Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Wagner's "Götterdämmerung" (Immolation Scene)

Continuing my series of program notes:

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung: ‘Starke scheite…’ (Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene)
Hanfstaengl's 1871 portrait of Wagner
‘Let great logs be brought to the bank and heaped in a mighty pile. Let the flames…consume the noble corpse of this first of all men.’ So sings Brünnhilde in the spectacular end not only to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, but his entire Ring cycle. Here, Wagner must not only fulfill the premise of his great drama, but close off the largest harmonic structure in the history of western music - one that began three nights ago in the depths of the Rhine with three minutes of E flat major, representing the undisturbed gold on the bed of the Rhine, an image of unalloyed purity.

Since then the dwarf Alberich has obtained the gold by renouncing love; Wotan, king of the gods, has stolen the ring fashioned from that gold, to pay the giants who built his citadel; Alberich has cursed the ring, and Wotan has created humans, who, through free will, will save the gods from the destruction attached to the gods by the curse. Now the mortal hero, Siegfried, Brünnhilde’s beloved, is dead, murdered by Hagen in his quest for the world-domination accorded by the ring. But Brünnhilde possesses the ring and plans to immolate herself in Siegfried’s funeral pyre; the Rhinemaidens may retrieve the ring from her ashes.

This scene completes one of the great operas. Wagner was the towering figure of 19th century music. But his aim was to raise the dramatic integrity of opera, by using lessons learnt from Beethoven to inform dramas based on Teutonic myth constructed along the lines of Classical Greek Drama. His Ring cycle is the fullest expression of that achievement.

Note: The Ring is meant to be experienced as Music Drama. But the ‘Immolation Scene’ is a favourite item on the concert platform. Brünnhilde’s peremptory utterances are overwhelming in their command. As Brünnhilde rides her horse into the flames, Wagner reviews some of the Ring cycle’s best-loved themes (his famous lietmotifs) in a mini tone poem which depicts the burning down of Valhalla, the flooding of the Rhine, the curse motif, and, as the floodwaters recede, the Rhinemaidens’ high-spirited theme, expressing renewed gaiety, combined with the melody Sieglinde had sung when she discovered she was pregnant with Siegfried.

It’s a triumphal ending, or is it? The translation of the work’s title is Twilight of the Gods. Wagner actually struggled with this scene. By 1874 when he completed the score, he had greatly changed his 1848 concept of Siegfried as the hero who unerringly saves the gods. Wotan, a god who willed his downfall, had become more fascinating. Now Brünnhilde emerges as the cycle’s heroine.

Vengefully, Brünnhilde deliberately starts the fire that will consume Valhalla and the gods. The aged Wagner is a pessimist. But his music tells a different story. In Music Drama, we are meant to read music and action simultaneously. But the music tells us ‘love will conquer all’. Wagner’s aim may have been to raise the dramatic integrity of opera, but he became the towering figure in 19th century music. Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene works spectacularly well in the concert hall.

Gordon Kalton Williams © 2007

Please contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:

Edward Elgar's Froissart, published 2 July 2013
Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, published 3 July 2013
Franz Waxman's Carmen-fantaisie, published 6 July 2013
Jan Sibelius's Oceanides, published 8 July 2013
Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod, published 12 July 2013 
Aaron Copland's Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, published 18 July 2013
John Williams' Escapades, published 22 July 2013 
Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto Concentric Paths, published 26 July 2013 
J.S. Bach's Cantata: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott", BWV.80, published 28 July 2013  
Beethoven's 5th and 6th Symphonies, published 29 July 2013

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