Music06 Jul 2010 09:48 am
One of the primary aspects of Romantic Period music is a decisive break with the past. Rather than continuing to develop Classical forms, Romantic composers such as Berlioz, Brahms and Mahler wanted to create entirely new melodies and forms. They often succeeded, but they also took occasional glances toward the past. The deep, deep past.
Perhaps the greatest monument of Romantic music is Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring od Nibelungen), better known as “The Ring Cycle.” Few works in the history of music have been more innovative. In fact, Wagner took musical form so far that composers who followed him — particularly Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern — decided that there was nothing to do but move away from “tonality” altogether. Nonetheless, one of Wagner’s major sources was a work written a thousand years earlier: the German epic poem The Song of the Nibelungs.
The Song of the Nibelungs is the story of Siegfried the Dragon-Slayer and his wife Kriemhild. Siegfried’s initial story is very similar to that of Achilles: after slaying the dragon, he bathed in its blood, rendering himself invulnerable. However, a leaf fell on his back, and left a small patch of his body exposed (like the ankle left exposed when his mother Thetis dipped Achilles in the River Styx). He is eventually killed with a spear through his vulnerable spot, and the second half of the epic concerns Kriemhild’s revenge.
An important element of The Song of the Nibelungs is a ring that Siegfried took from the Icelandic Queen Brünhild. The Ring was an important leitmotif in Wagner’s opera. It also figured prominently in another work that owes a great deal to the Middle German Epic: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. As usual, ancient stories provided the raw material for extremely diverse modern works.
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