The plot revolves around a magic ring which grants the power to rule the world, forged by the dwarf Alberich from gold stolen from the river Rhine. Several mythic figures struggle for possession of the Ring, including Wotan (Odin), the chief of the Gods. The hero Siegfried wins the Ring, but he is betrayed and slain, and the Ring is returned to the Rhine.
The four operas in the Ring cycle are:
See the articles for the individual operas for a detailed plot synopsis.
In 1848, Wagner began writing a libretto entitled Siegfrieds Tod ("Siegfried's Death"). He was likely encouraged by a series of articles in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, inviting composers to write a "national opera" based on the Nibelungenlied, a 12th century High German poem which, since its rediscovery in 1755, had been hailed by the German Romantics[?] as the "German national epic". Siegfrieds Tod dealt with the death of Siegfried, the central heroic figure of the Nibelungenlied. As the work progressed, Wagner would draw upon several other sources, including the Old Norse Eddas, Thidreks Saga, and Volsunga Saga, and even the Grimm brothers' fairy tale "The Tale of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear".
Wagner completed a musical sketch for Siegfrieds Tod in 1850. He now felt that he needed a preliminary opera, Der junge Siegfried ("The Young Siegfried", later renamed to "Siegfried"), in order to explain the events in Siegfrieds Tod. The verse draft of Der junge Siegfried was completed in May 1851. By October, he had decided on a cycle of four operas, to be played over four nights: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Der Junge Siegfried and Siegfrieds Tod.
The text for all four operas was completed in December 1852, and privately published in February 1853. In November, Wagner began the composition draft of Das Rheingold. Unlike the verses, which were written from the end of the story to the beginning, the music would be composed from beginning to end. Composition proceeded until 1857, when the final score up to Act II of Siegfried was completed. Wagner then laid the work aside for twelve years, during which he wrote Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
By 1869, Wagner was living at Tribschen[?] on Lake Lucerne, sponsored by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. At this point, he returned to Siegfried, and, remarkably, was able to pick up where he left off. In October, he completed the final opera, Götterdämmerung, as Siegfried's Tod had been renamed (since the focus of the tetralogy had shifted from Siegfried to Wotan.)
On King Ludwig's insistence, and over Wagner's objections, "special previews" of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre were given at the Munich Court Theater, before the rest of the Ring. Thus, Das Rheingold premiered on September 22, 1869, and Die Walküre on June 26, 1870.
Wagner had long desired to have a special festival opera house, designed by himself, for the performance of the Ring. In 1871, he decided on a location in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth. In 1872, he moved to Bayreuth, and the foundation stone was laid. Wagner would spend the next two years attempting to raise capital for the construction, with scant success; King Ludwig finally rescued the project in 1874 by donating the needed funds. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus opened in 1876 with the first complete performance of the Ring, which took place from August 13 to August 17.