“The most astounding fact in all Wagner’s career was probably the writing of the text of Siegfried’s Death in 1848,” says Ernest Newman in Wagner as Man and Artist. “We can only stand amazed at the audacity of the conception, the imaginative power the work displays, the artistic growth it reveals since Lohengrin was written, and the total breach it indicates with the whole of the operatic art of his time. But Siegfried’s Death was impossible in the musical idiom of Lohengrin; and Wagner must have known this intuitively.”
Even so, it is unlikely that in November of 1848 Wagner understood that his new opera would not be completed for decades, or that it would—under the title Götterdämmerung—be the culmination of one of the greatest masterpieces in all of Western civilization, Der Ring des Nibelungen. Earlier that year Wagner had finished orchestrating Lohengrin. He was becoming increasingly active in the political turmoil sweeping Dresden (as well as much of Europe). He also made sketches for operas based on the lives of Friedrich Barbarossa and Jesus of Nazareth. That summer he had written the essay “The Wibelungen: World-history from the Saga,” and later he would write “The Nibelung Myth: As Sketch for a Drama.” But there is no indication that at this time Wagner was actively planning on mining the Nibelung saga for more than Siegfried’s Death.
In May of 1849 the uprisings in Dresden were put down. Wanted by the police for his political activity, Wagner fled, eventually settling in Switzerland. He produced a number of prose works over the next few years, including the important Opera and Drama, written during the winter of 1850–51, and planned an opera called Wieland the Smith. In 1850 he also revisited his libretto for Siegfried’s Death, making some musical sketches.
The more Wagner thought about it, the more he realized that for the story of the hero’s end to be truly understood by the audience, they needed to know more about what had gone before. So in 1851 he wrote the libretto to Young Siegfried, which was then followed (in reverse order) by Die Walküre and Das Rheingold, spelling out in greater detail why the events of Siegfried’s Death occurred. It was not until October of 1869—after composing the music for the first three works in the Ring, as well as Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg—that Wagner again took up the task of creating the music of the drama now known as Götterdämmerung. The name change reflected a significant shift in the opera itself, from the death of its hero to the downfall of the gods themselves.
In the earliest version of the story, Brünnhilde took the body of Siegfried to Valhalla, where his death redeemed the gods. Before igniting Siegfried’s funeral pyre, she announced, “Hear then, ye mighty Gods; your wrong-doing is annulled; thank him, the hero who took your guilt upon him… One only shall rule, All-Father, Glorious One, Thou [Wotan]. This man [Siegfried] I bring you as pledge of thy eternal might: good welcome give him, as is his desert!”
There has been much speculation about why Wagner changed the ending of the Ring from this optimistic one, in which Wotan and the gods continued to rule, to the ending we know today, in which the gods perish. Sometimes this shift is attributed to Wagner’s discovery of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, but that did not occur until the end of 1854, at which point Wagner had completed the text for the Ring. Wagner’s optimism about a new social order for Europe began crumbling as the revolts of 1848 and 1849 were crushed, and by the time he began making a prose sketch for Young Siegfried in May of 1851, he noted: “Guilt of the Gods, and their necessary downfall. Siegfried’s mission. Self-annihilation of the Gods.”
Wagner’s Dresden friend August Röckel, who had only read the libretto of the Ring, asked the composer a question that has puzzled audiences at Götterdämmerung from the beginning: “Why, seeing that the gold is returned to the Rhine, is it necessary for the gods to perish?”
“I believe that, at a good performance, even the most naïve spectator will be left in no doubt on this point,” Wagner replied. “It must be said, however, that the gods’ downfall is not the result of points in a contract… No, the necessity of this downfall arises from our innermost feelings. Thus it was important to justify this sense of necessity emotionally… I have once again realized how much of the work’s meaning (given the nature of my poetic intent) is only made clear by the music. I can now no longer bear to look at the poem [the libretto] without music.” Or, as he put it in a letter to Franz Liszt, “The thing shall sound [the italics are Wagner’s] in such a fashion that people shall hear what they cannot see.”
Thomas Mann brilliantly summed up the relationship between Wagner’s words and music in the speech he gave on the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death: “The texts around which it [the music] is woven, which it thereby makes into drama, are not literature—but the music is. It seems to shoot up like a geyser from the pre-civilized bedrock depths of myth (and not only ‘seems’; it really does); but in fact—and at the same time—it is carefully considered, calculated, supremely intelligent, full of shrewdness and cunning, and as literary in its conception as the texts are musical in theirs.”
Which is why Wagner knew he could not compose the music of Götterdämmerung until he had achieved absolute mastery of his compositional technique, which, he explained to Röckel, had “become a close-knit unity: there is scarcely a bar in the orchestra that does not develop out of the preceding unit.” As he composed the Ring, Wagner greatly expanded his use of leitmotifs—bits of melody, harmony, rhythm, even tonality—far beyond merely representing a character or an object. They became infinitely malleable, and Wagner put them together in ways that became not only increasingly subtle, but also superbly expressive, adding layers of drama and emotion to the events taking place on stage. Even if listeners have no knowledge of the leitmotifs, Wagner’s music is still enormously potent and can be a life-changing experience.
“Music drama should be about the insides of the characters,” Wagner said. “The object of music drama is the presentation of archetypal situations as experienced by the participants [Wagner’s italics], and to this dramatic end music is a means, albeit a uniquely expressive one.”
At first glance, after the uninterrupted flow of drama in the three preceding parts of the Ring, the libretto of Götterdämmerung might seem a throwback. It has recognizable, easily excerptable arias, a marvelous love duet, a thrilling swearing- of-blood-brotherhood duet, a chilling vengeance trio, and rousing choruses. But when Wagner finally began to compose the music for Götterdämmerung he did not rewrite the libretto, other than to make some changes in the wording of the final scene. He knew the libretto worked exactly as it should, providing him with precisely the words and dramatic situations he needed to write some of the greatest orchestral music ever conceived. And it is through the music that Wagner can make dramatic points much more vividly than could be made through words.
One of the most shattering parts of Götterdämmerung is Siegfried’s Funeral Music. Even played in the concert hall, shorn of the rest of the opera, it makes a tremendous effect. In its proper place during a performance of the full drama, it is overwhelming. A bit of insight into why this is so comes from the diary of Wagner’s second wife, Cosima. The entry for September 29, 1871 reads:
“‘I have composed a Greek chorus,’ R[ichard] exclaims to me in the morning, ‘but a chorus which will be sung, so to speak, by the orchestra; after Siegfried’s death, while the scene is being changed, the Siegmund theme will be played, as if the chorus were saying: “This was his father”; then the sword motive; and finally his own theme; then the curtain goes up and Gutrune enters, thinking she had heard his horn. How could words ever make the impression that these solemn themes, in their new form, will evoke?’”
Cosima does not mention the concept of a Greek chorus in connection with the Immolation Scene or the great orchestral outpouring that follows Brünnhilde’s words. But it is impossible not to think of these moments as a magnificent musical threnody for everything that has gone before. Such a profound summing up of complex lives, situations, and emotions must be expressed by the orchestra, because mere words could not do them justice or provide the catharsis that allows for a true transformation and a new beginning—all of which Wagner’s music does, perfectly, at the end of Götterdämmerung.
Several years after the Ring had been given at Bayreuth in 1876, Cosima noted in her diary: “In the evening, before supper, [Richard]…glances through the conclusion of Götterdämmerung, and says that never again will he write anything as complicated as that.” For many Wagnerians, he never wrote anything better. —Paul Thomason
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.