This post was written by Simone Hawkins, Research Services Assistant.
In searching for something new to present on the subject of our July 23 #musicmonday post, I came across two wonderful and unusual books among the assortment of materials in the Special Collections Research Center, Fenwick Library. Both seemingly unrelated, they each feature the German composer Richard Wagner’s set of operas entitled the Ring Cycle. The particular significance of these items is that this past July happened to be the 167th anniversary of the first notation onto paper of that famous tune from the Ring Cycle, the Ride of the Valkyries.
A leitmotif  is a theme or musical idea that typically symbolizes a character or place, among other things, in opera. It is most commonly associated with the operatic works of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and – more specifically – his Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen .
This cycle consists of four operas, the second of which was highlighted in the book Stories from Wagner by J. Walker McSpadden. The composition of the music of Die Walküre began on July 23, 1851  when Wagner sketched the theme, Ride of the Valkyries (also called Walkürenritt or Ritt der Walküren). This theme has become the most familiar leitmotif of the Ring Cycle and often “appears” in films for dramatic effect, such as in the silent drama The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the war drama Apocalypse Now (1979).
Stories from Wagner is an English adaptation of the libretti (this is the plural form of the term for the text that is sung) for the Ring Cycle. The libretti were written in German by Wagner over the course of five years, from 1848 to 1853, and were reworked from the Norse sagas, Nibelungenlied. At the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany – built by Wagner and especially used for performances of his works – the first premiere of the entire Ring Cycle occurred in 1876: Das Rheingold (13 August), Die Walküre (14 August), Siegfried (16 August), and Götterdämmerung (17 August).
McSpadden uses approximate English translations for the opera titles of the Ring Cycle. The War-Maidens is equivalent to Die Walküre. (A valkyrie is a maiden in Norse mythology that chooses who lives and dies in battle; half of those who die are taken by the Valkyries to Valhalla, the home of the gods.) The book itself has an ornate cover, and is a part of the Wendi D. Slagle Decorated Bindings Collection. There are coloured plates of paintings within that depict various scenes from each of the stories.
Another fascinating volume from our collections, The Victrola Book of the Opera  by Samuel Holland Rous (MT150.R697 1919), has an overview of operas which were recorded by the Victor Talking Machine Company. Many editions of this book were published between 1912 and 1976 . Inside there are plot summaries, images of set design, photographs of the recorded performers, as well as prices for all the records listed.
The Victor Talking Machine Company – an American company based out of Camden, New Jersey – was prominent in its manufacture of recordings in the early 1900s, due to collaborations with famous performers, such as the tenor Enrico Caruso. A famed record company with an iconic logo, by 1919 they had recorded [specifically] the Ride of the Valkyries twice, each of them being on a double-faced record. Though I was unable to find the recording of the La Scala orchestra, the one by Vessella’s Italian Band from 1914 can be found on YouTube (click the link to have a listen!).
An interesting correlation between Stories from Wagner and The Victrola Book of the Opera is that this painting by Ferdinand Leeke (spelled Lecke in McSpadden) appears in both. The five-year difference in publication dates is especially fascinating, as I was not expecting the earlier reproduction of the painting to be in colour, whereas the later version is in black and white. Perhaps the use of this particular painting twice indicates that there are few artworks illustrating scenes from the Ring Cycle or even of Wagner’s operas in general. It would be interesting to find out how often this artwork has been reproduced in other books on the Ring Cycle!
As a musician more well-versed and interested in the Baroque era, this truly was an eye-opening experience to have researched and prepared a post on Richard Wagner. Having only been familiar with his Ride of the Valkyries and Bridal Chorus (which is from another of his operas Lohengrin – also a famous tune!), writing this post has indeed been a challenging process but it has also inspired me to continue researching about him and to spend more time getting acquainted with his music.
For a concise overview of the Ring Cycle, see this article.
A more detailed biography of Wagner can be found here.
And to read more about the famed tenor Enrico Caruso, click here.
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