Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a cycle of four epic operas or (to use the composer's preferred term) 'dramas' by the German composer Richard Wagner (1813–83). The works are based loosely on characters from the Norse sagas and the Nibelungenlied. The four dramas, which the composer described as a trilogy with a Vorabend ('preliminary evening'), are often referred to as the Ring Cycle, "Wagner's Ring", or simply The Ring.
Wagner wrote the libretto and music over the course of about twenty-six years, from 1848 to 1874. The four operas that constitute the Ring cycle are, in the order of the imagined events they portray:
Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold)
Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)
Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods)
Although individual operas are performed as works in their own right, Wagner intended them to be a coherent whole, performed in a series.
History provides few examples of artistic purpose so consistently followed as that which produced Wagner's tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. As early as the 1840s, Wagner began to search Teutonic and Norse mythology for material for his epic, and it was not until the end of 1874 that the last bar of Götterdämmerung ("The Twilight of the Gods") was scored. Wagner's first plan was to compose one opera only, to be called Siegfried's Death, and for this he wrote the poem, which follows roughly the same course as that of the present Götterdämmerung, in 1848. It soon became obvious, however, that so much preliminary explanation would be necessary if the events of Siegfried's Death were to be clear to the spectator that some kind of introductory drama was desirable. Thus Wagner planned a second work, to precede Siegfried's Death and to be called Young Siegfried, and then he added two others, so that the project eventually embraced the whole tetralogy of the Ring.
Wagner did not work exclusively on the Ring during the thirty-odd years between its original conception and its completion. The poems of the four operas were written in the late 1840s and early 1850s; the music for Das Rheingold was composed in 1853–54, that for Die Walküre in 1854–56; and in 1856–57 Wagner composed, though he did not score, the first two acts of Siegfried; but at this point he laid down his pen, as far as the Ring was concerned, for twelve years, producing in the meantime Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. In 1869, however, he took up work on the Ring again, his enthusiasm and inspiration still strong, and in the years 1869–74 completed Siegfried and created the finale to the tetralogy, Götterdämmerung. Das Rheingold was first performed at Munich on 22 September 1869. Its first performance as part of the complete Ring cycle took place at Bayreuth on 13 August 1876.