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Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 8 horns (5th and 6th = tenor Wagner tubas, 7th = bass Wagner tuba), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass trombone, contrabass trombone, tuba, 2 timpani, cymbals, tam tam, triangle, 6 harps, and strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances: Entry of the Gods into Valhalla from Das Rheingold: December 5, 1919, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting; Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre: October 21, 1921, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting; Forest Murmurs from Siegfried and Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung: January 12, 1923, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting; Death of Siegfried and Siegfried’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung: December 17, 1920, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting; Brünnhilde’s Immolation from Götterdämmerung: February 12, 1931 (with soprano Florence Austral), Artur Rodzinski conducting.
Wagner’s music captured Germany’s imagination in the 19th century, much as Britten’s would England’s in the 20th. In the museum devoted to the composer in Bayreuth, one can find an entire room full of all sorts of Wagner collectibles, ranging from figurines to playing cards. There were even Wagner trading cards – they came in packages of bouillon, six cards for each opera. The public found every rumor about the composer fascinating, especially his purported predilection for silk underwear.
His celebrity would have been impossible had he not been an overwhelmingly important – and controversial – artistic figure. His 13 operas, 9 of them now repertory pieces, changed the face of music and elevated opera to the level the symphony had occupied since Beethoven. But Wagner also churned out polemic after polemic, essays which often espoused radical ideas and, especially in light of the direction Germany took in the 20th century, distasteful and disturbing opinions. He abandoned more traditional subjects for serious opera – history, classical mythology, and the like – turning instead to Norse mythology and the Germanic epics of the Middle Ages. Der Ring des Nibelungen embodies all of this – his ideals for opera, his beliefs about music, and his exploration of the roots of German culture.
Wagner first started working on the project in 1848, a year of political upheaval and revolution throughout Europe. In October, he began sketches for the libretto that eventually became Götterdämmerung, the Ring’s final opera. By the time the project was completed in the 1870s, it had become a cycle of four works to be performed on consecutive evenings, lasting somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 hours, and it required the construction of a special theater. The Ring premiered in this theater, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, between August 13 and 17, 1876.
The cycle, based on the Middle High German Nibelungenlied and several Norse sources, follows a magic ring forged from gold found in the Rhine River as it transforms the lives of two generations of gods and demi-gods. The “Preliminary Evening” of the cycle, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) opens with a prelude that embodies the protean nature of the myth. From the stillness of an E-flat pedal point held by the basses and bassoons, the Rhine begins to flow, and it is as if Wagner meant this depiction of the river to represent creation itself. From the darkest depths of the river, Wagner takes the listener to just below the surface, where the Rhine Maidens circle the gleaming, enchanted gold.
Das Rheingold closes with Wotan, the ruler of the gods, leading his fellow deities across a rainbow bridge into the newly-completed Valhalla, where they will live as heroes for eternity. Wotan has used the ring, first crafted by the Nibelung Alberich, who stole the gold from the Rhine, to pay off the giant Fafner for building Valhalla. Donner, the god of storms, strikes his hammer to summon thunder and lightning to clear the way to the hall. The clouds part to reveal a rainbow bridge, which Wagner depicts with six harps, winds, and strings accompanying a long-breathed cello melody. Horns play the Valhalla motif, which grows in intensity until the final peroration reveals the full splendor of the scene.
The “First Day,” Die Walküre (The Valkyries) focuses on Wotan’s daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, exploring her relationship with her father and relating how she helps Wotan’s illegitimate son and daughter, Siegmund and Sieglinde, and their unborn child, Siegfried. The opera’s third act opens with some of the most famous music Wagner ever composed, “The Ride of the Valkyries.” The Valkyries, a fierce race of female warriors, have gathered at their mountaintop with slain heroes destined for Valhalla. Brünnhilde has defied her father – who was ordered by his wife to let Siegmund and Sieglinde die – by taking Sieglinde there to safety. Wagner uses a rapid succession of 16th notes in the winds and flourishes in the strings to lift the main motif, played by the horns and associated with Brünnhilde.
In the “Second Day,” Siegfried, Sieglinde gives birth to her son, the title character of the opera. Siegfried contains many well-known moments, including the forging scene, Siegfried’s slaying of Fafner (who has transformed himself into a dragon), and the hero’s scene with the Woodbird. After killing the dragon, Siegfried inadvertently drinks its blood, which gives him new powers of understanding. Now able to decipher the Woodbird’s song, Siegfried listens to it sing of where he can find Brünnhilde, who has been put to sleep on a rock surrounded by magic fire for disobeying Wotan. “Forest Murmurs” presents an atmospheric synthesis of music from Siegfried’s scenes with the Woodbird.
The fourth and final opera in the cycle, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods), was originally called Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death) by the composer when he first began sketching its libretto. It follows Siegfried and Brünnhilde as they encounter Hagen, the son of Alberich, the Nibelung who first forged the ring. Siegfried has the ring – he got it when he killed Fafner – and has given it to Brünnhilde, but Hagen wants it back, feeling it is rightfully his. At the close of the opera’s prologue, Siegfried sets out to new adventures at the behest of Brünnhilde. We hear his exuberant confidence during the “Rhine Journey,” but this is gradually overtaken by a combination of somber motifs first heard in Das Rheingold, associated with Alberich and the cursed Rhine Gold.
In the opera’s third act, as Siegfried recounts his heroic deeds, Hagen takes the opportunity to distract him and plunges a spear into his back. Supported by two vassals, Siegfried bids farewell to Brünnhilde as the breath of life leaves his body. Night falls, and the assembled company carries his body off. The “Funeral March” begins solemnly. The brass enters as the moon falls on the cortège, and fog settles over the Rhine as the violins take up the basses’ opening motif. The full brass sound Siegfried’s motif, recalling his heroic deeds and the confident mood of the earlier “Rhine Journey.” After this central section, the march ends as solemnly as it began, desolate and subdued.
Götterdämmerung closes with one of the most phenomenal extended scenes in any opera, including those by Wagner. Brünnhilde, seeing Siegfried’s body, orders the onlookers to prepare a pyre for him. She has learned of the ring’s curse from the Rhine Maidens and mounts her horse, riding into the fire to end the curse and purify the gold. The Rhine overflows, flooding the pyre and consuming the ring. In this “Immolation Scene,” we hear a compendium of motifs from throughout the cycle, as the drama culminates in the return of the ring to the Rhine Maidens, which breaks the curse. During the score’s radiant closing pages, Wagner recalls the music of a prophecy from Das Rheingold – the ring will bring about the destruction of the gods – as Valhalla burns.
John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA. He is currently in Berlin, studying the 18th-century German opera audience.