Nearly 30 years separated the start of Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods) from its completion and premiere. Richard Wagner (1813-1883) 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.
So why the long wait? First of all, there were all sorts of extra-musical factors, foremost among them his participation in the revolution that swept Germany (and much of the rest of continental Europe) in 1848. He was based in the east German city of Dresden at the time, where he had been music director since 1843. When Prussian troops arrived in Dresden in May of 1849 to crush the rebellion, Wagner fled into exile, and would remain an outlaw, under police surveillance, until he was taken in by the king of Bavaria, mad King Ludwig, in 1863. It was Ludwig who bankrolled Wagner's subsequent projects, including the construction of the theater at Bayreuth and the first production of The Ring.
Wagner also was in increasing demand as a conductor of his own music, which took him away from composing. (He needed the money such engagements provided - the Dresden police weren't the only ones following him; at one point, a warrant for his arrest was issued in Vienna because of his massive debts.) Finally, he didn't work non-stop on The Ring, but composed three other operas while the tetralogy was marinating: Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), and Tristan und Isolde.
But work on the Ring spanned much of Wagner's professional career, making the cycle, in a sense, his life's work. It represents a culmination of his ideas on music and drama, his assertion of opera as the "total art work," combining as it does not only voices and instruments, but also aspects of the literary, dramatic, and visual arts.
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 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 a circle of magic fire and win the warrior-maiden Brünnhilde, who is Wotan's daughter.
As the final act of Götterdämmerung begins, Siegfried and Brünnhilde have been tricked by Alberich's son Hagen, who has wheedled his way into the confidence of his half-brother Gunther, prince of the Gibichungs. Prompted by Hagen, Gunther's sister Gutrune has given Siegfried a potion that erases his memory of Brünnhilde. In this potion-induced fog, he has fallen in love with Gutrune and gone off to win Brünnhilde for Gunther. Act III opens on the banks of the Rhine. There, Siegfried encounters the Rhine Maidens, who try to charm him into giving them the ring; when that doesn't work, they tell him it's cursed. He thinks it's a trick and ignores their warnings.
In the distance, the sounds of a hunting party are heard; Hagen and Gunther are out with their vassals in the forest. They encounter Siegfried and entreat him to tell the story of his life. With the help of another of Hagen's potions, Siegfried's memories of Brünnhilde, and how he awakened her with a kiss, return. Gunther is horrified to learn of this betrayal, and Hagen stabs Siegfried in the back with a spear, killing him. A lengthy orchestral interlude, one of the cycle's most memorable, represents Siegfried's Funeral March, as the vassals carry him back to the Hall of the Gibichungs.
Siegfried is lying in the Hall, and Hagen approaches his body to take the ring. When Gunther tries to stop Hagen, Hagen kills him. As Hagen reaches for Siegfried's finger, Siegfried's hand rises into the air in a frightening gesture. Brünnhilde enters and declares that she was Siegfried's true wife, and she orders the vassals to build a funeral pyre. She explains that Siegfried's death has redeemed the gods, who fell from grace when Wotan stole the ring from Alberich. At the words "Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!" (Rest, rest, thou God!), as the vassals lift Siegfried's body onto the pyre, we hear a motive associated with the curse that Alberich put on the ring, resolved musically for the first time in the cycle to signal the curse's end. Brünnhilde mounts her horse and rides it into the burning pyre, and the fire spreads to the Hall of the Gibichungs, which collapses in flames. At the climax of the scene, the Rhine overflows, dousing the smoldering ruins and the funeral pyre and reclaiming the ring. When Hagen wades in after the ring, the Rhine Maidens take hold of him and drown him. The sky fills with flames and Valhalla is revealed, with Wotan, seated in its center. With the destruction of the old gods, and the return of the ring to its proper place in nature, Brünnhilde - through her love for her husband, Siegfried - has cleansed the world of its corrupt past. A new dawn fills the sky.
Throughout the cycle, Wagner introduces all kinds of musical motives to accompany various objects, characters, and emotions. Just in the course of Act III of Götterdämmerung alone, we hear a playful motive for the Rhine Maidens, motives for the dragon Fafner and the sword that Siegfried used to kill him (the sword motive is heard during Siegfried's Funeral March, first played by a solo trumpet), a heroic horn call for Siegfried (heard right at the outset of Act III), and a soaring theme for Brünnhilde, all of which Wagner introduced earlier in the tetralogy. He also develops new motives, especially during Brünnhilde's immolation and the radiant orchestral postlude that concludes Act III and the cycle, music associated with the glorification of Brünnhilde and her redemption of the world.