Wagner Ring Riddles

copyright © 2002 by Larry Solomon

I. Renunciation of Love?

In his book, I Saw the World End, A Study of Wagner's Ring1, Deryck Cooke addresses a puzzle that has baffled Ring scholars ever since the Ring was first performed. Baron Hans Paul von Wolzogen, a friend of Wagner, had compiled a list of now famous leitmotifs2 in 1878, which have been used by Ring commentators ever since. One of these was the so-called "Renunciation of Love" (RL) motif. It first occurs in Das Rheingold when Alberich renounces love to steal the Gold from the river Rhine and the Rhinemaidens. Woglinde explains that only one who renounces love can procure the gold and forge it into the all-powerful ring.

Later, in Die Walküre, Siegmund falls in love with his sister, Sieglinde, and pulls a magic sword out of the world ash tree so that he may defend himself against Hunding. At this time he sings the same motif with the words "Holiest love's most mighty need, passionate longing's feverish need, brightly burns in my breast, drives to deed and death."

But why, Cooke and other commentators ask, does he sing the RL motive? I had wondered about this, too, but did not pursue it -- that is, until one day while a class was watching the opera, a perceptive student asked the same question: "Why does Siegmund sing the Renunciation of Love motive when pulling the sword from the tree?" It doesn't make sense, because Siegmund does not renounce love; far from it, he is affirming it.

Cooke discusses accounts of other commentators and scholars, including those of Newman, Donnington, and Shaw. According to Cooke, Shaw ignores the problem, and Newman evades it. Donnington, who relies on a Jungian explanation, even resorts to calling RL not a renunciation at all, but the motive of "acceptance of infantile fantasies." The problem with the leitmotifs in general, Cooke says, is that scholars blindly followed Wolzogen's original labels. But then, maintaining the RL symbol, he gives his own explanation: "Sigmund is drawing the sword from the tree, not only to win Sieglinde for his bride, as it seems to him, but also, unwittingly, to regain for Wotan the ring of absolute power which was originally made by Alberich at the cost of renouncing love."3 This explanation seems farfetched. If true, it would be the only association that is so convoluted in the entire Ring. It is improbable that anyone would make such an association. No one I know has, at least without reading Cooke's account.

A preliminary investigation of this puzzle yielded nothing significant. Then, reading a book about symbols, I was astonished to find a flaming sword that is a traditional symbol of sacrifice. It occurs, for example, in the Bible when Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden. God placed a flaming sword near the garden to represent the sacrifice that must be made in order to return to Eden, the surrender of the ego that believes itself separate from God.

This is the key to understanding the RL motive. It is actually the motive of sacrifice, a more general symbol than that associated with love alone. Thus, when Woglinde sings RL, she is indicating the sacrifice that must be made to forge the ring, the sacrifice of love. Alberich bitterly sacrifices love in order to have power.

Now Siegmund's singing of RL makes perfect sense as he draws the sword from the tree. It is not love that he offers as a sacrifice, but himself.

At the end of Walkure, Wotan also sings RL as he is about to put Brunnhilde into a deep, long sleep. But, he is not renouncing love either. In fact, he embraces and kisses Brunnhilde, showing that he still capable of love, and there is no reason or even a hint that he would give up his sexual adventures. So, it is clear that there is no renunciation of love. What then is he sacrificing? It is his daughter Brunnhilde, herself, to whom he bids a final farewell.

II. Freie's "Flight"?

Cooke also questions Wolzogen's labeling of Freie's "Flight" motive. It forms the second part of the figure initially associated with Freie (B).

The problem with this label of B is that it is rarely associated with flight in the drama. In fact, it is pervasive in the yearning love scene between Sieglinde and Siegmund. So, Cooke labels it the "Love" motive, which could hardly be more remote from "flight". There is a problem with this label as well. It is not a typical Wagnerian love motive, which normally is a slow, sinuously rising, yearning figure. There is a different motive that is associated with love's passionate longing in the Ring:

This is the yearning or longing motive connected with passionate love. Motive B is agitated and angular (Donnington calls it the "agitation" motive ). It is often not associated with love at all. For example in the Introduction to Act II of Walkure, the motive is very stormy, agitated, and develops into the pounding gallop of the Walkures -- hardly the mood of love.

Cooke also refers to motive B as representing love in its "totality". But, there are many kinds of love: maternal, paternal, sibling, passionate (sexual), and compassionate. Surely, this motive does not represent them all. It doesn't occur in the last scene of Walkure, between Wotan and Brunnhilde, because it does not embrace this kind of filial love. In fact, it occurs only in conjunction with the idea of passionate, sexual love, and with passion and anxiety in general; so, it seems much more appropriate to label it that way,i.e., the angst/passion motive.

Cooke labels motive A that of passionate love. It is first associated with Freie, the goddess of love and youth, who is in turn associated with Spring and the gentle awakening of love. The motive is not passionate at all. It is a gently rising, blooming line, which represents love's awakening.

Wagner’s Music Drama as Revision of Opera

Wagner believed that traditional opera was prosaic and was in need of revision. He considered his operas to be the manifestation of a revolution in opera and called them “music dramas”, believing them to be a completely new genre. He proposed to fuse music and drama so that they were a new type of emotional expression.

1. Dissolution of “set pieces”, periodic structures, recitative and aria.

2. Libretto replaces end-rhyme, poetic meter and stress patterns, and symmetrical phrases, in favor of alliteration and free prose.

3. Symphonic development is favored using the leitmotif, which replaces a simple orchestral accompaniment of singers.

4. A leitmotif is a “melodic moment of feeling” subject to constant modification as the drama unfolds. Thus, to attach a single name or meaning to it is somewhat simplistic and limits the meaning of the music.

5. Integration and balance of music with drama such that the music reflects the meaning of the drama on both immediate and large scales.

6. Balance of symphonic (contrapuntal) and dramatic (homophonic) means in order to express the dramatic meaning.

7. The music must have its own integrity when removed from the drama, yet reflect, support, and serve the “program”.

8. In a dramatic work the music is only a means, not an end in itself.

9. The form is fixed by means of a program, but the music is the real program (or real language) and hence the text is a translation of it. Thus, the music must not rely on the text for its coherence (Schoenberg and Schopenhauer). Textual analysis, therefore, can only have a limited value in understanding the music drama, but the purely musical features of rhythm, pitch, dynamics, etc., are the real “text”.



1. Cooke, Deryck. I Saw the World End, A Study of Wagner's Ring, London, 1979
2. Wolzogen, Hans Paul von. Führer durch die Musik zu Richard Wagners Der Ring des Niebelungen, Leipzig, 1878
3. Cooke, 4