Online opera guide & synopsis to Wagner’s RING OF THE NIBELUNG
The Ring of the Nibelung is a total work of art on a par with works of world literature such as Homer’s Iliad or Dante’s Divina commedia. It is astonishing how homogeneous this work appears to us, which was created over a period of 25 years and in a complex process of development.
♪ Vorspiel (Rhinegold)
♪ Weiche Wotan Weiche (Rhinegold)
♪ Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge (Rhinegold)
♪ Rheingold! Rheingold! Reines Gold (Finale) (Rhinegold)
♪ Der Männer Sippe (The Valkyrie)
♪ Nothung (The Valkyrie)
♪ Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond (The Valkyrie)
♪ Ritt der Walküren (The Valkyrie)
♪ Leb wohl, du kühnes herrliches Kind (The Valkyrie)
♪ Notung! Notung! Neidliches Schwert (Siegfried)
♪ Hoho! Hohei! Hahei! (Siegfried)
♪ Waldweben (Siegfried)
♪ Heil dir, Sonne (Siegfried)
♪ Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich (Siegfried)
♪ Zu neuen Taten (Twilight of Gods)
♪ O heilige Götter (Twilight of Gods)
♪ Siegfried’s Rhine Journey (Twilight of Gods)
♪ Hoiho! Hoihoo! (Twilight of Gods)
♪ Auf Gunther, edler Gibichung (Twilight of Gods)
♪ Frau Sonne sendet lichte Strahlen (Twilight of Gods)
♪ Heil dir, Gunther (Twilight of Gods)
♪ Brünnhilde, heilige Braut (Twilight of Gods)
♪ Siegfrieds Trauermarsch (Twilight of Gods)
♪ Flieget heim ihr Raben … Grane mein Ross sei mir gegrüsst (Twilight of Gods)
ROLES & SYNOPSIS OF THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG
Richard Wagner, based on a wide variety of primary sources. The main ones are: Greek mythology, the Nordic Edda saga and Völsung saga, and the German Nibelungenlied.
THE MAIN ROLES
Wellgunde, Flosshilde and Woglinde, mermaids and Rhine daughters, guardians of the Rhine gold (Mezzosoprano / Alto / Soprano) – Wotan / Wanderer, god and ruler of the world (Bariton) - Fricka, goddess of marriage and wife of Wotan (Soprano) - Freia, goddess and guardian of the apples of eternal youth, sister of Fricka (Mezzosoprano) - Donner and Froh, gods and brothers of Fricka (Bariton / Tenor) - Erda, seeress and mother of the Norns (Alto) - Loge, demigod and assistant of Wotan - Fasolt and Fafner, giants - Alberich, Nibelunge - Mime, Nibelunge and brother of Alberich - Siegmund, son of Wotan and brother of Sieglinde (Tenor) - Sieglinde, wife of Hunding and sister of Siegmund (Soprano) - Brünnhilde, Valkyrie and daughter of Wotan (Soprano) - Hunding, husband of Sieglinde (Bass) - Siegfried, son of Siegmund and Sieglinde (tenor) - Dragon, Fafner turned into a dragon (bass) - Waltraute, Valkyrie and sister of Brünnhilde (alto) - Gunther, king of the Gibichungs (baritone) - Gutrune, sister of Gunther (soprano) - Hagen, Gibichung and son of Alberich (bass) - Norns, fated women (mezzo, alto, soprano)
DECCA with Wolfgang Windgassen, Birgit Nilsson, Gottlob Frick, Christa Ludwig and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau conducted by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic.
The Ring, a long planned work
Wagner was already planning a large-scale work at the time of the composition of Lohengrin, at the end of the 1840s. He considered various materials, including “Jesus of Nazareth”. In the end the “Song of the Nibelungs” corresponded most to his ideas and it became an important literary basis. As always Wagner started with the libretto. Interestingly enough, he began with “Siegfried’s Death” (which later received the name Götterdämmerung, Twilight of Gods). He wrote the text from back to front, so that the text for the Rheingold 1853 was the last one to be written. Wagner quickly set about composing and he wrote the opera in 1853/54, partly during his stay in Italy.
He did not want to bring the work to the stage until all four operas had been written. But Ludwig the Second ordered the premiere against Wagner’s will in 1869 in Munich, seven years before the first performance of the Ring in Bayreuth.
Wagner put the history of the ring together from a wide variety of original sources. To be named are: Greek mythology, the Norse Edda and Voelsung sagas and the German Nibelungenlied.
The language – Wagner’s stave rhyme
In his textes Wagner often used the Nordic stave rhyme, which is a source of amusement for some listeners of his operas and the readers of his texts. Two examples from the song of the Rhinemaidens in Rheingold
– Vagalaweia! Wallala weialaweia!
– Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle, walle zur Wiege!
What was the reason for this strange poetry even for native speaking persons? Wagner was an excellent composer of songs. He was aware that the German language with its many consonants was not the perfect language for song texts. Most disturbing were those consonants at the end of the word. So it is obvious that the stave rhyme was not an end in itself, but a means of dealing with the German language by filling the sentences with vowels in a singer-oriented and singer-friendly manner.
The leitmotifs stick the work together
The ring is no longer structured by arias and duets, the number opera gives way to the “Musikdrama”. As an important structural element and bracket of the four works, Wagner used leitmotifs that we encounter again and again in all four operas. Every important detail, be it persons or things (for example the camouflage helmet or the sword), has its musical formula. Wagner already used this technique in early works, and in the Ring it becomes the most important compositional principle. Ernst von Wolzogen, a student of Richard Wagner, worked out an overview of the motifs before the first performance of the ring in 1876 and gave them names (e.g. “Curse Motif” or “Valhalla Motif”). The number of leitmotifs is estimated at well over one hundred! The motifs (some of them only short phrases) are changed, interwoven with each other, create new motifs again and thus become the style-forming element of the ring. They serve the listener as motifs to remember, comment on the events on stage and point out connections. It is comparable with the role of the narrator, “who communicates with the audience above the heads of the characters” (Holland, opera leader). One also speaks of the semantization of music. Wagner tolerated Wolzogen’s statements but warned against reducing the work to the leitmotifs. Wagner himself called them “Errinerungsmotive” (Reminiscence motifs). In this opera guide we will present about three dozen of the most important motifs individually (in the portraits of the respective works).
Wagner’s orchestra experienced an enormous massing of instruments withthe Ring and goes far beyond what is required for the Lohengrin, for example. However, Wagner’s aim was not volume, but a differentiation of tone colours in order to maximise the expressiveness and variation of the motifs.
The history of origins I/II
Wagner began work on Siegfried in 1857, 3 years after Rheingold and right after the completion of the Valkyrie. But soon the work began to falter. Wagner, who was permanently in financial difficulties, was horrified to learn that his publisher refused to publish the ring and that the dream of a performance delayed therefore far away in the future. The consequence of this was that no money would flow in the near future. Moreover, Wagner was in the middle of a liaison with Mathilde Wesendonck, which meant that his head was not clear for the demanding history of the Ring. The work on the ring came to a standstill.
Mathilde entered Wagner’s life in 1852. He met the 24-year-old during his Zurich exile. The subsequent story is well known. Her husband became his Zurich patron of the arts and Wagner began a secret relationship with Mathilde, who lived in close proximity. In that year 1857 he wrote the famous Wesendonck Songs, based on Mathilde’s five poems which were followed by his opera “Tristan and Isolde”. The plot of Tristan and Isolde is significant: Tristan (Wagner) and Isolde (Mathilde) cannot meet on earth because of Isolde’s relationship with King Marke (Wesendonck). The two find refuge in love death.
The close relationship between the two was disturbed by Wagner’s wife Minna when she intercepted a letter the following year. The later wife Cosima wanted to erase all traces of Mathilde in Wagner’s estate and burned them. Thus, only Wagner’s letters to Mathilde bear witness to this relationship, from which Mathilde claimed to the end, that it was purely platonic.
The history of origins II/II
It was not until 1869 that Wagner resumed work on Siegfried (in the meantime the Meistersinger had also been created). It was about composing the 3rd act (the scenes at the Valkyrie Rock). 1871 the work was finally completed. In between there were still delays because of a dispute Wagner had with his patron Ludwig II, who ordered Rheingold and the Valkyrie to be performed in Munich against Wagner’s will.
The Twilight of Gods, the finale of a great saga
The Twilight of Gods is the unraveling of this vast saga that Wagner has brought together from dozens of sources. Bringing this epic story together and writing monumental music to go with it, can rightly be called a century’s achievement. The plot of the “Ring” spans several generations, with more than 20 supporting characters playing along. In hardly any other work by a single artist have so many stage characters with their own personalities and destinies been created.
1848, At the age of 35 Wagner began the work on the Ring of the Nibelung. Like a crime thriller, he began the poetry from the end. He first called the conclusion simply “Siegfried’s Death”, then later changed it to the title “Twilight of Gods” which is the literal translation of “Götterdämmerung”. In 1869 he began to compose the Twilight of Gods and 5 years later the setting of the poem was completed. 25 years after the beginning of his work on the Ring he writes the last bars of the music. For the Twilight of Gods this means that 20 years have passed between the completion of the libretto and the composition, which is probably unique in the history of opera.
An own festival theatre in Bayreuth
It was clear to Wagner from the very beginning, that the performance of such a work in existing theatres was hardly possible.
Early the idea of his own festival theatre was born. But it was to take another 25 years until its completion. Securing the financing of this enormous undertaking cost Wagner a great deal of work. In 1872 Wagner and his wife Cosima moved to Bayreuth, and construction work began. Together with many patrons he succeeds in raising money for the laying of the foundation stone of the Festspielhaus and for the purchase of the Villa Wahnfried. Four years later the Festspielhaus is opened with Rheingold. The first festival took place in 1876 in the presence of Emperor Wilhelm and all the European cultural celebrities and became Wagner’s greatest triumph of his entire life.
With the Ring and the construction of the Festspielhaus, Wagner completed his vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk: the union of the arts of music, poetry, architecture and stage design.
Wagner’s great visions
Wagner drew great visions from his creativity. Examples include: the scenes of the Rhine, the heights of Valhalla, the forge halls of Nibelheim, the fire magic around Brünnhilde’s sleeping place or the finale of the Twilight of Gods. Each of these pictures (and many more) are moments of fantastic power. Created by an accomplished playwright. Even today, the performance of these scenes still poses great technical and artistic challenges for the theatres.
Especially the Twilight of Gods, with its dense storyline and various locations, is extremely demanding.
The interpretation of the ring
The “Ring of the Nibelung” is a parable. And since it is an ingenious parable, it can be interpreted in many ways. Since the time of the composition encompassed 25 years of Wagner’s life, many and varied statements and writings of Wagner can be drawn upon for interpretation. In addition, his views have also developed over the years. Significantly, he changed from the anarchist of the 48s to the favourite of a king in the 60s. There is no “definitive” interpretation of the parable by the master himself. In my opinion three main interpretations can be identified.
Interpretation 1: the 1848 revolution
Wagner wrote the main part of the text in his wild “revolutionary years”, in which all of Europe was in the restoration years after the Congress of Vienna. Wagner complained several times that the laws of the monarchies worked in the service of the powerful. In the “revolutionary” interpretation, the gods represent the monarchies of the Restoration years, which, threatened by revolution, desperately clung to power with corrupt laws. The sheer existence of gods and the powerful is a “primal sin” (see below under interpretation of symbols), since posession contradicts nature. The giants and the gibichungs represent the nobility and the bourgeoisie, who have come to terms with the monarch without will. The bourgeoisie can be instrumentalized by the monarchs (Wotan’s illegitimate children). The Nibelungs represent the simple people, who are enslaved by industrials (Alberich) in the beginning industrialization. In his younger years Wagner was a declared follower of the anarchist and revolutionary Bakunin. The revolutionary Siegfried tries to overthrow the monarch, but fails because of the resistance of the ruling class against the new. His death is paid for by the reason of the state, but his failure already bears the seeds of revolution (Valhalla’s downfall). Gold is the symbol of the greed for possession (see below for interpretation of symbols)
Interpretation 2: the communist interpretation
Just as society changed after the revolutionary 48s, the interpretation of the Ring parable changed: the politicians of the constitutional monarchs partly replaced the monarchs as gods. They create new laws that secure their rule. The magic helmet allows them to mask themselves as representatives of the people. Weak guardians of justice like the Rhinemaidens (e.g. the parliament) are not able to protect the gold (freedom) from the corrupted (politicians and industrialists). The emerging middle class of the bourgeoisie (giants, gibichungs) is a collection of will-less creatures whose striving for material possessions determines them. In later years Wagner emphasized several times how the proletariat was alienated through exploitation and the division of labor. The hammering of the anvils in Nibelheim corresponds to the factory chimneys of the industrialists, who dominate the working population (Nibelungs) there for their enrichment.
Interpretation 3: the artists Interpretation
Wagner saw himself as a revolutionary artist. His artistic concepts of musical drama and the “total work of art” were revolutionary and found fervent supporters but also open rejection. His greatest and most formative defeats of his life were probably his two attempts to assert himself in Paris. His failure (Siegfried) was owed to the elites (gods) and the audience, who for cultural and financial (gold and ring) reasons were not yet ready to recognize the music of the future. Their conservative taste followed non-creative music like that of e.g. Meyerbeer (Mime, Alberich, Hagen).
The ring is rich in allusions and symbolism and other possible themes can be identified:
– The actions of the protagonists can be interpreted psychologically in many different ways (love, greed, striving for power, renunciation, etc.)
– Exploitation of nature by man (green interpretation)
– Role of women in a male-dominated society
– Alienation of work activity from nature and from man himself in a society based on the division of labour
Interpretation of symbols
Gold & Ring
As a source of happiness, gold creates beauty and truth, abused and forged as a ring (money/possession) it creates domination without love. The ring stands for the possession and corruption of people through possession. Brünnhilde receives the ring from Siegfried as a pledge and understands it as a symbol of her marriage, which for Wagner, however, stands for the possession of another and thus opposes the original state. By not releasing Siegfried, she prevents the world’s salvation. Siegfried also has the opportunity to return the ring to the rhinemaidens (in the twilight of gods), but he fails due to awakening greed when he learns the meaning of the ring. Both are corrupted by the possession of the ring. Thus the ring is the metaphor for possession (e.g. money), which leads to the corruption of man. Fafner becomes a monster through the possession of money.
Projections of people who are born neither good nor bad, but who can change their character and their possibilities for evil or good. Are often interpreted as the caste of politicians.
Love and power
Two life-centered powers are recognized as complementary, whoever exercises love renounces power, whoever exercises power betrays love. In a nutshell: The possession of money and power corrupts.
Nature and love
Nature and love is the world in its original state. Love is an original state, which can be equated with purity and innocence
Nature and original sin
No one should claim the right to take possession of nature. It belongs to everyone. Wotan’s robbery of the world’s ash is the original sin. The striving for property is the core of all evil.
The crime can be masked by the powerful one with cunning, who can mask himself can commit acts that make the legality appear legal (e.g. Siegfried masks himself as Gunter)
In it Wotan engraved the laws and rules he created and on which he based his power. Wotan formed the spear from the world ash. With its destruction in “Siegfried” Wotan loses the legitimacy of his power. The law serves the one who has the power and defends the possessions.
Illegitimate children of Wotan (Siegfried, Valkyries, Siegmund, Sieglinde)
Instrumentalized persons of the ruling class to gain influence unnoticed. Wotan must not let Fafner steal the ring. He has a supposedly free man (first Siegmund, later Siegfried) supported by Brünnhilde to strive for the ring, while Wotan wants stand there with a clean slate.
Famous Ring productions: Chéreau’s century ring and Solti’s century recording
The staging of an entire Ring cycle presents a theatre with enormous challenges. First of all there is the stage design. When the first theatres staged the ring (After WWI) the difficulties made an adequate staging almost impossible, and which they still drive the technicians to despair today. Secondly, a myriad of singers must be recruited, some of whom are vocal fachs that only a few singers master. These singers are sometimes booked years in advance. And thirdly, a conclusive production with a statement must be created.
In 1976 the film director Patrick Chéreau was the first foreigner to stage a ring in Bayreuth. Together with his conductor-countryman Pierre Boulez, he developed a socialist interpretation of the ring (based on a 19th century interpretation by G.B. Shaw), in which he set the action not in a mythical landscape, but in the surroundings of a society of the industrial revolution. The staging led to fierce protests, but 5 years later it was farewelled with great cheers. This so-called “Century Ring” had a tremendous influence on directing activities in the opera houses and became the basis for the following age of the “director-opera”.
At the beginning of the 1950s it was possible for the first time to make stereo recordings. DECCA wanted to exploit the new technology with a Ring cycle and create a technical showpiece, which they followed with meticulousness. For the musical part they engaged Georg Solti. Solti did not want the usual purified approach, but was ready to show the ecstatic and romantic sides of the ring. The resonance was enormous and the records/CD’s of the DECCA/Solti Ring are among the best-selling classical recordings ever.
Synopsis: The world rested in its original state. It was not clouded by any domination. It rested on the world ash. The tree was the root of the holy order. In its shadow bubbled a spring, Feeding the world ash with its eternal wisdom. In the ground, in a misty tomb Erda slept. The wisest of all human beings. An intrepid God with the name Wotan seeked Power. He Came to drink at the spring of wisdom. One of his eyes he paid as forfeit for ever. He wanted to use the wisdom he had gained to create a new world order. Through laws and contracts, which were designed according to his will. From the world ash tree Wotan broke off a branch. He then cut a shaft for his spear. He carved the contracts and laws in runes in the spear. Wotan had thus taken over the rule of the world. To demonstrate and consolidate his power, Wotan wanted to build a castle. On the advice of Loge, he commissioned the giants Fafner and Fasolt to build it. As a reward, Wotan promised them the beautiful goddess Frya. The giants created a castle of the gods. Wotan called it Valhalla. The ash tree fell and the spring dried up forever. Wotan had the wood piled up in logs around the castle. The fire god Logey would ignite them when the end of the gods was approaching. Nature had been damaged, by Wotan’s outrage against the ash tree. Because Frya ensured eternal youth for the gods, and was therefore irreplaceable for them, Wotan sent Logey out into the world, to find another way of payment for the giants.
The ouverture: the original state
The prelude develops from a deep E-flat major chord. Eight double basses, a bassoon and later the horns begin with a primal motive, the so-called Genesis motive. It is the world in its primal state, the creation out of nothing. We encounter the so-called Genesis leitmotif in this prelude.
Musical quote: Genesis motif
After 2 minutes the motif changes into a wavy melody representing the river Rhine flowing lazily along. It is the Rhine motif that presents the world in its natural order.
Musical quote: Rhine motif
Wagner creates a unique prelude from the E-flat Major chord. This chord lingers for 136 bars and forms the foundation for a gigantic crescendo, which magically leads the listener into the underwater world of the Rhine Mermaids.
It is the awakening from the deep. To be able to play the low Eb, the double bass have to tune the lowest string of their instrument lower than usual. More and more instruments tune in and drive the chord in waves before them until the curtain reveals the scenery of the first act.
Vorspiel – Solti
Synopsis: At the bottom of the Rhine. The Rhinemaidens Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde guard the Rhine gold. It is located in the middle of a reef in the Rhine. The dwarf Alberich from the people of the Nibelungs appears. Fascinated, he watches the mermaids, and lustfully tries to conquer at least one of them. The three mermaids look at him curiously, and soon they tease the clumsy dwarf.
Weia, Waga Woga du Welle – Donath / Moser / Reynolds
Alberich discovers the Rhine gold
Synopsis: Alberich discovers a bright light by which he is magically attracted. Credulously, the Rhine daughters tell him that there the Rhine gold gleams in the rays of the rising sun.
The beauty of gold shows the world in its natural order, unclouded by any domination. The Rhinemaidens as its keepers are not subject to any power. They sing of the hoard (the treasure) with the so-called Rhinegold motif:
Musical quote: Rheingold Motif
Synopsis: Whoever forges it into a ring gives it power over the world, but only if he renounces love.
Only he who fosears lovs’power, only he woho fofeits love’s delight,
only he can attain the magic to fashion the gold into a ring
(Nur wer der Minne Macht entsagt, nur der Liebe Lust verjagt, nur der erzielt sich den Zauber, zum Reif zu zwingen das Gold)
We hear in this scene the so-called renunciation motif.
Musical quote: renunciation motif
Lugt, Schwestern! Die Weckerin lacht in den Grund (Rheingold! Rheingold!)
Synopsis: Alberich does not hesitate. Embittered by not having been granted love from the mermais, he curses love andit and steals the gold under the horrified gaze of the guards.
The Rhine daughters were carefree, they could not imagine that someone would renounce love for gold. They were sure, because Alberich seemed to be in love with them. . But Alberich is the disrupter of the natural order, whose mainspring is greed and power. Because love was impossible for him, he at least wants power. («If cannnot extort love, then by cunning can I attain pleasure», «Erzwäng ich nicht Liebe – doch listig erzwäng’ ich mir Lust!»)
Musical quote: ring motif
Synopsis: A mountainous landscape. At the castle of the gods, Fricka wakes up her husband Wotan. He is still overwhelmed that his castle Valhalla is completed. Still shrouded in fog, it proudly stands on a mountain built by the giants Fafner and Fasolt.
In the orchestra we hear a motif that will accompany the listener through all 4 evenings. It’s the Valhalla motif.
Musical quote: Walhalla motif
In this scene we hear George London as Wotan and Kirsten Flagstadt as Fricka. London was Wieland Wagner’s preferred actor for the father of the gods. His acting was expressive and he was blessed with a powerful voice. Kirsten Flagstadt, the most famous Brünnhilde of the thirties, sang an outstanding Fricka in Solti’s famous Ring recording of the fifties.
Wotan, Gemahl, erwache – Flagstadt / London
Synopsis: But Wotan is in trouble. He has promised the two giants the Goddess Freia as a reward. Fricka admonishes him not to give away her sister Freia, for only she can assure the gods of her eternal youth. Wotan reminds his wife that it was she who had asked him for the castle, for she wanted to bind the notorious cheater Wotan to herself. Freia appears accompanied by her brothers Donner and Froh. She is panic fueled because she has heard of Wotan’s dealings. Now Wotan must promise not to give Freia away.
Fricka and Wotan have no children together. So Fricka, as the goddess of marriage, is dependent on other measures to cement the marriage. She hopes that the castle will bind her husband to her.
Freia, the goddess of love and youth, is the only goddess who can cultivate the golden apples that ensure the gods eternal youth. For lack of cash, Wotan gave her as a pawn, knowing that Fricka is irreplaceable. Wotan is a gambler who always plays for victory with high stakes.
Wotan cannot refuse payment, because he knows the importance of the contract he has made. Contracts secure his dominance and the spear that Wotan always carries with him is symbolic of this. Into the spear he carved the runes of the treaties that secured his rule. Wagner composed a Leitmotiv for this spear. We hear the motif in forte played heavy brass. It is called the spear/contract motif.
Musical quote: Contract and spear motif
The giants Fafner and Fasolt appear
Synopsis: The two giants appear. They refer to the castle they have built and want to claim their well-deserved reward. But he tells them that Freia is not available. Fafner and Fasolt accuse Wotan of cheating them out of their wages. They want no other reward.
The two giants Fafner and Fasolt appear accompanied by a wild musical motif:
Musical quote: Giant’s motif
Synopsis: Now appears Loge, the cunning demigod of fire. Wotan had summoned him in the hope that he could devise a ruse that would free him from the jam. If he cannot serve the contract, it would cost him his power. Fricka warns Wotan of the crafty Loge, but Wotan trusts his cunning. To Wotan’s dismay, Loge explains that he had searched everywhere, but he couldn’t find a replacement for Freia. In the process, he had come across the Rhinemaidens, who complained that Alberich had stolen their gold and were now seeking help from Wotan.
Loge tries to bring the trade “money against power” into play. Lodge is a demigod. He may move among the gods, but he is only a demigod. This can be interpreted as he is only tolerated, because he is their willing servant. This thesis can be supported by Wagner’s music. Loge’s motif is deeply unmusical, gauche and unsympathetic. Musically and psychologically he belongs to the kind of people like Alberich, Mime and Hagen.
Musical quote: Loge’s motif
Synopsis: When Lodge tells about the magic of the forged ring and Wotan proposes to snatch it from Alberich to protect them from his claim to power, everyone wants the ring for themselves. Fafner and Fasolt, seized by greed, grab Freia and take it as a pawn. They announce that Freia will only be released when Wotan hands them the ring.
Synopsis: Loge mocks the gods who are paralyzed by the fear of losing their eternal youth, as they can no longer eat apples from Freia’s apples, which Loge himself was never allowed to enjoy. Ageing already seizes the gods, and Wotan must set off together with Loge to Alberich’s underworld to wrest the ring from him.
The entry into the realm of the Nibelungs
Synopsis: In Alberich’s kingdom. In drudgery his brother Mime has to forge a magic helmet for Alberich, which makes the wearer invisible and together with the ring gives him power over the Nibelungs.
The scene changes, the light becomes dark and the music merges seamlessly into the realm of the Nibelungs. The dwarfves of the Nibelungs live in simple dwellings under the earth, where they mine the ores of the ground in drudgery.
Musical quote: Nibelung motif
Here the scene of Wotan’s entry into the realm of the Nibelungs.
Mime and the magic helmet
Synopsis: Loge and Wotan meet the exhausted Mime and learn from him about the magic power of the helmet that Mime had to forge for Alberich. With the power of the ring, Alberich had subdued the industrious people of the Nibelungs. Alberich appears. Proud of the gold, he points out that the Nibelungs pile it up for him day after day with hard work. He knows that Wotan and the gods despise him, and he announces that he will use his power to bring the world under his control. No one can defeat him or steal the ring from him, because with the Tarnhelm he can disappear or transform himself.
Alberich is outwitted
Synopsis: Flatteringly Loge asks to show him how he can transform. Proudly Alberich turns into a dragon. Now Loge cunningly asks him if he can transform into something small. When Alberich turns into a toad, Wotan grabs it and Alberich is outwitted.
With Alberich’s curse the misfortune takes its course
Synopsis: Lodge and Wotan take Alberich to a mountain and Wotan demands that Alberich hand over the gold. His plan is to exchange the gold for Freia and keep the magic helmet and ring for himself. When he snatches the ring from Alberich, all power is taken from the Nibelung. The dwarf curses the ring to bring bad luck to its owner.
Wotan considers himself now safe from danger. He could kill several birds with one stone. He was able to break Alberich’s power, he got the gold to pay the giants and he is in possession of the ring that gives him the power. He doesn’t take the curse Alberich is casting seriously:
„Wer ihn besitzt, den sehre die Sorge, und wer ihn nicht hat, den nage der Neid“.
«Whoever possesses it shall be consumed with care, and who ever has it not be gnawed with envy.»
The curse motif is heard in the orchestra:
Musical quote: curse motif
Synopsis: Freia leads the goddesses and gods, Fafner, Fasolt and the Rhinemaidens to the mountain. Wotan proudly shows them the captured treasure. Fasolt insists that the gold be piled high enough to hide her from view and they insist that Wotan gives them the helmet and the ring. But Wotan refuses.
Wotan is infected by the curse
Synopsis: There appears a mysterious, veiled woman wrapped in blue light. She urges Wotan to let go of the ring, because the curse of Alberich is on him. She reveals herself as Erda, the omniscient mother of the world. The gods urge Wotan to follow her advice. Wotan knows about the wisdom of Erda and agrees. He gives the ring to Fasolt and Freia is set free. Without knowing it, Wotan has been infected by the poison of the curse by touching the ring.
When Erda appears, the music changes its character. A mystical motif sounds, the so-called Erda motif. It is related to the natural motif (which we heard in the prelude), but sounds at a measured tempo and in a minor key.
Musical quote: Erda motif
When Erda disappears, Wotan realizes that he must visit her later. He calls her after “I must seize you and learn all” («Dich muss ich fassen, alles erfahren»). With her he will then father the Valkyries, among them the most magnificent of all: Brünnhilde.
We hear Jean Madeira as Edda, sung with much drama and vibrato.
Weiche Wotan Weiche – Madeira
The curse of the ring finds the first victim
Synopsis: Fafner and Fasolt quarrel when sharing the prey. Fafner violently kills his brother with a hammer. The curse has claimed its first victim.
Synopsis: Donner creates a purifying thunderstorm, the fog clears and they see the castle for the first time.
We hear the exultant motive of Donner, which resounds with enormous power in the wind instruments.
Musical quote: Donner (Thunder) motif
Again the Valhalla motif is heard, this time in radiant glow. We hear Eberhard Wagner as Wotan from the much-praised Ring of Georg Solti.
Schwüles Gedünst schwebt in der Luft
Synopsis: Froh lets a rainbow emerge, which serves them as a path to the castle.
We hear the rainbow motif in the orchestra.
Musical quote: rainbow motif
Synopsis: Seized by a great thought, Wotan raises his sword against the castle. He will not return the ring, but a hero free of treaties.
Again the spear motif is heard, which will gain highest importance in the Valkyrie.
Synopsis: Seized, Wotan approaches the castle, he takes Fricka by the hand and christens her new home Valhalla.
In 1958 DECCA decided to make a complete recording of the ring with Georg Solti. The echo was overwhelming and the recording became one of the best selling in record history.
We listen to the radiant bass of George London, the Wotan of this recording.
Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge – London
The Rhinemaidens mourn the lost gold
Synopsis:Loge went out empty handed. He has only mockery and derision for the gods whose rule is based only on robbery and violence. From afar one hears the lamentations of the Rhinemaidens over the lost gold. The gods mock them and enter solemnly and fatuously their new home.
We hear the motif of the Rhine daughters resounding, which ends the eve of the Ring, now in a sad minor.
Rheingold! Rheingold! Reines Gold
BETWEEN RHINEGOLD AND THE VALKYRIE
Synopsis: Fafner has retreated into a cave. So that no one can take the ring away from him, he has turned into a dragon with the help of the magic helmet. To learn more about his fate from Erda, Wotan descends to her into the womb of the world. She prophesies a shameful end to him. To escape this fate, he defeats Erda with his love spell and they father the Valkyrie Brünnhilde. She shall help him to fend off Alberich’s attack on the realm of gods. Wotan fears that Alberich will capture the ring from Fafner. He himself is forbidden to rob Fafner of his just reward. So he wants to beget a hero who, free from contracts, snatches the ring from Fafner.With a mortal woman he fathers the siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde. He lives with them until one day he finds his wife dead in the house and Sieglinde has disappeared without a trace.
The ouverture of Die Walküre
The first act of Die Walküren is one of the greatest pieces of music theatre ever written. It is an intense and emotional music with thrilling scenes and great orchestral and vocal parts. To start, we listen to the ouverture.
Synopsis: Siegmund, wounded and bleeding, desperately seeks shelter in a stormy night.
Wagner dedicated the prelude to Mathilde Wesendonck. He noted in the autograph “G.S.M. – Blessed be Mathilde (Gesegnet Sei Mathilde)”. Wesendonck was his Isolde of the Zurich years. Read more about this famous relationship in the Opera Portrait to the opera Siegfried.
Wagner’s music quickly leads the opera house’s auditors into to a tense, dramatic atmosphere. Hear two great interpretations with Erich Leinsdorf and Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Ouvertüre (1) – Leinsdorf / LSO
Wes Herd dies auch sei
Synopsis: Siegmund has reached the protective place and meets Sieglinde.
The music becomes suddenly more quiet and lyrical. We already hear many wonderful leitmotifs in the orchestra like the sibling love motive.
Short excerpt “Sibling Love Motif”
Wes Herd dies auch sei – Lehmann / Melchior/ Walter
Lotte Lehmann – voice of sensual beauty
Synopsis: Hunding comes home and wants to hear Siegmund’s story.
With the entrance of Hunding the magical atmosphere is swept away. With broad staccati the Hunding motive sounds.
Musical quote “Hunding Motif”
Synopsis: Siegmund tells that one day when returned home, he found his mother killed, his home burned, and his twin sister had disappeared. Later he learned that his sister was being forced into a marriage she did not want. Siegmund tried to defend her. Now Hunding recognizes Siegmund as an old enemy. Traditionally he grants Siegmund the right to stay for the night but challenges him to a duel for next morning. Sieglinde gives Hunding a sleeping drug and shows Siegmund a sword stuck in a tree. Wotan had pushed it in and declared that it will belong to whoever was strong enough to pull it out.
In this Walküren Portrait, you will hear great Wagner heroines from different ages. According to many experts, perhaps the greatest was Lotte Lehmann. Like Maria Callas, she was technically not the best singer, but combined a voice of sensual beauty with great expression. «A similarly nuanced, subtle singing (of Sieglinde) never existed « (Fischer, Great voices). Form your own opinion and listen the audio example «Der Männer Sippe»!
Der Männer Sippe (1) – Lehmann / Melchior / Walter
Wagner’s famous Tenor Aria – Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond
Synopsis: Siegmund and Sieglinde realize that they are siblings.
Franz Völker – the first German Heldentenor
Next you will hear Franz Völker who was one of the greatest Lohengrin and Siegmund of the century. Franz Völker (1899-1965) combined the voice power of a Heldentenor with a lyric singing culture. His biography is closely linked to the rise of the Third Reich. His biography of these years was ambivalent On the one hand he looked like the prototype of the Nordic hero, which together with his great voice made him a darling of the public. He was Hitler’s favourite tenor in the years 1933-1940, when the Führer visited Bayreuth every year and enjoyed its protection. He also needed this, because his private life offered considerable opportunities for attack. He was married to a woman with Jewish roots. He defended her until the end of the Nazi period and she survived the Nazi years. That would have been enough for a performance ban, but Völker was also convicted of homosexual acts in 1938, which was a criminal offense in the Third Reich. Hitler’s personal protection protected him from a performance ban.
Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond – Völker
Synopsis: Wotan had pushed it the sword in the tree and declared that it will belong to the one who is strong enough to pull it out. Siegmund succeeds and calls the sword Nothung. You can hear this very dramatic passage in a great filmed opera house performance.
Siegmund heiss ich, Siegmund bin ich – Kaufmann
Synopsis: Siegmund has succeeded to pull the sword out. They unite and father a child, which later is named Siegfried from the family of the Wälse. (Wälsenblut).
Lauritz Melchior – the greatest Wagner Tenor of all times
There is one singer who outshines all other tenors in the male leading role of Siegmund: Lauritz Melchior (1899-1973). If you have never heard him before, get an acoustic impression of his voice with the piece «Wälse», a document famous in recording history where he sings Wälse calls more often with 15 or more seconds of sound duration! According to many experts, «Never before has there been such a powerful tenor voice, with a dark timbre and at the same time so brilliant, and to this day he has found no successor» (Scott).
Wääääääääälse! – Melchior
«Never before has there been such a powerful tenor voice, with a dark timbre and at the same time so brilliant, and to this day he has found no successor» (Scott). Listen to Lauritz Melchior in the sword-scene :
Deines Auges Glut…Nothung – Melchior / Lehmann
The scene of Siegfried’s procreation by the two siblings was shocking for the visitors of the opera house at that time. Wagner has broken two taboos in this opera: incest and adultery. For him the act or a scandalization was not the main focus. What mattered to him was that with Siegfried, a “truebred” hero would be created.
Birgit Nilsson – a true Wagner-Soprano
Synopsis: In the realm of the gods: Wotan has ordered Brünnhilde, one of his daughters, the Valkyries, to protect Siegmund because he has intended Siegmund to conquer the ring of the Nibelungen. But his wife Fricka asks Wotan to support Hunding because Wotan had conceived Siegmund with another woman. Deeply saddened, he orders Brünnhilde to give the victory in the duel to Hunding.
I do not want to embezzle the famous Birgit Nilsson in the role of Sieglinde. Birgit Nilsson was a gifted Wagner singer and famous for her «vocal power». She was the dominant Wagnerian “dramatic soprano” of the post-war period and thus the successor of Kirsten Flagstadt (you can read more about her further down), even if Kirsten Flagstadt has to be rated a little higher. Listen to the Nilsson «Nun zäume dein Ross, reisige Maid».
Nun zäume dein Ross, reisige Maid – London / Nilsson / Leinsdorf
Siegmund! Sieh auf mich! – Brünhilde’s and Siegmund’s Duett
Synopsis: Siegmund and Sieglinde are on the run. Brünhilde announces Siegmund that he will not survive the fight with Hunding. As a reward she promises him with his death a move into Walhall to his father Wotan and his sisters the Valkyries. But when Siegmund learns that Sieglinde will not be with him and must continue to live, he explains without beating about the bush that in this case he is not even thinking of following Brünnhilde to Valhalla, but rather of going to hell, even wanting to kill his beloved Sieglinde himself if necessary, rather than part with her.
By the way, this name comes from “Wal” (Old High German for war) and “Kür” (free choice), those who choose the art of war as their destiny and live in Walhall.
Sieh auf mich – Nilsson / King
Synopsis: Brünnhilde disobeys Wotan and promises to help Siegmund in battle. Wotan has to destroy Siegmund’s sword in battle and Hunding stabs Siegmund.
The Ride of the Vakyiries and Kirsten Flagstadt
Synopsis: Brünhilde and Sieglinde have fled to Walhall to find help with Brünhilde’s sister Valkyries.
By the way, the name of the Valkyries comes from “Wal” (Old High German for war) and “Kür” (free choice), those who choose the art of war as their destiny and live in Walhall.
In the ride of the Valkyries (“Hojotohe”) you experience Kirsten Flagstadt in an absolutely worth seeing and hearing film recording.
In the first act you met Lotte Lehmann as Sieglinde. In this second part, you will hear more legendary Wagner heroines which often are called «Hochdramatische», Soprano from the highly dramatic Fach. Kirsten Flagstadt was a famous Wagner singer. Her voice was full and strong and at the same time supple and brilliant. «It is true that the conductor of her debut at the Met 1935 dropped his baton in amazement and the singer of Siegmund missed his cue after the first notes of this singer from Oslo, who was completely unknown in America. New York had experienced the most important Wagner interpreter in the decades before, but Kirsten Flagstadt achieved a new standard of popularity for herself and the Wagner repertoire, so that there were critics who divided the American Wagner care into the age «before and after Kirsten» (Fischer, Grosse Stimmen).
Hojotohe (1) – Flagstadt
Here the Ryde of the Valkyries:
Ritt der Walküren – Leinsdorf
Wotan’s Punishment of Brünnhilde
Synopsis: Brünnhilde disobeyed Wotan’s orders and she submits to Wotan’s punishment. She loses gods status and is put to sleep. So that only a hero can get her, Wotan accepts that Loge will put a fire around the sleeping place that only a hero can break through.
The Walküre’s great finale
Synopsis: Wotan says deeply moved goodbye to his favourite daughter.
In «Die Walküren», you will also find one of the great final scenes of opera history («Leb wohl du kühnes herrliches Kind»). Listen to how Wotan bids Brünnhilde his farewell with tender emotion and how the music dissolves into an ecstatic ending. Goose bumps guaranteed in the recording with George London under the great Erich Leinsdorf.
Among other things we hear splendid leitmotifs in it. To the words “He who fears the tip of my spear, never pass through the fire” the Siegfried theme is prophetically heard by the brass (this appears in the longer example “Leb wohl du kühnes herrliches Kind” at 2:18 and is then quoted in a supernatural way in the cellos and basses from 9:18 for a long time).
Short Quote of the Siegfried Motif
the second is Wotan’s paternal love motif for Brünhilde (in the longer extract 2:55)
Short Quote of Wotan’ss love Motif
Leb wohl du kühnes herrliches Kind – London / Leinsdorf
Mime needs the sword, but cannot forge it himself
Synopsis: Mime is his cave and forges the sword for Siegfried. Many years ago he took Siegfried in as his foster son, who is now to help him wrest the ring from Fafner. With the help of the magic helmet, the keeper of the ring has transformed into a dragon that only a hero can defeat.
Two pale chords, forming a diminished seventh, introduce the prelude. They probably symbolize Mime’s desperation over his inability to forge the sword. The Nibelung motif with the hammering F sounds.
Musical quote: Nibelung motif
Vorspiel – Solti
Synopsis: Mime is frustrated. His swords cannot withstand the power of the brutal and simple-minded Siegfried. The only sword that could withstand his strength would be Nothung. But it lies smashed to pieces in a cloth. If he could forge it together, he’d be at the ring! He tries again. Siegfried enters and examines the sword. In one fell swoop, he destroys it and curses Mime for being a bungler.
Synopsis: Siegfried despises the dwarf, who is still a stranger to him. The only thing Mime could still do for him, is to explain who his mother is. When Mime claims that he is both mother and father, Siegfried threatens to use violence.
Mime’s name is descriptive, it means something like “pretend”. Wagner does not see Mime as a creative spirit (as a true artist), even the magic helmet could only be created under Alberich’s supervision. He does not have the greatness of the gods and is a selfish man. In his opening narrative, we hear his unsympathetic and awkward Obstinato motif in the basses, his speech song is also unnatural. In productions, mime is often depicted as a Jewish caricature. In Wagner’s correspondence or in his statements, however, there is no corresponding corroboration, except for one passage where Wagner refers to a Jewish artist who had played the role of mime. Thus the characteristics of mime probably stand for universal human traits rather than for any racial themes.
Musical quote: Mime motif
Als zullendes Kind zog ich Dich auf – Svanholm
Synopsis: Now Mime tells the story of a woman named Sieglinde, whom he found alone in the forest with a small child. He took her in, but she died soon after. He did not know Siegfrieds father, he had been killed, and he had only got the debris of his sword from him.
Wolfang Windgassen – the Siegfried during twenty years
Synopsis: When Siegfried sees the parts of the sword, he forces Mime to forge a new sword out of them and leaves the cave. But Mime is at a loss, he has often tried to forge the sword back together.
In this recording we hear the tenor Wolfgang Windgassen. He was the favourite Siegfried from 1950 to 1970, the time of the great recordings of the Ring cycle. He replaced Max Lorenz in Bayreuth, where Wieland Wagner wanted to push through a generational change after the Nazi years. Thus he was the Siegfried of various Ring cycles such as the famous Solti recording or Wieland Wagner’s Ring Inzenierung with Karl Böhm. His acting must have been great, unfortunately there are very few film documents.
Und diese Stücke sollst Du mir schmieden … Aus dem Wald fort in die Weg ziehn – Windgassen
Synopsis: At this moment an unknown wanderer enters. It is Wotan, who secretly follows Siegfried’s progress and tries to secure his power through Siegfried. He tells Mime that the one who never learned to fear should forge the sword and that Mime will die by his hand. The embers of the fireplace ignite mysteriously.
Siegfried forges the sword
Synopsis: Now Siegfried enters and Wotan leaves the cave unnoticed. Siegfried rages when he does not see Mime behind the anvil. Mime tells about the prophecy of the wanderer. To save his head he advises him to learn to fear by fighting the dragon Fafner. Siegfried realizes that he needs the sword to survive in the fight against the dragon. When Mime again fails to forge the sword, Siegfried realizes that he himself is the one who has never learned to fear and must forge the sword himself. He shreds the sword into swarfs and reforges it. Fascinated, Mime watches as the ignorant man recreates the sword in the embers.
When Siegfried himself takes over the work, the music becomes very busy and vividly describes Siegfried’s activities. In order to create something new, Siegfried has to leave all conventions of the blacksmith’s art. Mime marvels at the work of the ignorant and soon we hear the sword motif:
Musical quote: sword motif
Her mit den Stücken – Windgassen
Lauritz Melchior – the great Dane
Synopsis: Siegfried asks Mime the name of the sword. It was called Nothung and so it shall be called again. Now Mime also decides to abuse Siegfried for his own purposes. He plan to stun Siegfried with a poison potion, who will be tired after the fight with the dragon, then kill him and take the ring.
In this scene we hear Lauritz Melchior. He sings this act, which is so demanding for the tenor, with great intensity and vocal power. He had the playful nickname “the walking sofa”, he was not the born actor. Cosima Wagner esteemed him highly and called him “the great Dane”. He was probably the most brilliant Siegfried in recording history.
Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches Schwert – Melchior
Synopsis: While Siegfried triumphantly finishes forging his sword, Mime brews the poisonous potion that will secure him the ring and thus world domination. When the sword is finished, the weapon is so powerful that Siegfried can split the anvil with it.
Hoho! Hohei! Hahei! – Melchior / Reiss
Synopsis: In the nocturnal forest.
Wotan and Alberich meet
Synopsis: Alberich waits in front of the cave, Fafner’s sleeping quarters. The ring lies unreachable for him with Fafner, who with the help of the magic helmet turned into a dragon and thinks he is invincible. For a long time Alberich has been waiting for an opportunity to take the ring back. He recognizes a shadow. It is a wanderer in whom Alberich recognizes his old adversary Wotan.
Synopsis: Alberich suspects that Wotan wants to steal the ring from him for the second time, but Wotan claims to have only come by as an innocent bystander. He warns Alberich that Mime is on his way to Fafner with Siegfried, and that his brother is his only rival for the ring, because Siegfried himself does not know about the magic of the ring. He advises Alberich to warn Fafner in order to get the ring in return. Wotan calls the dragon and Alberich offers the dragon to ward off the disaster. But Fafner is not interested and rejects the two. Disappointed Alberich returns to the cave and Wotan leaves the place with mocking words. Now Siegfried and Mime reach the place. Mime warns him of the poisonous spitting and the deadly blow with the tail. Siegfried doubts whether he can learn to fear here and plans to thrust the sword into the dragon’s heart.
Siegfried: Wagner’s autobiographical traits
Synopsis: While waiting for the dragon, Siegfried ponders what his father and mother looked like.
There follows a section (which reaches up to the fight with Fafner) that shows us a new Siegfried. If he was a rude and thoughtless youth until now, he shows his vulnerable side when he thinks of his parents, whom he never got to know.
There is no doubt that Wagner created a soul mate with Siegfried. He saw in him the revolutionary man (= artist) who Wagner was, too, and who was failing because of a society that was not yet ready for the new. And now we come to the actual topic of the section: Wagner was also never allowed to meet his biological father, who died of typhus 6 months after Wagner’s birth. It is no coincidence that so many characters from Wagner’s operas never knew their father. Besides Siegmund from the Valkyrie, we can also count Parsifal and Tristan among them. This is how Wagner was able to set Siegfried’s emotions to music so wonderfully and sensitively in the Waldweben (sound document below).
Aber wie sah meine Mutter wohl aus – Kollo
Synopsis: He hears the birds whistling and tries to imitate the sounds with a reed. The tones do not want to succeed and he tries it on his horn.
Full of longing for his mother, Siegfried seeks his inner peace in nature.
On the horn we hear two important leitmotifs of Siegfried. The first is lyrical.
Musical quote: horn motif
The second is heroic.
Musical quote: Siegfried motif
In this recording we hear Joan Sutherland, who sang along as a forest bird in Solti’s ring when she was young.
Meine Mutter ein Menschenweib! Du holdes Vöglein! – Windgassen / Sutherland
The famous “forest weaving”
This piece also became known as an orchestral piece under the name forest weaving /Waldweben.
Forest weaving – Levine
The owner of the gold becomes a monster
Synopsis: Fafner is awakened by the sounds. Siegfried speaks to him and wants to learn fear from him. The dragon wants to eat Siegfried and Siegfried pushes Nothung right into his heart.
That the giant Fafner has turned into a dragon is no coincidence. With this Wagner wants to show that whoever is in possession of the gold turns into a monster. Musically, the motif looks like this.
Musical quote: dragon motif
Synopsis: On dying, the dragon turns back into the giant Fafner, who warns him of the misfortune of the Nibelungen hoard.
The Dragon’s Blood
Synopsis: The hot blood has scorched Siegfried’s hand.
Here Wagner does without an explicit staging of an important event in his screenplay. Siegfried takes a bath in the blood of the dragon, which makes him invincible. Only a falling leaf from a tree denies the blood access to a piece of his back, which will cost him his life in the «Twilight of gods».
Synopsis: As he cools his hand with his mouth and comes in contact with the blood of the dragon, he can suddenly understand bird calls. A bird, who is a mouthpiece of Wotan, advises him to take the ring and the magic helmet. Siegfried goes to the cave to get them.
Wagner has the same melody, which was previously audible as a bird’s voice from an instrument, now sung by a soprano.
Zur Kunde taugt kein Toter – Windgassen
Synopsis: Alberich shows up and stumbles upon Mime. The two fight over the loot. When Siegfried appears, Alberich disappears. Meanwhile Wotan has arrived and watches the scene from a hiding place. Siegfried has learned of Mime’s evil intentions from the forest bird. When Mime offers him the potion Siegfried understands his plan and kills Mime with his sword. Now Siegfried senses a feeling of loneliness and asks the bird to talk to him. The bird tells him about a beautiful woman who sleeps on a rock, protected by fire. It can only be saved by someone who does not know fear. Cheering, Siegfried realizes that he will be the saviour and follows the bird, which shows him the way to Brünnhilde.
As described in the introduction to this opera, there is a creative pause of 12 years between the composition of the end of the second movement and that of the beginning of the third movement. At this point Wagner resumed work in 1869.
Wotan’s ghostly encounter with Erda
Synopsis: Wotan moved to the Valkyrie Rock to question Erda there.
On a stormy night Wotan enters the Valkyrie Rock in a mystical scene.
Wache, Wala! – McIntyre / Wenkel
Synopsis: She sees through him and refuses to help Wotan.
Erda had sired the Valkyries with Wotan. So she became part of Wotan’s plan and lost her clairvoyance. Her prophecy is only vague now.
Synopsis: But Wotan forces her to prophesy his fate. Erda announces that the power of the gods will end soon and that she and her Norns cannot change anything about it either. Wotan is tired and decides to give the power to Siegfried and waits for him at the rock.
Wotan meets Siegfried
Synopsis: The clash ends unhappily for Wotan. Siegfried, treats him, the stranger, without respect and Wotan decides to get in his way. He announces to smash Siegfrieds sword with his spear once more like he once did with the sword Nothung. Siegfried believes to recognize the murderer of his father in the wanderer and smashes Wotan’s spear with his sword. With this, Wotan loses everything and he must let Siegfried pass to Brünnhilde.
This scene is a turning point. The spear that stands for rules and contracts is broken. Siegfried, the anarchist hero, does not fear even the highest authority. With a great swan song, Wotan leaves the scene. In the Götterdämmerung we will not even meet him anymore, his magic and power are passé.
Kenntest Du mich kühner Spross – Hotter
The wild walk through the fire
Synopsis: The way is clear for Siegfried, who fearlessly enters the fire.
Wagner lets this important scene end with a gigantic music. While Siegfried is in the fire, Siegfried’s horn call is heard repeatedly amidst the ecstasy of the music.
Mit zerfochntner Waffe wich mir der Feig – Kollo
Synopsis: Siegfried safely reaches the Rock where Brünnhilde sleeps.
This picture where Brünnhilde lies sleeping in front of the Valkyrie Rock is a picture of great poetry. The redemption motif resounds in the orchestra at the beginning, jubilantly.
Musical quote: renunciation motif
Synopsis: He sees a sleeping person in full armor. When he removes the armor, he sees a woman for the first time in his life. Now he has learned to fear, and an overpowering feeling takes possession of him. He takes courage and kisses her to awaken her.
Das ist kein Mann! Brennender Zauber zückt mein Herz
Brünnhilde, the “hochdramatische” soprano role
Synopsis: Brünnhilde wakes up and welcomes the day. She sees her awakener and recognizes in him Siegfried, whom she once protected and always loved.
This scene is one of the greatest scenes of the whole ring! Brünnhilde’s awakening motif is heard. The string arpeggios unmistakably remind us of the awakening of nature at the beginning of the Ring in the prelude to the Rhine Gold.
Musical quote: Brunhilds Awakening motif
We hear this scene in 2 versions. We begin with a television recording from a performance at the Bayreuth Festival Theatre.
Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht! – Evans
Brünnhilde is the role for a highly dramatic soprano. After the war this role was dominated by 3 female singers for 25 years: Astrid Varnay, Martha Mödl and Birgit Nilsson. Brünnhilde appears in 3 of the 4 evenings of the ring. The role in Siegfried is the one with the highest tessitura and therefore very demanding. In addition, she has to sing against a huge orchestra, which likes to play loud to increase the effect.
Birgit Nilsson was a vocal wonder. “Vocal chords of steel”, “trumpet” were attributes that were often heard when she outshone other singers and the orchestra with her voice. During the recordings for the ring, it is said that the loudspeaker often sounded “Please step back three steps, Mrs. Nilsson, when high notes are played”, because the sound waves overtaxed the microphones.
Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht! – Nilsson
Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich ! – I always was, I always am
Synopsis: Brünnhilde is also pleased to see her horse Grane. When Siegfried besets her, she realises with horror that without armour, sword and helmet she is no longer divine and thus defenceless. Never before has a man dared to approach her. Now she is a mortal woman and asks Siegfried to keep her virginity. In the arms of Siegfried she is overwhelmed by the human passion of love. Siegfried urges her to unite and misses the last opportunity to become knowing.
Brünnhilde asks Siegfried to keep her divine virginity. But Siegfried’s heating does not allow this to happen, and Brünnhilde is carried away. The opera ends with an ecstatic love duet. In C major, “Radiant love! Laughing death!”. Shortly before the end there is another pause and the work ends with a C major chord.
We hear this ending in two versions.
We start with the Böhm recording. It is from the sixties and documents the production of Wieland Wagner.
Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich – Nilsson / Windgassen
We hear a second recording with Lauritz Melchior and Florence Easton, with an ecstasy that has an eruptive character.
Florence Easton was one of Rosa Ponselle’s great competitors at the Met of the 20s. Her repertoire was gigantically broad. Her voice was fully luminous.
Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich – Easton / Melchior
The scene in which Brünnhilde and Siegfried discover their erotic affection was developed by Wagner into an independent composition one year later. He gave it to Cosima for her birthday on Christmas Day 1870 in Tribschen with a concert in the stairwell of her country house. Due to the limited space available, Wagner composed it as a chamber music work. Later a version with larger orchestration was published.
Siegfried Idyll – Celibidache
TWILIGHT OF GODS
The Twilight of Gods begins with a huge prologue. If you add it to the first act, we are standing in front of a huge structure of the first act (Aufzug). It lasts over two hours, which is almost the length of the Rhinegold. The prologue, like the whole Twilight of Gods, is even more strongly determined by the leitmotifs than the three previous works were. Hardly a bar passes without us hearing a reference to a motif. Nothing is without meaning anymore.
Synopsis: Three norns are on the Valkyrie Rock. The Norn of the past takes the rope of fate in her hand. It once hung from the world ash tree, and she tells how Wotan once cut a spear from it on which he founded his reign. The ash died on it. The second Norn tells how Wotan piled the logs of the ash around Valhalla. The third prophesies that the fire god Loge will light the logs and destroy the empire of gods. When they wrap the rope around the rock, it breaks. The Norns descend again to their mother Erda.
Like the Rhinemaidens, the mythological number “three” characterizes the Norns. Throughout the history of mankind, fateful female appearances in threes, such as the erinnies or sirens, appear again and again. Musically, the three roles are distributed among the voice ranges soprano, alto and mezzo, as in the case of the Rhinemaidens.
Synopsis: It’s dawning. Brünnhilde and Siegfried step out of the cave where they spent their night of love. Brünnhilde says goodbye to Siegfried, who wants to set off for new deeds.
The orchestral interlude depicts the dawn of the day. The redemption motif is tenderly quoted:
Musical quote: Redemption motiv
Musical quote: Siegfried’s hero motif
The dream couple Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstadt
We hear this scene with the dream couple of the 30s, the two Scandinavians Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstadt. The two were blessed with uniquely voluminous voices and yet they retained great lyrical qualities. This combination of voices was and is probably unrivalled in the history of performance of Wagner operas.
Melchior was a friend of Cosima Wagner and Siegfried Wagner and sang regularly in Bayreuth from the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival 1924 until 1931 and was the preferred tenor of the two.
Kirsten Flagstadt, who is still today associated with her Wagner roles of the highly dramatic fach (Isolde and Brünnhilde), interestingly enough sang her first Wagner part only at the age of almost 34. She appeared only once, in 1933, in minor roles in Bayreuth. From 1935 on, her artistic focus was the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where she triumphed performance after performance together with Lauritz Melchior.
Zu neuen Taten – Flagstadt / Melchior
The ecstatic farewell
Synopsis: The two swear eternal fidelity to each other …
Wagner composed an ecstatic farewell for the two lovers.
O heilige Götter – Melchior / Tauber
Siegfrieds Rhine journey
Synopsis: … and Siegfried climbs a raft that will carry him up the Rhine.
The interlude has almost symphonic dimensions and was nicknamed “Siegfried’s Rhine journey”. It describes Siegfried’s journey and passed battles.
Interlude to the first act (Siegfried’s Rhine journey)
Synopsis: On the banks of the Rhine. Gunther, the King of the Gibichung, is sitting in his castle. With him are his sister Gutrune and their half-brother Hagen, the son of Alberich. Hagen has inherited from his father the hatred for the gods and greed for the ring. To get the ring, he cunningly advises the king to marry Brünnhilde to improve the tarnished reputation of his reign. But to do this, he needs Siegfried, who is the only one strong enough to break through the fire to her sleeping quarters. To win him over, Gutrune shall take Siegfried as her husband. He tells her about Siegfried’s origins and his wealth as owner of the treasure of the Nibelungs. When Gutrune doubts whether she can win Siegfried, Hagen reminds her of the Potion of Oblivion. As soon as she meets him, she is to hand him the potion and he will forget Brünnhilde.
We are in the realm of the Gibichungs. In the ring they represent the normal mortal humans, who, with the exception of Hunding, have not yet appeared in the ring before. Their highest representatives, Gutrune and Gunther, become tragic figures in the Twilight of Gods – the deceived cheats. In the end they are mediocre creatures, almost anti-heroes, with whom one feels no pity. Wagner wrote for them the proud, but somewhat simple “Motif of the Gibichung”.
Musical quote: Gibichung’s motif
Hagen the intriguer
While Alberich was the opponent of Wotan up to now, Hagen plays the counterpart to Siegfried in the Twilight of Gods. Musically, Wagner lets us know again and again, that Hagen is a negative force. The tritone (an excessive fourth that symbolizes the dark and uncanny) plays an important role in this. In the ring, the dragon Fafner has also received this flaw. In the following example we hear the tritone in a prominent place (0:55). Hagen tells Gunther about Brünnhilde and he asks him: “Could my courage face this?” Here the music breaks off meaningfully and the tritone sounds before Hagen mentions Siegfried’s name for the first time.
Wen rätst du nun zu frein
Hagen is Alberich’s son. His mother is Grimhild, a woman of the Gibichungen family and mother of Gunther and Gutrune, who does not appear in this opera.
Wotan prophesied the appearance of Hagen already in the “Valkyrie”: “The fruit of hate beareth a wife, the child of spite grows in her womb, this wonder befell the loveless Niblung”.
Synopsis: As Siegfried passes the castle with his raft, Hagen calls to him and invites him to join them.
Siegfried proudly tells about the ring
Synopsis: When Siegfried enters the castle, Gunther welcomes him. Proudly Siegfried shows Gunther his magic helmet and sword. He tells that he was able to wrest the ring from the dragon and that Brünnhilde now owns it.
Gutrune seduces Siegfried
Synopsis: Gutrune enters the hall with a drinking horn. Siegfried drinks the potion of oblivion. The effect sets in, and Siegfried wants to marry Gutrune. Siegfried asks Gunther if he has a wife. He answers that no woman has suited him yet. But there is a woman living on a rock, protected by high fire, whom he desires. The way to her is impossible, the fire would kill him immediately. Siegfried offers to help him. With the magic helmet he could take the shape of Gunther and win Brünhilde for him.
Gunther and Siegfried drink blood brotherhood
Synopsis: Gunther accepts joyfully and the two drink euphorically blood brotherhood.
When the two drink blood brotherhood, Gunther Hagen invites Hagen to join the oath. Hagen, the underdog, does not want to drink. Laconically he means “My blood would taint your drink”.
Blühenden Lebens labendes Blut – Frick / Fischer-Dieskau / Windgassen
Synopsis: Hagen is satisfied. His plan to win back the ring for his father Alberich seems to succeed.
Brünnhilde renounces the gods
Synopsis: Brünnhilde sits lonely on the Valkyries’ Rock and looks at Siegfried’s ring in tender remembrance. Suddenly she hears thunder. Gladly she greets Waltraute, her Valkyries sister. Brünnhilde is happy to see Waltraute despite Wotan’s spell. In a dark voice, Waltraute tells of the gloomy atmosphere in Valhalla. Wotan has returned from his long hike bitterly, his spear was in ruins. The end of the gods is near, and the only salvation will be if the ring is returned to the Rhinemaidens.
Höre mit Sinn, was ich Dir sage – Ludwig
Synopsis: But Brünnhilde is not prepared to give up Siegfried’s token of love, even if this would seal the fate of the gods. Desperately, her sister begs her to return the ring. But her mind is made up and she sends Waltraute away. Suddenly the sky turns red and she thinks to hear Siegfried’s horn call. Brünnhilde hurries towards him, but she recedes in horror when she sees a stranger.
Synopsis: In the name of the Gibichungen, Siegfried in Gunter’s shape demands the right to take her as his wife. Brünnhilde desperately tries to fend him off, but he brutally tears the ring from her finger and forces the pale Brünnhilde into the cave to consummate the marriage.
Synopsis: On the banks of the Rhine. In the moonlight Hagen sleeps in front of the Hall of Gibichung.
A pale and restless music transports us into the world of Alberich.
Prelude – Janowski
The unique mass scene of the Gibichung
Synopsis: Alberich appears before the eyes of the sleeping Hagen. He admonishes him to win back the ring. Hagen swears to it and Alberich leaves him. Soon Siegfried appears and announces that he appeared at Brünnhilde’s in Gunther’s shape and could change with Gunther unnoticed in the fog of dawn. He assures Gutrune that he had not touched Brünnhilde and announces the imminent arrival of Gunther and Brünnhilde. Cheering, Gutrune agrees to the imminent wedding. Hagen calls the people of Gibichung together to offer the king and his bride a worthy reception and to celebrate the upcoming double wedding. He admonishes the soldiers to assist Gunther’s bride.
This scene is of ghostly savagery. Hagen’s call for a wedding “Hoihoo” is not in major, his voice forms a tritone with the basses. Thus his horn sounds, his calls and the male choir create an almost brutal atmosphere, which is whipped up over a period of almost 10 minutes. In the recording below we hear a passage at 1:28 where ten different notes can be counted at the same time in the score, in other words: a completely atonal passage! Added to this are the agitated tremolos in the basses. With the greatest pathos the choir shouts “Hail to thee and thy bride”, the first choral scene of the entire ring!
Hoiho! Hoihoo! (grosse Szene mit Hörner und Chor) – Halfvarson
Synopsis: Gunther is received magnificently by the people. Brünnhilde follows him. She is pale with humiliation and she has her eyes lowered. Gunther proudly presents his bride, the daughter of the gods.
A brilliant short choral piece with an evil background.
Heil dir, Gunther – Karajan
Brünnhilde sees Siegfried
Synopsis: Siegfried appears with the ring on his finger and Gutrune on his arm. Stunned, Brünnhilde sees Siegfried. When she speaks to him in a trembling voice, she realizes that Siegfried no longer knows her.
Synopsis: When she notices the ring on Siegfried’s hand, which Gunter allegedly snatched from her, she realizes with a shudder the wrong game and accuses Siegfried of robbery. Siegfried claims to have snatched it from the dragon.
Hagen skillfully orchestrates the dialogue between Siegfried and Brünnhilde. He addresses Brünnhilde frankly: “Brünnhilde, valiant woman, do you really recognise the ring?” This scene (in the video below at 2:26) is incredibly dramatically composed; Hagen’s text is written almost entirely at the same pitch and is accompanied only by the strings, which imitate the hammering of the Nibelungs and increase in pitch three times over ten bars.
Einen Ring sah ich an Deiner Hand – Varnay / Windgassen
Synopsis: Spurred on by Hagen, Brünnhilde now accuses Siegfried of fraud. She tells of having consummated the marriage with Siegfried and thus declares Gunther to be the betrayed husband. To protect him, Siegfried claims by his holy sword that he never touched her. Brünnhilde for her part repeats that she has consummated the marriage with Siegfried. All eyes now are on Siegfried.
You will hear a historical recording of this dramatic scene with Laurenz Melchior and one of his favourite stage partners, Frida Leider.
Heil’ge Götter, himmlischer Lenker – Melchior / Leider
Synopsis: In order to protect his blood brother, Siegfried swears his innocence on the point of Hagen’s spear and thus commits the perjury of never having touched her. The turmoil is great when Brünnhilde, for her part, swears an oath to have spoken the truth. Siegfried can reassure Gunther and the guests with difficulty. He calls upon them to accompany him to the feast.
Synopsis: Brünnhilde, Hagen and the deeply ashamed Gunther stay behind. Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie, feels powerless, at the mercy of the forces.
The revenge trio
Synopsis: Hagen offers to avenge her and wants to know how he can defeat Siegfried. Brünnhilde tells him that Siegfried is invincible in battle and that he is only vulnerable at one point on his back. Hagen turns to Gunter, who is paralyzed in deep shame, and suggests that he kill Siegfried. Gunther hesitates to let the blood of his blood brother flow. When Brünnhilde mocks him and Hagen offers him the ring, Gunther agrees and they decide to disguise Siegfried’s death as a hunting accident. At this moment the bridal procession emerges. Gunther and Brünnhilde join in and the wedding ceremony starts.
At the end of this act, Wagner created a real (and stirring) Revenge Trio as we know it from the Italian Opera (“So soll es sein”). The coming doom is foreshadowed in this trio, for each of the performers has different intentions, which Wagner demonstrates with music rich in dissonance.
Auf Gunther, edler Gibichung – Nilsson / Frick / Stewart
Synopsis: In a wooded valley, on the passing Rhine.
Over twelve hours of music have passed since the light-hearted prelude to the Rheingold. For the first time we hear carefree music again. This time from hunting horns and the flowing Rhine.
Vorspiel – Janowski
Siegfried encounters the Rhinemaidens
Synopsis: The Rhine maidens swim in the river and mourn the loss of the gold. They eagerly await a hero to bring the gold back to them. They hear Siegfried’s horn.
The mood of the foreplay continues. Wagner contrasts the cheerful mood of the Rhine with the sad songs of the Rhine nixies, creating a fascinating effect on the listener.
Frau Sonne sendet lichte Strahlen
Synopsis: When he appears on the bank, he complains that he has not yet been able to hunt down any prey. The mermaids see the ring on his hand and offer to help him hunt and in return they demand the ring. Siegfried refuses at first, but agrees when the mermaids tease him as a miser. They warn him of the power and curse of the ring. Only if he handed over the ring to them could his evil fate be averted. Now Siegfried realizes the value of the ring and he is seized by the greed for power. He thinks he is invincible and puts the ring back on his finger. The maidens prophesy that he will be killed today. But Siegfried does not want to be intimidated by the mermaids and leaves the place. The mermaids make their way to Brünnhilde.
In the Rhine scene we see how much Siegfried has already “degenerated”. He, the man of nature, has not succeeded in bagging a prey. In this way Wagner shows that Siegfried has lost his closeness to the origin and is thus doomed to perdition.
Synopsis: Siegfried finds back to the hunting party. They take a break. Hagen gives Siegfried wine. The latter steps to Gunther with the cup and tries to cheer him up.
Hagen’s secret addition to the wine and the murder
Synopsis: Hagen adds herbs to the wine that bring the past back to life in Siegfried. He pours more wine and asks Siegfried to tell him about himself. Siegfried tells his story. With even more wine Hagen loosens his tongue. Now Siegfried remembers Brünnhilde and tells ecstatically how he took her as his wife. With this he has admitted the breach of faith. Hagen points to Wotan’s two black ravens that have appeared. Siegfried turns around and looks at them, whereupon Hagen reaches for the spear. Gunther, who has now seen through Hagen’s game, tries in vain to stop him and Hagen stabs Siegfried from behind with the spear.
Before Hagen strikes, we hear the curse motif once again (in the recording below at 7:40).
Musical quote: Curse motif
Siegfried’s swan song
Synopsis: When Siegfried dies, he takes his leave of Brünnhilde.
One last time we hear the love spell of Siegfried and Brünnhilde. The motif of Brünnhilde’s awakening resounds in the winds. Symbolically Wagner shows us that the awakening of life coincides with death, the utopian anarchy of love in freedom must give way to the power-hungry world of treaties.
Musical quote: Brünnhilde’s awakening motif
Brünnhilde, heilige Braut – Melchior
Siegfried’s funeral march
Synopsis: Siegfried is carried to the halls of Gibichung with a solemn escort.
Siegfried’s Funeral March is another great symphonic poem of the Ring. Siegfried’s life passes musically once again.
We hear this piece in a version by Herbert von Karajan. Karajan himself only worked in Bayreuth for a short time. Despite the success of two productions in the early fifties, Wieland Wagner reproached him severely for his slow tempo and the loud accompaniment, which led to a lack of comprehensibility of the text. Karajan never went back to Bayreuth and moved the main part of his festival activities to Salzburg.
Trauermusik beim Tode Siegfrieds – Karajan
The curse of the ring finds another victim
Synopsis: In the castle Gutrune is tormented by bad premonitions. She awaits the arrival of Siegfried. Snide, Hagen shows her her dead husband. When Gutrune sees Siegfried slain, she accuses Gunter. Gunter in turn accuses Hagen of murder, whereupon Hagen demands the ring as a reward. When Gunther refuses this request, Hagen stabs him with his spear. He wants to snatch the ring from Siegfried’s dead body, but to everyone’s horror Siegfried’s hand raises threateningly.
The end of the Twilight of Gods – a riddle
Wagner struggled for many years to decide how his great work should end. He wrote several finished text versions. The great temporal span of the work led to different biographical situations that constantly demanded new interpretations. The Anarchist follower of 1848 was not the same as the King’s favourite of 1868! For a long time Wagner Schopenhauer’s pessimistic view of the world hung in the balance, but finally an optimistic version prevailed. The work will end with a radiant chord.
The final apotheosis of Brünnhilde
Synopsis: Brünnhilde takes the ring. She has learned everything from the Rhinemaidens and instructs the Gibichung to build a pyre. A last time she looks at the dead Siegfried.
Synopsis: She takes the ring from her finger and gives it back to the Rhinemaidens.
Synopsis: Wotan’s ravens reappear. Brünhilde sends them to Wahlhalla to announce the Twilight of Gods. Brünhilde lights the logs under the laid out Siegfried and rides with her horse Grane into the fire to unite with Siegfried in death. The fire engulfs the castle, and the Rhine overflows its banks. Hagen jumps into the river to snatch the ring from the Rhinedaughters, but the mermaids pull it down. Rejoicing, Flosshilde holds up the. In the distance a glow breaks out in the heaven: the burning Valhalla, which has been lit by Loge. With the apocalypse the end of the world of gods has come.
When Brünnhilde ignites the fire of love, she throws the burning logs which leads to the apocalypse. The corrupted system breaks down.
A little later we hear the motif of the Valkyries’ Ride, which announces Brünnhilde’s ride into the fire, which then leads to the redemption motif and the heroic motif. And once again we hear the motif of the Rhinemaidens, when Flosshilde holds the ring in her hands, bringing the gold back where it was at the beginning of this saga. The opera ends with the fire of the burning Walhalla and the transcendental rise of the music, which heralds the beginning of a new world.
Flieget heim ihr Raben … Grane mein Ross sei mir gegrüsst – Flagstadt
When Richard Wagner composed the last bars of the Twilight of Gods on November 21, 1874, he noted: “I say nothing more”.
Recording recommendation of the RING OF THE NIBELUNG
DECCA with Wolfgang Windgassen, Birgit Nilsson, Gottlob Frick, Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau under the direction of Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on RING OF THE NIBELUNG by Richard Wagner.