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.