Listening Log

Research Point – Das Rheingold

In this area of research I am going to be looking at how Wagner build on his musical idea to create an atmospheric start to his musical drama “Das Rheingold” as the purpose of this research was to learn how to utilise the cycle of fifths. I want to focus specifically on how Wagner managed to hold the Key of Eb for so long without this listener getting bored or loosing interest. I am going to analyse the first 16 pages which build right through until the entrance of the singers who’s manic intervals and rhythms create a frantic melody, which, arguably, could be a representation of the story line of this musical drama.

During the start of the piece we hear just a background whisper of Eb as the Contrabass starts off the whole piece, briefly followed by the entrance of the Horns. Just hearing the timbre of the horn and contra bass alone creates an atmosphere just from one note. We then hear the first snippet of melody. A four bar phrase played horn and developed and built upon to prevent an expectant and expansive beginning almost like a musical opening of the curtain. This ascending four bar phrase is repeated on top of itself creating a basic harmonic of C minor.

In this particular stage of the musical work, I feel that among the harmony the sound quality of instruments that gives them their own unique sound is an effective medium to create an affect of suspense. The phrase works its way up the orchestra each phrase is composed on top of the previous phrase causing almost the effect of a musical “round.”

The harmony begins to build and by second page we are already witnessing signs of modulation as the melody is raised up a third which lands us on a high G. In the last two bars of page two we hear the phrase being played in harmony from the bassoon section. The tune is played in it’s original key of Eb (starting on the G) by the second bassoon and is joined by the first bassoon who starts the phrase on Eb. This creates the harmony of thirds. However we are still in Eb but we hav eheard the tune played and harmonised in thirds. This harmony has now also, in a way, created a new melodic idea.

In the second half of page two the trombones hold down a new bass note of Bb and the cellos come in with arpeggios which highlight various different chords. The original four bar phrase has now become augmented and now lasts 8 bars with descending minims. In page 4 we continue to hear the melodic phrase. However, to create contrast Wagner scores the original melody line as per normal but has given it to the flute who provide a whole different timbre. On the other hand the bassoons start the phrase ascending but the phrase has then changed as it descends back down to G. At this stage the arpeggios are being built upon as well which adds to a feeling of building excitement. Page 5 introduces a new two bar excerpt which is an addition to our original four bar phrase. This new idea is then expanded through page 6 as the phrase becomes prolonged. Also in page 6 the clarinets start playing an altered version of this new two bar phrase as they run up two semiquavers before resting on the next interval. This creates the effect of driving the rhythm forward the violin cello part introduces these semiquavers throughout the whole bar which outlines the shape of this new 2 bar phrase.

The 8th page continues much the same way as the previous two pages, however the melodic phrase has augmented and now the values of the notes have increased, split in to 3 bar phrases the melodic phrase is now 6 bars long. This takes us in to page 9 where we return to two bar phrases but the melody has been raised and now the flutes are singing their top Eb’s out three ledger lines above the stave. The clarinets and Cor Anglais (English Horn) continue the driving rhythm as the string section are now all playing arpeggios. The excitement continues to build.

Page 10 takes us back to a four bar phrase. This maintains interest as it is still a very familiar idea but just different enough that we are still interested as listeners and audience members. By page 12 our phrases stretch across about 8 bars and starts taking off this feels like an increased level of building suspense. Something is coming up. Oboes clarinets and flutes take over the driving rhythm which now becomes a more prominent feature. The arpeggios are layered even thicker with the addition of more violins and cellos. The flutes shoot for the skies as their phrases now build to super G 4 ledger lines above the stave. Page 14 ascending scales are scored in which add another layer of suspense. Starting on bassoon and bass clarinet these scales then work themselves up the different timbres of the woodwind section. Rising from lower woodwind and passing through higher woodwind creates a consistent build just from the pitch of the instruments. These scales expand through page 15 now throughout the entire woodwind section until page 16 where we hear the entrance of the singers.

To summarise my analysis of the introduction to “Das Rhein Gold” I would like to outline very simply some techniques that I feel can be learned from this fantastic work. Firstly, Wagner used the timbre of the instruments from the word go to build suspense. Wagner took a melodic phrase and built upon or diminished it in order to maintain the listeners interest and – he added, basically, arpeggios and scales to add to the suspense. However he did it in such a masterful way that whilst the music seemed familiar to us after 80 bars we where not bored of hearing it. This is not even the whole amount of time that Wagner remained in this key. In total Wagner remained in the key of Eb for a total of 186 bars. Wagner’s masterful understanding of the instruments of the orchestra and melodic expansion and subtraction made for an exciting and atmospheric introduction to “Das Rheingold”


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