THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG
An Introduction, Notes, and Musical Examples
Part 3: Siegfried
By Dr. Larry A. Brown
Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Please email comments: email@example.com
Introduction Rhinegold Valkyrie Twilight My home page
In the Norse Volsunga Saga, Sigurd (Siegfried) is brought up at the court of Denmark, with Regin (Fafner's brother) as his ward. Regin encourages Sigurd to kill Fafner, now a dragon, and take the golden hoard that Fafner stole from their father (see back story in Rhinegold notes). The blood of the dragon allows Sigurd to understand the language of birds, who reveal Regin's treachery, and Sigurd cuts off his head.
At this point Norse and Germanic versions diverge. Wagner follows the Volsunga Saga more closely, concerning Sigurd's discovery of Brunnhilde in the ring of fire, his falling in love with Gudrun (Gutrune) by the magic potion, and his death, except Sigurd is killed in bed, not during the forest hunt.
In the German Nibelungenlied, Siegfried (called Sivrit) is a prince, son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, king and queen of the Netherlands, who grows up in a palace, and falls in love with the beautiful Gutrune (Kriemhild). In order to marry her, he agrees to accompany her brother Gunther to Iceland to win the hand of Brunnhilde (Prunhilt). Any man who desires her must defeat her in an athletic contest or face death. Using an invisibility cloak which increases his strength, Siegfried secretly helps Gunther win the contest. However, Brunnhilde on their wedding night rejects Gunther's advances, binds him and hangs him from a nail on the wall. Humiliated, he shares his plight with Siegfried, who agrees to trick Brunnhilde again. When the lights are out, Siegfried goes to bed with Brunnhilde and after a mighty struggle, subdues her, at which point Gunther slips in bed to claim his bride, but not before Siegfried (for no apparent reason) takes her golden girdle and ring. Later when Brunnhilde discovers this deceit, seeing the ring on Kriemhild's hand, she contrives with Hagen to kill Siegfried during a hunt.
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 all the notes for further reading.
Note: the musical MP3 files are somewhat large, so it may take a few seconds to load them.
Siegfried is the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde whom we meet as a young man several years later. Both Wotan and Alberich see in Siegfried, the innocent and fearless hero, the means by which they might regain the ring. So too does Alberich's brother Mime, who raised Siegfried in the forest after his mother died in childbirth. Using the magical tarnhelm, Fafner the giant has transformed himself into a dragon to protect his gold. Mime encourages Siegfried to challenge the dragon in order to learn the meaning of fear, which Siegfried has never experienced. Mime attempts to repair the broken sword which he got from Sieglinde, but each time Siegfried easily smashes it against the anvil. Finally Siegfried begins the task himself, melts the pieces of his father's sword to create a stronger weapon, and this time splits the anvil with one stroke. With his new version of the sword Nothung, Siegfried kills Fafner and takes the ring and the tarnhelm. He then kills Mime who was trying to poison him. Having tasted the dragon's blood, Siegfried now understands the language of the birds in the forest, who tell him of a beautiful maiden asleep on a fiery mountaintop. When Siegfried seeks her out, Wotan is standing guard, but this time Siegfried's sword shatters Wotan's spear, symbol of his authority. The rule of the gods nears its end as Wotan admits his defeat at the hands of a free human being. Finally Siegfried strides through the fire to find the sleeping Brunnhilde and they fall deeply in love.
revolutionary times and Hegelian thought with its confidence in historical
progress and human perfectibility, Wagner brought a new dimension to the
Siegfried legends. In The Ring Siegfried represents
a new order of human being, uncorrupted by civilization, independent of the past, as he knows nothing of
Wotan's plans or the history of the ring. He is "purely human" as Wagner
described him: naïve, boisterous, violent, arrogant, innocent, a man of
impulsive action rather than thought. Bears and dragons are nothing but
playmates to him, as he doesn't yet know the meaning of fear. This joyful
attitude toward life is captured in the sound of Siegfried's
However, the optimism seen in the third drama falls into tragedy in the
fourth, as Siegfried's heroic potential is called into question. His naivety
and recklessness prove to be his downfall.
Hegel: “This is the role of heroes
in the history of mankind: it is through them that a new world comes into
being” (Lee 23). See my
article, "Wagner, Nietzsche, Shaw:
Prophets of the Superman" for discussion of Siegfried as a type of superman,
the 19th century vision of the next step in human evolution.
By the end of this drama, he has defeated the
representatives of the three races (mentioned by the Wanderer 171-2): Fafner
the giant, Mime the dwarf, and Wotan the god -- without realizing the
significance of his deeds.
animals in the woods and the similarity between parents and children, Siegfried knows Mime is not his parent. Mime has
repeated his traditional,
answer so often that Siegfried mimics it (163). Siegfried's
with Mime is demonstrated when he breaks the new sword on the anvil. As he
leaves the cave, Siegfried threatens Mime with a pun in German: "You'll learn
from me what a beating (fegen) means," fegen also meaning "to
As Mime tells of
he claims that Siegfried's mother gave him the pieces of the sword, but later
he lets slip to Wotan that he stole them (176).
Wotan's disguise as
is symbolic of his self-deception, thinking he's uninvolved with Siegfried's
life and efforts to retrieve the ring. His desire to control events conflicts
with his need for a free agent to accomplish what he by law cannot: obtain the
Mime wastes his three
questions (which serve as exposition for the audience primarily, giving
details of the mythical world). Wotan freely tells him what he needs to know:
only one who doesn't know fear can reforge the sword.
Wagner borrowed from
a Grimm brothers' story about a boy who wishes to learn fear in order to
better motivate this scene between Siegfried and Mime.
As Mime explains the experience of fear to
Siegfried, hoping to entice him to fight Fafner, we hear under his words the
fear motif (from Valkyrie Act 3), but Siegfried
thinks that this would be "wondrous strange" and longs to feel this thing
called fear, and the motif becomes the calm assurance
Just at the point
where we might feel sorry for Mime, he shows his true, deceitful self , mixing the potion to kill Siegfried and
fantasizing about being lord of the ring (189). Wagner never intended for Mime
to be the feeble, pitiful weakling that most performances make of him. His
notes indicate that Mime should show the debasing power of evil, deformed by
his desires for the ring (Newman 543). Typical of his anti-Semitism, Wagner
attributes Jewish qualities to both Alberich and Mime.
In the Vosunga saga Regin repairs the sword. Wagner's adaptation in this scene demonstrates his genius for mythological symbolism. There's something instinctively right -- mythically, dramatically, and psychologically -- about Siegfried's reforging the sword himself, not mending the pieces but grinding them down and melting them, in this way taking something of his father and mother (who saved it for him) and making it his own. His hammering resembles the servitude of the Nibelungs in Rhinegold, but he works the bellows in joyful freedom, building to his mighty cry "Nothung! Nothung!" as he smashes the anvil in two.
Old opponents meet
again outside Fafner's cave, Alberich instantly recognizing Wotan despite his disguise.
The name of the cave "Neidhohle"
means cave of envy.
Wotan admits that he
made no contract with Alberich but defeated him by force (194), another trait
tying them together.
Wotan truly given up his ambition to regain the ring? Or is he remaining
purposefully aloof, taunting Alberich that he can have the ring if he
can get it from Fafner? Wotan claims to have learned his lesson with Siegmund: only the truly
independent hero can help him (195).
claims that with his death we have seen the last of the giants (206). He dies
speaking the name "Siegfried," the hero of the new order who has vanquished
In a clever
scene, the dragon's blood magically allows Siegfried to understand Mime's
intentions behind his innocent words and the
(same theme as the Rhinedaughters' "Weia
Waga" nature sounds in Rhinegold).
Siegfried finds the ring but it means nothing to him. Being ignorant of its history and power, he is "free from greed" (SS), thus not under Alberich's curse at this point. When he gives the ring to Brunnhilde later, it becomes a symbol of supreme love, not its renunciation. Siegfried leaves the hoard to the dead Mime, blocking the cave with Fafner's body, thwarting Alberich from getting it.
After a 12-year
hiatus, Wagner returned to composing the music to Siegfried with this
dramatic prelude, which begins with the
accompanied by the galloping rhythm of the Valkyrie music. At the end of this
phrase we hear Wotan's
and his descending spear
motif, which battles the rising Erda theme for dominance. Trumpets and
trombones play the Wanderer motif, not the pensive version of Acts I-II, but a
raging god longing to return to the arena of world affairs (Stone, Ring
prelude reaches its climax with the
Power of the Ring,
the sinister echo of the Rhinedaughters' "Rhinegold!"
song, ending on the fate motif.
Wotan summons Erda to
rise from her subterranean slumber. He claims to ask
for wisdom, "Can a swift-turning wheel be stopped?" (222) but actually
he wants to tell Erda his decision to renounce his earlier ambition and resign
himself to his doom. He
the future to Siegfried, who knows nothing of the ring and its power, so is
free from greed and the curse of Alberich (224). At Wotan's words, "The god will gladly yield
his rule to the [eternally] young" (225), Wagner told the singer in the first
production, "It should sound like the announcement of a new religion" (Bentley
158). The prominent characteristic of the bequest motif is its majestic
ascending scale, which is the opposite of the willfully oppressive descent of
the spear motif.
Wotan tells Erda that
their daughter will one day work a deed that will redeem the world. Kitcher
notes that this idea is "rather vague ... What sort of 'redemption' is he
talking about ...? Loving Siegfried? Returning the Ring? Something else? We
think Wotan does not know. He has hope for something of enormous significance
but has no idea what that might be" (100). At least one point is clear: we
should not confuse Wagner's concept of redemption with the Christian doctrine
of salvation from sin, being pardoned by a merciful God. When Brunnhilde
"redeems" the world at the end of Gotterdammerung, the gods meet their
end as well, offering no forgiveness or apology to humanity.
scene with Erda, followed by his confrontation with Siegfried, is the turning
point in the entire Ring cycle. The god, already resigned to his fate but
enraged by his grandson's insolence, must make one last attempt to maintain
his authority and dignity. Wotan also promised to protect Brunnhilde from all
but the bravest of challengers (152). Wagner explained: "Faced with the
prospect of his own annihilation, [Wotan] finally becomes so instinctively
human that, in spite of his supreme resolve, his ancient pride is once more
stirred, provoked moreover ... by his jealousy of Brunnhilde ... his most
vulnerable spot. He refuses to be thrust aside, but prefers to fall, to be
conquered" (letter to Röckel, in
As with Siegfried's
remaking his sword, this pivotal scene invented by Wagner rings true to both
mythology and psychology. Siegfried
reverses his father's fate, breaking Wotan's spear with his sword,
demonstrating the victory of the new world order over the old. Siegfried is a
representative of the future, Wotan the past. Wagner's creation of these two
scenes in particular shows him to be a expert dramatist as well as composer.
"Wotan rises to the tragic
height of willing his own destruction. This is the lesson history teaches us:
to will what necessity imposes, and [to will] ourselves to bring it about."
(Wagner's letter to Röckel, in Spenser 307).
After composition of the
Ring text was complete, Wagner read and admired the philosophy of
Schopenhauer, claiming that their thoughts were alike when Schopenhauer wrote,
"What gives [modern] tragedy its ethical force is the recognition that the
world - that life - offers no real satisfaction and hence does not deserve our
loyalty. This is the tragic spirit; it leads to renunciation" (in SS 45). The
god's abandoning his quest for power and acceptance of a determined future is
in Wagner's portrayal of Wotan a moral and philosophical advance.
The text describes
Wotan as lord of ravens, his messengers (229) who appear at other times in the
final drama (cf 274, 319, 327).
passes through the flames to find someone on the ground. Removing the armor,
he is startled, "This is no man!" Ironically, the sight
of Brunnhilde's feminine form teaches Siegfried fear for the first time (234).
Humorously, at Brunnhilde's "Are you blinded by my eye's devouring glance?"
(242), we hear the dragon motif.
the sun as she awakens from her long sleep. This motif derives from the
fate motif, but this time fate has been kind in
bringing these two together. She joins Siegfried in
the mother that gave him birth (235).
Volsunga Saga Brunnhilde's punishment resulted from her killing the
wrong man in battle against Odin's will (but has nothing to do with Siegmund).
that by disobeying Wotan she was acting not by thought but by feeling (236),
which mirrors Wagner's romanticism, that truth is discovered not
rationally but through the emotions.
The power of love
triumphs as hero and heroine are now free from the influence of Wotan's laws
and Mime's greed.
Wagner: "the true human
being is both man and woman, and only in the union of man and woman does the
true human being exist, and only through love do man and woman become human"
(letter to Röckel, in
Idyll" sung by Brunnhilde was composed as a piece for chamber orchestra
and played on Cosima Wagner's 33rd birthday in 1870.
Basking in the light of love's ecstasy, Brunnhilde rejects her past life with the gods. Valhalla may crumble to dust, the Norns' rope may break, and the Twilight of the gods seize them all in darkness, for all she cares; they laugh at the death of the old order (243).
Introduction Rhinegold Valkyrie Twilight My home page
Page created 1999, latest revision April 2013 by Larry A. Brown