In May of 1857, Richard Wagner wrote to his friend Julie Ritter:
“Although I completed only the first act of Siegfried this winter, it has turned out better than I could ever have expected. It was completely new ground for me. Now that this act has turned out as it has, I am convinced that young Siegfried will be my most popular work, spreading quickly and successfully, and drawing all the other dramas after it… But it seems increasingly probable that the first performance of the whole thing will not take place before 1860.”
As things turned out, the first performance of the “whole thing”—Wagner’s four-part cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen—did not take place until 1876. The orchestration of Siegfried was not completed until February of 1871, after one of the most troubling gestations in the history of music.
It all started in the autumn of 1848, when Wagner wrote “The Nibelung Myth: As Sketch for a Drama,” a short plot outline based on his own reweaving of ancient Germanic and Norse myths. His tale of the rise and fall of the gods, the creation of the hero Siegfried (“the most perfect human being”), and Siegfried’s union with Brünnhilde eventually grew from one opera to four. By 1857 Wagner had completed the libretto to the entire work and composed the music to the first two operas, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre.
But only a month after his letter to Julie Ritter, Wagner informed another friend, the composer Franz Liszt:
“I have finally decided to abandon my obstinate attempts to complete my Nibelungs. I have led my young Siegfried into the beautiful forest of solitude; there I have left him beneath a linden tree and have said farewell to him with tears of heartfelt sorrow:—he is better there than anywhere else.”
Wagner—as usual—was in desperate need of money, and the publisher who had agreed to buy the score to Siegfried and the last opera of the cycle, Götterdämmerung, had withdrawn the offer. Wagner explained to Liszt:
“And so, I am now resolved upon a course of self-help. I have conceived a plan to complete Tristan und Isolde without further delay; its modest dimensions will facilitate a performance of it, and I shall produce it in Strasbourg a year from today… I am thinking of having this work translated into Italian and offering it to the theater in Rio de Janeiro… I shall dedicate it to the emperor of Brazil…and I think there should be enough pickings from all this to enable me to be left in peace for a while.”
It was a mad plan and, like many of Wagner’s attempts to make money, came to nothing. Wagner had not yet finished the prose sketch for Tristan, to say nothing of the actual libretto, or the music. His original idea “of leaving Siegfried alone in the forest for a year, in order to give myself some relief in writing a Tristan und Isolde” (as he told Ritter in July of 1857) eventually stretched to 12 years. During that time he not only finished Tristan, but revised his opera Tannhäuser for Paris and wrote Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as well. Bavaria’s new king, Ludwig II, took the throne in 1864 and became Wagner’s patron. Wagner also began an affair with Liszt’s daughter Cosima while she was still married to the conductor Hans von Bülow. Wagner and Cosima eventually married, but not before setting off a major scandal in Munich that threatened his standing with the king.
More than once during this chaotic 12-year hiatus, Wagner turned back to Siegfried, but it was not until February of 1869 that he “put the finishing strokes to the second act,” as he informed King Ludwig. By September he had completed the music to Act III, but to avoid having a performance of the work given in Munich (as had happened very much against his will to the first two operas in the Ring) he delayed finishing the orchestration until February of 1871, making excuse after excuse to the king.
There are numerous logical “outer” reasons that kept Wagner from doing any significant work on Siegfried for 12 years, but more than likely the true reason for the postponement lay within Wagner himself. Deep in his psyche he undoubtedly realized that he needed to gain a more complete mastery of his compositional style before writing the music for the great confrontation between Siegfried and Wotan or Siegfried’s awakening of Brünnhilde.
Siegfried is the comic opera of the Ring, but it is also the great turning point of the entire cycle, where Wotan, whose concerns dominated the first two operas, gives way to Siegfried and Brünnhilde. As Wagner wrote to his good friend August Röckel:
“Following his farewell to Brünnhilde [at the end of Die Walküre], Wotan is in truth no more than a departed spirit: true to his supreme resolve, he must now allow events to take their own course [the italics are Wagner’s], leave things as they are, and nowhere interfere in any decisive way; that is why he has now become the “Wanderer”: observe him closely! He resembles us to a tee; he is the sum total of present-day intelligence, whereas Siegfried is the man of the future whom we desire and long for but who cannot be made by us, since he must create himself on the basis of our own annihilation.”
Of all the major characters in the Ring, Siegfried is probably the one who has been most misunderstood. Comedienne Anna Russell’s description (“He’s very young, and he’s very handsome, and he’s very strong, and he’s very brave, and he’s very stupid—he’s a regular Li’l Abner type”) is the one many operagoers have heard, but it is not accurate. Siegfried is not a badly socialized adult; he is a teenager—boisterous one minute, brooding and introspective the next. Emotionally he’s more on par with Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro or Octavian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier than with Wagner’s Tristan or Siegmund. His only influence, other than nature itself (which he reveres) has been Mime, an evil, manipulative dwarf who plans to use Siegfried to kill Fafner and regain the Nibelung treasure. “Even speech I’d scarcely have mastered, had I not wrung it out of [you],” Siegfried tells him, which tells us just how caring Mime has been.
Like most mythic heroes, Siegfried does not know his true parents, has never experienced their nurturing love, and has been forced to trust his own, inner instinct for survival. This instinct has made him hungry for knowledge, distrustful of Mime, and it is this instinct that leads him to file down the fragments of his father’s sword to re-forge it into his own, rather than trying to patch them together with solder as Mime has tried to do. “I’ve grown as old as cave and wood but never saw the like!” Mime mutters as he watches Siegfried at work. Psychologically it’s a masterstroke on Wagner’s part to show Siegfried forging his own manhood (of which the sword is a symbol) rather than simply accepting someone else’s sword (identity) and using it as his own, as his father, Siegmund, did in Die Walküre. Siegmund simply accepted Wotan’s sword, so when he tried to use it in opposition to Wotan’s wishes, it broke. But when Siegfried uses it against the Wanderer in Act III, he is successful because the sword is no longer borrowed from Wotan—Siegfried has made it his own. He has become his own man, a hero. And that is why he can easily pass through the magical fire surrounding the sleeping Brünnhilde, awaken her, and claim her as his mate.
It is through Wagner’s astonishing music that we can truly intuit the complex truth of his characters. While working on Siegfried Wagner wrote to Liszt:
“Only in the course of composing the music does the essential meaning of my poem [the libretto] dawn on me: secrets are continually being revealed to me that had previously been hidden from me. In this way everything becomes much more passionate and more urgent.”
For Siegfried’s exuberant Act I entrance and laughter Wagner wrote scampering eighth notes that eventually climb to a high C. But only a few minutes later Siegfried’s music is tender as he speaks of the birds in the forest, and it becomes filled with longing when he thinks of his mother’s death. At the moment Mime finally shows Siegfried the pieces of his father’s sword, Wagner tells us unmistakably what a significant moment this is: the very sound of the orchestra instantly becomes brighter. A listener does not need to intellectually know that the trumpet plays the musical motif associated with the sword and the strings counter with the motif representing Siegfried’s youthful strength in order to emotionally experience the great burst of energy and enthusiasm that explodes from the orchestra at that moment. It’s the perfect depiction of Siegfried suddenly understanding, deep inside, that this is what he needs to take the next step in life.
The music of the first two acts is dominated by the dark sound of the lower instruments in the orchestra. Act I takes place in Mime’s cave deep in the woods. Act II is set next to Fafner’s cave in another part of the forest. Until we meet the Forest Bird toward the end of Act II, all the singers are male. This means that Wagner’s musical palate has been largely the equivalent of a late Rembrandt self-portrait—predominantly dark, but filled with subtle hues. So when Siegfried defeats the Wanderer and climbs the mountain to find Brünnhilde, the change in Wagner’s music is nothing less than astonishing. It’s the equivalent of stepping outside and taking a deep breath of fresh, clean air after being in a cramped room. The sound of the orchestra changes as the woodwinds, violins, and harps (Wagner asked for six of them) become more prominent. The higher Siegfried climbs, the higher and more transparent the music becomes, until he finally reaches the summit and only the first violins are playing, their music going still higher up the scale. “He looks around for a long time in astonishment,” the stage directions say, and just as the violins approach a sustained C above high C, four trombones—very softly—sound the three chords that make up the fate motif, the same three chords that accompanied Wotan’s standing in the very spot where his grandson now stands. At the end of Walküre, Wotan stopped to look back with infinite regret at the sleeping Brünnhilde. Now Siegfried stands in wonder, filled with awe and eagerness to continue his heroic journey. —Paul Thomason
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.