In May 1857, Richard Wag­ner wrote to his friend Julie Rit­ter: “Although I have com­pleted only the first act of Siegfried this win­ter, it has turned out bet­ter than I could ever have expected.  It was com­pletely new ground for me. Now that this act has turned out as it has done, I am con­vinced that young Siegfried will be my most pop­u­lar work, spread­ing quickly and suc­cess­fully, and draw­ing all the other dra­mas after it….But it seems increas­ingly prob­a­ble that the first per­for­mance of the whole thing will not take place before 1860.” As things turned out the first per­for­mance “of the whole thing” — Wagner’s four-part cycle, Der Ring des Nibelun­gen—did not take place until 1876. The orches­tra­tion of his opera Siegfried was not com­pleted until Feb­ru­ary 1871, after one of the most trou­bling ges­ta­tions in the his­tory of music.

It had all started in the autumn of 1848 when Wag­ner wrote “The Nibelun­gen Myth as Sketch of a Drama,” based on his own reweav­ing of ancient Ger­manic and Norse myths. His tale of the rise and fall of the gods, the cre­ation of the hero Siegfried (“the most per­fect human being”), and his union with Brünnhilde, even­tu­ally grew from one opera to four. By 1857 Wag­ner had com­pleted the libretto to the entire work, and com­posed the music to the first two operas, Das Rhein­gold and Die Walküre.

But only a month after his let­ter to Julie Rit­ter, Wag­ner wrote to his friend, the com­poser Franz Liszt, “I have finally decided to aban­don my obsti­nate attempts to com­plete my Nibelungs. I have led my young Siegfried into the beau­ti­ful for­est soli­tude; there I have left him beneath a lin­den tree and have said farewell to him with tears of heart­felt sor­row: – he is bet­ter there than any­where else.” Wag­ner — as usual — was in des­per­ate need of money and the pub­lisher who had agreed to buy his score to Siegfried and the last opera of the cycle, Göt­ter­däm­merung, had with­drawn the offer. “And so,” Wag­ner explained to Liszt, “I am now resolved upon a course of self-help. I have con­ceived a plan to com­plete Tris­tan and Isolde with­out fur­ther delay; its mod­est dimen­sions will facil­i­tate a per­for­mance of it, and I shall pro­duce it in Stras­bourg a year from today…I am think­ing of hav­ing this work trans­lated into Ital­ian and offer­ing it to the the­ater in Rio Janeiro…I shall ded­i­cate it to the Emperor of Brazil…and I think there should be enough pick­ings from all this to enable me to be left in peace for a while.”

It was a mad plan and, like many of Wagner’s attempts to make money, came to noth­ing. Wag­ner had not yet fin­ished the prose sketch for Tris­tan, to say noth­ing of the actual libretto, or the music. His plan orig­i­nal plan “of leav­ing Siegfried alone in the for­est for a year, in order to give myself some relief in writ­ing a Tris­tan und Isolde” (as he told Julie Rit­ter in July 1857) even­tu­ally stretched to twelve years. Dur­ing that time he not only fin­ished Tris­tan, but revised his opera Tannhäuser for Paris, and wrote Die Meis­tersinger von Nürn­berg as well. Bavaria’s new king, Lud­wig II took the throne in 1864 and became Wagner’s patron. Wag­ner also began an affair with Liszt’s daugh­ter Cosima while she was still mar­ried to the con­duc­tor Hans von Bülow. Wag­ner and Cosima even­tu­ally mar­ried, but not before set­ting off a major scan­dal in Munich that threat­ened his stand­ing with the king.

More than once, dur­ing this chaotic twelve-year hia­tus, Wag­ner turned back to Siegfried but it was not until Feb­ru­ary 1869 he “put the fin­ish­ing strokes to the sec­ond act of Siegfried” as he informed King Lud­wig. By Sep­tem­ber he had fin­ished the music to Act III, but to avoid hav­ing a per­for­mance of the work given in Munich (as had hap­pened to the first two operas in the Ring, very much against his will), he delayed fin­ish­ing the orches­tra­tion until Feb­ru­ary 1871, mak­ing excuse after excuse to the King.

There are numer­ous log­i­cal “outer” rea­sons that kept Wag­ner from doing any sig­nif­i­cant work on Siegfried for twelve years, but more than likely the true rea­son lay within Wag­ner him­self. Deep within his psy­che he undoubt­edly real­ized that he needed to gain a more com­plete mas­tery of his indi­vid­ual com­po­si­tional style before writ­ing the music for the great con­fronta­tion between Siegfried and Wotan, and then Siegfried’s awak­en­ing of Brünnhilde.

Siegfried is the comic opera of the Ring, but it is also the great turn­ing point of the entire cycle, where Wotan, whose con­cerns dom­i­nated the first two operas, gives way to Siegfried and Brünnhilde. As Wag­ner wrote to his good friend August Röckel, “Fol­low­ing his farewell to Brünnhilde [at the end of Die Walküre], Wotan is in truth no more than a departed spirit: true to his supreme resolve, he must now allow events to take their own course [the ital­ics are Wagner’s], leave things as they are, and nowhere inter­fere in any deci­sive way; that is why he has now become the ‘Wan­derer’: observe him closely! He resem­bles us to a tee; he is the sum total of present-day intel­li­gence, whereas Siegfried is the man of the future whom we desire and long for but who can­not be made by us, since he must cre­ate him­self on the basis of our own anni­hi­la­tion.”

Of all the major char­ac­ters in the Ring, Siegfried is prob­a­bly the one who has been most mis­un­der­stood. Come­di­enne Anna Russell’s descrip­tion (“…he’s very young, and he’s very hand­some, and he’s very strong, and he’s very brave, and he’s very stu­pid — he’s a reg­u­lar Lit­tle Abner type.”) is the one many opera goers have, but it is not accu­rate. Siegfried is not a badly social­ized adult, he is a teenager. Bois­ter­ous one minute, brood­ing and intro­spec­tive the next. Emo­tion­ally he’s more on par with Cheru­bino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, or Octa­vian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkava­lier, than Wagner’s Tris­tan or Sieg­mund. His only influ­ence, other than nature itself (which he reveres) has been Mime, an evil manip­u­la­tive dwarf who plans to use Siegfried to kill Fafner and regain the Nibelung trea­sure. “Even speech I’d scarcely have mas­tered, had I not wrung it out of  [you],” Siegfried tells him, which tells us just how car­ing Mime has been.

Like most mythic heroes, Siegfried does not know his true par­ents, has never expe­ri­enced their nur­tur­ing love, and has been forced to trust his own, inner instinct for sur­vival. This instinct has made him hun­gry for knowl­edge, dis­trust­ful of Mime, and it is this instinct that leads him to file down the frag­ments of his father’s sword to re-forge into his own, rather than try­ing to patch them together with sol­der as Mime has tried to do. “I’ve grown as old as cave and wood but never saw the like!” Mime mut­ters as he watches Siegfried at work. Psy­cho­log­i­cally it’s a mas­ter­stroke on Wagner’s part to show Siegfried forg­ing his own man­hood (of which the sword is a sym­bol) rather than sim­ply accept­ing some­one else’s sword (iden­tity) and using it as his own, as his father Sieg­mund did in Die Walküre. Sieg­mund sim­ply accepted Wotan’s sword, so when he tried to use it in oppo­si­tion to Wotan’s wishes, it broke. But when Siegfried uses it again Wotan in Act III he is suc­cess­ful because the sword is no longer bor­rowed from Wotan, Siegfried has made it his own. He has become his own man, a hero. And that is why he can eas­ily pass through the mag­i­cal fire sur­round­ing the sleep­ing Brünnhilde, awaken her, and claim her as his mate.

It is through Wagner’s aston­ish­ing music that we can truly intuit the com­plex truth of his char­ac­ters. While work­ing on Siegfried Wag­ner wrote to Liszt, “Only in the course of com­pos­ing the music does the essen­tial mean­ing of my poem [the libretto] dawn on me: secrets are con­tin­u­ally being revealed to me which had pre­vi­ously been hid­den from me. In this way every­thing becomes much more pas­sion­ate and more urgent.”

For Siegfried’s exu­ber­ant entrance in Act I Wag­ner wrote scam­per­ing eighth notes for his laugh­ter that even­tu­ally climb to a high C, but only a few min­utes later, Siegfried’s music is ten­der when he speaks of the birds in the for­est, and it becomes filled with long­ing when he speaks of his mother’s death. At the moment Mime finally shows Siegfried the pieces of his father’s sword, Wagner’s orches­tra tells us unmis­tak­ably what a sig­nif­i­cant moment this is. The very sound of the orches­tra instantly becomes brighter. A lis­tener does not need to intel­lec­tu­ally know the trum­pet plays the musi­cal motif asso­ci­ated with The Sword and the strings counter with the motive known as Siegfried’s Youth­ful Strength in order to emo­tion­ally expe­ri­ence the great burst of energy and enthu­si­asm that explodes from the orches­tra at that moment. It’s the per­fect depic­tion of Siegfried sud­denly under­stand­ing, deep inside, that this is what he needs to take the next step in life.

The music of the first two acts is dom­i­nated by the dark sound of the lower instru­ments in the orches­tra. Act I takes place in Mime’s cave, set deep in the woods. Act II is set next to Fafner’s cave, deep in the for­est. Until we meet the For­est Bird toward the end of Act II all the singers have been male. This means that Wagner’s musi­cal palate has been largely the equiv­a­lent of a Rem­brandt late self-portrait — pre­dom­i­nately dark but filled with sub­tle hues. So when Siegfried defeats the Wan­derer and climbs the moun­tain to find Brünnhilde, the change in Wagner’s music is noth­ing less than aston­ish­ing. It’s the equiv­a­lent of step­ping out­side and tak­ing a deep breath of fresh, clean air after being in a cramped room. The sound of the orches­tra changes as wood­winds and vio­lins become more promi­nent, as do the harps (Wag­ner asked for six). The higher Siegfried climbs, the higher and more trans­par­ent the musi­cal becomes until when he reaches the sum­mit only the first vio­lins are play­ing, their music going still higher up the scale. “He looks around for a long time in aston­ish­ment,” the stage direc­tions say, and just as the vio­lins approach a sus­tained C above high C, four trom­bones — very softly — sound the three chords that make up the Fate motif, the same three chords that had accom­pa­nied Wotan’s stand­ing in the very spot where his grand­son now stands. At the end of Walküre Wotan had stopped to look back with infi­nite regret at the sleep­ing Brünnhilde. Now Siegfried stands in won­der, filled with awe, and soon eager­ness, to con­tinue his heroic journey.

A slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these notes appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, Octo­ber 2011.

The art at the top of the page is part of Gün­ther Schneider-Siemssen’s pro­duc­tion of Siegfried for the Salzburg Easter Fes­ti­val 1967– 72.