“My Walküre turns out terribly beautiful,” Richard Wagner wrote to his friend, the composer Franz Liszt, on June 16, 1852. “I hope to submit to you the whole poem of the tetralogy before the end of the summer. The music will be easily and quickly done, for it is only the execution of something practically ready.”
For neither the first nor the last time in Wagner’s life, things did not work out quite as he had planned. By the end of that year he had, indeed, finished the libretto (or “poem,” as he called it) for his four-part cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”), based on stories from ancient Germanic and Norse myths. But the music for Walküre was not finished until December 1854, and it was another year and a half before he finished the orchestration.
The Ring begins with Das Rheingold, a one-act work Wagner called a “Preliminary Evening.” Die Walküre (“First Day of the Festival Play”) is next, followed by Siegfried, then Götterdämmerung. It all started in 1848 when Wagner wrote 11 pages he published as The Nibelung Myth: as Sketch for a Drama. But it was almost 30 years before the first performance of the completed work was given in a theater Wagner had constructed specifically for that purpose in Bayreuth, Germany. His intention was for the Ring to be performed as a whole, rather than broken up into its individual operas. It’s a monumental work in both scope and impact, and it is not going too far to say many people who attend a cycle feel their lives have been changed forever by the experience.
Most modern performances of the Ring are spread over a week, as Wagner wished, but since the composer’s own time, theaters have also been presenting the separate parts on their own. Walküre quickly became the most enduringly popular, for a number of reasons. For one thing, after the gods, goddesses, dwarves, and giants of Rheingold, Walküre introduces human beings into the story of the Ring. It begins with two very sympathetic people, Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the first act is devoted to them falling in love. “The score of the first act of Walküre will soon be ready; it is wonderfully beautiful. I have done nothing like it or approaching it before,” Wagner told Liszt. He was right. The music of Die Walküre builds significantly on Das Rheingold, where he had begun using leitmotifs to construct the music. These short segments of melody, rhythm, or harmony could be associated with a character or a dramatic event, even an emotion or an object. In Walküre, Wagner used them to help suspend time itself while the drama took place, wordlessly, inside the characters. Thanks to Wagner’s brilliant writing for orchestra—something he had to develop even above what he had done in Rheingold—the audience actually experiences for themselves the inner lives of the characters on stage.
Just moments into Act I of Die Walküre, Sieglinde offers Siegmund some water. The stage directions say: “Siegmund (drinks and hands her back the horn. As he signals his thanks with his head, his glance fastens on her features with growing interest.)” To underline these stage directions, Wagner silences the orchestra entirely, except for a single cello. For nine measures this lone cello plays some of the sweetest, most yearning music imaginable, before being joined by the rest of the cellos and two basses for another eight measures. Listeners need not know what labels commentators have attached to the music to experience for themselves the longing in Siegmund’s soul, the love that is even then starting to blossom.
The plot of Die Walküre can be summarized in a few dozen words; the outer events are relatively simple. But the inner journey of the characters is uncommonly rich and complex. It’s the difference between flying from New York to California and driving there: You fly because you want to get to your destination as quickly as possible. But if you drive, the journey itself becomes the point.
In Walküre, Wagner’s music has a new power that compels us to let him be our guide on the quest he is undertaking. That’s how he allows us to experience for ourselves the growing love between Siegmund and Sieglinde, to feel the rightness, the naturalness of it. The powerful nature of their love is well established long before they (and we) discover they are brother and sister, so our emotions accept their love, even if our mind—assuming we can wrench it away from Wagner’s music—might have a few questions.
In addition to Siegmund and Sieglinde, we meet Brünnhilde, one of the central characters in the Ring. She enters the story in Act II, singing one of the most famous (and one of the shortest) “numbers” in the entire cycle, the battle cry “Hojotoho!” Wagner was extraordinarily careful in noting exactly how this should be sung. The first two syllables (“Ho-jo”) are a single phrase, followed by a sixteenth note (“to”), then the last syllable (“ho”) to be held for five beats, followed by a single beat rest. This gives the music a quick, bouncy quality that is emphasized later when Wagner asks the soprano to sing the final “ho” on two notes, separated by an octave leap but connected smoothly, ending on high Bs and then high Cs. He also asks her to trill—nonstop—for almost two measures before launching up to a high B and holding it for two measures. If a soprano can sing this incredibly difficult “Hojotoho!” as Wagner intended, the audience cannot help but be charmed by the impetuous, cheeky, rambunctious teenage girl sassing her father, Wotan—to his delight and ours. Her character, and her relationship with Wotan, are firmly established within a couple of minutes.
It is also one of the few genuinely joyful moments in Walküre, an opera rather short on happiness. While in the thick of composing, Wagner lamented to his friend, the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, “I find the subject of Die Walküre too painful by far: there’s really not one of the world’s sorrows that the work does not express, and in the most painful form; playing artistic games with that pain is taking its revenge on me: it has made me really ill several times already, so that I have had to stop completely.”
Another reason for the popularity of Walküre is that we are likely to find ourselves mirrored in it—if not in the new love enjoyed by Sieglinde and Siegmund in Act I, then by the dilemma facing Wotan in Act II, as he realizes that all of his careful planning is for naught and that, despite his best efforts, his life has taken a terrible turn, leaving him no way out. The scene in which Wotan wrestles with this crisis caused Wagner no end of trouble, and he agonized over whether or not people would grasp what Wotan is going through. “For the development of the great tetralogy, this is the most important scene of all,” he insisted.
Wotan’s anguish continues, with a new focus, in the final act. Its ending is one of the most extraordinary in all of opera, with a sense of loss, grief, abandonment, and yet overwhelming love as Wotan is forced to let go of the most precious thing in the world to him, Brünnhilde. It seems like a bitter defeat: his cherished son Siegmund is dead. His favorite child, Brünnhilde, is banished forever. His plans—to create a hero who would be able to win back the ring and return it to the Rhinemaidens and thus save the gods—have crumbled to nothingness. He has nowhere to turn.
And yet it is because of these apparent failures that Siegfried (in the next opera) turns out to be the very hero the gods need. This glimmer of hope, in the middle of such overwhelming sorrow, is surely another reason why Die Walküre is such a beloved opera.
Bavaria’s King Ludwig II was not willing to wait until Wagner had completed the entire Ring before experiencing Die Walküre in the theater. Against Wagner’s wishes, the opera was given for the first time on June 26, 1870, in Munich, nine months after the premiere of Das Rheingold. Wagner refused to be involved in any way, and he asked his friends not to attend. The famous violinist Joseph Joachim was there. So were Brahms and Saint-Saëns. Despite his friendship with Wagner, Liszt went and sobbed through part of the opera. Even newspapers usually critical of Wagner pronounced Die Walküre an extraordinary work of art.
The fact that opera houses continue to devote considerable time and resources to presenting Die Walküre in new ways proves that Liszt did not exaggerate in his assessment when he wrote to Wagner, “Your Walküre [score] has arrived, and I should like to reply to you by your Lohengrin chorus, sung by 1,000 voices, and repeated a thousandfold: ‘A wonder! A wonder!’” —Paul Thomason
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.