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.