THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG
An Introduction, Notes, and Musical Examples
Part 4: Twilight of the Gods
By Dr. Larry A. Brown
Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Please email comments: email@example.com
Introduction Rhinegold Valkyrie Siegfried My home page
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.
Norse mythology is unique in that it includes a narration of future events, the end of the gods in a great battle. Ragnarok means "fate or doom of the gods" which in German becomes Gotterdammerung, "Twilight of the Gods."
The great battle is preceded by three year-long winters and general moral decay. Ominous signs appear: wolves that eat the sun and moon, and the stars fall. At Ragnarok, Loki escapes his chains (his punishment for plotting Balder's death), captains the ship Naglfar (made of dead men's nails) to attack Asgard along with the frost giants, riding on tidal waves created by the loosing of Jormungandr, the world serpent, from the ocean bottom. Fenrir the giant wolf breaks his bonds, and Surt and the fire-demons attack from the south.
Heimdall, guardian of the Rainbow Bridge (Bifrost), who never sleeps and sees and hears everything, sounds his trumpet as warning, but it's too late to avoid the final battle. In the battle all the gods meet their end: Odin is swallowed by Fenrir, who in turn is torn asunder by Odin's son Vidar. Thor kills Jormungandr but dies of its venom. Loki and Heimdall kill each other. Surt kills Freyr, then destroys the world by fire.
Some things manage to survive Ragnarok: Valhalla itself, Thor's hammer and his two sons, Odin's favorite son Balder returns to life, and two humans, protected under the World Ash Tree Yggdrasil, who repopulate the world.
Wagner's innovation was to link the story of the gods' end (modified to suit his purposes) with the death of Siegfried and Brunnhilde.
TWILIGHT OF THE GODS (Gotterdammerung)
The opening scene depicts the Norns, daughters of Erda, weaving the threads of fate at the base of the World Ash Tree. They see glimpses of things to come involving Siegfried before the thread mysteriously breaks. The scene shifts to the mountain where the two lovers are saying their farewells before Siegfried leaves in search of adventure. Siegfried gives the ring to Brunnhilde for safe-keeping as a symbol of their love. Traveling down the Rhine river, Siegfried arrives at the hall of the Gibichungs. In a dream Alberich incites his son Hagen to help him regain the ring, which Hagen does with the unwitting aid of his half-brother and sister, Gunther and Gutrune. Hagen gives Siegfried a drugged drink, causing him to forget his relationship with Brunnhilde, and he falls in love with Gutrune instead. Meanwhile, one of Brunnhilde's sisters arrives at the mountain to tell her that Wotan has cut branches off the World Ash Tree and has surrounded Valhalla with them, intending to set himself and the gods on fire. She asks Brunnhilde to return the ring to Wotan but she refuses. Siegfried then appears but has transformed himself into the guise of Gunther with the help of the tarnhelm. He forcibly takes back the ring and kidnaps Brunnhilde for the real Gunther to marry. On discovering Siegfried's treachery, Brunnhilde betrays him to Hagen, revealing how Siegfried may be killed by striking him in the back, the only place that she has not covered with a protective spell. Hagen promptly slays him during a hunt. Learning too late that Hagen has tricked them both in order to regain the ring, Brunnhilde orders Siegfried's funeral pyre to be lit and she rides her horse into it, forgiving Siegfried and uniting them in death. Wotan and the other gods are consumed by the flames that destroy Valhalla. Hagen is drowned in the rising waters of the Rhine, as the Rhinedaughters repossess the ring; its curse is lifted when it is returned to nature.
This scene mirrors
the opening of Rhinegold with the three Rhinedaughters and the crime
against nature with the theft of
the gold, which Wagner reminds us of with the
motif. Three Norns, Erda's daughters, weave the threads of fate (their weaving
becomes an inversion of the Rhine motif). They sing of long ago when they wove
at the base of the World Ash Tree. There Wotan gave up an eye to
drink from the stream of wisdom, but also he tore a limb from the tree to make
his spear (248). Because of this violence, the tree is now dead, the result of Wotan's abuse of power, perverting
his wisdom, symbolized by the stream of wisdom drying up. The Norns tell of the
final collapse of the old world order which has become rotten at its 'roots.'
The tree now provides the funeral pyre for the waiting gods, resigned to their
background to the World Ash Tree: Yggdrasil (old Norse name) lies at the
center of the world, its three roots separating Asgard (land of the gods), the
land of the Frost Giants, and Hel (name for both the place of the dead and its
queen). The World Tree represents and sustains life, and its fate determines
life's end (Ragnarok). A serpent gnaws at its roots; three Norns (Fate, Being,
Necessity) sit at its base at the well of Urd and carve runes in its trunk
telling the future of each person. Also at its base lies Mimir's well of
wisdom (Mimisbrunn) where Odin came for a drink and left one eye as payment.
One cryptic reference in the Poetic Edda implies that Odin hung himself
on the tree for nine days, pierced with his spear, in order to gain control of
the magic runes (one of his names is "God of the hanged"). Some critics think
this might be a late Christian influence on the older myth. Wagner invented the ideas of Wotan's
tearing a branch from the tree, causing it to wither and die, and using its
wood for kindling at the fiery end of Valhalla.
As the Norns
weave their rope around the rocks, it breaks, signifying the end of Erda's
foreknowledge, but does this mean fate no longer rules, that humanity is now
Fate (or lot) is
mentioned infrequently in the text of the Ring, mostly in Valkyrie
(pp. 83, 104, 119, 141, 143), but the
Fate motif is heard frequently (ex: when Brunnhilde enters to prepare
Siegmund for death, before the Wanderer/Erda confrontation, at Siegfried's
discovery of Brunnhilde, her confusion at his later betrayal, at Siegfried's
last breath, at the immolation scene).
When the rope breaks,
the themes of the
Ring's Curse and
Siegfried's horn and
sword predict a future that the Norns can no longer see. Later
in Act 3 (311)
Siegfried boasts to the Rhinedaughters that his sword can sever the Norn's
thread into which the curse is woven. Fate is closely associated with the ring
and its curse throughout, so breaking the rope may not mean the end of fate
itself but the end of the curse and the gods' foreknowledge and influence in
the world. Siegfried doesn't escape the curse, but his actions, along with
Brunnhilde's devotion unto death, eventually break it.
When we next see
Brunnhilde, both receive new motifs (Siegfried's is
a majestic version of
horn call), signifying their new relationship and new beginning.
Brunnhilde is no longer the warrior maid but a mortal woman, her music soft
and feminine. Unfortunately, the hope heard in these new themes won't last long. Both of them
are unknowingly caught up and manipulated by the old order. They too must perish
before humanity can be truly free of the gods' influence.
Brunnhilde lost her strength and wisdom along with her virginity: "the maidenly source of all my strength was taken away by the hero to whom I now bow my head" (SS).
journey includes these themes:
Rhinedaughters. At his arrival
at Gibichung hall: the
power of the ring.
cunning in his half-brother
Hagen for wisdom (258), similar to Wotan's reliance on Loge
in Rhinegold. Gunther is
not completely blameless in this affair; he seeks to increase his fame by
marrying the glorious Brunnhilde, not for true love (257).
Hagen says that with
the ring Siegfried now can command the Nibelung army, but he's unaware of
the power he wields (259).
Hagen promises Gutrune
that the potion will bind Siegfried to her (260), fittingly singing the
loveless theme, as the hero's feelings will
not be true love. As Hagen explains his
plans to trick Siegfried, the
tarnhelm motif transforms into the
magic potion motif, revealing the means by which the deception will
drinks to Brunnhilde's memory, then promptly forgets her. The potion of
oblivion has been criticized as a cheap melodramatic device, although here Wagner
follows his source in the Volsunga Saga. However, it can be interpreted as
a symbol of the tragic paradox in which Siegfried is caught: to be free from
Wotan's laws and influence, he must also be ignorant of his past (no memory),
thus falling unwittingly to Hagen's scheme, a victim of his own innocence (Dahlhaus
91). In his ignorance of the Ring's tragic heritage, he also begins to repeat
Wotan's mistakes: betraying love,
snatching the Ring from Brunnhilde by force, and trusting in his own power,
not fearing the Ring's curse (act III) His naive recklessness enabled him to
overcome obstacles such as Fafner and the circle of fire protecting
Brunnhilde, which would have blocked anyone who knew fear. However, these
heroic qualities sow the seeds of his destruction as well, making him
unprepared for the treachery of Hagen. Natural innocence too easily succumbs
to superior cunning and deceit (Kitcher 189, 201).
We first learn of
Hagen's true identity as Alberich's son at the end of the scene (270),
which plays when he meets Siegfried gives us a hint (262).
Waltraute visits her
sister with desperate news about their father. She tells Brunnhilde that Wotan
no longer collects warriors to fight off the final battle (273). When
Waltraute repeats Wotan's words, "If the ring returns to the Rhinedaughters,
from its curse both gods and world will be released," she is hopeful,
failing to see the double meaning (275).
sings, "I shall never relinquish love, though Valhalla's glittering pomp
should crumble into dust" (SS), at which point we hear the
Renunciation of Love theme, which
seems odd unless we understand the motif
more appropriately as the "love-curse" which Alberich first stated (as earlier
discussed). Refusing to surrender the ring, symbol of Siegfried's love,
despite what happens to the gods, Brunnhilde
has now fallen under the ring's curse of possessiveness. Note similar sentiments at the end of Siegfried,
where the two lovers laugh at the death of the gods: "Gods may sink to eternal
night! Twilight and darkness seize all the clan!" (243). Selfish love becomes
a destructive power, "love a fundamentally devastating force" (Wagner, in SS
When Siegfried suddenly appears in the guise of Gunther, Brunnhilde is alarmed. Another mortal has passed through the flames? Siegfried's brutal stealing of the ring from her hand reminds us of Wotan's treatment of Alberich. Failing to protect her from Gunther/Siegfried, the ring has no power over one who does not fear it (279). Siegfried promises to separate himself from her during the night with his sword, which becomes a later point of debate between them.
Alberich visits Hagen
in a dream; Hagen is not happy to be his son (282). Alberich says the curse
has no power over Siegfried, as long as he is ignorant of its power (283) --
at least by this point in the story, but see further discussion below.
surrounding Brunnhilde's mountain were apparently an illusion, as Siegfried
says Gunther could have passed through them unharmed if he hadn't been afraid (286);
also Wotan no longer stands as her protector.
vassals are the first appearance of a traditional operatic chorus in the
Ring. When Hagen calls them, they are surprised that disagreeable Hagen is happy, not knowing
the real reason.
ambiguous responses to Gutrune concerning his faithfulness to her (286-7) sets up the later tension between
his denial of sexual relations with Brunnhilde and her claims of rape.
Siegfried kept the
ring he stole from Brunnhilde, a sign of possessiveness in him as well, making
him susceptible to its curse.
Hagen is the first to
suggest treason (295), hastily taking control of the situation; he later
invents the cover story of the hunting accident (304).
Brunnhilde sings, "He
forced from me delight and love," (296) to the
loveless theme, but her quavering
variation of the motif hints at her deception. For her, however, one
betrayal is much like another (i.e. he might as well have raped me). The fateful
swearing on Hagen's spear appears to seal Siegfried's fate, if in fact he
is lying. However, as we learn at the end, it is Brunnhilde who in her anger
has sworn falsely. Siegfried will die, but not because of this oath.
In the Volsunga saga
Brunnhilde interprets Gutrune's dream, foretelling of Siegfried drinking the
potion and marrying Gutrune, then strangely Brunnhilde seems to be surprised
when this happens.
The Nibelungenlied tells of Siegfried bathing in dragon's blood, making him invulnerable except for one spot on his back where a linden leaf fell. Wagner invented the idea of Brunnhilde not protecting his back because of his bravery (301), perhaps inspired by Achilles (the subject of a possible opera at one time).
the prelude to Act 3, we hear Siegfried's
joyful horn sharply juxtaposed with menacing tones reminding us of Hagen's
call (a motif based on the Power of the Ring). The
music then takes us back to the very
beginning of the Ring with the natural rhythms of the Rhine and the
beautiful sound of the Rhinegold in its original, uncorrupted form. The
Rhinedaughters swim playfully in the
water until Siegfried appears, lost in his hunt for a bear.
Rhinedaughters taunt Siegfried (as they did Alberich in the first scene of
At first Siegfried is willing to trade the ring for love (the reverse of
Alberich), but when they threaten him with its
curse, he refuses (311). This show
of pride and possessiveness places him under the ring's curse for the first
time, leading to his first and only defeat. When he says, "you'd
still not get it from me," the
Power of the Ring motif plays.
perspective, he also falls victim to Hagen's cursed desire to possess it, so
the fault lies outside the hero himself. By the end of the composition, Wagner
didn't consider Siegfried a tragic figure, as he lacks self-awareness. Some
critics claim that he falls because of his false oath on the spear, but this
assumes he was lying, a misunderstanding which Brunnhilde clears up in the
death during the hunt is taken from the German source Niebelungenlied.
Wagner followed the Volsunga saga mainly up to this point.
As he lays dying, Siegfried refers to
events in the third drama as happening long ago, "in my boyhood days" (316). There is little sense of time in
the myth, as he and Brunnhilde may have lived a long time on the mountain, and
he seems to have had many other adventures before coming to Gibichung hall.
There is a minor
recognition scene as Siegfried's memory returns, but no time for remorse. He
dies thinking of their first meeting.
When the body is placed
on the funeral pyre, tension mounts when
ominously dead Siegfried raises his arm
to prevent Hagen from taking the ring.
speech (the last of six versions which Wagner wrote) explains the truth about
Siegfried's betrayal of her love, but not her sexuality that night. He was
false, yet true.
She accuses the gods
of guilt of Siegfried's wrongful death, the curse meant for them falling on
him. She gains wisdom through suffering (a common theme in Greek tragedy). She
understands how their fate is intertwined with the gods, symbolically hurling
the torch heavenward to light Valhalla's pyre.
Before this final
scene, the Rhinedaughters have spoken to Brunnhilde (312, 326) who in death
returns the ring to the Rhine, restoring Nature (full circle). Hagen is pulled
down by the Rhinedaughters to his death. When Hagen leaps to his death for the
ring, the curse motif is heard but breaks in half.
sacrificial love, willing to forgive Siegfried and be eternally united with
him in death, brings
redemption from their mutual betrayal, and redeems the natural order by
returning the ring's gold to the Rhine. We shouldn't read the redemption of
the gods or all humanity into this final theme, as some critics do. Wagner's
title for the redemption motif "the glorification of Brunnhilde" is probably
more appropriate as it focuses on her immediate action.
"Love may not conquer
all, or resolve all, or even preserve all; but the kind of love Brunnhilde
comes to know and to express at the end can vindicate all, the inevitability
of death and destruction notwithstanding. ... despite all, love can achieve a
form of triumph, giving meaning and value to what would otherwise be blank and
bitter defeat" (Kitcher 101, 103).
and Brunnhilde fall victims to the curse of the old order, they are also the
first representatives of the new.
The final music weaves together motives of the Rhine, Rhinedaughters, Valhalla, Power of Gods, Siegfried, Twilight, Redemption.
Conclusion: Ring Transformations
When he began his
massive project with its focus on the death of Siegfried, Wagner first
envisioned him as a revolutionary hero, "the man
of the future whom we long for but cannot ourselves bring into being, who must
create himself by our destruction. ... In Siegfried I have
tried to portray the most highly developed and complete human being I can
conceive of" (letter to Röckel, in
In his youthful
exuberance for Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche described Siegfried as the Superman, beyond good and evil,
an evaluation he later reversed. 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
In early plans for an
opera on Achilles, Wagner wrote that Man was intended to surpass God, just as
Achilles was destined to surpass his father: "Man is the perfection of God. The
immortal gods are only the elements which beget mankind. In Man creation
achieves its end" (Ewans 77).
But the Superman is
not complete in himself. Wagner:
"Siegfried alone (man by himself) is not the
complete human being; he is merely the half. It is only along with Brunnhilde
that he becomes the redeemer. To the isolated being not all things are
possible; there is need of more than one, and it is woman, suffering and
willing to sacrifice herself, who becomes at last the real, conscious
redeemer" (letter to Röckel, in
In his first prose
draft (1848), the final drama ends with Brunnhilde taking Siegfried victoriously to
Valhalla, which isn't destroyed by fire in this early version. His wrongful death redeems the gods
from their crimes, and he will live on gloriously after death.
However, this optimism
is not reflected in the final 1852 version of the text. Wagner decided to
combine Siegfried's tragedy with the doom of the gods, a connection never
suggested in the mythical sources. Kitcher calls the Siegfried of
Gotterdammerung "a fossil remaining from an earlier version of Wagner's
project to which he and his life and death are no longer central" (190).
With the emphasis now
on freedom from the will rather than freedom of the will, the
heroic center of the cycle shifted from Siegfried to Wotan and Brunnhilde, who
both learn that redemption comes through self-renunciation. In Act 3, scene 2 of
Siegfried (the turning point of the cycle), the will of the god that once ruled
the world now wills to renounce its claims. The deaths of Siegfried and
Brunnhilde are now seen as an earthly image of
Wotan's own renunciation, their funeral pyre a reflection of the burning of
Typical of the
period, Wagner's Romanticism was both idealistic (infinite longing) and
fatalistic (inevitable disappointment). Attempting through abuse of power to
hold onto what we cannot keep causes us to hurt and destroy others and is
Wagner finally chose not to rely on words to express the poem's final meaning but on his music which speaks of beauty and harmony in a new world order despite the death of heroes and gods.
Introduction Rhinegold Valkyrie Siegfried My home page
Aberbach, Alan. The Ideas of Richard Wagner. 1988.
Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage. 1958.
Bentley, Eric. The Cult of the Superman. 1969 ed.
Cooke, Deryck. I Saw the World End. 1979.
Culshaw, John. Reflections on Wagner's Ring. 1975.
Dahlhaus, Carl. Richard Wagner's Music Dramas. 1979.
Donington, Robert. Wagner's Ring and its Symbols. 1963, 1974.
Ewans, Michael. Wagner and Aeschylus. 1982.
Garten, H. F. Wagner the Dramatist. 1977.
Gutman, Robert. Richard Wagner: the Man, his Mind, and his Music. 1968.
Holman, J. K. Wagner's Ring: A Listener's Companion. 1996.
Kitcher, Philip, and Richard Schacht. Finding an Ending: Reflections on Wagner's Ring. 2004.
Lee, M. Owen. Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round. 1990.
Magee, Bryan. Aspects of Wagner. 1988.
McCreless, Patrick. Wagner's Siegfried. 1982.
Rather, L. J. The Dream of Self-Destruction: Wagner's Ring and the Modern World. 1979.
Shaw, Bernard. The Perfect Wagnerite. 4th ed. 1922.
Spencer, Stewart [SS]. Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung (translation). 1993.
Spencer, Stewart, and Barry Millington. Selected Letters of Richard Wagner. 1987.
Spotts, Frederic. Bayreuth. 1994.
Stein, Jack. Richard Wagner & the Synthesis of the Arts, 1960.
Stone, Monte. The Ring Disc: an Interactive Guide to Wagner's Ring Cycle. 1997.
Page created 1999, latest revision April 2013 by Larry A. Brown