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Richard Wagner

‘Die Walküre’ conducted by Solti

1961. Royal Opera House, London
'Die Walküre' from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, conducted by Georg Solti in his first year as Music Director
Composer Richard Wagner
Conductor Sir Georg Solti
Singers Hans Hotter, Anita Välkki, Jon Vickers
Ensemble Covent Garden Opera
Genre Opera
Richard Wagner 1813–1883

Die Walküre

First day of Der Ring des Nibelungen in three acts to a libretto by the composer;  Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater, Munich, 26 June 1870.

Die Walküre – An Introduction

In between Das Rheingold and the action of Die Walküre Wotan has sought more advice from the earth goddess Erda who forced him to give up the ring to the giants and warned him that the gods were not immortal.

They became lovers and had nine children – Brünnhilde and eight other Valkyries. (Wagner took the Norse original form of Valkyrie – ‘valkyrja’, ‘chooser of the slain’ – literally and also kept their traditional number – nine.) The slain they choose go to make up the army that Wotan is recruiting to garrison his castle, called Valhalla (‘hall of the chosen ones’).

Like Zeus roaming the earth in disguise in Greek mythology, Wotan has also lived among mortals, disguising himself as a rough woodsman called Wälse, or the Wolf, and having two further children, the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde – this time by a mortal woman. Wotan/Wälse gives his children a hard upbringing in the forest to equip his son for fighting to regain the ring for the gods: Sieglinde is abducted, and her mother murdered, by the Neiding tribe, while Siegmund is abandoned in the forest, left with only the wolfskin his father wore. On the day of Sieglinde’s forced marriage to Hunding, Wotan reappears in disguise as a wanderer, an old, greyhaired pilgrim. Into the trunk of a tree that stands in their hut, he plunges a sword, a gift for whoever is able to draw it out.

Elsewhere in the world, the giant Fafner has turned himself into a dragon in order to guard the ring, the tarnhelm and the Rhinegold. He lives in a cave in the eastern part of the forest. The Nibelung Alberich, plotting like Wotan to regain the ring, has persuaded a mortal woman to bear him a son.

© Mike Ashman

Act One

Scene One

The interior of a dwelling built round the trunk of a mighty ash tree.

During a violent storm Siegmund has escaped from his pursuers but has lost his spear and shield. The persistent bass of the storm’s wind is like a magnified version of the accompaniment to Schubert’s Erlkönig and would in turn inspire the opening of Mahler’s Second. Notable also is the expressive contrapuntal handling of the many themes, anticipating other instrumental passages in the Ring – the prelude to Siegfried’s Act III and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey.

Siegmund finds refuge in Hunding’s hut and falls unconscious. Sieglinde revives him with water and mead. The two feel an immediate attraction but do not recognise each other. When Siegmund tries to leave so as not to bring his own bad luck on her, Sieglinde assures him that he cannot make her home more unhappy than it already is. The presence of human beings onstage for the first time in the Ring encouraged Wagner in this act to feature instruments closer to the human voice, for example the cellos. The significant pauses and long, purely instrumental sections that accompany moments onstage of intense but unstated passion anticipate Tristan.

Scene Two

Hunding returns home and is suspicious of the stranger Sieglinde has taken in. Noting their similarity to each other, he asks to know more about Siegmund. The emotional content of Die Walküre was undoubtedly influenced by Wagner’s personal life at the time of its composition. He had fallen madly in love, at least in his head, with Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of the rich Zurich silk merchant who became his patron. Mathilde became Wagner’s primary muse in the mid-1850s, an influence deliberately courted to help create the atmosphere of his new work: she was Sieglinde before she was Isolde, no less an inspiration to Die Walküre than toTristan. It was also in Die Walküre – written while living as the lodger of Mathilde and Otto – that Wagner conceived the triangle of characters in conflict that was to serve him in his next three completed operas – the tenor hero, the soprano he wishes to marry and who must make some sacrifice for him, and the bass, who may be some kind of patron or host but who stands in the way of the young lovers (the artist – the muse/mistress – the host, but legal opponent). Fantasising about a relationship with Mathilde helped the Act I love music of Die Walküre to be written down at delirious speeds. Cryptic notes (in initials only) are inscribed in the composition sketches about Wagner’s private dreams about her: ‘Were it not for you, beloved…’ above the passage where Siegmund gazes into Sieglinde’s eyes as he tells the first part of his life story, and ‘Beloved, why have you forsaken me?’ when Siegmund is apparently left alone for the night in Hunding’s hut.

Siegmund tells three stories about his disaster-filled life and his battles with enemies who turn out to be Hunding’s kinsmen. At the time of composition Wagner was making a special study of German lieder and Siegmund’s story has something of the form and the dramatic focus of a Loewe ballad. Bound by the laws of hospitality, Hunding agrees to give the weaponless stranger shelter for the night – but intends to kill him in the morning.

Scene Three

Alone, Siegmund calls on his father, Wälse, to show him the sword he was promised. The firelight flickers up but the gleam in the tree trunk (the hilt of the sword left by Wotan) only reminds Siegmund of the look in Sieglinde’s eyes. Sieglinde sneaks back into the room. She has given Hunding a sleeping draught. She tells Siegmund how the sword came to be in the tree and the two recognise their instinctive love for each other and embrace. The Walhall motif in Sieglinde’s narration tells us that the stranger who brought the sword is Wotan – one of the first uses of motif in the Ring to give the audience purely dramatic information. The door of the hut flies open to reveal a glorious spring night, another Parisian Grand Opera stage coup. As moonlight floods into the room, Siegmund explains that spring has answered the call of his sister, love, and Sieglinde hails him as her spring who will free her from winter’s grasp. The duet that follows is handled by Wagner like a Lisztian orchestral tone poem with a free-ranging combination of motifs. In keeping with the strict theories of his essay Opera and Drama, however, the lovers’ voices are never joined. As they examine each other more closely, Siegmund tells her his father’s real name was Wälse. Sieglinde realises he is her twin brother and gives him his true name. Siegmund names his destined sword Nothung and draws it from the tree, claiming Sieglinde as his bride and rejoicing in the union of the blood of the Wälsungs. The orchestral coda to the act is intended to describe the Wälsungs’ love-making, not a rush out into the night. Against the libretto’s closing stage direction, ‘the curtain falls quickly’, Wagner’s idol Schopenhauer wrote on his copy ‘and about time too’.

Act Two

Scene One

The motifs in the short stormy prelude reveal it to be a continuation of the action of Act I: a description of the Wälsungs in flight. Only at the very end does the Valkyries’ familiar rhythmic cell appear.
Wotan, armed for battle, instructs his favourite Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde to ensure that Siegmund is victorious in his forthcoming fight with Hunding.

Brünnhilde, delighted with her orders (‘Hojotoho!’), has to warn Wotan to expect a quarrel with his angry consort Fricka on her way to see him. Wagner was still ‘operatic’ enough to launch his cycle’s major heroine with a version of the ferociously taxing display aria of the kind that Mozart (Die Zauberflöte) or Bellini (Norma) would have recognised.
As guardian of wedlock, Fricka insists that Hunding’s marriage rights and her honour must be upheld. Wotan argues that a loveless marriage is unholy, and praises Siegmund’s boldness; Fricka denounces the Wälsungs’ behaviour as both adultery and incest.

When Wotan asks for her blessing on the pair, Fricka rages at length about Wotan’s infidelity and desertion of her and the gods. Wagner examined the legal and moral aspects of Siegmund’s incest and freedom from conventional law by continuing the inspiration versus convention debate that Wotan and his wife Fricka had begun in the second scene of Das Rheingold. In one of his Icelandic sources Frigg forced Odin to abandon one of his protégés. The subject of love in and out of legal wedlock was one of Wagner’s then current obsessions. His Jesus of Nazareth told the disciples that ‘a loveless marriage is broken the moment it has been contracted – marriage does not sanctify love – but love sanctifies marriage’. There was an autobiographical element too. Much of the scene was sketched when Wagner was on a guest conducting engagement in what he called ‘the hell’ of London. His relationship with his first wife Minna was unravelling fast. When a complaining letter from Minna arrived in the middle of this work he noted: ‘That was rather well-timed.’ This scene was also one of three occasions in the Ring when Wagner wrote more dialogue than he could accommodate in the musical setting. Wotan now tries to explain his plans for an independent hero to get back the ring for the gods, but Fricka points out his mistake: Siegmund is not free because he owes his life and his sword to his father.

Wotan is forced to agree to Fricka’s demands and Brünnhilde must too: Siegmund has to die to appease Fricka’s honour and the rule of law. Brünnhilde’s dramatic, and initially offstage, reappearance is a foretaste of the spatial vocal effects (again Paris-influenced) to be heard in the fight at the end of Act II and the Act III Ride. Fricka’s outburst ‘Deiner ew’ gen Gattin’ is reminiscent of Berlioz at his most Gluckian – the French composer met Wagner in London while they were both guest-conducting there in 1855.

Scene Two

Brünnhilde suspects that Fricka has won an important concession from her father.
After some prompting (Brünnhilde explains that she is merely ‘Wotan’s will’), Wotan explains the background to his compromised rule over the world, her birth, the struggle for the ring, and his plans for Siegmund to be the gods’ rescuer.

Admitting defeat, Wotan now longs only for an end to the whole business. He gives Alberich’s as yet unborn son his ironic blessing and leaves Brünnhilde to fight for Hunding – or risk severe punishment. As Wotan storms away, Brünnhilde feels the weight of the armour she must put on to confront Siegmund.
Wagner gives Wotan, in explaining his version of events to date, a stream-of-consciousness monologue not unlike those of Friedrich Schiller’s compromised leader hero Wallenstein, or William Shakespeare’s Lear. It remains the locus classicus for those who object to the amount of back narration in the Ring. But, as Die Walküre was conceived with a preceding drama in mind, the apparent repetition of information serves a different purpose. Like the ancient Greeks, or like his contemporaries Flaubert and Ibsen, Wagner was more concerned with who told a story and how they told it than with that story’s actual content. Wotan’s accounts of the same events (more will follow in Siegfried) are both a gauge of his mental temperature and a development of the classical Greek convention of action taking place offstage.
In the musical setting Wagner’s new arioso never becomes aria, takes a form that (as he specified in Opera and Drama) is totally governed by the drama, and continuously heightens the tension from the long pianissimo opening to the savage (and weightily accompanied) outbursts of ‘Das Ende’ and ‘So nimm meinen Segen’.

Scene Three

Sieglinde is running away from her brother, convinced that her sham marriage to Hunding has left her dishonoured and unworthy of Siegmund’s love. He declares his intention to stand and fight Hunding with the sword his father has given him. In a delirium Sieglinde thinks she sees Siegmund torn to pieces by Hunding’s dogs. She falls into a dead faint.

Scene Four

Brünnhilde comes to announce to Siegmund that, although he must die in the fight with Hunding, he will join the other heroes in Valhalla. Siegmund will meet his father ‘Wälse’ there, but Sieglinde may not come with him. To Brünnhilde’s consternation, Siegmund refuses. For the first time in her life, she is made aware of the power of human love. Siegmund, enraged that he cannot protect his sister and
bride, chooses Hell instead of Valhalla and threatens to kill himself and Sieglinde if his sword really has no power against Hunding. In spite of Wotan’s latest orders, Brünnhilde decides that she will protect Siegmund in the coming fight. Wagner invented this Icelandic saga-style dialogue without specific reference to any one source. The great span of this scene – the initial, slow recitative-like exchanges build to a long cantilena crescendo – and its musical material owe much to the Queen of the Earth Spirits’ confrontation with her son in Marschner’s Hans Heiling.

Scene Five

Siegmund hopes that his sister will sleep until the fight is won. He goes off to answer Hunding’s challenge. In a nightmare vision Sieglinde relives the moment in her childhood when her home was attacked and burnt down. ‘Kehrte der Vater nun heim!’ is so obviously borrowed from Liszt’s Faust Symphony that it became a joke between the two colleagues. This was one of the many Liszt scores that Wagner (privately) acknowledged had made him ‘harmonically quite a different fellow’.
Sieglinde wakes up, but cannot clearly see the fight is in progress. Protected by Brünnhilde’s shield, Siegmund is on the point of victory when Wotan suddenly appears and shatter’s his son’s sword on his spear, leaving him to be run through by Hunding. Brünnhilde escapes with Sieglinde and the fragments of the broken sword. Wotan contemptuously tells Hunding to report to Fricka that her husband
has done his duty. He fells Hunding with a wave of his hand and disappears to find Brünnhilde.

Act Three

Scene One

Eight Valkyries meet before riding onto Valhalla with their latest harvest of dead heroes. They are surprised to see Brünnhilde arriving so late and so fast and to see that she carries a woman on her saddle. The Ride of the Valkyries (it became instantly famous – although a version of the theme had been intended by Wagner for the Norns) was suggested by Jakob Grimm’s accounts of ancient German rituals of anointing warriors for battle, or sacrificing prisoners to Odin in his role as god of war. Wagner may also have had in mind the German folk myth of The Wild Huntsman, leading his ‘furious host’ across the sky (to which Brünnhilde alludes when she tells her sister Valkyries about Wotan’s furious pursuit of her escape with Sieglinde). Again in keeping with the conventions of Greek classical theatre, the scene (despite its brio) was not intended to show an actual battle but a reporting of one. Apart from Siegrune (‘victory spell’), Wagner made up the Valkyrie names from composites of warlike nouns (e.g. Waltraute, ‘devoted to slaughter’; Schwertleite, ‘sword-bearer’). Following Wagner’s geographically related scoring, the orchestral basses do not play until the flying Valkyries touch the ground.
Brünnhilde tells her sisters about Sieglinde but, when she admits that she has disobeyed Wotan, they are afraid to hide her. All that Sieglinde wants is death, until Brünnhilde tells her she is pregnant with Siegmund’s son, who will grow up to be the noblest hero in the world. Eager now to be saved, she receives the pieces of the sword from Brünnhilde, thanks her rescuer and rushes off into the forest to hide near Fafner’s cave, a place Wotan avoids. The expansive melody heard at ‘O hehrstes Wunder’ – best called ‘the glorification of Brünnhilde’ – will recur in the orchestra at the very end of Gotterdämmerung. As Wotan is heard calling for Brünnhilde, the Valkyries try to hide their rebellious sister.

Scene Two

Wotan rejects their pleas for mercy. Brünnhilde surrenders herself. Wotan demotes her from the ranks of the Valkyries, and sentences her to be left in a magic sleep – a prey to the first man to find and wake her. Her sisters’ objections are silenced by threats of the same fate; they are driven away and forbidden to return.

Brünnhilde’s ‘trial’ is one of the few passages in the Ring where Wagner uses the full force of his large orchestra, especially the brass section, to express the force of an emotion (here Wotan’s hurt and anger) like a battering ram. The old-fashioned feel this lends to Wotan’s sentencing is clearly intentional.

Scene Three

Left alone with her father, Brünnhilde argues that she was merely carrying out Wotan’s real, deeper intention in disobeying him. She was simply overcome by the compassion she felt for Siegmund’s plight and his love for Sieglinde. Wotan bitterly compares her joy in the new-found discovery of human love with the ‘gall’ of his own responsibility as chief god. When Brünnhilde points out that he dishonours a part of himself in humiliating her, and asks that he make sure that the man who awakes her is not just any coward, she starts to make some headway. Wagner ends Brünnhilde’s part in this opera, as he began it, with some ‘operatic’ opportunity for vocal display. In between the majority of the role has lain (intentionally) quite low, in keeping with Brünnhilde’s dramatic function. Wotan agrees to her request to be surrounded by a wall of fire so that only a hero dare approach her. Bidding farewell to his daughter, Wotan kisses Brünnhilde’s godhead away from her and puts her to sleep. He calls on Loge to surround his daughter with fire. The fire music throughout the Ring has a different emotional purpose and colour every time it appears. No one who fears his spear-point will ever be able to pass through the flames.

© Mike Ashman

Recorded live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1961

  • Jon Vickers
  • Claire Watson
  • Michael Langdon
  • Anita Välkki
  • Rita Gorr
  • Marie Collier
  • Julia Malyon
  • Margreta Elkins
  • Joan Edwards
  • Judith Pierce
  • Noreen Berry
  • Maureen Guy
  • Josephine Veasey
  • Covent Garden Orchestra
  • Sir Georg Solti

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