Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music – Richard Wagner




When John Williams wrote the score for Star Wars, film fans were ecstatic over his use of themes for the different characters and the way he combined them. When Howard Shore scored The Lord of the Rings, his use of themes for not only the characters but events was hailed as “operatic”.


Before them all was Richard Wagner.


Wagner was not the first opera composer to associate musical themes with characters. But he was the first to make these themes, which he called “leitmotifs”, an integral part of his story-telling. In his four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs), he set a standard that still influences composers – especially film composers – to this day.


Wagner began writing this tour de force in 1813 (see my Recommendation #3 for a brief biography of Wagner). He originally wanted to write a single opera titled “The Death of Siegfried”, based on ancient Norse and German legends, but soon realized that the story was much too complex to tell in a single work. So he decided to write another opera to explain the events leading up to Siegfried’s death. Then he realized that he would have to explain who Siegfried was and how he came to be part of the story, so he planned another opera for that. Finally, it became clear that he would have to write a fourth opera to explain how all this tragedy surrounding Siegfried and Brunnhilde came to be to begin with.


It took him 21 years (including a 12-year hiatus during the third opera) to complete the entire cycle. And then, no opera house then existing could stage the entire production, so Wagner had to build the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. This theater premiered the entire Ring Cycle on August 13, 1876, and still hosts annual productions of the four operas.


The story is long and complex. Briefly, in Das Rheingold (The Rheingold), Alberich the dwarf steals the Rheingold from the Rhinemaidens in the river Rhine, renouncing love to do so and fashioning the gold into a ring of power with which he intends to rule the world. Meanwhile Wotan, king of the gods, has had giants Fafner and Fasolt build Walhalla, the immense castle of the gods. As part of their payment, Wotan steals the ring from Alberich, who curses it. When the giants receive the ring, Fafner immediately kills Fasolt for it.


In Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Wotan has had two children, Siegmund and Sieglinde, by a mortal woman. The two are separated at birth, and Sieglinde marries Hunding, a hunter. The opera opens with Siegmund stumbling into Hunding’s hut, where he sees Sieglinde and falls in love with her. When Hunding resolves to fight Siegmund, Wotan wants to protect his son, but his wife, Fricka, insists that he protect Hunding instead, or he (Wotan) will lose his power. So he orders Brunnhilde, a Valkyrie (a warrior-maiden charged with transporting fallen heroes to Walhalla) and his daughter by Erda the goddess of the earth (I told you this was complex!) to protect Hunding. She, however, protects Siegmund instead. As her punishment, she is put into a deep sleep by Wotan and left atop a mountain surrounded by a ring of magical fire that only a hero can penetrate.


In Siegfried, we meet the young hero, Siegfried, the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde (who were slain by Fricka). He has been raised by the dwarf Mime, who just happens to be the brother of Alberich. Mime has heard that Fafner, the giant, has transformed himself into a dragon and guards a hoard of gold, including the Ring. Mime talks Siegfried into battling the dragon, figuring that Fafner and Siegfried will kill each other and he can claim the ring. However, when Siegfried accidentally tastes some of the dragon’s blood while killing it, he learns of Mime’s trickery, and kills him instead. Then he learns of the beautiful, mysterious woman on the mountain, surrounded by fire. He seeks her out, penetrates the flames, and wakes her up. They fall madly in love.


Finally, we come to the opera that Wagner wanted to write all along – Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). Siegfried leaves Brunnhilde to seek adventure, and finds himself in the hall of the GibichungsGunther, Gunther’s sister, Gutrune, and Gunther’s friend, Hagen, who just happens to be – wait for it – Alberich’s son. Hagen, who recognizes the Ring that Siegfried is wearing and wants to reclaim it for his father, tricks Siegfried into drinking a potion that makes him forget Brunnhilde and fall in love with Gutrune. He then gives Siegfried a magic helmet that will allow him (Siegfried) to assume the identity of Gunther. Siegfried/Gunther returns to Brunnhilde and forces her to come to the castle Gibichung where she will then marry Gunther (the real one). When she realizes that she was betrayed by Siegfried, she tells Hagen about Siegfried’s one vulnerable spot on his back. Hagen kills Siegfried. Brunnhilde realizes that Hagen tricked them both, and arranges a giant funeral pyre for Siegfried. When it is fully aflame, she rides her horse into the fire, along with the Ring. Hagen tries to seize the ring, but the Rhine overflows and drowns him and the pyre. The Rhinemaidens appear and reclaim their gold, while Walhalla itself burns in the distance, destroying the gods.


The last part of the final opera, Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music, is an amazing combination of musical themes from the entire 20+ hour epic. Originally, Brunnhilde sings her last aria over this music, but it is often excerpted and performed without words in the concert hall. This is another of those pieces that I can’t remember how I discovered. However, when I did, it affected me immensely. The overwhelming sense of tragedy and the final cleansing redemption were simply overwhelming.


Throughout the four operas, Wagner assigns leitmotifs to almost every major character, item, and concept. The Rhine has its motif, as does the gold, and the ring into which the gold is made. Wotan has his motif, as does his spear, the law of the gods, and Walhalla. Siegfried has his horn call, and his sword has its own motif. And these just scratch the surface (the University of Texas has an extensive list of motifs from the Ring, with musical examples). Wagner uses these motifs to not only directly identify the characters, items and actions, but also to let the audience in on things of which the characters may not be aware themselves – for example, when Siegmund tells Sieglinde about his unknown father, the orchestra plays the “Wotan” theme. He also combines the themes to make miniature stories – when Siegfried fights Fafner the dragon, for instance, the orchestra plays a combination of Siegfried’s motif, the dragon’s motif, and the motif of Siegfried’s sword.


For the last 15 minutes or so of Götterdämmerung, Wagner pulls in almost every leitmotif and combination thereof to close the drama. We hear Siegfried’s horn call, in a noble form for full brass; we hear the Magic Fire that surrounded Brunnhilde and now claims her and her lover’s body; we hear the Ring, the Rhine, and the Rhinemaidens; we hear Walhalla’s theme as it burns in the distance; and over all, at the very end, we hear the gorgeous motif of Love’s Redemption.


Here is an excerpt from a 1995 PBS “Great Performances” broadcast, in which several musicians discuss the idea of leitmotifs and how Wagner uses them.


And here is the full performance of the orchestral version of the final moments of Götterdämmerung.


In 1981, I saw the incredible Excalibur, John Boorman’s tribute to the legend of King Arthur. For the score for his film, Boorman drew on several classical sources, to smashing effect. I already mentioned one such use, “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, in Recommendation #43. For the moment in the final battle when Arthur and Mordred kill each other, Boorman chose the first half of Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music. The film displays a marvelous editing job, as we hear the music straight through, while Boorman uses it to underscore not only the moment when Arthur and his son face each other for the last time, but also Percival’s reluctant return of the sword, Excalibur, to the Lady of the Lake and the final glimpse of the boat that carries Arthur’s body to the island of Avalon.