The works of Richard Wagner: The Rhinemaidens

In continuation of a series exploring the works of Richard Wagner, Lucas Dié next delves into the characterisation of The Rhinemaidens – three water-nymphs who appear in Wagner’s opera cycle ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ or ‘The Ring of the Nibelung’.

The Rhinemaidens form the frame for ‘The Ring of the Nibelung’, a four-opera cycle created by Richard Wagner. They appear in the first scene of the first opera Rhine Gold and in the last scene of the fourth opera Twilight of the Gods. They provide the plot and the motivation for the protagonists in the four operas. Surprisingly, though, they were an after-thought of Wagner when struggling to bind the four operas together into a coherent story.

Richard Wagner started out by writing a libretto for an opera based on the legend of Siegfried. In the process of composing the music to this libretto, he recognised vast holes in the plot due to a lack of necessary previous history. In his Zurich exile, he therefore worked on a prequel which he called Young Siegfried (which then became Siegfried in the Ring). Still unhappy, he added Rhine Gold and The Vakyrie as further necessary prequels.

He wrote 700 handwritten pages before returning to composing; this time, though, he started at the beginning. The end product is worth sixteen hours of continuous opera. The chronology within the opera is not strictly kept, as Richard Wagner made use of the literary trick of synopsis to relate earlier occurrences.

The Rhinemaidens are a literary or operatic creation of Wagner. He invented them along the accepted lines of mythical creatures like the Norns from Norse mythology, or nymphs that existed in folklore along the Rhine. Their names of Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde don’t flow easily in any language, but they are an important part of the creation. Their names translate into English as Softripple, Wavefight and Flowgard. These names convey their benevolent nature.

The three maidens are not quite three; they don’t have independent personalities, interests or any individuality. They form a threesome acting in internal unity and not as individuals brought together as an interest group. It is this unity that dooms Alberich’s wooing from the start and leads to the theft of the Rhine’s gold. The maidens’ voices are seductive; they play innocently in the water and they are the guardians of the gold.

There was no legend prior to Richard Wagner’s creation but the Rhinemaidens have become their own legend. To German speakers growing up along the Rhine, the river is ‘Father Rhine’ and as such the logical father of the Rhinemaidens (in German, Rheintöchter). Their legend has become so strong that older nymphs along the Rhine are often associated with them. This strong influence on folklore can be credited to Richard Wagner’s literary talent when creating them.

They fit in neatly with age-old creations from the Edda and the Niblung saga, as Wagner adhered strictly to the literary conventions set out by the Norse authors of these works. With this, they have become indistinguishable from other older spirits and sprites living in the landscapes of Europe. Wagner even invented a language for them.

The Rhinemaidens don’t have a dilemma, they provoke it. As the guardians of the Rhinegold, they predict Alberich’s ring of power fashioned from their gold. The ring serves as the symbol of power, the gold as that of capital (spelled as in capitalism). This is the intention and the drive of Richard Wagner’s cycle of operas. The Ring is his expression of disaffection with a society driven by the hunger for power and money. Redemption from this sin is only reached when Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie, hands back the ring to the Rhinemaidens by tossing it into the river.

This form of redemption resonates with today’s thought that you have to give back to nature what you take from it. For Richard Wagner, this thought is part and parcel of what he has to say to society, but not his primary aim. The inclusion of it into the legend of the Rhinemaidens, though, is only natural as this give-and-take was at the centre of belief for the writers of the Edda or the Nibelungsaga.


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