[W. i 1877 i London]
Wagner in 1877 in London

Leitmotifs in Der Ring des Nibelungen - an introduction

by Kristian Evensen


boulez ring

Der Ring des Nibelungen ("The Ring of the Nibelung", "The Nibelung's Ring", or simply, "The Ring") consists of four musico-dramatic works. These four works constitute a whole, and were meant to be performed during a single week, something that is seldom done today due to the huge demands on operatic resources.

Wagner spent 26 years (from 1848 to 1874, from he was 35 years till he had become 61 years old) writing the text and composing the music for this all-encompassing work. Possibly, no other composer has probed deeper into the human mind than Wagner did here.

In a famous letter to his friend August Röckel, written in Zürich 25 and 26 January 1854, Wagner makes the following comments on the meaning of The Nibelung's Ring:

«.. und "wirklich" ist nur das, was "sinnlich" ist.
nur dadurch, dass das Wesen der Wirklichkeit in unendlicher Vielheit erkannt wird.
Nur was Wechsel hat, ist wirklich: wirklich sein, leben - heisst: gezeugt werden, wachsen, blühen, welken und sterben;
Für mich hat mein Gedicht nur folgenden Sinn: - Darstellung der oben von mir bezeichneten Wirklichkeit.
Es zeigt die Natur in ihrer unentstellten Wahrheit mit all ihren vorhandenen Gegensätzen, die in ihren unendlich mannigfachen Begegnungen auch das gegenseitig sich Abstoßende enthalten.»
«.. only what is "material" [sensual] is "real".
only if we recognize that the essence of reality lies in its multiplicity.
Only what changes is real: to be real, to live - what this means is to be created, to grow, to bloom, to wither and to die;
For me my poem has only the following meaning: - Depiction of reality in the sense indicated above.
It shows nature in all its undistorted truth and essential contradictions, contradictions which in their infinitely varied manifestations embrace even what is mutually repellent.»

(Trans. Stewart Spencer 1987)

levine ringThese nearly 16 hours of musical drama may thus be both the most ambitious and the most profound work of art ever made. The Ring may be interpreted to start with the creation of the world and to end with the downfall of the world (or at least of the gods). The work begins in mythic times; it ends with modern humanity.

Wagner's letter to Röckel may be interpreted in different ways, but when Wagner claims do depict "reality", it is hardly the physical reality he means, rather the human perception of the physical world, the inner world of man and the relations between people. And the myriads of emotions these relations lead to. In the Nibelung's Ring we find an enormous range of emotions, from the deepest sorrow, pain and despair to joy, wonder and elevated pride, from fear and anxiety to self-confidence and firmness, from arrogance to heroism, from hate and rage to rapture and ecstasy, from betrayal, treachery and falseness to compassion, tenderness, love and total self-sacrifice. Almost every human condition is described with textual and musical means. And most masterly of all, the composer creates a multiplicity of transitions and transformations from one expression to another.

In the centre of it all is the eternal, human conflict: Between love on the one side and lust for power on the other.

Not only is the Nibelung's Ring perhaps the most ambitious and most profound work of art ever created, many holds it to be the greatest artistic result of human activity.


barenboim ringThe four operas exhibit an exhilarating progress from awakening to enlightenment, from origin to fall.

Das Rheingold
The characters of the first opera include only mythical figures. Here we meet gods, half-gods, giants, dwarves and river-nymphs, but no humans.
Die Walküre
In the second opera a few human individuals appear for the first time. But the rulers are still the gods and the mythical characters. The humans try to create a free, independent life, but they remain victims of the conflicts of the gods and they perish in the end.
In the third opera, the humans are still few, and they still exist only as individuals. But now they demonstrate that they are able to create their own independence, their own life, in opposition to the worlds and demands of gods and other mythical beings.
In the final opera we for the first time encounter a human society. At last human beings live in interdependence, co-operation and conflict - the human world has become an independent world. The gods have no active part in this opera, they only exist as a backdrop, and the mythical beings generally do not interfere in the ongoing actions. The opera ends with the fall of the gods, and a wonderful, humanistic optimism tells us that the childhood is over, now humanity must manage on its own.

The leitmotifs

haenchen ringAlmost every author commenting on the Ring (and some other operas of Wagner) describes a list of what has been labelled leitmotifs (leading motifs) in these works. As the label says, this is generally a short motive (a few notes long) and it is generally of melodic-harmonic character. The number of leitmotifs in the Ring is large, and many commentators underestimate their number.

The mature works of Wagner have traditionally been tied to the concept of leitmotif (or leading motif). The term "leitmotif" did not originate with Wagner himself, but with Hans von Wolzogen, who published the first thematic guides to Wagner's works (guide to the Nibelung's Ring in 1876). Of von Wolzogen's systematics Wagner wrote: «.. ich habe nur des einen meiner jungen Freunde [von Wolzogen] zu gedenken, der das Charakteristische der von ihm sogenannten 'Leitmotive' mehr ihrer dramatischen Bedeutsamkeit und Wirksamkeit nach, als (da dem Verfasser die spezifische Musik fern lag) ihre Verwertung für den musikalischen Satzbau in das Auge fassend, ausführlicher in Betrachtung nahm.» (Über die Anwendung der Musik auf das Drama, 1879) Wagner thus seems to emphasize that von Wolzogen in his analysis restricts himself to the dramaturgical significance of the different motifs without considering in detail their place in the musical structure.

Wagner himself did not use the term 'Leitmotif', but rather words like 'melodische Momente' (melodic moments) and 'Grundthemen' (basic themes). In Oper und Drama (1. ed. Jan 1851) he wrote concerning the meaning of these 'melodische Momente' in the dramatic context:

«Diese melodischen Momente [...] werden uns durch das Orchester gewissermaßen zu Gefühlswegweisern durch den ganzen vielgewunden Bau des Dramas. An ihnen werden wir zu steten Mitwissern des tiefsten Geheimnisses der dichterischen Absicht, zu unmittelbaren Teilnehmenern an dessen Verwirklichung.» «These Melodic Moments [...] will be made by the orchestra into a kind of guides-to-Feeling through the whole labyrinthine building of the drama. At their hand we become the constant fellow-knowers of the profoundest secret of the poet's Aim, the immediate partners in its realisement.»

(Trans. W. Ashton Ellis)

In other words, it is the fundamental emotional contents of the work, which is communicated through the symphonic web of the leitmotifs. The fact that the function of the motifs also is of symphonic nature, has been pointed out by Wagner, in "Über die Anwendung der Musik auf das Drama" (1879). Here he writes:

«Dennoch muß die neue Form der dramatischen Musik, um wiederum als Musik ein Kunstwerk zu bilden, die Einheit des Symphoniesatzes aufweisen, und dies erreicht sie, wenn sie, im innigsten Zusammenhange mit demselben, über das ganze Drama sich erstreckt, nicht nur über einzelne kleinere, willkürlich herausgehobene Teile desselben. Diese Einheit gibt sich dann in einem das ganze Kunstwerk durchziehenden Gewebe von Grundthemen, welche sich, ähnlich wie im Symphoniesatze, gegenüberstehen, ergänzen, neu gestalten, trennen und verbinden: nur daß hier die ausgeführte und aufgeführte dramatische Handlung die Gesetze der Scheidungen und Verbindungen gibt, welche dort allerursprünglichst den Bewegungen des Tanzes entnommen waren.» «None the less, the new form of dramatic music must show the unity of the symphonic movement, if it still shall constitute an artwork as music. The music will achieve this if it progresses over the complete dramatic duration and in the closest connection with this, and not only over shorter, arbitrarily chosen sections. This unity is established by a penetrating web of basic themes (Grundthemen) [i.e., leitmotifs], which are contrasting and complementing each other, which are formed anew, divided and joined in the same manner as in a symphonic movement. But now it is the dramatic action that establishes the rules for separation and connection, while they there [i.e., in the symphonic movement] in their utmost origin was taken from the movements of dance.»

(Trans. & comm. K.E.)

deBilly ringThe leitmotifs in Wagner have accordingly two basic functions. On the one side, they shall communicate the emotional nuances of the moment, on the other side they shall constitute the building blocks of a symphonic composition where the dramatic action is decisive for the structure. Wagner's use of the leitmotifs is therefore often dynamic, changeable, seldom static, never purely referring.

It is a well-known tradition to give names to selected leitmotifs, attached to central dramatic events, persons, objects or emotions. This tradition originates with von Wolzogen (1879) and continues up to the brilliant analysis by Derryck Cooke (1967). The different commentators have for a large part agreed on some of the motifs, e.g. the motifs for Walhall, the Giants, Hunding and a few others. Some motifs have been interpreted very differently and in part been given associations that are incompatible, e.g. the second part of Freia's motif. In von Wolzogen this motif is called "flight", but Cooke designates this "Love in its totality". More recent commentators, like Barry Millington (1993) have often chosen not to give the leitmotifs descriptive names, only a numbering. The reasons given for this have been Wagner's dynamic use and treatment of the motifs - but also the fact that the dramatic and psychological situation that the motif arises from is different each time. These circumstances make it difficult to label a motif with a unique or constant name when the motif appears in different manifestations.

stuttgart ringIn this web site, and in the synopses contained herein, we have chosen in general to name the leitmotifs. There are different reasons for this. First of all, it is quite practical to have such labels, both for the one who wants to analyse the works, but also for someone who only wants to know these better. Secondly, it appears as a result of many attempts at analysis that includes both the text and the music that a large number of leitmotifs have a concrete symbolic meaning. The underlying significance that is attached to the symbolic meaning of the leitmotifs is often becoming more evident as a result of such an analysis. One must also consider that Wagner uses a large and varied number of symbols in text and props - like the Gold of the Rheintöchter, Alberich's Ring, Wotan's Spear, Wotan's Sword, Mime's Anvil, the Rope of the Nornes and so on. This fact may strengthen the idea that also musical symbols are present, and that these correspond to the textual-visual symbols, in different degree and in different ways.

The names and labels herein used for the many leitmotifs must obviously be taken with more than a pinch of salt. One reason for this is the differences in interpretation that are possible, one of which is mentioned above. Another, and equally important reason is the dynamic aspects in Wagner's use of the leitmotifs, a fact that Wagner himself in part points out.

copenhagen ringThe dynamic aspects in Wagner's use of the leitmotifs may be demonstrated by a few examples. Such dynamic appears in many different ways. There are motifs that gradually change into another motif. There are motifs which are only hinted at, and which only later appears more explicitly. There are motifs which are associated with another motif or dramatic event and thereby obtains a secondary meaning. There are motifs that only at a later moment gets their precise association, or which obtains a new meaning or a secondary meaning later. Vice versa, there are ideas that are associated with a number of more or less different motifs. There are motifs that resemble each other and thereby constitute a family of motifs. And finally, there are an almost infinite number of instances of the phenomenon that a motif can change its character - and the range here is from the smallest of nuances to the major, dramatic change of character. Now we will show some examples on each of these forms of dynamic.

Motifs which are transformed

Probably the most obvious example of a motif that is transformed into another motif is of course the motif of Alberich's Ring and the motif for Walhall (Valhalla). Wagner himself demonstrates, so as to leave no room for doubt, that the second motif is a transformation of the first. This happens in the music that constitutes the transition between the first and the second scene in Das Rheingold. With the most refined means in orchestration, harmonization and rhythmic/melodic technique of variation Wagner has composed precisely such a transformation. Wagner himself was quite aware of the fact that he himself was the unchallenged master of the art of composing transitions from one mood, one expression to another, Cf. this extract from his letter to Mathilde Wesendonck of October 29, 1859:

«Ich erkenne nun, dass das besondere Gewebe meiner Musik (natürlich immer im genauesten Zusammenhang mit der dichterischen Anlage), was meine Freunde jetzt als so neu und bedeutend betrachten, seine Fügung namentlich dem aüsserst empfindlichen Gefühle verdankt, welches mich auf Vermittelung und innige Verbindung aller Momente des Ueberganges des äussersten Stimmungen ineinander hinweist. Meine feinste und tiefste Kunst möchte ich jetzt die Kunst des Ueberganges nennen, denn mein ganzes Kunstgewebe besteht aus solchen Uebergängen: das Schroffe und Jähe ist mir zuwider geworden; es ist oft unumgänglich und nöthig, aber auch dann darf es nicht eintreten, ohne dass die Stimmung auf den plötzlichen Uebergang so bestimmt vorbereitet war, dass sie diesen von selbst forderte.» «I recognize now that the characteristic fabric of my music (always of course in the closest association with the poetic design), which my friends now regard as so new and so significant, owes its construction above all to the extreme sensitivity which guides me in the direction of mediating and providing an intimate bond between all the different moments of transition that separate the extremes of mood. I should now like to call my most delicate and profound art the art of transition, for the whole fabric of my art is made up of such transitions: all that is abrupt and sudden is now repugnant to me; it is often unavoidable and necessary, but even then it may not occur unless the mood has been clearly prepared in advance, so that the suddenness of the transition appears to come as a matter of course.»

(Trans. Stewart Spencer, 1987)

The two motifs are as follows:

Alberich's Ring [Play this motif]

Walhall [Play this motif]

These two motifs are apparently quite different, both in structure, character and significance. When Wagner still, with compositional means, demonstrates the close relationship between the two, and thus establishes a sort of identity, this not only is relevant to the purely musical structure of the two motifs, but also with their meaning. That these motifs are almost identical in their musical structure, in spite of the huge difference in expression, is easy to demonstrate: (The music is clickable.)  

The Ring, Walhall
Ring & Walhall

Note that the intervals are the same - thirds are thirds and seconds are seconds, and the move in the same direction. The rhythm is almost identical. This obvious musical-structural identity hides an identity of meaning on the symbolic level. Alberich's Ring is both a symbol of and an instrument for the unreserved exercise of power, a power that is made possible by the renunciation of love. Similarly, the fortress of Walhall symbolizes the Gods' need of reigning in safety, unchallenged. This is also an example of the exercise of power. The Giants, ordered by the Gods, built Walhall - the promised wages is Freia, Goddess of Love. The underlying identity is clear: Power is chosen; Love is sacrificed to enable this power.

This transition between scenes 1 and 2 in Das Rheingold demonstrates clearly that it is not sufficient to regard only the static or only the dynamic aspects of the leitmotifs. Only by viewing the Ring-motif as a de facto Ring-motif and vice versa with the Walhall-motif, and at the same time understanding that the one may be transformed into the other, is this identity of meaning made clear.

Let us have a closer look at the details of this transition between scene 1 and scene 2 in Das Rheingold. Between each of the illustrations below there is two bars. The change from line to line here, in orchestration, harmonic foundation and voice-leading, are utmost refined and results in an organic and almost imperceptible transformation of the one central motif to the other.

Sections like this, with series of unresolved dissonant dominant-chords, and with mood-creating, vivid orchestration, are clearly anticipating the orchestral treatment and the harmony of impressionism half a century later.

Ring [Play this motif]
Ring-Walhall [Play this motif]
Ring-Walhall [Play this motif]
Ring-Walhall [Play this motif]
Walhall [Play this motif]

The orchestral development from the mysterious sound of clarinets in the deep register and cor anglais to the majestic sound of the Wagner-tubas is done with the utmost assurance.

If we extract the harmonic foundation for each of these figures, the harmonic development becomes even more evident. It is clear how Wagner connects unresolved, dominant pentachords. (The chords are clickable.)

First chord Second chord Third chord Fourth chord Fifth chord FPMap0 Ring-Walhall chords

It is characteristic of this chord progression that one or more notes in each chord are chromatically changed to reach the next chord. From chord 2 to 3 there is at the same time a diatonic, step-wise movement upwards, and from chord 4 to 5 there is likewise an upward displacement by a third.

It is also interesting to observe the in the second scene of Das Rheingold, there is a motif which is a sort of intermediate form between these two. Here one cannot be completely certain whether this is the one motif or the other. Typically, this happens while Wotan is dreaming of Walhall, eternal honour and power. 

Intermediate form
Intermediate form

(See the article Multidimensional aspects of text and music in Wagner for a detailed discussion around the section with this intermediate form.)

Motifs that are suggested

In the Ring, it is not uncommon that a motif emerges so to speak in the background, and readily in a connection where we (at the first time of listening) cannot know anything about the meaning of the motif, not even that this is the anticipation of a new motif. An example of this is the motif for Wotan's Spear, a motif that is suggested or anticipated early in scene 2 of Das Rheingold. The motif of the Spear, as it is established later in the same scene, goes like this:

Wotan's Spear [Play this motif]
Wotan's Spear

But at a point where neither the action nor the text as given us any hint at all in the direction of a motif for this Spear, the following melody appears in celli and contrabasses:

Cello/bass melody [Play this motif]
Cello/bass melody

This happens where Fricka says to her husband, Wotan: "Erwache, Mann, und erwäge!" ("Wake up husband, and consider!"). The text gives for the time being no indication of what he is meant to consider. Later, however, it is clear that Wotan has made a deal with the Giants to build the fortress Walhall. As wages for their work, the Giants are promised Freia, the goddess of Love and sister of Fricka. It is this agreement that worries Fricka; she doesn't want to lose her sister. However, the fact is that Wotan rules according to, and by force of, his treaties, and these treaties are written on his Spear. The Spear is therefore also a symbol of these agreements and the obligations that thereby falls on Wotan. When Wotan is asked "to consider", and we at the same time hear a suggestion of what will later become the motif of the Spear, the conclusion is that herein is also a hint of what he should consider.

Another motif which is only suggested, and in this case, a very long time before the motif is established, is the motif of the World Ash-Tree, Die Welt-Esche. This is the same tree that Wotan cut a branch off, to make his Spear. This motif is suggested, barely, once, at the very end of Das Rheingold, when Wotan says about Walhall: "Von Morgen bis Abend, in Müh' und Angst nicht wonnig ward sie gewonnen. Es naht die Nacht, vor ihrem Neid biete sie Bergung nun." In woodwinds and horn for a moment the following, chromatically coloured motif is heard:

Wotan's anxiety [Play this motif]
Wotan's anxiety

This may easily be perceived as a suggestion of the real Welt-Esche motif, which appears for the first time in Siegfried, Scene 2:

Die Welt-Esche [Play this motif]

This chromatic variation of a motif, which later appears to be diatonic, is obviously coloured by Wotan's worry and fear, and possibly a vague consciousness that he himself has brought himself and the gods in this situation with his actions, especially the damage he once in the past did to just the World Ash-Tree (Yggdrasil). Wotan has good reason to worry, because this rape of nature has the result that the World Ash-Tree is withering and dying, as we are told by the Nornes in the Prelude to Götterdämmerung.

Motifs creating associations

Sometimes a motif reminds us of an earlier motif, or an earlier musico-dramatic event that may be was not as explicit. Here follows a motif that is sung by Alberich as he proclaims his power over the Nibelungs, a power he has gotten partly by the Ring he has forged, partly by the helmet, Tarnhelm, which can make him invisible.

Subjugation [Play this motif]

Compare this motif with Fricka's motif in Die Walküre, a motif that at this time easily will be associated with Wotan's feelings in relation to Fricka at the time. This motif is played by the orchestra just prior to Fricka's arrival at the scene, and to Wotan's words: "Der alte Sturm, die alte Müh!"

Fricka [Play this motif]

We can see that the interval structures of the two motifs are the same, except that Fricka's motif is somewhat longer, and that in Alberich's motif there is a descending diminished fifth from E flat to A, whereas it in Fricka's motif is a pure fifth from E flat to A flat. Hesitantly one has to interpret this similarity in the direction that Fricka's subjugation of Wotan (something which actually will happen in the scene to follow!) is a slightly milder variant of the subjugation Alberich is exposing the Nibelungs to!

Motifs that get their meaning later

It happens that motifs are introduced quite unambiguously, but without the meaning of the motif being clear in the context. An example of such a motif is the motif that appears towards the end of the last scene of Das Rheingold:

Wotan's new Idea [Play this motif]
Wotan's new Idea

At this point the score says the following, and this is obviously about Wotan who has both the previous and the following line: (Wie von einem grossen Gedanken ergriffen, sehr entschlossen). What this new, great Idea might be, we as an audience are never told. This leitmotif is only made clear in the transition between Scene 2 and Scene 3 in the first act of Die Walküre. There it is associated with a sword, which Wotan earlier on has thrust into the mighty tree trunk inside Hunding's house, a sword that Sigmund has been promised to find when he really needs it.

Similarly, a motif, which already has had a clear meaning, gets another connotation later. The central example of this is the Walhall motif. From Die Walküre on this motif is just as much associated with Wotan himself, and especially in scenes where he is absent, where he is spoken of, remembered or missed.

Walhall [Play this motif]

Multiple motifs

Persons, objects, ideas, events and emotions are sometimes attached to a single leitmotif. But there are also instances where one person or one idea is expressed through several, different, leitmotifs. The person with the largest number of motives is of course the semi-god Loge, who has 6 or 7 different leitmotifs associated with him.

Loge 1 [Play this motif]

Loge 2 [Play this motif]

Loge 3 [Play this motif]

Loge 4 [Play this motif]

Loge 5 [Play this motif]

Loge 6 [Play this motif]

The technique of attaching different motifs to the same person or the same thought is of course an excellent way of shedding light on different aspects of the same phenomenon. Loge manifests himself both as a person and as fire in the course of the tetralogy, and some of these motifs are reflecting to a larger degree the one manifestation than the other.

Another example of this is the different motifs for the Sword. The first two of these motifs represent the Sword as Wotan's Idea and as unformed sword. The third represents the Sword as Siegmund pulls it out from the tree in Hunding's house and gives it the name "Nothung".

Wotan's Idea 1 / Sword 1 [Play this motif]

Wotan's Idea 2 / Sword 2 [Play this motif]

Nothung / Sword 3 [Play this motif]
Nothung (Sword)

These three motifs have in common the falling octave and the triad-based structure following the falling octave. Otherwise there are obvious differences in rhythm, melody and harmony.

Motifs that change character

That motifs change character is generally the rule in Wagner and in the Ring, and it would be possible to demonstrate literally hundreds of examples, from the tiniest nuance to large-scale, dramatic changes. We will consider a couple of instances.

The motif for the Rhinegold appears for the first time in the middle of Scene 1, Das Rheingold. This motif is central in the whole of the tetralogy and appears in a great number of different contexts and versions. The fist form presented might be called "the original form":

Rhinegold [Play this motif]

When Loge later tells the gods that Alberich has stolen the gold from the Rhinedaughters, this motif is heard in the following form:

Rhinegold (Loge version) [Play this motif]
Rhinegold (Loge)

The only changes at this point are that the motif has changed form from major to minor, and that it is transposed a third up. Considerably greater difference is shown at the moment when Wotan forcefully takes the Ring from Alberich, the Ring Alberich has forged from the Rhinegold:

Rhinegold (Alberich version) [Play this motif]
Rhinegold (Alberich)

The motif is presented in a chromatic form, the instrumentation is changed from solo horn to a group of woodwinds (oboes and clarinets), and the dynamics and tempo are much intensified. All this expresses the anger and despair of Alberich, as well as the violence of the situation. Additionally, the opening upbeat is missing.

Let us compare this last form of the Rhinegold-motif with another motif, a motif that is associated with Alberich's threat to take one of the Rhinedaughters by force:

Alberich's threat [Play this motif]

This is almost the same diminished chord (transposed) as above, the orchestration is similar, as is tempo and dynamics, and the last three chords show the same rising movement. It seems to appear that properties in one motif have been carried over to another motif, because of similarities in the situation.

This instance of character change in the motif of the Rhinegold demonstrates that a motif may change both character and structure, and still be audibly identified as the "same" motif. There are complementary instances where the change in character is such that the motif no longer is perceived as the "same", but where the change in structure is so small that this all the same must be some sort of manifestations of the "same" motif. In cases like this, the structural identity obviously takes on a form-shaping function. One might guess that it was this sort of small-scale and medium-large-scale musical structure Wagner called for an analysis of (se the citation concerning von Wolzogen, top of this article). In addition to such structural functions, identities, which are not perceived consciously, may none the less reach the listener on a sub-conscious level. An example of this may be Sieglinde's motif at the beginning of Act 1, Die Walküre. First the "original" form, as the motif generally is perceived:

Sieglinde [Play this motif]

This and slightly varied forms of this, are repeated several times, till the listener is very familiar with the motif. But suddenly the following motif appears, following Siegmund's questioning of her identity ("Wer ist's, der so mir es labt?"):

Sieglinde - variation [Play this motif]

This version is simply an augmentation and extension of the "original" motif, but it is probably perceived as a different motif. Here is still another version - Siegmund has just mentioned that he is wounded, and Sieglinde begs him to see the wounds, "mit besorgter Hast" according to the score:

Sieglinde - variation [Play this motif]

These last two examples indicate to what degree the compositional technique of Wagner must be called symphonic and how he at the same time creates unity, development and diversity of expression. In this context one should consider the fact that this symphonic structure consists of 4 operas and 15 hours of music, an artistic feat that is unsurpassed.

Relationships between motifs

Several motifs associated with different persons, events, ideas and objects are different in expression and character, but they may all the same have structural similarities that connect them. There are examples that opposites are based on an underlying unity, and there are examples that motifs belong together in a sort of family. These sorts of relationships between motifs seems to be very important in the Ring, both to the musical structure and to the possibilities of interpretation and appreciation of the details and the totality of the work.

Such a fundamental structural similarity is to be found in two motifs that appear early on in Das Rheingold:

The Rhinedaughters' joy [Play this motif]
The Rhinedaughters' joy

Alberich's pain [Play this motif]

The motifs for Joy and Pain are both based on a two-note rhythm - long-short - and both are based on a falling second. The interval is a major second in one case, a minor second in the other. (The music is clickable.)

Joy / Pain

In other words, the two motifs are structurally identical; it is a small difference in an interval that results in completely opposing expressions. That opposites have a common structural ground must give an indication for how to interpret the complete work of art. It demonstrates the idea that opposites can be seen as expressions of a fundamental unity. This idea is central to the Ring of the Nibelung, both in text and in music.

In this example, the underlying identity can be brought to another level by also considering the reasons for the Rhinedaughters' joy and for Alberich's pain. The Rhinedaughters are joyous because of the existence of their gold, the Rhinegold, which they guard for their unnamed father. Their joy is simply a joy over the beauty and the naturalness of this gold in its original form. Alberich's pain, on the other side, is a result of him and his sexual advances having been rejected by the Rhinedaughters. He is in pain because they refuse him their love. What happens at this stage of the drama is that Alberich forswears Love and steals the Gold. He hopes that without love, the power that the gold brings him can be a good substitute. One might say that he tries to convert the pain he feels to the joy the Rhinedaughters feel by stealing the Gold. But, alas, the Gold must be forged into a Ring, and it is corrupted in the process.

Here follows another pair of motifs with the same relationship as the Joy / Pain pair. These are the motifs for Freia and for Ageing:

Freia [Play this motif]

Ageing [Play this motif]

The motif for Ageing is clearly a chromatic variety of Freia's motif. Considering that Freia is the Goddess for Youth and Love, this makes complete sense. Old age may be seen as the absence of youth in exactly the same way as pain may be seen as the absence of joy. The Ageing motif relates to the Freia motif in precisely the same manner as the Pain motif (Alberich's Pain) relates to the Joy motif (the Rhinedaughters Joy) - they are chromatic variants and they are symbolic opposites with a structural identity.

In the case of Freia / Ageing, it is especially interesting to note that the reason that the Gods are ageing is just the fact of Freia's absence. We know that it is her Apples that keep the Gods eternally young, and when she is gone, there are no longer Apples to eat.

Another form of structural relationship is notable between groups of motifs that may be said to constitute a family. Here follows an example of three motifs which clearly are closely related, both in structure, musical expression and extra-musical association:

The Rhine / Nature in movement [Play this motif]
Nature in movement

Erda [Play this motif]

Die Welt-Esche (The World Ash-Tree) [Play this motif]

It should come as no big surprise that motifs that are associated with nature have similarities in structure and character. These three central motifs represent (probably) Nature (or the Rhine as one of Nature's manifestations), Erda (the Earth Goddess) and the World Ash-Tree. This Tree links the different parts of the world, and is guarded and nursed by the Nornes, female creatures who speaks to Erda during the night.

A comparison of the three motifs will clarify the similarities:

Nature motifs

The (original) Nature motif and the World Ash-Tree motif are identical in tonality and interval structure. The last is a (transposed) rhythmic diminution of the first one. Erda's motif is a minor mode variant of the Nature motif, with a somewhat calmer rhythmic profile, otherwise identical in interval structure.

A series of motif families like this has been described and analysed in greater or less detail by Robert Donington (1963), Derryck Cooke (1967) and others.


The use of leitmotifs in Der Ring des Nibelungen evidently has both static and dynamic aspects. An understanding of both of these aspects may be of invaluable help when it comes to experiencing and interpreting the tetralogy, both on the level of details and for the totality of the work. The leitmotifs, in isolation, are easy to recognize, but not always as easy to perceive in the polyphonic, many-levelled dramatic structure, which the music creates together with text and scenic action. A detailed knowledge of the leitmotifs will probably heighten the sensitivity of the listener and thereby make him or her more responsive to the myriads of events and details that this world-encompassing work includes.


Follow the story of the Rhinegold with the leitmotifs as they appear in the first installment of Der Ring des Nibelungen!


The URL of this page is http://www.trell.org/wagner/motifs.html

Ring-melody Walhall-melody FPMap1