“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.