THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG
An Introduction, Notes, and Musical Examples
Part 2: The Valkyrie
By Dr. Larry A. Brown
Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Please email comments: email@example.com
Introduction Rhinegold Siegfried Twilight My home page
In the Icelandic Volsunga Saga (13th century), Siegmund (Odin's great-great-grandson) obtains his sword from the tree, mates with his sister "Signy" but unknowingly (as she's in disguise), and kills her cruel husband, but in the end she dies with her husband in a fire. By another wife, Siegmund has "Sigurd." Siegmund is killed in battle when Odin smashes his sword (but not as punishment for incest). Sigurd is brought up at the court of Denmark, with Regin (Fafner's brother) as his ward (leading to the story of the dragon slayer). See the continuation of the original myths in the notes to Siegfried.
The 8th century Beowulf mentions Sigemund the Waelsing killing a dragon and gaining his treasure.
Overview of the major themes of the four music-dramas:
Numbers in the notes are to pages in the Andrew Porter translation (Norton publishers 1977), unless otherwise noted as SS, which indicates a quote from the translation by Stewart Spencer (Thames & Hudson 1993). See the bibliography at the end of part four for further reading.
Note: the musical MP3 files are somewhat large, so it may take a few seconds to load them.
VALKYRIE (Die Walkure)
Wotan delights in wandering the earth and womanizing. His promiscuity is formidable, and no fewer than eleven of his children now appear: nine are his warrior-maidens, the Valkyries, led by his favorite daughter Brunnhilde. The others are the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, who fall in love, a relationship not only incestuous but adulterous as Sieglinde is married to Hunding. Wotan sympathizes with the lovers, placing them under the special guardianship of Brunnhilde and giving them a special sword, Nothung, which Siegmund pulls from a tree. As Hunding lies asleep from his drugged drink, the lovers escape into the woods.
Wotan secretly plans for Siegmund to gain back the ring. He hopes that an independent agent will be able to accomplish what he is forbidden to do. However, his plan infuriates his wife Fricka. As goddess of the sanctity of marriage, she insists that Wotan uphold the law and withdraw his protection from the twins. If Wotan wants Siegmund to be truly free, he must not protect him now. Reluctantly Wotan agrees that Siegmund must die and sends Brunnhilde to announce his fate.
Siegmund refuses Brunnhilde's promise of Valhalla and vows to kill both Sieglinde and himself before Hunding finds them. Moved by their love, Brunnhilde disobeys Wotan and vows to save the couple. However, Hunding kills Siegmund when Wotan intervenes to shatter the sword. Brunnhilde gathers up the broken bits of sword and gives them to Sieglinde, sending her away into the forest to bear her child, while she faces the wrath of Wotan alone.
Brunnhilde's punishment for defying Wotan's authority is to be put to sleep on a mountain top, ringed by fire. She can be awakened only by the kiss of a hero fearless enough to walk through the flames. By the end of The Valkyrie Wotan, the lawmaker, has seen one of his children die and lost two more as a result of enforcing his own law.
Read an English paraphrase adaptation of The Valkyrie here.
mixed with Donner's thunder:
note how the
motif's descent on the cellos and basses is checked and moves back upward; the
hand of Wotan is present, but the upward turn indicates that his will may be
challenged (see a similar transformation of the spear motif into Wotan's
At Siegmund's entrance the music relates him to the
descending notes of the
as he was born to be an extension of Wotan's will (Ring Disc). Later in
the drama the god will have to
deny his own will by sacrificing his hero. Sieglinde finds this strange man in
her house, but immediately has sympathy for him. His fatigue, played by the
lower strings, gives way to her loving care,
heard on the violins.
Siegmund and Sieglinde's
theme is a slower, tender version of
Freia's motif. After the
renunciation of love by several characters in Rhinegold, Wagner gives
us a breathtaking portrait of compassionate love in this opera, holding out
the promise that human beings may turn out to be better than the gods.
returns home to find a stranger with his wife, he
recognizes the same "serpent's glance" in both their eyes, foreshadowing their
son Siegfried the dragon-slayer (a detail Wagner adopted from the Eddas). Hunding protects a
guest in his house, even though an enemy. This host-guest relationship is more
a Greek value than Teutonic (one of many influences on Wagner of Greek
Siegmund tried to
save a girl from an unwanted marriage to Hunding's kin, just as he will rescue
Sieglinde from an unhappy union.
names mean "peaceful," or "joyful," but he claims to be Wehwalt "woeful" (81) or
Wolfing. He and his father were forced to live like animals (in the Volsunga
saga Siegmund is cursed to live as a werewolf for a time). Later we learn
Wotan's human name is Walse (86), father of the
Walsungs. The peace motif is heard again in Twilight of the Gods in
Siegfried's death march, when he is finally at peace.
In his troubled life
thus far, Siegmund has always challenged
conventional morality: "What I thought right, others thought wrong" (83). According to Wagner, the true hero of the
future (Nietzsche's superman) will follow his instinct, inner need, not the moral laws imposed by
organized religion or society.
Siegmund's desperate cries to
his father, "Walse!
Walse! where is your sword?"
foreshadow the octave jumps which identify the
motif. Nothung means "sword of need" (Wagner invented the name) left in the
tree on Sieglinde's wedding day (88). The
theme in the orchestration identifies the stranger who left the sword as Wotan.
At first it seems
puzzling that Siegmund sings "Holiest love in highest need" (94) to the
Renunciation of Love
theme. Why does he sing this theme at the moment he is longing for true love?
Note that Alberich first put a curse on love which is distinct from
on the ring he pronounces later in scene four. Siegmund falls under the curse
on love, as this relationship with Sieglinde is doomed because of its
incestuous nature, which Wotan by law must punish. Compare this use of the
"renunciation of love" motif with a similar case in Gotterdammerung. In
Act One, scene 3, Brunnhilde vows, "I shall never relinquish love" (276), set
to the "renunciation" theme, but her refusal to give up the ring,
symbol of her love, causes her to
fall under its possessive spell at this moment. For these reasons, this motive
might better be called the Love Curse. Wagner uses it in this scene in
Valkyrie to connect Siegmund's action to Wotan's grand scheme, Siegmund
becoming his unwilling means to regaining the ring (Cooke).
The theme of incest
is not uncommon in mythology. Many gods marry their sisters (Osiris and Isis,
Zeus and Hera). Symbolically, it signifies an ultimate closeness between divine
pairs, but this relationship is almost always forbidden to humans. However,
Wagner didn't think incest was unnatural, otherwise Nature would not bless
such unions with children. In his mind the societal taboo against incest was
the unnatural restriction.
In Opera and Drama, Wagner compares Siegfried to Antigone, both children of incest who defy society's law for a higher morality (as they define it). The old world order is life-frustrating, artificial, and restrictive, whereas the new order will be life-affirming, natural, and spontaneous. Representatives of the old order, Creon and Wotan, can only rule by law and power, whereas Antigone and Siegfried are free to follow the leading of inner necessity. Wagner knew that society would condemn the free individual as immoral and a lawbreaker without recognizing that he lives according to a higher, more human standard of morality (for further discussion of this idea, see Rather and McCreless in bibliography).
Innovative design for Valkyrie by George Tsypin
The word Valkyrie (Walkure
in German) means "one who chooses the slain." We hear for the first
time the familiar
Ride of the Valkyrie
theme. Brunnhilde will fight today, but vanquished Hunding will not be worthy
to come to Valhalla (97).
Described as a
coming storm, Fricka is musically linked with
motif on her entrance, as
another representative of feminine wisdom who counters Wotan's self-deception.
She is not simply a shrewish, jealous wife but Wotan's divine counterpart,
reminding him of his duties (upholding laws against adultery and incest) which
in his right mind he acknowledges.
In contrast to the
two lovers in Act One, Wotan and Fricka's marriage seems loveless. She is not
surprised that her husband defends the adulterous pair, as Wotan has betrayed
his own marriage vows numerous times. We may
agree with her reasoning (that the incestuous lovers are breaking taboo) but
we also share Wotan's frustration that she's right. Along with Hunding's
example from Act I, we are led to view marriage (and the goddess of marriage) in an
unfavorable light. Despite our moral reservations, we prefer the incestuous love of Siegmund and Sieglinde.
Wagner plays our ethical judgement against our feelings. The music supports
our sympathy as Fricka's strident arguments are accompanied by the motifs of
Alberich's curse and Hunding's heavy tones, while Wotan sings to the themes of
the couple's tender love.
plays love's defender here, which he was willing to trade in Rhinegold.
Wotan argues for the pre-eminence of true love; marriage is unholy if no longer based on love (ironic commentary on Wotan and Fricka's relationship). When she counters
that this forbidden relationship is not merely adultery but incest, he claims Siegmund and Sieglinde
have set a new precedent, while Fricka is bound by tradition (99).
Wotan criticizes his
wife who thinks only in terms of customs of the past, while he envisions
something completely new, revealing his ultimate plan (conceived at the end of
Rhinegold): Siegmund will be his free agent to regain the ring
(101). Fricka plays the trump card, however, insisting that if this hero is to be truly free, Wotan cannot help him
Wotan tells her that
love supersedes all law, but he knows that breaking his own laws would make a
mockery of the god's honor and all universal statutes. These laws bind even
the god so that he has no true
liberty of action. Soon Wotan bemoans the fact that he is the "least free of all
Brunnhilde acts as
Wotan's will (106), his alter ego. Wagner created this idea, allowing him to
dramatize the god's unconscious will working against his conscious will as
Brunnhilde tries to protect the lovers, which she knows is Wotan's true desire (note Wagner's insight into modern psychology before Freud made these terms
Wotan admits his lust for
power came when love faded (106). Remember Wagner's comment (Rhinegold
that the absence of sexual love is the root of all antisocial behavior;
without it people turn to materialism or politics/power. Wotan is motivated
also by fear: the armies of Valhalla have been assembled to fight his enemies
at Gotterdammerung (107).
Wotan's paradox: "How can I
create a free agent? ... for the free man has to create himself." (SS).
Although he doesn't realize it now, his
words actually describe the future Siegfried: "foe to the gods, free of soul
... who acts alone by his own design" (109). Of course, Siegfried's freedom
will leave him free to defy the god as well.
Frustrated and in
despair, Wotan now has only one desire -- for the End to come, as Erda
prophesied (111). He understands her fateful words: "When the foe of love gains a
son, the gods may know their doom is near." With gold Alberich has bought a
woman's favors and had a son by her. Wotan remarks bitterly that this
"loveless Nibelung" (sung to the loveless motif
first heard in Rhinegold) has done what he could not
do: "I who loved so truly, my free son I never could win." As Wotan storms
off, leaving Brunnhilde to complete her sad duty,
Wotan's rage motif leads into the loveless motif, ending with frustration.
(Brunnhilde will face this terrible rage after she disobeys her father's
Fate sounds when Brunnhilde announces to Siegmund that she's come for him
(119); only those doomed to die can see the Valkyrie. However, he refuses the
glory of Valhalla for the love of Sieglinde, as we hear a
defiant version of the love
theme from Act 1. When he threatens to kill her and
himself rather than leave her behind, Brunnhilde has compassion on them and revolts against the law of
god, later claiming she acted according to Wotan's true, if unconscious,
When Brunnhilde fails to act, Wotan enters and shatters the sword Nothung, ironically at the time of Siegmund's greatest need. After Siegmund dies, Wotan "dismisses" Hunding with a wave of his hand, having only contempt for him as Fricka's "slave."
To the thrilling theme of the Ride of the Valkyries, Brunnhilde's sisters
are soaring through the air, gathering the slain warriors for Valhalla. They observe her hurrying toward them with an
unusual burden, not a warrior but a woman.
Sieglinde wants to
die with her husband, but revives when she learns she carries his son. This
news gives her the will to live. When Brunnhilde announces the name of
(137), Sieglinde sings the
motif (which Wagner called "the glorification of Brunnhilde"), heard only once
more at the
of Gotterdammerung. Sieglinde's statement to Brunnhilde, "Be blessed by
Sieglinde's woe" (138) foreshadows the next play when her son will awaken
the sleeping Valkyrie.
To her angry father,
Brunnhilde justifies her actions. As Wotan's true will she defied his will, as his
shield-bearer she held her shield against him. When she defends her
defiance as acting as he truly wanted (146), we hear the
motif (symbol of Wotan's will) transformed into
triumph (also called
"compassionate love"), its falling notes in the orchestration interrupted twice by rising octave
leaps, transposed from the minor key to major. In this crucial scene, a
key turning point in the entire Ring cycle, Wagner demonstrates both
musically and dramatically that the will that shows compassionate love toward
others now triumphs over the will which seeks only selfish power.
Thomas Mann said
that Wagner's work surpassed previous opera in its fusing of psychology and
mythology. Prior to Freud and Jung, Wagner saw myth not merely as
proto-science -- early humanity's attempts to explain the mysteries of creation
but as proto-psychology -- our attempt to understand the mysteries within
announces to Wotan, "Sieglinde bears the holiest fruit" (148) we hear a
combination of motifs: the
musical foreshadowing of the next drama.
Brunnhilde fears that
she will be awakened by an ordinary man, unworthy of her. When she implores
Wotan to protect her, under her words we hear the fear
motif. Wotan agrees to surround her with Loge's magic fire, and the minor
motif transforms into the major assurance theme.
(In his notes on the Ring Disc, Stone argues that in context these
names make more sense than the traditional title "Brunnhilde's slumber" for
this motif. For another example see Siegfried Act 1)
(love-curse) motif is heard as Wotan turns away from his beloved daughter
Loge is the divine
source for the
both useful (protects Brunnhilde from unworthy suitors) and destructive (seen
in the later burning of Valhalla).
Siegfried theme plays when Wotan says he who fears my spear shall never pass through the flames (152), foreshadowing the only man brave enough to challenge Wotan in the next drama.
Introduction Rhinegold Siegfried Twilight My home page
Page created 1999, latest revision April 2013 by Larry A. Brown