Scenes From the Ring
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Scenes From the RingFollowing are a few suggestions for scenes to listen to before taking on the whole cycle in a performance. I don't want to supply the scenes in their entirety here lest I violate copyright fair use laws (not to mention blowing my available disk space, not to mention requiring long downloads), but I recommend you borrow some recordings from the library or from a friend and listen to these excerpts a few times. This will accomplish several things:
Prelude (Das Rheingold)This is the opening to the whole cycle. Wagner wants to do two things here: First, he wants to suggest the creation of the world from primal principles; and second, he wants to establish the Rhine river as the opening scene. He starts with a single long note, deep in the bass. After a time, a second note joins at a fifth interval. Eventually, a horn sounds a slow upward arpeggio, defining a major chord and a key. The horn is joined by others, all working the same tonic chord over and over. Finally, the strings enter, playing an upward-surging "wave" motive against the chord, first slowly and then faster, until we are completely immersed in the swirling of the waters. The whole thing gathers to a crescendo, and then suddenly the harmony changes abruptly (at last!) and we find ourselves listening to the first Rhinemaiden singing her carefree song in a different key. This prelude is surely the longest exposition of a single chord in all classical music.
Erda's warning (Das Rheingold, Scene 4)Wotan is refusing to give up the Ring to the giants, who are threatening to take Freia back with them on a permanent basis. Everyone is distraught and pleading with Wotan to give in, but Wotan is standing firm. Suddenly Erda appears out of the ground, and announces, "Beware, Wotan, beware! Flee the Ring's curse!" She normally does not meddle in affairs above ground, but the crisis is of sufficiently world-shaking import that she has come. She goes on: "All that is, ends. A doom-laden day is dawning for the Gods." Wotan demands that she stay and explain herself, but Erda descends back into the ground and disappears.
Erda (the Nature motive done in a minor key)
Donner calling up the storm (Das Rheingold, scene 4)After the giants have left and the plot is, for the moment, finished, Donner complains that "A sultry mist hangs in the air" and calls up a storm to clear it. I include this bit because it's kind of fun, and because it shows Wagner's ability to call up an image with music. The only motive from this passage that appears later is the 6-note "Heda! Heda! Hedo!", which shows up later in the storm from which Siegmund emerges at the start of Die Walküre.
Hunding's challenge / Siegmund alone (Die Walküre, Act I)After hearing Siegmund's story, Hunding rises and announces that he knows Siegmund to be the enemy of his blood. He gives him leave to spend the night, but says Siegmund will have to defend himself in the morning, though Siegmund is weaponless. Angrily, he commands Sieglinde to prepare his sleeping draught. (She will, needless to say, slip him a mickey.) There is a long orchestral passage while she prepares the drink, during which she indicates to Siegmund with her gaze a spot on the ash tree where the sword is stuck.
Siegmund is left alone. He ponders his predicament. His father Wälse promised that he would find a sword when in direst need; where is it? (Listen for the long drawn-out "Wälse! Wälse!") And to make matters worse, he finds himself in love with his enemy's wife. Finally he spies the sword in the tree, and rhapsodizes over his good fortune.
Hunding (heavy, usually in the low brasses; listen for two sharp chords)
Brünnhilde and Siegmund (Die Walküre, Act II)One of my very favorite scenes. Sieglinde has collapsed in exhaustion and Siegmund is preparing for his upcoming fight with Hunding. Brünnhilde appears: "Siegmund! Look upon me! I come to call thee hence!" There follows a classic bit of mythic, fairy-tale question-and-answer:
S: Who are you who dost stand so beauteous and stern?
B: Death-fated men alone behold me. I come to take the fallen from the field of battle.
S: When he is thine, whither do you take the hero?
B: To Wotan, where he awaits you in Valhalla.
S: Will I find in Valhalla Wotan alone?
B: All the fallen heroes' hallowed band will greet you.
S: Dwelleth in Valhalla Wälse my father?
B: His father there will the Volsung find. [Valhalla motive here, of course; Siegmund doesn't know that Wälse is Wotan, but we do.]
S: Will there a woman fond greeting give?
B: Wish-maidens wait on thee; Wotan's daughter will hand you the cup.
S: Shall Siegmund find there Sieglinde his bride and sister?
B: Here on earth must she linger. Sieglinde will he not find there.
S [bends over Sieglinde, kisses her]: So greet for me Valhalla, greet for me Wotan, greet for me Wälse and all the heroes, greet for my the fair wish-maidens; to them I'll follow thee not!
Siegmund/Sieglinde love themes
The Ride of the Valkyries (Die Walküre, Act III)The Valkyries gather on a hilltop with their harvest of fallen heroes. Often performed as a concert orchestral piece, as the musical interest is mostly in the orchestra--all those "ho-jo-to-ho"s are pretty much punctuation. This is enormously exhilirating music; try to imagine how riveting it must have sounded to an audience who had never heard it before. No wonder movie composers have stolen from passages like this (and the Magic Fire music) since the invention of the talkies!
Notice how the orchestral texture is built up in a series of layers to form a complex, highly energized texture:
First, a call-to-attention figure--an upward swoop to a trill.
Next, a "galloping" figure in the horns climbing upward in successive bounds ("dump a-dump dump a-dump dump....")
Next, swooshing, swirling figures in the strings.
Finally, the main melody. This is the melody that people hum when they think of this piece, but most of the energy is coming from those other layers that lie below it.
When all of that is put together, the voices of the Valkyries then add further layers. What a ride! It's a shame that people have heard this so many times that they often don't stop and listen to it.
You can hear echoes of this passage pretty much every time Brünnhilde (or any other Valkyrie) rides a horse or refers to one.
Wotan's farewell to Brünnhilde (Die Walküre, Act III)A heart-buster. This is the ending of Die Walküre, and my favorite single scene in the whole cycle. It begins with a lot of discussion between the two along the lines of "Is what I did so terribly wrong?" "You chose this course, and you must live with the result."
Brünnhilde finally asks, "What have you decreed that I shall suffer?" Wotan says he will put her to sleep on a rock, and whichever mortal finds her and wakes her will have her as wife. Brünnhilde asks one favor only: that no craven man be allowed to win her--that Wotan surround her with mortal terrors to scare off all but the bravest of heroes.
Wotan is greatly moved, and grants her wish. He sings a beautiful, touching farewell, taking his leave forever of his favorite daughter and leaving her for one who is "freer than I, the God." He kisses her into sleep and lays her, in her armor, on the rock.
That done, Wotan invokes the treaties on his spear and commands Loge, god of fire, to appear and encircle the rock. Once the fire is established, he commands, "He who my spear point's sharpness feareth, shall ne'r break through this fierce, flaming fire!" (to the tune of the Siegfried motive) and exits through the flames.
Siegfried reforges the sword (Siegfried, Act I)Siegfried has ordered Mime, who is a smith by trade, to reforge the sword Nothung, but Mime is unable to do it, and has to confess as much to Siegfried. Siegfried dismisses Mime with contempt and sets out to reforge it himself. While he works at the fire, Mime plots how he will kill Siegfried and sets about cooking up the poison to feed him once he has killed Fafner. Listen to the orchestra swirl amidst the flames and smoke!
Siegfried's Rhine Journey (Götterdammerung, Act I)An orchestral interlude, designed to allow the scene to be changed onstage without having to stop the action. It is often performed as a concert piece. Siegfried has taken his leave of Brünnhilde and gone off in search of adventure. His travels take him down to the Rhine, where he will encounter the always fun-loving Gibichungs.
Motives (roughty in order)
Siegfried and Brünnhilde's love theme
Siegfried's Funeral March (Götterdammerung, Act III)Another scene-change interlude and orchestral concert piece, this one occurs immediately following Siegfried's death at the hands of Hagen. The music is essentially a reprise of Siegfried's life and heritage.
Motives (roughly in order)
Siegfried's death motive (two sharp chords, twice, and an angry running figure)
Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene (Götterdammerung, Act III)The end of the opera cycle. Brünnhilde shows up amidst all the Gibichung bickering over Siegfried's body and takes control. She muses over her love for Siegfried, over the passing of the Gods, over the meaning of the whole story. She orders that Siegfried's body be placed upon a funeral pyre, she takes the Ring from his finger and considers that she is about to give it back to the Rhine and the Rhinemaidens and thus cleanse the earth of the curse.
Finally, she summons her horse Grane, mounts up, and leaps mounted onto the funeral pyre--one of many challenges Wagner sets for production designers. The waters of the Rhine rise to flood the pyre, Hagen makes a last grab for the Ring, and the Rhinemaidens pull him down to his death. The last thing we see is Valhalla in flames in the distance.
Lots of them--including:
The last portion of Brünnhilde's sung part is dominated by Redemption By Love. After she jumps on the pyre, the sequence of motives is:
And the final orchestral passage:
Rhinemaidens' happy song