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The Ring of the Nibelung
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Allen Dunning's Numbered List ot the Ring's Musical Motifs

(with musical notation provided by Allen Dunning, and commentary by Paul Heise)


Introductory Remarks:

The following list of the Ring’s musical motifs, 178 in number, including musical notation, was provided by Dr. Allen B. Dunning from his online book A Thematic Guide to the Musical Themes of Richard Wagner’s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen. It is the most comprehensive list currently available. Since my study reproduces almost the entire Ring libretto in Stewart Spencer’s English translation, Dr. Dunning and I collaborated to record the numbered motifs within the context of the libretto wherever we could identify and verify their appearance at any given point in the orchestral score. This aspect of this study is almost entirely the product of Dr. Dunning’s efforts: my contribution was very small. In order to do this Dr. Dunning and I have had to devise a set of symbols to represent not only the numbered motifs but various aspects of their representation, or the conditions under which they are heard in the score, within the context of the English translation of the Libretto.

Immediately following the musical notation of each numbered motif will be found the name and/or description of each motif. If the numbered motif has a commonly used name, I have indicated this with quotation marks. If a motif has a commonly used name, I generally use it whenever it is under discussion so that, wherever possible, the reader need not depend exclusively on memorization of the motif’s number to follow my discussion, but also so that, with practice, the motifs’ identifying number may be committed to memory. However, not only does my interpretation suggest that quite a number of traditional names are inadequate or incorrect, but furthermore, Dr. Dunning has identified a number of motifs which either have never been named, or have never had a commonly accepted one. I have added a few motifs of my own which evidently have either not previously been identified as motifs, or were equated with previously identified motifs without their status as a distinct motif being taken into account. Therefore, since quite often traditional names are either too one dimensional, or even altogether inaccurate, in expressing the discernible “meaning” of motifs (see below), I have also provided a brief verbal description of each motif which readers should consider either my supplement to a traditional name, or as its replacement. For this reason the reader must ultimately depend on Dr. Dunning’s numbers to identify motifs.

In Appendix I, found at the back of this book on page 875 (but not in the briefer version of the Motif Guide which you are currently reading), I have reproduced verbatim the passage of libretto text in which each motif is first heard during performance, with enough textual context to obtain a feeling for the conceptual significance of the motif when it is first heard. In a few instances where it is not possible to get a full sense of a given motif’s meaning without further context, I have provided subsequent dramatic contexts as well. A classic instance is Wagner’s “Sword Motif,” #57 (otherwise known as the “Motif of Wotan’s Grand Idea”), which at its introduction in R.4 is not yet associated with the sword Nothung, an association which will only take place later, in V.1.3. To obtain the full meaning of any given motif, however, one would have to know the dramatic and conceptual context of all of its recurrences, including those of its variants. Reproducing all of a motifs’ dramatic contexts in the course of the drama offers us what I call the “dramatic profile” of the motif.

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