Lorin Maazel has been successful, primarily as a conductor, leading such famous orchestras as the New York Philharmonic and Orchestra National de France. His orchestral version of Der Ring des Nibelungen is considered by many to be not only the paramount, but the most faithful adaption of the original.
Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen was written over the course of twenty-six years, from 1848 to 1874 with the first complete Ring cycle performed from August 13-17, 1876 in Bayreuth, Germany, with Hans Richter conducting. This monumental fifteen hour work is a production encompassing four operas: Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). Wagner drew his subject and inspiration from Icelandic myths found in the Völsunga Saga, and Das Nibelungenlied, an epic poem from c1200 and Thidreks Saga af Bern, a Norwegian tale written c1260-70. As a result of this vast composition, Wagner realized his long reserved ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk, or ‘total work of art.’ Opera’s pre-dating Wagner’s Ring had modest plots that were merely a vehicle for singers and music. Gesamtkunstwerk was not solely music, singing, or the story, but a complete artistic product with each element of equal importance. His use of leitmotifs, which sprang forth in Der Ring des Nibelungen had an immense influence on all music and opera that followed.
At the time of the Lorin Maazel’s Bayreuth debut in 1960, Wieland Wagner, grandson of the composer, had made the comment that “The essence of the work is to be found, after all, in the orchestra. This is the subtext, the universal subconscious that links Wagner’s characters together and that is tied to the proto-ego of the legend.” Maazel finally understood the importance of that sentiment when he conducted the first post-war production of the Ring at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 1965. “The orchestral score itself is the Ring, encrypted in a musical code,” he explained. Thus when Maazel was questioned by a record label in 1987 asking if it was possible to reduce the fifteen hour orchestral score to the length of a CD, he was keen to decrypt this code through his “symphonic synthesis.” When he created Der Ring ohne Worte (The Ring without Words) Maazel used only music that Wagner had originally composed and sought to match the sequence of themes, tempo markings and proportions. The music, he resolved, had to unfold without interruption and follow the course of the drama in every detail from the opening note of Das Rheingold to the closing chord of Götterdämmerung.