CLASSICAL MUSIC RECOMMENDATION #50
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
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
The story is long and complex. Briefly, in Das Rheingold (The
the dwarf steals the Rheingold from the Rhinemaidens in the river
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 Gibichungs
– Gunther, 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
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
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.