Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 8 horns (2 = Wagner tubas), 3 trumpets, bass trumpet, 3 trombones, bass trombone (= contrabass trombone), tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, glockenspiel, side drum, triangle), 4 harps, strings, and soprano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey – January 12, 1923, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting; Siegfried’s Funeral Music – February 13, 1921, Rothwell conducting; Brünnhilde’s Immolation – August 19, 1927, Eugene Goossens conducting, with soprano Elsa Alsen)
Nearly 30 years separated the start of Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods) from its completion and premiere. Wagner completed the first draft of the scenario for the work, which he originally called Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death), the fourth and final installment in his massive tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs), on October 20, 1848; Götterdämmerung premiered on August 17, 1876 at the Bayreuth Festival Theater, specially built for the occasion.
As the last chapter in a four-night, 15-hour operatic experience, Götterdämmerung resolves much of what has unfolded in the previous operas, both dramatically and musically. At the beginning of The Ring’s first opera, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Alberich, a twisted, gnome-like creature hailing from a people who mine for precious metals underground, swims into the Rhine and steals a chunk of magic gold from the three Rhine Maidens. He forges a ring of power from it, and, over the succeeding two operas, mortals and gods fight over the ring, which Alberich cursed when the god Wotan took it from him.
In Die Walküre, a child is born to Siegmund and Sieglinde, children of Wotan’s alliance with a mortal woman who were separated when young and thus unaware of their sibling relationship. This is Siegfried, who is to become Wotan’s needed hero. Before the child is born, Siegmund is killed in spite of the intercession of Brünnhilde, Wotan’s favorite of his nine Valkyrie daughters. Because her efforts to help Siegmund were put forth against Wotan’s orders, Brünnhilde is banished from Valhalla and put to sleep, surrounded by a circle of flames.
In the third opera, Siegfried, Wotan’s grandson, kills the dragon Fafner, who claimed the ring from Wotan as payment for building a magnificent dwelling for the gods, Valhalla. Siegfried uses the ring to pass through the circle of magic fire and win Brünnhilde.
At the beginning of Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde, now a mortal, sends Siegfried off to heroic deeds. Between the prologue and the first act occurs the orchestral interlude depicting Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey. The young warrior’s horn call is sounded, often, at times combined with other motifs from earlier portions of The Ring: Brünnhilde’s motif, the Fire Music, the motif of the Ring, etc. Toward the end of the excerpt, the mood darkens, prefiguring the tragic events about to be played out in the drama. Indeed, the tragedy is centered upon Siegfried, for in the course of his adventures, through a series of deceits and treacheries in which Brünnhilde ironically shares the guilt, he is slain. The Funeral Music that accompanies the procession in which his body is borne contains some of the most powerful and profoundly affecting music in all of Wagner. In it the warrior’s life is recalled, his heroic motifs and the motifs of those associated with him pass in review, ultimately to be clothed in the robes of tragedy.
Finally the Ring cycle closes with the Immolation Scene, a magnificent monologue in which Brünnhilde orders a funeral pyre built to consume the body of the slain Siegfried. In the same pyre she will immolate herself, and in the process cleanse the powerful but cursed Ring, for whose possession the gods have caused their own doom. The Ring is returned to the Rhine Maidens, who swim away rejoicing, as in the distance Valhalla and its inhabitants are consumed by flames. The orchestral coda, ending with the breathtaking theme of Redemption by Love, crowns The Ring with purest Wagnerian gold.
— from notes by John Mangum and Orrin Howard