Wagner, R.




[Adeli­na] Pat­ti con­tin­ued her new depar­ture into Wag­n­er­land by singing Elisabeth’s prayer from Tannhäuser,” wrote George Bernard Shaw on July 18, 1894. “Now, if I express some skep­ti­cism as to whether Pat­ti cares a snap of her fin­gers for Elis­a­beth or Wag­n­er, I may, after all these years of ‘Una voce’ and ‘Bel rag­gio,’ very well be par­doned. But it is beyond all doubt that Pat­ti cares most intense­ly for the beau­ty of her own voice and the per­fec­tion of her singing. What is the result? She attacks the prayer with the sin­gle aim of mak­ing it sound as beau­ti­ful as pos­si­ble; and this being pre­cise­ly what Wagner’s own musi­cal aim was, she goes straight to the right phras­ing, the right vocal touch, and the right turn of every musi­cal fig­ure, thus mak­ing her Ger­man rivals not only appear in com­par­i­son clum­sy as singers, but actu­al­ly obtuse to Wagner’s meaning.

If Pat­ti were to return to the stage and play Isol­de, though she might very pos­si­bly stop the dra­ma half a dozen times in each act to acknowl­edge applause and work in an encore…the pub­lic might learn a good deal about Isol­de from her which they will nev­er learn from any of the illus­tri­ous band of Ger­man Wag­n­er hero­ines who are queens at Bayreuth, but who can­not sing a grup­pet­to for all that.”

George Bernard Shaw

Shaw, who knew a great deal about the art of singing and spent much of his tenure as music crit­ic bul­ly­ing the best singers of his day into adding Wag­n­er to their reper­to­ry, ends with a cou­ple of sen­tences that should be post­ed above the desk of every­one respon­si­ble for cast­ing opera today: “Wag­n­er means his music to be sung with the most exquis­ite sen­si­tive­ness in point of qual­i­ty of tone and pre­ci­sion of pitch, exact­ly as Mozart did…I am real­ly tired of going to the the­ater to hear the best music asso­ci­at­ed with the worst singing, and the best singing in the worst music.”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly for most opera singers — to say noth­ing of audi­ences — Wag­n­er him­self often sab­o­taged the per­for­mance of his works with “exquis­ite qual­i­ty of tone” by mak­ing sheer sur­vival a pre­em­i­nent con­sid­er­a­tion in some of his best-known roles. If a singer is wor­ried pri­mar­i­ly about just get­ting out the notes, being heard above a roar­ing orches­tra, and mak­ing it to the end of the evening, vocal nuance and qual­i­ty of tone are like­ly to be jet­ti­soned ear­ly on, in the inter­est of stay­ing afloat through a per­for­mance of Brünnhilde, Siegfried, Isol­de, or Tris­tan. It is pos­si­ble to sing Wagner’s heav­i­est roles beau­ti­ful­ly and still be heard, but how often does God send along a Kirsten Flagstad?

In Lohen­grin, Wag­n­er wrote an entire opera for human-size singers. To bor­row an anal­o­gy from the world of sports: if Ami­na in La Son­nam­bu­la and many of her bel can­to cousins can be com­pared to a hun­dred-yard sprint­er, and Siegfried or Tris­tan to an Olympic weight lifter, then Lohen­grin might be an ice skater, who needs sta­mi­na and phys­i­cal strength, but also grace and poise, as well as the abil­i­ty to main­tain a flu­id, long line. In Lohen­grin, Wag­n­er wrote roles that make their great­est effect, not through sheer lung pow­er but with the abil­i­ty to infuse a beau­ti­ful vocal line with all the nuances and yes, charm, a singer would use to bring to life an opera by Belli­ni or Donizetti. This in the process of con­struct­ing an opera made up of arias, ensem­bles, cho­rus­es and finales, which — when prop­er­ly per­formed — send shiv­ers of delight down the spines of bel can­to fans.

Wag­n­er him­self was thor­ough­ly famil­iar with bel can­to opera. As a young con­duc­tor he had pre­pared and led count­less per­for­mances of the reper­to­ry. While con­duct­ing in Riga, he even went so far as to doc­tor up a per­for­mance of Bellini’s Nor­ma by writ­ing an addi­tion­al aria for bass and male cho­rus, “Nor­ma, il pre­desse.” (Dur­ing his ear­ly years in Paris, Wag­n­er tried to talk the great bass Lui­gi Lablache into adding the aria to his por­tray­al of Oroveso, but this idea was turned down on the grounds that Nor­ma was too well known by the pub­lic to insert extra music.) In Paris, Wag­n­er often heard the great singers of his time, such as the tenor Gio­van­ni Bat­tista Rubi­ni, and the per­for­mances left an indeli­ble impres­sion on the young composer.

R[ichard] sings a can­tile­na from I Puri­tani and remarks that Belli­ni wrote melodies love­li­er than one’s dreams,” Cosi­ma Wag­n­er wrote in her diary on August 3, 1872. “The melody recalls Rubi­ni to him, how won­der­ful­ly he sang it, and he observes: ‘Our Ger­man singers have to go about it in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent way, because they have not got this gift.’ ” In March 1878, Wag­n­er enter­tained guests by play­ing parts of Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Mon­tec­chi, La Straniera, and Nor­ma. “There is real pas­sion and feel­ing here, and the right singer has only to get up and sing it for it to win all hearts,” Cosi­ma quotes her hus­band as say­ing, “I have learned things from them which Messrs. Brahms & Co. have nev­er learned, and they can be seen in my melodies.”

Indeed they can. Take Elsa’s entrance aria, “Ein­sam in trüben Tagen.” Like many bel can­to entrance arias (Lucrezia Borgia’s “Com’è bel­lo,” for instance), on paper it looks sim­ple, but to make its effect, it must be not only beau­ti­ful­ly sung but mined for every emo­tion­al and musi­cal nuance, a dif­fi­cult feat. Oth­er­wise the aria falls flat.

In the best bel can­to tra­di­tion, Wag­n­er uses the vocal line itself to describe Elsa’s char­ac­ter. Her pure, trust­ing nature and lack of world­ly expe­ri­ence is reflect­ed in her rather nar­row vocal range: only from E‑flat above mid­dle C to A‑flat at the top of the staff, a note she sings only twice dur­ing the entire aria. Yet her sim­ple vocal line is stud­ded with grace notes — begin­ning in the very first mea­sure — and Wag­n­er con­struct­ed the aria to pro­vide numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties for por­ta­men­to, and for a sopra­no to col­or phras­es by using crescen­do and dimin­u­en­do, as well as by tak­ing sub­tle lib­er­ties with the rhythm, to vary their shape.

Rosa Pon­selle

A prime exam­ple of a singer doing exact­ly what needs to be done to bring the aria to life is to be found at the end of Rosa Ponselle’s 1923 record­ing. Though Pon­selle nev­er sang the role onstage, she record­ed the aria in Ger­man and, on the basis of this excerpt, could have been a superb Elsa. In the last phrase, “was ich bin!,” Pon­selle lingers on the E‑flat at the top of the staff (“was”), then slow­ly reduces its vol­ume, before using a por­ta­men­to down to the G (“ich”) and gen­tly lean­ing into and caress­ing the last note (“bin”). With just these three notes, there can be no doubt that Elsa is already in love with her cham­pi­on, even though he has not yet appeared. It is superb dra­ma, con­veyed sole­ly through the voice.

Ortrud too gains con­sid­er­able pow­er when she approach­es her phras­ing from a bel can­to stand­point, rather than being con­tent mere­ly to be a vocal blow­torch. Lis­ten­ing to Lohen­grin excerpts per­formed by the Vien­na State Opera dur­ing a vis­it to Paris in 1933 (Vol­ume 16 of the Vien­na State Opera Live series from Koch/Schwann), I was stunned by Gertrude Rünger’s great Act II out­burst, “Entweite Göt­ter!” Where many Ortruds sim­ply bel­low the F‑sharps at “Wodan!” and “Freia!” in mono­chro­mat­ic fash­ion, leav­ing the depic­tion of the dra­ma to the orches­tra, Rünger hits the cli­mac­tic notes clean­ly, exact­ly on pitch, ele­gant­ly. (Remem­ber, Ortrud is a noble­woman, and her fam­i­ly ruled the coun­try for gen­er­a­tions before the upstart Chris­tians took over.) Rünger then bor­rows from Wagner’s dynam­ic mark­ing for the tim­pani, mak­ing grad­ual crescen­dos on both of the F‑sharps. This gives her per­for­mance an astound­ing sense of pow­er in reserve. Just by her vocal inflec­tion on those two notes, Rünger lets us know her Ortrud still has plen­ty of tricks up her sleeve.

In the operas of Rossi­ni, Belli­ni, and Donizetti, the singer’s voice was supreme. The orches­tra was used to sup­port and frame the voice, nev­er to com­pete with it, a method Wag­n­er incor­po­rat­ed in Lohen­grin to a sur­pris­ing degree. Of course, it is Wag­n­er, so the Lohen­grin orches­tra is an impor­tant part of the dra­ma. But even a cur­so­ry glance at the score shows a con­sid­er­able amount of a cap­pel­la singing, which Wag­n­er uses to great dra­mat­ic purpose.

Take Lohengrin’s entrance. After being her­ald­ed by a rous­ing eight-part cho­rus and for­tis­si­mo orches­tra, Lohengrin’s first phrase is sung — a cap­pel­la. In fact, most of his farewell to the swan is unac­com­pa­nied; what dis­creet orches­tral col­or Wag­n­er uses is marked pianis­si­mo and is sup­posed to dimin­u­en­do fur­ther from that pianis­si­mo. Clear­ly Wag­n­er meant to use Lohengrin’s first thir­teen mea­sures to seduce the audi­ence by pure­ly vocal means, by the way the tenor shapes his phras­es, by the ele­gance and grace with which he sings Wagner’s embellishments.

Anoth­er exam­ple of Wagner’s use of a cap­pel­la singing appears at the begin­ning of the Act I finale, short­ly before Lohen­grin and Tel­ra­mund fight their duel. Here, Wag­n­er had the audac­i­ty to write an a cap­pel­la quin­tet! As if it were not tough enough for the singers to stay square­ly on pitch, Wag­n­er makes it even tougher: Ortrud, who has been stand­ing around ever since the cur­tain went up (about fifty min­utes before), final­ly sings for the first time all evening — a cap­pel­la. When Wag­n­er brings in the first male cho­rus, then the orches­tra, the effect is noth­ing short of hair-raising.

But then, Wag­n­er also clear­ly under­stood the won­der­ful bel can­to tra­di­tion of the two-part oper­at­ic finale, that mass­ing onstage of cho­rus and prin­ci­pals, all of whom give voice to their (sep­a­rate) feel­ings at that moment, first in slow tem­po, then much more quick­ly. One of the tricks bel can­to com­posers used to build excite­ment dur­ing the finale was to give one or two of the prin­ci­pal singers a long, flow­ing melody that would float ecsta­t­i­cal­ly above the pul­sat­ing rhythm of the cho­rus, orches­tra, and chop­pi­er vocal lines of the oth­er soloists. Donizetti used the device to great effect time after time — at the end of Act II of Lucia di Lam­mer­moor, for instance.

Wag­n­er fol­lows this exam­ple at the end of Act I, dur­ing the gen­er­al rejoic­ing that fol­lows Lohengrin’s defeat of Tel­ra­mund. He gives Elsa a broad vocal line (even embell­ish­ing her music at one point with a turn) that effec­tive­ly dom­i­nates the oth­er­wise intense­ly rhyth­mic finale. In per­fect Belli­ni or Donizetti fash­ion, Wag­n­er keeps stretch­ing the length of Elsa’s phras­es, final­ly ask­ing her to stretch one word, “Alles,” for sev­en and a half mea­sures as she holds a high B‑flat for four of the mea­sures, then moves step­wise (still singing the first syl­la­ble of  “Alles”) down to C. It’s all about beau­ti­ful singing, and an Elsa in radi­ant voice, cou­pled with the right con­duc­tor, can bring down the house every time.

Per­haps it is in the bridal-cham­ber scene of Act III that Wag­n­er wrote Lohen­grin’s most heart­felt music. The inti­ma­cy he wrote of the duet for Elsa and Lohen­grin, “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt,” calls for the purest bel can­to singing from the tenor and sopra­no. For the duet to make its max­i­mum effect, both singers must use the same sense of ruba­to that Maria Callas did in her 1949 record­ing of “Qui la voce.” It is the sub­tle speed­ing up or the slight hes­i­ta­tion a mas­ter singer uses that tru­ly brings the melody to life.

Franz Völk­er as Lohengrin

There are two record­ings of “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt” that illus­trate this vivid­ly, both based on the deserved­ly leg­endary 1936 Bayreuth per­for­mances of Lohen­grin with Franz Völk­er and Maria Müller. The com­mer­cial record­ing (on Teldec CD) is con­duct­ed by Heinz Tiet­jen, and the sound is more than good, But to be real­ly swept away by the pow­er of Wag­n­er at his bel can­to best, lis­ten to the thir­ty min­utes worth of excerpts from the live July 19, 1936 Bayreuth per­for­mance (avail­able on var­i­ous labels). Under the mag­i­cal baton of Wil­helm Furtwän­gler, Völk­er and Müller sim­ply are Lohen­grin and Elsa, over­whelm­ing­ly in love. Their music pul­sates with emo­tion: the vocal lines have a truth and life that are almost unthink­able today. The care­ful­ly con­trolled, dreamy qual­i­ty of the per­for­mance reminds us pow­er­ful­ly that once upon a time the Ger­mans were viewed as a roman­tic peo­ple, not a bru­tal, mil­i­taris­tic soci­ety. Lis­ten­ing to Völk­er and Müller sing “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt,” one can eas­i­ly under­stand why tenors like Enri­co Caru­so, even Fer­nan­do De Lucia, would chose to sing the part of Lohen­grin — in Ital­ian, of course. (Though Caru­so nev­er record­ed any of the arias, De Lucia record­ed an Ital­ian ver­sion of “Mein lieber Schwan.”) One can also under­stand how Jean de Reszke could, and did, suc­cess­ful­ly alter­nate per­for­mances of Lohen­grin and Faust, or Lohen­grin and Roméo et Juli­ette, at the old Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House.

And lis­ten­ing to the ebb and flow of the melod­ic line as glo­ri­ous­ly spun out by Furtwän­gler, Völk­er, and Müller, one is also remind­ed of the sheer pow­er a melody can have — and how often in Lohen­grin Wag­n­er made his dra­mat­ic and emo­tion­al points by com­pos­ing some of the most beau­ti­ful bel can­to music ever written.

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in the March 14, 1998 issue of Opera News magazine.

 The art at the top is The Arrival of Lohen­grin in Antwerp, a mur­al by August von Heck­el (1882 – 83).




The most astound­ing fact in all Wagner’s career was prob­a­bly the writ­ing of the text of Siegfried’s Death in 1848,” says Ernest New­man in Wag­n­er as Man and Artist. “We can only stand amazed at the audac­i­ty of the con­cep­tion, the imag­i­na­tive pow­er the work dis­plays, the artis­tic growth it reveals since Lohen­grin was writ­ten, and the total breach it indi­cates with the whole of the oper­at­ic art of his time. But Siegfried’s Death was impos­si­ble in the musi­cal idiom of Lohen­grin; and Wag­n­er must have known this intuitively.”

Even so, it is unlike­ly that in Novem­ber 1848 Wag­n­er under­stood his new opera would not be com­plet­ed for decades, or that it would — under the title Göt­ter­däm­merung—be the cul­mi­na­tion of one of the great­est mas­ter­pieces in all of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion, Der Ring des Nibelun­gen. Ear­li­er that year Wag­n­er had fin­ished orches­trat­ing Lohen­grin. He was becom­ing increas­ing­ly active in the polit­i­cal tur­moil sweep­ing Dres­den, (as well as much of Europe). He also made sketch­es for operas based on Friedrich Bar­barossa and Jesus of Nazareth. That sum­mer he had writ­ten “The Wibelun­gen World-his­to­ry from the Saga,” and then, “The Nibelun­gen Myth as Sketch for a Dra­ma” (dat­ed Octo­ber 4th, 1848). But there is no indi­ca­tion at this time Wag­n­er was active­ly plan­ning on min­ing the Nibelung saga for more than Siegfried’s Death.

In May 1849 the upris­ings in Dres­den were put down and Wag­n­er — who was want­ed by the police for his polit­i­cal activ­i­ty — fled, even­tu­al­ly set­tling in Switzer­land. He pro­duced a num­ber of prose works over the next few years, includ­ing the impor­tant Opera and Dra­ma, writ­ten dur­ing the win­ter of 1850 – 51, and planned an opera called “Wieland the Smith.” But in 1850 he also revis­it­ed his libret­to for Siegfried’s Death, mak­ing some musi­cal sketches.

The more Wag­n­er thought about it, the more he real­ized that for Siegfried’s Death to tru­ly be under­stood by the audi­ence, they need­ed to know more about what had gone before, so in 1851 he wrote the libret­to to Young Siegfried, fol­lowed by Die Walküre, and then Das Rhein­gold, spelling out in greater detail why the events of Siegfried’s Death occurred. It was not until Octo­ber 1869 — after com­pos­ing the music for the first three works in the Ring, as well as Tris­tan und Isol­de and Die Meis­tersinger von Nürn­berg—that Wag­n­er again took up the task of com­pos­ing the music for the dra­ma now known as Göt­ter­däm­merung. The name change reflect­ed a sig­nif­i­cant shift in the opera itself, from the death of its hero to the down­fall of the gods themselves.

In the ear­li­est ver­sion of the sto­ry, Brünnhilde took the body of Siegfried to Val­hal­la where his death redeemed the gods. Before ignit­ing Siegfried’s funer­al pyre, she announced, “Hear then, ye mighty Gods; your wrong-doing is annulled; thank him, the hero who took your guilt upon him…. One only shall rule, All-Father, Glo­ri­ous One, Thou [Wotan]. This man [Siegfried] I bring you as pledge of thy eter­nal might: good wel­come give him, as is his desert!”

There has been much spec­u­la­tion about why Wag­n­er changed the end­ing of the Ring, from this opti­mistic one in which Wotan and the gods con­tin­ued to rule, to the end­ing we know today, in which the gods per­ish. Some­times this sift is attrib­uted to his dis­cov­ery of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Rep­re­sen­ta­tion, but that did not occur until the end of 1854, at which point Wag­n­er had com­plet­ed the text for the Ring. Wagner’s opti­mism in a new social order for Europe began crum­bling as the revolts of 1848 and 1849 were crushed, and by the time he began mak­ing a prose sketch for Young Siegfried in May 1851, he not­ed: “Guilt of the Gods, and their nec­es­sary down­fall. Siegfried’s mis­sion. Self-anni­hi­la­tion of the Gods.”

Wag­n­er told his Dres­den friend August Röck­el that he had always fol­lowed his inner instincts when writ­ing his operas, rather than what he said — or thought — he believed, which is why even his operas Fly­ing Dutch­man, Tannhäuser and Lohen­grin dealt with themes like tragedy and renun­ci­a­tion, rather than reflect­ing the polit­i­cal and social beliefs he had at the time. Read­ing Schopen­hauer, he said, had allowed him to intel­lec­tu­al­ly under­stand why his artis­tic instincts had been true all along.

When orig­i­nal­ly plan­ning the Ring, he told Röck­el, “I had con­struct­ed a Hel­lenis­ti­cal­ly opti­mistic world for myself which I held to be entire­ly real­iz­able if only peo­ple wished it to exist, while at the same time seek­ing some­how inge­nious­ly to get round the prob­lem why they did not in fact wish it to exist.” But since he “remained faith­ful to my intu­itions rather than my con­cep­tions — what emerged was some­thing total­ly dif­fer­ent from what I had orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed.” Final­ly, he explained, he under­stood that “the key-stone” for the Ring “con­sists in an hon­est recog­ni­tion of the true and pro­found nature of things, with­out the need to be in any way tendentious.”

Röck­el, who had only read the libret­to of the Ring, asked Wag­n­er a ques­tion that has puz­zled audi­ences at Göt­ter­däm­merung from the begin­ning: “Why, see­ing that the gold is returned to the Rhine, is it nec­es­sary for the Gods to perish?”

I believe that, at a good per­for­mance, even the most naïve spec­ta­tor will be left in no doubt on this point,” Wag­n­er replied. “It must be said, how­ev­er, that the gods’ down­fall is not the result of points in a con­tract…; no, the neces­si­ty of this down­fall aris­es from our inner­most feel­ings. Thus it was impor­tant to jus­ti­fy this sense of neces­si­ty emo­tion­al­ly…. I have once again real­ized how much of the work’s mean­ing (giv­en the nature of my poet­ic intent) is only made clear by the music. I can now no longer bear to look at the poem [the libret­to] with­out music.”

This is a sig­nif­i­cant insight into Wagner’s view of the nature of both dra­ma and music, views he held very ear­ly. When he was fif­teen years old, Wag­n­er wrote a play called Leubald und Ade­laïde, a “great tragedy,” he lat­er recalled in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, “drawn large­ly on Shakespeare’s Ham­let, King Lear, and Mac­beth, and Goethe’s Götz von Berlichin­gen.” There are ghosts, revenge and may­hem galore. The hero goes mad, and as Ernst New­man explains, “stabs Ade­laïde, finds peace in the approved lat­er Wag­n­er man­ner, lays his head in her lap, and pass­es away in a grat­i­fied Verk­lärung, under her blood-stained caress­es.” When Wag­n­er showed the play to his fam­i­ly they were hor­ri­fied he was wast­ing his time with such fool­ish­ness and neglect­ing his studies.

I knew a fact that no one else could know,” Wag­n­er lat­er wrote, ”name­ly, that my work could only be right­ly judged when set to the music which I had resolved to write for it.”  No trace of his music exists, if, indeed, it was ever writ­ten. But the point is that from the begin­ning, Wagner’s view of dra­ma depend­ed on its most sig­nif­i­cant points being made through music. In a let­ter to the com­pos­er Franz Liszt, he explained the spe­cial nature of the music he was com­pos­ing for the Ring. “The thing shall sound [the ital­ics are Wagner’s] in such a fash­ion that peo­ple shall hear what they can­not see.”

Thomas Mann bril­liant­ly summed up the rela­tion­ship between Wagner’s words and his music in the speech he gave on the 50th anniver­sary of Wagner’s death: “The texts around which it [the music] is woven, which it there­by makes into dra­ma, are not lit­er­a­ture — but the music is. It seems to shoot up like a geyser from the pre-civ­i­lized bedrock depths of myth (and not only ‘seems’; it real­ly does); but in fact — and at the same time — it is care­ful­ly con­sid­ered, cal­cu­lat­ed, supreme­ly intel­li­gent, full of shrewd­ness and cun­ning, and as lit­er­ary in its con­cep­tion as the texts are musi­cal in theirs.”

Which is why Wagner’s inner dae­mon know he could not com­pose the music of Göt­ter­däm­merung until he had achieved absolute mas­tery of his com­po­si­tion­al tech­nique, some­thing he explained to Röck­el “has become a close-knit uni­ty: there is scarce­ly a bar in the orches­tra that does not devel­op out of the pre­ced­ing unit.” As he com­posed the Ring Wag­n­er great­ly expand­ed his use of leit­mo­tifs — bits of melody, har­mo­ny, rhythm, even tonal­i­ty — far beyond mere­ly rep­re­sent­ing a char­ac­ter or an object. They became infi­nite­ly mal­leable, and Wag­n­er put them togeth­er in ways that became not only increas­ing­ly sub­tle, but also superbly expres­sive, adding lay­ers of dra­ma and emo­tion to the events tak­ing place on stage.  Even if lis­ten­ers have no knowl­edge of the leit­mo­tifs, Wagner’s music is still enor­mous­ly potent and can be a life-chang­ing experience.

Music dra­ma should be about the insides of the char­ac­ters,” Wag­n­er said. “The object of music dra­ma is the pre­sen­ta­tion of arche­typ­al sit­u­a­tions as expe­ri­enced by the par­tic­i­pants [Wagner’s ital­ics], and to this dra­mat­ic end music is a means, albeit a unique­ly expres­sive one.”

At first glance, after the three pre­ced­ing parts of the Ring with their unin­ter­rupt­ed flow of the dra­ma, the libret­to of Göt­ter­däm­merung might seem a throw back. It has rec­og­niz­able, eas­i­ly excerpt­able arias, a mar­velous love duet, a thrilling swear­ing-of-blood-broth­er­hood duet, a chill­ing vengeance trio, and rous­ing cho­rus­es. But it is impor­tant to remem­ber that when Wag­n­er final­ly began to com­pose the music for Göt­ter­däm­merung he did not rewrite the libret­to, oth­er than mak­ing some changes in the word­ing of Brünnhilde’s Immo­la­tion Scene. He knew the libret­to worked exact­ly as it should, pro­vid­ing him with pre­cise­ly the words and dra­mat­ic sit­u­a­tions he need­ed to write some of the great­est orches­tral music ever con­ceived. And it is through the music that Wag­n­er can make dra­mat­ic points much more vivid­ly than could be made through words.

One of the most shat­ter­ing parts of Göt­ter­däm­merung is Siegfried’s Funer­al Music. Even played in the con­cert hall, shorn of the rest of the opera, it makes a tremen­dous effect. In its prop­er place dur­ing a per­for­mance of the full dra­ma, it is over­whelm­ing. A bit of insight into why this is so comes from the diary of Wagner’s sec­ond wife, Cosi­ma. The entry for Sep­tem­ber 29th, 1871 reads:

I have com­posed a Greek cho­rus,” R[ichard] exclaims to me in the morn­ing, “but a cho­rus which will be sung, so to speak, by the orches­tra; after Siegfried’s death, while the scene is being changed, the Sieg­mund theme will be played, as if the cho­rus were say­ing: ‘This was his father’; then the sword motive; and final­ly his own theme; then the cur­tain goes up and Gutrune enters, think­ing she had heard his horn. How could words ever make the impres­sion that these solemn themes, in their new form, will evoke?”

Cosi­ma does not men­tion the con­cept of a Greek cho­rus in con­nec­tion with the Immo­la­tion Scene or the great orches­tral out­pour­ing that fol­lows Brünnhilde’s words. But it is impos­si­ble not to think of it as a mag­nif­i­cent musi­cal thren­ody for every­thing that had gone before. A pro­found sum­ming up of all the com­plex lives, sit­u­a­tions, and emo­tions that had to be expressed by the orches­tra at that moment because mere words could not do jus­tice to them, or pro­vide the cathar­sis that allows for a true trans­for­ma­tion, and a new begin­ning — all of which Wagner’s music does, per­fect­ly, at the end of Göt­ter­däm­merung.

Sev­er­al years after the Ring had been giv­en at Bayreuth in 1876, Cosi­ma not­ed in her diary: “In the evening, before sup­per [Richard]… glances through the con­clu­sion of Göt­ter­däm­merung, and says that nev­er again will he write any­thing as com­pli­cat­ed as that.” For some Wag­ne­r­i­ans, he nev­er wrote any­thing better.

A slight­ly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these notes appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, Jan­u­ary 2012.

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





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.





My Walküre turns out ter­ri­bly beau­ti­ful,” Richard Wag­n­er wrote to his friend, the com­pos­er Franz Liszt on June 16th, 1852. “I hope to sub­mit to you the whole poem of the tetral­o­gy before the end of the sum­mer. The music will be eas­i­ly and quick­ly done, for it is only the exe­cu­tion of some­thing prac­ti­cal­ly ready.”

For nei­ther the first, nor the last, time in Wagner’s life, things did not work out quite as he had planned. By the end of that year he had, indeed, fin­ished the libret­to (or “poem” as he called it) to his four-part cycle, Der Ring des Nibelun­gen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) based on sto­ries from ancient Ger­man­ic and Norse myths. But the music for Walküre was not fin­ished until Decem­ber 1854, and it was anoth­er year and a half before he fin­ished the orchestration.

The Ring begins with Das Rhein­gold, a one-act work Wag­n­er called a “Pre­lim­i­nary Evening.” Die Walküre (“First Day of the Fes­ti­val Play”) is next, fol­lowed by Siegfried, then Göt­ter­däm­merung. It all start­ed in 1848 when Wag­n­er wrote eleven pages he pub­lished as The Nibelun­gen Myth as Sketch for a Dra­ma. But it was almost 30 years before the first per­for­mance of the com­plet­ed work was giv­en in a the­ater Wag­n­er had con­struct­ed specif­i­cal­ly for that pur­pose in Bayreuth, Ger­many. The Ring is mon­u­men­tal in both scope and impact. Most mod­ern per­for­mances are spread over a week, and it is not going too far to say many peo­ple who attend a cycle feel their lives have been changed for­ev­er by the experience.

Wag­n­er want­ed the Ring to be giv­en as a whole, rather than bro­ken up, with indi­vid­ual operas giv­en on their own. But soon the­aters were pre­sent­ing the parts of the Ring on their own, and Walküre quick­ly became the most pop­u­lar. Before this new pro­duc­tion by Robert Lep­age opened in April 2011, Walküre had been giv­en at the Met 522 times, con­sid­er­ably ahead of the next most pop­u­lar part of the Ring, Siegfried (255 times), mak­ing it the sec­ond most-giv­en of all Wagner’s operas, behind Lohen­grin (618 performances.)

There are a num­ber of rea­sons for Walkure’s endur­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty. For one thing, after the gods and god­dess­es, dwarves and giants of Rhein­gold, Walküre intro­duces human beings into the sto­ry of the Ring. It begins with two very sym­pa­thet­ic peo­ple, Sieg­mund and Sieglinde, and the first act is devot­ed to them falling in love. “The score of the first act of Walküre will soon be ready; it is won­der­ful­ly beau­ti­ful. I have done noth­ing like it or approach­ing it before,” Wag­n­er told Liszt. He was right. The music of Walküre builds sig­nif­i­cant­ly on Das Rhein­gold, where he had used leit­mo­tifs to con­struct his music. These short seg­ments of melody, rhythm, or har­mo­ny could be asso­ci­at­ed with a char­ac­ter or a dra­mat­ic event, even an emo­tion or an object. In Walküre Wag­n­er used them to help him sus­pend time itself while the dra­ma takes place, word­less­ly, inside the char­ac­ters. Thanks to Wagner’s bril­liant writ­ing for orches­tra — some­thing he had to devel­op even above what he had done in Rhein­gold—the audi­ence actu­al­ly expe­ri­ences for them­selves the inner lives of the char­ac­ters on stage.

Just moments into Act 1 of Walküre, Sieglinde offers Sieg­mund some water. The stage direc­tions say: “SIEGMUND: (drinks and hands her back the horn. As he sig­nals his thanks with his head, his glance fas­tens on her fea­tures with grow­ing inter­est.)” To under­line these stage direc­tions, Wag­n­er silences the orches­tra entire­ly, except for a sin­gle cel­lo. For nine mea­sures this lone cel­lo plays some of the sweet­est, most yearn­ing music imag­in­able, before being joined by the rest of the cel­los and two bass­es for anoth­er eight mea­sures. Lis­ten­ers need not know what labels com­men­ta­tors have attached to the music to expe­ri­ence for them­selves the long­ing in Siegmund’s soul, the love that is even then start­ing to blos­som. The music bypass­es our mind and goes direct­ly to our heart or soul where it seduces us into sur­ren­der­ing to Wagner’s world, to his way of telling his story.

The plot of Die Walküre can be told in a few dozen words. The out­er events are rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple. But the inner jour­ney the char­ac­ters go through is almost unbear­ably rich and com­plex. It’s the dif­fer­ence between fly­ing between New York and Cal­i­for­nia, and dri­ving there. You fly because you want to get to your des­ti­na­tion as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. But if you dri­ve, the jour­ney itself becomes the point: day after day spent in your car gives you a sense of the vast­ness of the U.S., of the grad­ual changes in the land­scape, the shift­ing speech pat­terns of the peo­ple you meet, the way the light seems dif­fer­ent. Your view of the Unit­ed States is changed for­ev­er by the expe­ri­ence, it’s become part of you.

In Walküre, Wagner’s music has a new pow­er to com­pel us to get in the car with him, to let him be our guide to expe­ri­enc­ing quest he is under­tak­ing. That’s how he allows us to expe­ri­ence the grow­ing love between Sieg­mund and Sieglinde for our­selves, to feel the right­ness, the nat­u­ral­ness of it.  The com­pelling nature of their love is well estab­lished long before they (and we) dis­cov­er they are broth­er and sis­ter, so our emo­tions accept their love, even if our mind — assum­ing we can wrench it away from Wagner’s music – might have a few questions.

In addi­tion to Sieg­mund and Sieglinde, in Walküre we meet Brünnhilde, one of the most impor­tant char­ac­ters in the Ring. (Some would claim, with good rea­sons, she is the cen­tral char­ac­ter.) If we lis­ten care­ful­ly to the music Wag­n­er gives her, the dra­mat­ic arc she has in Walküre alone is stag­ger­ing, to say noth­ing about in the rest of the Ring. She enters the sto­ry in Act 2, singing one of the most famous (and short­est) num­bers in the whole cycle, Brünnhilde’s “Hojo­to­ho!”

Wag­n­er was extra­or­di­nar­i­ly care­ful in not­ing exact­ly how it should be sung. The first two syl­la­bles (“Ho-jo”) are a sin­gle phrase, fol­lowed by a six­teenth note (“to”) then the last syl­la­ble (“ho”) to be held for five beats, fol­lowed by a sin­gle beat rest. This gives the music a quick, boun­cy qual­i­ty that is empha­sized lat­er when he asks the sopra­no to sing the final “ho” on two notes, sep­a­rat­ed by a octave, but con­nect­ed smooth­ly, end­ing on high Bs and then high Cs. He also asks her to trill — non­stop — for almost two mea­sures before launch­ing up to a high B and hold­ing it for two mea­sures. If a sopra­no can sing this incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult “Hojo­to­ho” as Wag­n­er intend­ed, the audi­ence can­not help being charmed by the impetu­ous, cheeky, ram­bunc­tious teenage girl who is sass­ing her father, Wotan — to his delight, and ours. Her char­ac­ter, and her rela­tion­ship with Wotan are firm­ly estab­lished with­in a cou­ple of minutes.

It is also one of the few gen­uine­ly joy­ful moments in Walküre, an opera rather short on hap­pi­ness. To Princess Sayn-Wittgen­stein Wag­n­er lament­ed (while in the thick of com­pos­ing), “I find the sub­ject of Die Walküre too painful by far: there’s real­ly not one of the world’s sor­rows that the work does not express, and in the most painful form; play­ing artis­tic games with that pain is tak­ing its revenge on me: it has made me real­ly ill sev­er­al times already, so that I have had to stop completely.”

Anoth­er rea­son for the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Walküre is that we are like­ly to find our­selves mir­rored it in. If not in the new love enjoyed by Sieglinde and Sieg­mund in Act 1, then by the dilem­ma fac­ing Wotan in Act 2 as he real­izes that all of his care­ful plan­ning is for naught and that, despite his best efforts, his life has tak­en a ter­ri­ble turn, leav­ing him no way out. The scene in which Wotan wres­tles with this soul-cri­sis caused Wag­n­er no end of trou­ble, and he ago­nized over whether or not peo­ple would grasp what Wotan is going through. “For the devel­op­ment of the great tetral­o­gy, this is the most impor­tant scene of all,” he insisted.

Wotan’s anguish con­tin­ues, with a new focus, in Act 3. Its end­ing is one of the most extra­or­di­nary in all of opera, with the sense of loss, of grief, of aban­don­ment, yet over­whelm­ing love, as Wotan is forced to let go of the most pre­cious thing in the world to him, Brünnhilde. It seems like a bit­ter defeat for Wotan. His cher­ished son Sieg­mund is dead. His favorite child, Brünnhilde, is ban­ished for­ev­er.  His plans – to cre­ate a hero who would be able to win back the Ring and return it to the Rhine maid­ens and thus save the gods – have crum­bled to noth­ing­ness. He has nowhere to turn. And yet…

And yet it is because of these appar­ent­ly fail­ures that Siegfried (in the next opera) can turn out to be the very hero the gods need. This glim­mer of hope, in the mid­dle of such over­whelm­ing sor­row, is sure­ly anoth­er rea­son Walküre is such a beloved opera.

Bavaria’s King Lud­wig II was not will­ing to wait until Wag­n­er had com­plet­ed the entire Ring before expe­ri­enc­ing Die Walküre in the the­ater. Against Wagner’s wish­es, it was giv­en for the first time on June 26, 1870 in Munich, nine months after the pre­mière there of Das Rhein­gold. To show his dis­plea­sure, Wag­n­er refused to be involved in any way, and he asked his friends not to attend. The famous vio­lin­ist Joachim was there. So were Brahms and Saint-Saëns. Despite his friend­ship with Wag­n­er Liszt went and sobbed through part of the opera he was so very moved. Even news­pa­pers usu­al­ly crit­i­cal to Wag­n­er pro­nounced Die Walküre an extra­or­di­nary work of art.

The fact that opera hous­es con­tin­ue to devote con­sid­er­able time and resources to pre­sent­ing Die Walküre in new ways — gen­er­al­ly to stand­ing room only audi­ences — proves that Liszt did not exag­ger­ate when he wrote to Wag­n­er, “Your Walküre (score) has arrived, and I should like to reply to you by your Lohen­grin cho­rus, sung by 1,000 voic­es, and repeat­ed a thou­sand­fold: ‘A won­der! A wonder!’ ”

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

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



Richard Wagner — THE RING, Part I. DAS RHEINGOLD


In all of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion there is noth­ing quite like Richard Wagner’s stu­pen­dous cycle Der Ring des Nibelun­gen (The Nibelung’s Ring). Based on Wagner’s own retelling of sto­ries from ancient Ger­man and Scan­di­na­vian mythol­o­gy, it con­sists of four sep­a­rate but inti­mate­ly relat­ed operas — some of them among the longest ever writ­ten — usu­al­ly giv­en over the space of a week.

Das Rhein­gold is the first chap­ter in this epic tale, and it is — quite unfair­ly — some­times not giv­en the respect accord­ed oth­er parts of the Ring. For one thing, it is by far the short­est. At two and a half hours it is one of Wagner’s short­est operas, about the same length as The Fly­ing Dutch­man. The com­pos­er him­self (prob­a­bly inad­ver­tent­ly) con­tributed to this slight­ing of Rhein­gold by call­ing it a “pre­lim­i­nary evening” to the rest of the Ring.

In 1848 he fin­ished orches­trat­ing Lohen­grin and wrote the poem to a new opera, Siegfried’s Death, (known today as Göt­ter­däm­merung). Decid­ing he need­ed to explain how the events of that opera had come to be, he wrote the poem to Young Siegfried (the opera we now know as Siegfried) in 1851. The fol­low­ing year, feel­ing fur­ther expla­na­tion was need­ed he wrote the poem to Die Walküre.

In order to giv­en every­thing com­plete­ly, these three dra­mas must be pre­ced­ed by a grand intro­duc­to­ry play: The Rape of the Rhein­gold,” Wag­n­er wrote to Franz Liszt. “The object is the com­plete rep­re­sen­ta­tion of every­thing in regard to this rape: the ori­gin of the Nibelung trea­sure, the pos­ses­sion of this trea­sure by Wotan, and the curse of Alberich….[By writ­ing this sep­a­rate dra­ma] I gain suf­fi­cient space to inten­si­fy the wealth of rela­tion­ship, while in the pre­vi­ous mode of treat­ment I was com­pelled to cut down and enfee­ble this.”

Dur­ing the time Wag­n­er was cre­at­ing the libret­to to his stu­pen­dous new work he was also writ­ing books and pam­phlets – on the­atri­cal reform, on opera and dra­ma, and the art work of the future. As his ideas on the nature of opera changed, so did the nature of his libret­ti. Göt­ter­däm­merung has mar­velous arias, a thrilling love duet, a sen­sa­tion­al vengeance trio, all of which can be excerpt­ed and per­formed in on their own (as can some of the orches­tral pas­sages). But by the time Wag­n­er wrote the libret­to to Rhein­gold in 1852 his idea was that the dra­ma should not be inter­rupt­ed by musi­cal set pieces like arias and duets, but ought to con­tin­ue unfold­ing seamlessly.

This meant the music for the singers must be dif­fer­ent from the way the vocal line had been writ­ten in operas before. It also meant that the orches­tral music would be dif­fer­ent from any­thing in the his­to­ry of opera, with the orches­tra being as inte­gral a part of con­vey­ing the dra­ma as were the singers onstage. “The music shall sound in such a fash­ion that peo­ple shall hear what they can­not see,” he wrote to Liszt. In fact, com­po­si­tion sketch­es show that as Wag­n­er was in the pre­lim­i­nary stages of com­posit­ing the music he was think­ing not only of the words, but of the stage direc­tions, as well, writ­ing music that reflect­ed the move­ment on stage.

To do this, Wag­n­er devel­oped the sys­tem of leit­mo­tivs — bits of melody, or rhythm, or har­mo­ny that are asso­ci­at­ed with a char­ac­ter, a dra­mat­ic event, an object or an emo­tion. They are much more than mere “musi­cal sign posts” that whiz past dur­ing the opera. Begin­ning with Rhein­gold, Wagner’s music springs almost entire­ly from these build­ing blocks, which he molds or com­bines to reflect shifts in the dra­ma tak­ing place on stage. This means the music can let the audi­ence know what a char­ac­ter is real­ly think­ing, for instance, or why an event is tak­ing place. There was no prece­dent in all of opera for this new idiom in which Wag­n­er began work­ing for the first time with Rhein­gold. “I am spin­ning my cocoon like a silk­worm,” he wrote to Liszt as he com­posed Rhein­gold’s music, “but I spin it out of myself.”

Wag­n­er had writ­ten no music for five years — from the time he fin­ished Lohen­grin until he start­ed com­pos­ing the music to Rhein­gold in 1853. (Though the libret­ti to the Ring operas were writ­ten in reverse order, the music was com­posed from the begin­ning of the cycle to the end.)

One of the most over­whelm­ing tasks Wag­n­er faced was how to start Rhein­gold. What music could pos­si­bly launch not just this opera, but also the Ring as a whole? How do you cov­ey in music the begin­ning of Cre­ation? As always with Wag­n­er, his rem­i­nis­cences are to be tak­en with a grain of salt, but as he lat­er relat­ed events, he had gone for a long walk, then returned to take a nap. Falling into a state of half-sleep, he sud­den­ly felt as if he were sink­ing into a flood of water:

The rush and roar soon took musi­cal shape with­in my brain as the chord of E flat major, surg­ing inces­sant­ly in bro­ken chords: these declared them­selves as melod­ic fig­u­ra­tions of increas­ing motion, yet the pure tri­ad of E flat major nev­er changed….I awake from my half-sleep in ter­ror, feel­ing as though the waves were now rush­ing high above my head. I at once rec­og­nized that the orches­tral pre­lude to the Rhein­gold, which for a long time I must have car­ried about with­in me, yet had nev­er been able to fix def­i­nite­ly, had at last come into being in me: and I quick­ly under­stood the very essence of my own nature: the stream of life was not to flow to me from with­out, but from within.”

There is noth­ing in all of opera like this mirac­u­lous begin­ning to Rhein­gold: the note of low E flat soft­ly played by the dou­bles bass­es, then, four mea­sures lat­er, the note of B flat added by the bas­soons to that basic E flat. And twelve mea­sure lat­er one French horn (“very sweet­ly” says the score) inton­ing the notes of the E flat major tri­ad up the scale for over two octaves, fol­lowed by anoth­er French horn, and then anoth­er, until all eight horns are play­ing waves of arpeg­gios, all on the three notes of the E flat major tri­ad. Then the cel­los, and even­tu­al­ly the entire orches­tra join in. It’s a musi­cal depic­tion of the cre­ation of life itself, grow­ing from a sin­gle cell (that first E flat) until the Rhine maid­ens sud­den­ly break into the song of joy­ous, unspoiled Nature itself.

In addi­tion to writ­ing music unlike any­thing ever heard before, in Rhein­gold Wag­n­er was mak­ing demands for the phys­i­cal stage that went far beyond what was even pos­si­ble at the time: the open­ing scene in the Rhine riv­er with the Rhine maid­ens swim­ming around as if in mid-air; the shift from the depths of the Rhine to the airy moun­tain tops of the gods with Val­hal­la in this dis­tance; descend­ing to Nibel­heim and back again; how could Don­ner sum­mon the swirling mists on stage, then dis­si­pate them on cue with his ham­mer, con­jur­ing up the rain­bow bridge over which the gods would walk to their new home?  What did Rhine maid­ens look like? The Nibelun­gen? How should the god­dess Erda be por­trayed so she was not mere­ly (in the words of come­di­enne Anna Rus­sell) “a green-faced tor­so pop­ping out of the ground”?

All of this Wag­n­er had to deal with in Das Rhein­gold. The fact that he not only got it right, but go it so right than the rest of his stu­pen­dous Ring cycle seems to flow effort­less­ly from Rhein­gold, means this open­ing chap­ter deserves respect as not only the cor­ner­stone on which the rest of the Ring builds, but as a musi­cal and dra­mat­ic mas­ter­piece all on its own.

Wag­n­er did not want to give any part of the Ring until the entire cycle could be pre­sent­ed as a whole, some­thing he knew would require its own “great fes­ti­val, to be arranged per­haps espe­cial­ly for the pur­pose of this per­for­mance,” as he told Franz Liszt before a note of the music had been com­posed. But against Wagner’s wish­es, Das Rhein­gold had its pre­mière in Munich on Sep­tem­ber 22, 1869, on the express orders of King Lud­wig II.  It was sev­en years before Wag­n­er was able to present the Ring in its entire­ty, in the the­ater at Bayreuth he had built specif­i­cal­ly for the work. Even there, the colos­sal stage require­ments Rhein­gold made were not met to Wagner’s satisfaction.

The pro­gram for the first Met per­for­mance of Das Rhein­gold on Jan­u­ary 4, 1889, car­ried the note: “For this opera the scenery has been ordered from Ger­many and the cos­tumes and armorare from the designs of Prof. Doepi­er, who made the orig­i­nal draw­ings for Richard Wag­n­er.” The one-act opera was pre­sent­ed with an inter­mis­sion between the sec­ond and third scenes. “This is the prac­tice of the Impe­r­i­al Opera House in Vien­na, and though open to objec­tion on artis­tic grounds will doubt­less prove a wel­come relief,” not­ed one New York news­pa­per the day before the pre­mière. In fact, Wag­n­er him­self had raised no objec­tions to the inter­mis­sion when Rhein­gold was giv­en in Berlin in 1881, and until almost World War Two the Met pre­sent­ed the work both with and with­out an inter­mis­sion, some­times dur­ing the same season.

Before this new pro­duc­tion by Robert Lep­age opened the Met’s 2010-11 sea­son on Sep­tem­ber 27th, Das Rhein­gold had been giv­en 154 times by the com­pa­ny, far few times than Göt­ter­däm­merung (224), Siegfried (255), and Die Walküre (522).  But along the way this one-act opera has attract­ed some of the great­est singers, con­duc­tors, and stage direc­tors of their time, all engaged in the Her­culean task of bring­ing to life Wagner’s sub­lime — and immense — vision.

A slight­ly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these notes appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill Sep­tem­ber 2010.

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