The Kennedy Center

Die Walküre

About the Work

Wouter Hutschenruyter Composer: Wouter Hutschenruyter
© Richard Freed

Wagner composed the text for Die Walküre (?The Valkyrie?), the third of the four works that constitute Der Ring des Nibelungen (?The Ring of the Nibelung?), between November 1851 and July 1852, began work on the score two years later, and completed the work in March 1856. The first performance, however, did not take place until June 26, 1870, when the opera was produced in Munich, with Franz Wüllner conducting. It was subsequently presented at Bayreuth on August 14, 1876, as part of the first complete presentation of Der Ring des Nibelungen which marked the opening of the Festspielhaus created specifically for the still continuing annual festivals of Wagner's works. The National Symphony Orchestra collaborated with the Washington Opera in presenting four fully staged performances of Die Walküre in the Kennedy Center Opera House, with Antal Doráti conducting, on December 9, 11, 13 and 15, 1974. The orchestra has frequently performed the famous numbers that open and close the last of the opera's three acts?the Ride of the Valkyries and the Magic Fire Music?and recorded both of them under Doráti for Decca. In respect to Act I, Hans Kindler conducted portions of it on January 9, 1936, with the soprano Else Alsen and the tenor Paul Althouse, and repeated some of them at various times during his tenure, the last being January 9, 1946, when the tenor Lauritz Melchior sang Siegmund's Love Song, from Scene, form Scene 3. Material from Act I also figured in The Ring without Words, Lorin Maazel's ?symphonic synthesis? of music from all four of the Ring dramas, which Mr. Maazel conducted here on May 20, 21 and 22, 2004.

Three singers?a soprano taking the role of Sieglinde, a tenor as her long lost twin Siegmund, and a bass as her husband Hunding?constitute the entire cast of Act I, the orchestra for which comprises a piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 8 horns (among these, 4 Wagner tubas?2 tenor, 2 bass), 3 trumpets and bass trumpet, 4 trombones and contrabass trombone, tuba, 2 timpani, 2 harps, and strings. Duration, 65 minutes.


Although the Ring comprises four music dramas? Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung ?Wagner did not regard it as a tetralogy, but as a trilogy with a prelude: he designated it a Bühnenfestspiel f ür drei Tage und einen Vorabend? a stage festival for three days and a preliminary evening. The first of the four dramas, Das Rheingold , is only half as long as any of the subsequent ones; it is laid out in a single act: four scenes in which the basis of this extended tale from Norse mythology is set up, with the initial theft of the Rhine gold establishing a pattern of conflict and retribution that is to find its resolution at the end of the cycle in the death of the hero (Siegfried) and the destruction of Valhalla itself. Die Walküre, the second of the four related operas, is thus the first of the ?three days,? the beginning of the actual drama. And it is a very human drama, in which Wagner most poignantly and effectively explores basic human emotions and what came to be called ?the human condition.? Influences such as Schopenhauer, Feuerbach and Hegel have been cited to illuminate how it was that Wagner came to the insights so stunningly evident in these works, but these are at best only partial explications. The imaginativeness, the creative spark, and the compassion which must seem very much at odds with so much of Wagner's personal life and public statements link him as directly to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Shakespeare as to Hegel, Feuerbach and Schopenhauer, and his innovativeness as a musician gave his works a penetrating power beyond that of words alone.

The orchestra, of course, was central to Wagner's thinking, and his masterly exploitation and expansion of its resources (which involved the introduction of new instruments made to his specifications) was a major factor in achieving his narrative and dramatic aims. His orchestra did not merely support the action but provided much of its momentum. By the time Wagner composed the Ring he had refined and extended his use of Leitmotiven ?specific themes and sub-themes identifying not only the various characters in his dramas but also objects, glances and specific emotions. The orchestra's citation of these motifs at pivotal moments?such as, in Act I of Die Walküre , the Volsung motif when Siegmund first notices the unexpected familiarity in Sieglinde's features, and the Sword theme when the weapon is first seen lodged in the ash tree?give the instrumental forces a function that might be likened to that of the chorus in the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

Wagner composed his own texts for all his stage works (though his early ones were adapted from existing poems and plays by such writers as Gozzi, Shakespeare and Bulwer Lytton). For the Ring he began as early as 1848 drafting the libretto for the final work in the cycle, which he called Siegfrieds Tod (?Siegfried's Death?) before settling on the title Götterdämmerung (?Twilight of the Gods?). He then started work on the text for that work's immediate predecessor Siegfried , and then for Die Walküre and Das Rheingold. The music for the four dramas, however, was composed in the order in which they were to be performed, and the actual premieres waited for some time. When we look into the reasons for the delays we see that Wagner's own life was filled with a level of drama and tension that may have equipped him particularly well for undertaking such epic works, with their emphasis on heroism, idealism and betrayal. Altogether the project engaged the composer over a period of nearly thirty years, during which he introduced such less expansive masterworks as Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

In 1849, about the time he began outlining his text for Götterdämmerung , Wagner had to go into exile because of his participation in revolutionary activity after the successful premieres of Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser in Dresden. He was not able to be present at the premiere of Lohengrin , which Liszt conducted in Weimar the following year. It was not until early in 1862, after he completed the libretto for Die Meistersinger in Paris, that we was granted amnesty by the King of Saxony and allowed to return to Germany. At the same time, his break with his first wife, Minna, became final. He supported himself by conducting concerts in visited Vienna, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Budapest and other cities, but by March 1864 he had piled up enough debts to have to flee Vienna to avoid arrest. At his Swiss refuge, two months later, he received an extraordinary offer of support from the newly enthroned young King Ludwig II of Bavaria. In Munich Ludwig provided Wagner with sufficient funds to pay all his debts, granted him a generous annual stipend, and paid him a fee equal to four years of that stipend specifically to enable him to complete the composition of the Ring.

Six months earlier (November 1863) fifty-year-old Wagner had begun an intense relationship with Cosima von Bülow, the not quite 26-year-old daughter of Liszt and the Comtesse Marie d'Agoult. Cosima was at that time the wife of the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, a pupil and associate of her father's who was then establishing himself as a major pianist and conductor (with help from Wagner at one point), and who became director of the Munich Court Opera at about the same time King Ludwig brought Wagner to that city. Cosima bore Wagner's first child, the daughter Isolde, two months before her husband conducted the premiere of Tristan und Isolde in 1865. Certain court intrigues prompted the King to ask Wagner to leave Munich temporarily at the end of that year (at about the same time Minna died in Dresden), and in April 1866 the composer rented the villa ?Tribschen,? near Lucerne. Cosima bore him another daughter, Eva, early the following year, and in June 1868 Bülow conducted the premiere of Die Meistersinger. Five months later Cosima joined Wagner at Tribschen, but it was not until the birth of their son Siegfried, the following year, that Bülow finally instituted divorce proceedings. It was Franz Wüllner who conducted the premiere of Das Rheingold in Munich in September 1869, three months after Siegfried Wagner's birth, and in the following summer, less than a month after Cosima married Wagner, Wüllner presided over the premiere of Die Walküre . In 1874, two years before the opening of the Festspielhaus with the first complete Ring, Wagner, his wife, their three children and her two daughters by Bülow moved into their newly constructed home ?Wahnfried,? in Bayreuth.

Perhaps introducing a work whose hero begins the chain of events by taking another man's wife and begetting a son named Siegfried would have been too much, even for Bülow, who was awed by Wagner's genius and survived without bitterness. He was genuinely shaken by the news of Wagner's death in 1883, and sent Cosima a telegram reading simply, ?Soeur, il faut vivre!? ??Sister, one must go on living!? (In October 1875 Bülow came to America as a pianist and gave the world premiere of Tchaikovsky's B-flat Minor Concerto in Boston. As a conductor he subsequently championed the works of Brahms and encouraged the young Richard Strauss. He was one of the early conductors of the Berlin Philharmonic, and in his last years he settled in Hamburg, where his funeral service in 1894 provided Gustav Mahler with the inspiration for the mighty choral finale of his Second Symphony. Cosima did go on living, until 1930, when she died at age 92, only four months before her son, who had succeeded her as director of the Bayreuth Festival in 1906 and was succeeded upon his death by his own sons Wieland and Wolfgang.)

As already suggested, it is the humanity exhibited and analysed throughout the Ring , and not a mere fascination with gods and demigods, that gives these dramas their stature and has ensured their grasp on the loyal of audiences through so many years. This is particularly true of Die Walküre , which has been and remains the most favored of the four Ring dramas as measured by the frequency of the performances it has enjoyed on its own. Wotan himself, the chief of the Norse gods otherwise known as Odin, recognized the power and vibrancy of human sensibilities, and it was his hope for a hero who would be able to operate on a base of free will rather than the inexorable fate determined for the gods that led him to children with a mortal woman of the Volsung (Wälsung) tribe?and that is the background for Die Walküre and the remaining segments of the Ring. While the prefatory Rheingold is peopled by gods and other supernatural creatures, the dramatis personae in the first act of Die Walkü re are mortals in a setting far removed from lofty Valhalla; indeed, the heroine of the entire cycle is transformed from godhood into a mortal at the end of this work, and in the two remaining dramas the matter of divinity is of diminished power and importance. The power of love, however, as understood in strictly human terms is not at all diminished, but is exalted.

While Act I stands splendidly on its own, as a self-contained hymn to this idea (while calling, as Wagner acknowledged in Act II, for some bending in the way of conventional moral boundaries), it may be helpful to understand how it fits in, not only with what is to follow in the two succeeding acts and the remaining two music dramas in the cycle, but also with what has gone before. There is of course more to Das Rheingold than the building of Valhalla: in that more concise drama we are introduced to Wotan and Alberich (the King of the Nibelungs) as rivals aspiring to nothing less than dominion over the world. As a condition for obtaining the gold from the Rhine Alberich had to forswear forever and unconditionally the possibility of ever knowing love. That was something Wotan would not have considered, but he manages to take the Nibelung's magic ring?forged from the Rhine gold as the embodiment of his power?and other treasures by trickery. Wotan himself is compelled to turn these ill-gotten assets over to the brothers Fasolt and Fafner in payment for building Valhalla, but Alberich had put a curse on the ring, which led one giant brother to kill the other. Fafner, the surviving one, then made use of one of the other stolen goods, the enchanted helmet Tarnhelm, to turn himself into a dragon, in which form he keeps watch over the treasure hoard in a cave. Wotan is far from powerless, but covets this hoard to realize his grand design. To win it back, he sees that he will need a hero unencumbered by the various compromises he himself has made?or by any knowledge of the past.

That, more or less, is where things stand as the gods proceed over the Rainbow Bridge into Valhalla at the end of Das Rheingold , and here is what transpires in Die Walküre , Act I, told in part with Wagner's own stage directions and portions of the sung text (set in smaller type):

The brief Prelude describes a winter storm. The setting, however, is indoors: a spacious hut built around a huge ash tree that grows from its floor through its roof. The tree is Yggdrasill, ?the center of all worlds.? This is the home of Hunding and his wife Sieglinde.


The stage remains empty for a time; outside, the storm is dying down. Siegmund opens the house door from outside and enters . . . ; his clothes and appearance show that he is in flight. Seeing no one, he closes the door, staggers toward the hearth like a man at the end of his strength, and throws himself down on a bearskin rug.

Hunding has not returned home from his day's activity. Sieglinde enters; she gives the stranger water to drink, and he tells her he has been forced to run from enemies who outnumber him, and to seek refuge in her house, because his few weapons were lost. She makes him welcome in her husband's name and gives him a drinking-horn filled with mead. He has been gazing at Sieglinde with a fascination beyond gratitude. When he prepares to leave, in order to avoid involving her in the bad luck that dogs him, she remarks that misfortune is no stranger in her house, and asks him to stay.

She slowly raises her eyes to him again, in profound silence, they gaze raptly into each other's eyes.


Sieglinde suddenly gives a start; listening, she hears Hunding leading his orse to the stable. She hurries to the door and opens it. Hunding, armed with shield and spear, enters and stops in the doorway when he catches sight of Siegmund; he then turns to Sieglinde with a gravely questioning look.

Hunding does not hide his distrust of the stranger, but grudgingly offers the customary hospitality. As Sieglinde prepares the table for a meal, Hunding notices that she and the stranger look very much alike; both he and his wife ask their guest's name. Siegmund replies that he calls himself Wehwalt (?Woeful?), son of Wolf, and he proceeds to tell his story. He remembers being brought up with a twin sister, and often going hunting with his father. One day, when they were away, members of the Neiding tribe raided their house, burnt it down, killed his mother and abducted his sister. Eventually he lost his father as well, and was rejected everywhere as one bearing a curse of ill fortune. Now he has tried to defend a young woman whose family was trying to force her to marry against her will, and his efforts touched off vicious fighting and the slaughter of many people. Hunding, now feeling his suspicions justified, announces that he is a member of the family that has been pursuing Siegmund (the Neidingen), and only the laws of hospitality prevent him from exacting satisfaction on the spot for the kinsman Siegmund has slain. Sieglinde tries to intervene, but Hunding orders her to their room, there to await him with his bedtime drink.

Sieglinde stands for a while, lost in thought and irresolute. She walks slowly and hesitantly toward the storeroom. On reaching it she stops and remains standing, deep in thought, her face half turned away. Calmly and decisively she opens the cupboard, fills a drinking-horn and sprinkles herbs in it from a box. Then she turns to look at Siegmund and meets his gaze, which he has not taken from her. She perceives Hunding's stare, and at once goes toward the bedroom. On the steps she turns once more, looks beseechingly at Siegmund, and with a steadfast and significant gaze seeks to draw his attention to a particular spot on the trunk of the ash tree. Hunding starts to his feet and gestures brusquely for her to leave. With one last look at Siegmund, she goes into the bedroom and closes the door behind her.

Now alone with Siegmund, Hunding tells him he may enjoy the hospitality of his house for the night, but must prepare to fight him in the morning.

S CENE 3. Left alone, Siegmund, without weapons, recalls his father's words that one day, when in extreme need, he would find a sword meant especially for him. The last embers reflect on the tree trunk, and he remembers Sieglinde's gazing at it. She then comes from the bedroom, where Hunding has fallen into a drugged sleep. She was forced to marry him even though she hated him, she tells Siegmund, and tells him also of the mysterious old man who appeared on their wedding day and made a show of thrusting a sword into the trunk of the ash tree that grows in the middle of the house, declaring that it would belong to the one man able to pull it free. No one has been able to budge that sword, she tells him, but he is surely the hero who will pull it from the tree and deliver her from her bondage to her hated husband.

The great door bursts open. . . . Outside, it is a beautiful spring night; the full moon shines into the house and its light falls upon them, enabling them at last to see each other properly. . . . Siegmund pulls Sieglinde gently but firmly down to sit on the rug beside him. The moonlight grows brighter.

Siegmund observes that the winter storms have vanished and spring has come. You are spring, Sieglinde declares, the spring I longed for, the friend whose coming I awaited. As they confess their love, Sieglinde recalls childhood memories, and she asks Siegmund again about his name. It cannot be ?Woeful,? since she loves him; perhaps Friedmund??Peaceful.? But?did he name ?Wolf? as his father?


If Volsa was your father and you are a Volsung, it was for you he thrust his sword into the tree, so let me call you by the name I love: Siegmund [?Victor?]?so I name you.

Siegmund's joyous and powerful response is an acknowledgement of that name, and of the name of the sword, Notung (?Need,? in the sense of a necessity), which he confidently draws from the tree and presents to her as a wedding gift. (We hear not only the Sword theme, but an intimation of the one associated with the hero who is its predestined owner, Siegfried.) Before they flee together, they pledge their love:


Are you Siegmund whom I see here? I am Sieglinde who longed for you: your own sister you have won, and the sword as well.


Wife and sister you will be to your brother. So let the Volsung blood flourish!

The lovers, however, do not have much of a future, though they do conceive a child before Hunding catches up with them. In Act II, Wotan has chosen his favorite among his warrior-daughters by the earth goddess Erda called Valkyries?Brünnhilde?to intervene in the imminent fight between Siegmund and Hunding so that Siegmund comes out the victor. But his wife (identified for us by Anna Russell a few decades ago as ?Mrs. Fricka Wotan?), as the guardian of the sanctity of wedlock, upbraids him and demands punishment for the double offense of incest and adultery, and at length Wotan is compelled to give his word that Siegmund will fall to Hunding's sword. Brünnhilde is unable to persuade Wotan to revert to his original decision, and of course she cannot think of disobeying him. But when she confronts her half-brother to announce his impending doom, he rejects her invitation to follow her to Valhalla because his wife and their unborn child mean so much to him that he would even kill them before meeting his own death, rather than let them go uncared for in a hostile world. The Valkyrie has never before been exposed to such emotion, and she does undertake to protect Siegmund in the duel after all. Wotan, enraged by her disobedience, arrives in time to shatter Siegmund's sword?the very one he himself had left for him in Yggdrasill?with his own spear, allowing the fatal blow to be struck by Hunding. Brünnhilde gathers up the shattered bits of the sword and goes off with Sieglinde to find a safe place for the impending birth. Wotan then expresses his contempt for the unworthy victor by killing Hunding with a wave of his hand, and sorrowfully considers how to deal with his favorite daughter's misbehavior.

That hero, or course, is to be the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, the central figure of the two remaining dramas of the Ring , whose name is given to the cycle's third part, Siegfried. It is Siegfried, in the eponymous opera, who puts the shattered sword back together, who eventually takes possession of the ring by slaying Fafner, and then is led by a forest bird to Brünnhilde (who, Anna Russell to the contrary notwithstanding, is his aunt). An encounter along the way with Wotan, whom he does not recognize, ends with his breaking the god's spear into bits with the sword that spear had once shattered, thus ending the power of the gods and proceeding to form the union which, unknown to him, is to ?redeem the world.? In the last and longest of the Ring dramas, Götterdämmerung , which starts off rapturously but soon becomes laden with complications and betrayals, Siegfried's death at the hands of the treacherous Hagen precipitates Brünnhilde's self-immolation, the return of the ring to the Rhine Maidens, and the destruction of Valhalla. In the end, neither the gold nor any degree of godhood has been any protection whatever against a far greater and more powerful force of destiny; it is love alone whose power remains, love that has justified the struggles and pain endured by the mortal characters in the drama and given them a fulfilment beyond anything attained by the gods themselves. This too has been ?preordained,? in the episode performed in the present concerts.