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3.3: Richard Wagner - The Valkyrie

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    We are now going to explore that cultural context. John Williams was well educated in the Western concert and theatrical traditions. He served in the U.S. Air Force Band from 1952 to 1955, during which time he played piano and brass, arranged music, and conducted. His piano degree from the Juilliard School in New York City came with a thorough grounding in music history. And his decades recording film and television scores as a session musician in Los Angeles allowed him to become deeply familiar with the conventions of the screen.

    Video 3.3.1 : This theme by Richard Wagner bears a clear resemblance to Williams’s “Imperial March.”

    Our examples, however, will come not from television or movies but from older traditions of theatrical music. We will begin with an example from the opera repertoire. In the European tradition, opera is a staged work of music theater, complete with costumes, sets, and dramatic plot twists. Most operas employ an orchestra to accompany the stage performers, who often sing throughout. While Richard Wagner’s style and melodies certainly influenced Williams’s work (the “Imperial March,” for example, is clearly derived from a theme Wagner’s wrote to represent a magical helmet known as Tarnhelm4), we will focus here on Williams’s use of a technique that Wagner perfected: the technique of assigning a unique theme to each character, object, place, and idea in a drama. Wagner called such a theme a leitmotif.

    Wagner’s Career

    Before examining Wagner’s music, some biographical context is called for. It is possible that Richard Wagner (1813-1883) has had a greater impact on the development of Western art music than any other composer. For such a towering figure, however, he got off to a very slow start.

    He did not exhibit any particular talent as a child and never became an accomplished performer. In his twenties, he dedicated himself to the composition of operas, although it was many years before he made a success of the endeavor. In 1839 he actually had to crawl through the gutters of Riga to escape his creditors after having his passport confiscated by the municipal authorities. Then in 1849 he became involved in an attempt to overthrow the Dresden government. He not only helped to plan what is now known as the May Uprising, but actually participated, throwing grenades in the street. After the uprising failed, Wagner fled to Switzerland, where he remained in exile for most of a decade.

    Image 3.3.1 : This portrait of Richard Wagner was painted by Franz von Lenbach. Source: Wikimedia Commons Attribution: Franz von Lenbach License: Public Domain

    In Switzerland, Wagner shifted his attention from practice to theory. He quit writing music for several years and instead wrote about music. In one 1849 essay, “The Artwork of the Future,” Wagner theorized a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total artwork,” that would bring together all art forms—music, dance, gesture, poetry, image—into a single, ideal medium of artistic expression. Naturally, he imagined himself as the artist who was most capable of achieving this fusion. To prove the power of his ideas, he set to work on a monumental cycle of music dramas that would take him decades to complete. In a highly unusual move, Wagner not only wrote the music for these operas but also developed the narrative, wrote the libretto (the sung text), and even designed the theater in which the operas were eventually premiered. The project took him decades to complete, and the entire cycle was not premiered until 1876. By this time, Wagner had returned to Germany under the patronage of the King of Bavaria, who admired his work and offered him permanent financial support. The King also financed the construction of a grand opera house (the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth) to Wagner’s specifications. It was there that the complete cycle was finally staged.

    Image 3.3.2 : This early edition of Wagner’s manifesto was published in 1850. Source: Wikimedia Commons Attribution: H. P. Haack License: CC BY 3.0

    The Ring Cycle

    Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungs (German: Der Ring des Nibelungen)— or, as it is now known, the Ring Cycle—consists of four massive operas and takes about fifteen hours to perform. The story derives from Norse mythology, which Wagner understood to describe the ascent of his own German race. The operas enact a prolonged struggle between the gods and the humans. The gods are ruled by Wotan (the German version of the more familiar name Odin), who seeks to consolidate their power, but he is finally defeated by the human Seigfried. The story begins with the forging of a powerful ring out of gold extracted from the Rhine river and ends with the return of the ring to the river, the burning of Valhalla, and the flooding of the Rhine. These catastrophes mark a new age of human rule— the Norse myth of Ragnarök.

    Like John Williams and George Lucas, Wagner relied on centuries of cultural history in crafting his masterpiece. The story outlined above is not original. His approach to setting that story to music was also not original, although he took pre- existing techniques to new heights. To begin with, Wagner expanded the size of his orchestra, introducing new instruments into the brass section. These instruments— which included the bass trumpet, contrabass trombone, and a euphonium-type device now known as the “Wagner tuba”—allowed him to produce a more subtle variety of timbres for the creation of diverse sound worlds. His musical style, like that of other composers of the time, was highly varied and expressive, although many of Wagner’s contemporaries felt that his music set the bar for intensity of emotional content. Finally, Wagner adapted and transformed a practice that had long been common in opera: the use of recurring melodic themes (leitmotifs) to help tell the story.

    Video 3.3.2 : This video, produced by the brass section of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, presents several important leitmotifs and demonstrates how they can be transformed to communicate meaning.

    If a listener sits through Wagner’s entire fifteen-hour drama, they will hear hundreds of leitmotifs, most of which are frequently repeated. Some span all four operas, while some are restricted to an act, or even a single scene. Each is connected to an important element of the drama, and each is introduced along with that element. The first time Wotan picks up his spear, for example, we hear a forceful, march-like descending melody in the brass. This music then returns every time we see the spear or hear a reference to it. Wagner’s leitmotifs are often melodically connected to each other, such that themes representing related ideas or characters sound similar to one another. The leitmotifs5 can also be transformed as the power of an idea or object shifts over the course of the story. Most importantly, however, the leitmotifs can be used to communicate information to an audience that is not included in the libretto or onstage action. We will see this principle at work in our example.


    The Valkyrie

    Table 3.3.1 : “Wotan’s Farewell” from The Valkyrie Composer: Richard Wagner. Performance: Bryn Terfel with the Berliner. Philharmoniker, conducted by Claudio Abbado (2002)



    What to listen for


    Powerful destiny

    Heard in the trombones as Wotan prepares to put Brünnhilde into an enchanted sleep



    Heard first in the horn and continued in the oboe



    Wotan announces that he is about to strip Brünnhilde of her immortality


    Magic sleep

    Heard first in the woodwinds, then the strings


    Innocent sleep

    Heard in the strings


    Wotan’s grief

    Heard in the strings in combination with “Innocent sleep”


    Powerful destiny

    Heard in the tromobones in combination with “Innocent sleep”


    Wotan’s spear

    Heard in the low brass


    Loge as fire

    The collection of leitmotifs related to Loge as fire enter the texture



    Wotan calls forth Loge, the demigod of fire


    Wotan’s spear

    Heard in the low brass


    Ambivalent Loge

    We hear hints of this leitmotif interwoven with “Loge as fire”


    Ambivalent Loge

    Heard in the woodwinds


    Magic sleep

    This version of “magic sleep” moves at a much quicker tempo than that heard at 8’40”

    13’33” Innocent sleep Heard in the woodwinds

    13’43” Siegfried’s To the melody of “Siegfried’s heroism,” Wotan heroism declares that any man who fears his spear will be incapable of crossing the flames

    14’11” Siegfried’s Repeated in the brass heroism

    14’36” Wotan’s grief Heard in the cellos

    15’25” Powerful Heard twice in the low brass destiny

    We are going to take a look at the final scene (Act III, Scene 3) of the second opera, The Valkyrie (German: Die Walküre). This scene contains two characters, Wotan and his favorite daughter, Brünnhilde. At this point in the drama, Brünnhilde, daughter of the god Wotan, has disobeyed her father’s orders by interceding on behalf of the humans Siegmund and Sieglinde. Despite her efforts, Siegmund is killed, and Brünnhilde is left to face Wotan’s fury. The punishment for disobeying the ruler of the gods is death, but Wotan takes pity on Brünnhilde, whom he loves dearly, and instead declares his intention to strip her of her immortality and powers and put her into a magical sleep on top of the mountain. He conjurs Loge, the demigod of fire, to erect a ring of flames around Brünnhilde, and declares that only a hero who does not fear his spear will be able to pass through the fire and wake his daughter.

    Figure 3.3.3

    This scene, which lasts less than twenty minutes, contains twenty-one separate leitmotifs. Indeed, the listener hears virtually no music that cannot be classified as a leitmotif. Most of the themes in this scene were introduced in the first opera and have been heard many times, although some do not return after this scene. Four themes, however, are introduced in this scene and proceed to play an important role in the remaining operas. Although various music scholars have counted and named Wagner’s leitmotifs in different ways, we will use the descriptions supplied by Roger Donington in 1963.

    According to Donington, the scene in question contains the following leitmotifs: love as fulfillment, Wotan frustrated, powerful destiny, unavoidable destiny, Valkyries as animus, Valhalla, Wotan’s spear, relinquishment, Volsung as destiny, the love of Siegmund and Sieglinde, downfall of the gods, the curse, Siegfried’s heroism, sword as manhood, magic sleep, innocent sleep, ambivalent Loge, Wotan’s grief, renunciation, and Loge as fire (two different versions). As you can see, these themes connect with a wide variety of dramatic elements. Some are straightforward representations of objects or places, while others embody abstract concepts. All enrich the drama and aid in telling the story.

    Video 3.3.2 : The “Loge as fire” and “Ambivalent Loge” leitmotifs, both heard in this passage, capture the characteristics of a leaping flame.

    Like Williams, Wagner did not randomly pair themes with objects and ideas. Each leitmotif expresses meaning in sound. We will examine a few of the themes used in this scene before seeing them in action. The music associated with “Loge as fire,”6 for example, is meant to capture the characteristics of flame. This passage features high-pitched instruments with bright timbres, such as the flute, and the sharply-articulated melody leaps about. The music almost sparkles. Swells and ebbs in the music—created using rising and falling dynamic levels and pitches— represent the unpredictable spread of fire across the ground. (This kind of music has long been associated with wind and storms.) In contrast, both of the “sleep” leitmotifs are slow and peaceful, and they feature the soothing sounds of strings and harp. “Magic sleep”7 consists of a gradual chromatic descent that comes as close as music can to representing the act of falling asleep. “Innocent sleep,”8 on the other hand, is easily recognized as a lullaby, with its rocking rhythms, lilting melody, and stable harmonies.


    7. The “Magic sleep” leitmotif suggests the act of falling asleep.

    8. The “Innocent sleep” leitmotif sounds like a lullaby.


    9. The “Wotan’s spear” leitmotif is brash and aggressive.

    10. The “Siegfried’s heroism” leitmotif represents confidence and bravery.

    The “Powerful destiny” leitmotif is simple but mysterious.

    Wagner used his large brass section to represent strength and power. “Wotan’s spear,”9 which features the trombones and tubas, marches confidently down a scale into the very low range. “Siegfried’s heroism”10 begins with a confident leap up to the tonic and often grows in volume. (Many listeners observe that this leitmotif closely resembles John Williams’s theme for “the Force.”) “Powerful destiny,”11 which is heard throughout the scene, consists of a simple but surprising shift from one harmony to another. Wagner weaves all of these leitmotifs together into a tapestry of orchestral and vocal sound.

    Finally, this scene—which is often referred to as “Wotan’s farewell”—exhibits one of the most significant powers of the leitmotif: its ability to foreshadow events yet to come. In the final moments of the scene, Wotan declares that only a hero who does not fear his spear will be able to pass through the flames and wake Brünnhilde. He sings this declaration to the melody of “Siegfried’s heroism,” which is then echoed by the full orchestra in a resounding climax. At this point in the story, however, Siegfried has not even been born. Sieglinde has only just learned that she is pregnant with him, and he will not appear until the next opera. At the same time, the theme is not new. It has been in use since earlier in this opera to foreshadow the appearance of a human hero, and it will be heard nine times in the next opera. When we hear this music, therefore, we know exactly who is going to wake Brünnhilde, even though Wotan—who sings the melody—does not.

    Images License: Public Domain


    There is no question that Wagner’s Ring operas have been both influential and successful. They are staged in countless opera houses around the world every year, often at great expense. The most lavish cycle to date was produced at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House in 2012 at a cost of $19.6 million. Every year, fans travel to the Bayreuth Festival in Germany to see the Ring and other Wagner operas staged in the theater that the composer himself designed. At the same time, some critics argue that we should no longer produce these operas or listen to Wagner’s music. Their argument is not that the music is bad, but rather that the composer’s ideology is so repugnant as to merit the erasure of his art.

    Wagner’s anti-Semitic views were widely known during his lifetime. In an article entitled “Jewishness in Music” (1850), he argued that Jewish composers were incapable of producing profound musical expression, and that their attempts to do so were damaging to the progress of art. Furthermore, he claimed that Jewish artists lacked the capacity to recognize or represent authentic German culture. Although Wagner first published the article under a pseudonym (presumably to make his attacks against other composers seem less personal), in 1869 he republished it under his own name, and with a long addendum reflecting the artistic and political developments of the intervening decades. Wagner’s views provoked considerable resistance among his contemporaries, but they were later embraced by the Nazi Party. Indeed, Adolf Hitler would become Wagner’s most infamous admirer.

    Image 3.7: This 1910 postcard captures the interior of the Bayreuth Festpielhaus, designed by Wagner himself for the presentation of his operas. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Attribution: Ramme & Ulrich, Hoffotograf, Bayreuth License: Public Domain

    There are also concerns about the content of Wagner’s music dramas. While the Ring is not overtly anti-Semitic, it expresses an ideology of nationhood that tacitly excludes all but the ethnically pure “German” of Wagner’s imagination. Stripped of their mythology, the Ring operas tell the story of a human race that rises to a position of world dominance. For Wagner, this was the German race, and the German race did not include Jews.

    For these reasons, Wagner’s music is unofficially banned in the nation of Israel, while music lovers around the world hold his work in disdain and choose not to program or consume it. The debate over whether we can separate an artistic work from its creator, however, is far from settled. Should the sins of the artist be visited upon the art? Can we enjoy music, films, or paintings that we know to have been created by reprehensible individuals? Does it matter that Wagner died many years ago, and can neither profit nor suffer as a result of our consumption decisions? Does support of Wagner’s art suggest support of his ideas? We are forced to grapple with these questions not only in the case of Wagner but every time that the creator of beloved cultural products is discovered to have committed hateful actions.

    This page titled 3.3: Richard Wagner - The Valkyrie is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Esther M. Morgan-Ellis with Contributing Authors (University of North Georgia Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.