Length: c. 18 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, triangle, cymbals, side drum, glockenspiel, 4 harps, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 18, 1927, Eugene Goossens conducting, with soprano Elsa Alsen
About this Piece
Upon removing the ring from Siegfried’s finger, Brünnhilde orders his funeral pyre to be built and launches into the “Immolation” aria. The fire spreads to Valhalla, bringing about the death of the gods and the destruction of the old order, accompanied by many of the leitmotifs heard throughout all four operas.
In the beginning was Siegfried: that is, the poem Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death). This long, lyrical poem that Wagner completed in November of 1848 eventually became the fourth and last “music drama” of his monumental tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. Little did Wagner know at the time that Siegfrieds Tod was the substantial seed from which the other three operas would spring and that this poem/libretto was itself the first draft of what would be renamed Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). For upon completion of Siegfrieds Tod, Wagner realized that the poem he’d penned assumed too great a knowledge of the Nibelungen myth on the part of his audience. As a consequence, and to fill in the gaps, he wrote the poem/libretto Der junge Siegfried, (The Young Siegfried, later to become simply Siegfried), to which he then appended Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) and Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold) in that order, extending backward through time. As Thomas Mann would write in the opening line of his own tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers, “Very deep is the well of the past.”
Wagner completed the massive poem Der Ring des Nibelungen on December 15, 1852, as an exile in Switzerland, resulting from his anarchist activities and participation in the Dresden rebellion of May 1849. Importantly, and prior to completing the three opera librettos following Siegfrieds Tod, Wagner interrupted that work to produce three theoretical essays on the nature of opera that shaped his aesthetic/compositional approach to the genre and the articulation of his concept of “music drama” for the rest of his career: Art and Revolution (1849), The Art Work of the Future (1850), and Opera and Drama (1852). These essays encompassed drama, music, politics, myth, religion, et al. Wagner wrote them while under the spell of the greatly influential German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872). Here is Feuerbach’s philosophy, stated very briefly and simplified to the nth degree: humans are the creators of gods, thus religion is a construct of the human mind that reveals fundamental truths about ourselves; the very essence of human life is love; since there are no gods in reality, humans are responsible for their own actions; god-like characteristics that human beings have regarded as divine for millennia are in fact human – we are divine.
Feuerbach’s was not the only philosophy that informed Wagner’s thoughts at this time; he was deeply influenced by philosophical anarchism as well. Aspects of this philosophy in The Ring were that the original state of nature is idyllic and harmless; an imposition of law-governed orders such as marriage, property, and money are evil; and that property is theft, etc. On the flip side, however, it is by means of love that human beings can live harmoniously with each other, and nature without property, money, laws, or government – love will hold it all together.
These are several non-musical themes [artistically] transformed by Wagner in The Ring: the rejection of love and the pursuit of power as embodied in the possession of the ring (Alberich and Wotan); the violation of the natural order through imposed contractual law (Wotan’s spear). Possession of power and gold usurps love at every level of The Ring. This is true even for Siegfried and Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung, until the very end, when Brünnhilde, in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice [for love of Siegfried], rides horseback onto his funeral pyre with the ring, thereby cleansing it of its curse and destroying the old order of the gods.