, abound (Alberich’s curse and his prediction of the gods’ demise; the motive of woe, Siegfried’s motive of freedom).

The recurrence of these musical fragments is an integral part of Wagner’s musical fabric. They are the principal reason that his dramas proceed even when characters do not sing. By restating a network of leitmotifs, Wagner enables the orchestra to tell us what a character is thinking or to move the plot forward even without dialogue.

Instrumentation: three flutes, piccolo, four oboes, (fourth doubling English horn), four clarinets (fourth doubling bass clarinet and clarinet in A), three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), eight horns (four doubling Wagner tubas), three trumpets, bass trumpet, three trombones, two tubas, two pairs of timpani, triangle, crash cymbals, bass drum, side drum, glockenspiel, two harps and strings.