An Introduction and Notes to
THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG
Part 5: Twilight of the Gods
By Larry Brown
Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
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Overview of the major themes of the four music-dramas:
- Rhinegold: Love vs Greed / Power
- Valkyrie: Love vs Law
- Siegfried: Love = Freedom
- Twilight of the Gods: Love = Resignation/Self-Sacrifice/Redemption
Mythological background of Ragnarok
Norse mythology is unique in that it includes a narration of future events, the end of the gods in a great battle. Ragnarok means "fate / doom of the gods" from which the German gets Götterdämmerung, "Twilight of the Gods."
The great battle is preceded by three year-long winters and general moral decay. Ominous signs appear: wolves that eat the sun and moon, and the stars fall. At Ragnarok, Loki escapes his chains (his punishment for plotting Balder's death), captains the ship Naglfar (made of dead men's nails) to attack Asgard along with the giants, riding on tidal waves created by the loosing of Jormungandr, the world serpent, from the ocean bottom. Fenrir the giant wolf breaks his bonds, and Surt and the fire-demons attack from the south.
Heimdall, guardian of the Rainbow Bridge (Bifrost), who never sleeps and sees and hears everything, sounds his trumpet as warning, but it's too late to avoid the final battle. In the battle all the gods meet their end: Odin is swallowed by Fenrir, who in turn is torn asunder by Odin's son Vidar. Thor kills Jormungandr but dies of its venom. Loki and Heimdall kill each other. Surt kills Freyr, then destroys the world by fire.
Some things manage to survive: Valhalla itself, Thor's hammer and his two sons, Odin's favorite son Balder returns to life, and two humans, protected under the World Ash Tree Yggdrasil, who repopulate the world.
Wagner's innovation was to link the story of the gods' end (modified to suit his purposes) with the death of the hero Siegfried and Brünnhilde.
TWILIGHT OF THE GODS (Götterdämmerung)
- This scene mirrors the opening of Rhinegold with the three Rhinedaughters and the rape of the gold. Here three Norns tell of Wotan's tearing the limb from the World Ash Tree (248), whose death was the result of Wotan's abuse of power, perverting his wisdom (symbolized by the stream of wisdom drying up). They tell of the final collapse of the old world order which has become rotten at its 'roots.' The tree now provides the funeral pyre for the waiting gods, resigned to their doom.
- Mythological background to the World Ash Tree: Yggdrasil (old Norse name) lies at the center of the world, its three roots separating Asgard (land of the gods), the land of the Frost Giants, and Hel (name for both the place of the dead and its queen). The World Tree represents and sustains life, and its fate determines life's end (Ragnarok). A serpent gnaws at its roots; three Norns (Fate, Being, Necessity) sit at its base at the well of Urd and carve runes in its trunk telling the future of each person. Also at its base lies Mimir's well of wisdom (Mimisbrunn) where Odin came for a drink and left one eye as payment. One cryptic reference in the Poetic Edda implies that Odin hung himself on the tree for nine days, pierced with his spear, in order to gain control of the magic runes (one of his names is "God of the hanged"). Some critics think this might be a late Christian influence. Wagner invented the ideas of Wotan's tearing a branch from the tree, causing it to wither and die, and using its wood for kindling at the fiery end of Valhalla.
- As the Norns weave their rope around the rocks, it breaks, signifying the end of Erda's foreknowledge, but does this mean no more fate/destiny, that man is now completely free?
- Fate (or lot) is mentioned infrequently in the text of the Ring, mostly in Valkyrie (pp. 83, 104, 119, 141, 143), but the Fate motif is heard frequently (ex: when Brünnhilde enters to prepare Siegmund for death, before the Wanderer/Erda confrontation, at Siegfried's discovery of Brünnhilde, her confusion at his later betrayal, at Siegfried's last breath, at the immolation scene).
- When the rope breaks, the themes of the Ring's Curse and Siegfried's horn and sword predict a future that the Norns can no longer see. Later (311) Siegfried boasts to the Rhinedaughers that his sword can sever the Norn's thread into which the curse is woven. Fate is closely associated with the ring and its curse throughout, so breaking the rope may not mean the end of fate itself but the end of the curse and the gods' foreknowledge and influence in the world. Siegfried doesn't escape the curse, but his actions, along with Brünnhilde's devotion unto death, eventually break it.
- When we next see Siegfried and Brünnhilde, both of them receive new motifs (Siegfried's is derived from his horn call), signifying their new relationship and new beginning. Unfortunately, the hope heard in these themes won't last long. Both of them are still caught up and manipulated by the old order. They too must perish before mankind can be truly free.
- Brünnhilde lost her strength and wisdom along with her virginity: "the maidenly source of all my strength was taken away by the hero to whom I now bow my head" (SS); in the Niebelungenlied she loses it involuntarily, raped by Sivrit/Siegfried in the guise of Gunther (in this source she wasn't married to Siegfried previously).
- Siegfried's Rhine journey includes these themes: Siegfried, Adventure (or Freedom), Rhine, Erda, Rhinegold, Loge (fire), Lovelessness (foreshadowing betrayal), Rhinedaughters, power of the ring. At his arrival: the curse, the god's destruction, sword.
- Gunther mistakes cunning in his half-brother Hagen for wisdom (258), similar to Wotan's reliance on Loge. Gunther is not completely blameless in this affair; he seeks to increase his fame by marrying the glorious Brünnhilde, not for true love (257).
- Hagen says that with the ring Siegfried now can command the Nibelung army, but he's unaware of power he wields (259); this detail is left over from the prose draft with little purpose in the final version.
- As Hagen explains his plans to trick Siegfried, the tarnhelm motif transforms into the magic potion motif (260), revealing the means by which the deception will take place.
- Ironic that Siegfried drinks to Brünnhilde's memory, then promptly forgets her. The potion of oblivion has been criticized as being too melodramatic (although Wagner follows his source in the Volsunga Saga), but it can be interpreted as a symbol of the tragic paradox in which Siegfried is caught: to be free from Wotan's laws and influence, he must also be ignorant of his past (no memory), thus falling unwittingly to Hagen's scheme, a victim of his own innocence (Dahlhaus 91).
- We first learn of Hagen's true identity as Alberich's son at the end of the scene (270), although the curse theme when he meets Siegfried gives us a hint (262).
- Waltraute visits her sister with desperate news about their father. She tells Brünnhilde that Wotan no longer collects warriors to fight off the final battle (273). When Waltraute repeats Wotan's words, "If the ring returns to the Rhinedaughters, from its curse both gods and world will be released," she is hopeful, failing to see the double meaning (275).
- Brünnhilde defiantly sings, "I shall never relinquish love, though Valhalla's glittering pomp should crumble into dust" (SS), at which point we hear the Renunciation of Love theme, which is odd unless we understand the motif more appropriately as the "love-curse" which Alberich first stated (as earlier discussed). Note similar sentiments at the end of Siegfried, where the two lovers laugh at the death of the gods. Selfish love becomes a destructive power, "love a fundamentally devastating force" (Wagner, in SS 370). She has now fallen under the ring's curse of possessiveness.
- Siegfried's brutal stealing of the ring from her hand reminds us of Wotan's treatment of Alberich. Failing to protect her from Gunther/Siegfried, Brünnhilde's ring has no power over one who does not fear it (279).
- Siegfried promises to separate himself from her during the night with his sword, which becomes a later point of debate between them.
- Alberich visits Hagen in his dream; Hagen is not happy to be his son (282). Alberich says the curse has no power over Siegfried, as long as he is ignorant of its power (283)--at least by this point; see further discussion below.
- Loge's flames surrounding Brünnhilde's mountain were apparently an illusion, as Siegfried says Gunther could have passed through them unharmed, but was afraid (286); also Wotan no longer stands as her protector.
- Note Siegfried's ambiguous responses to Gutrune (286-7), setting up the later tension between his denial of sexual relations with Brünnhilde and her claims of rape.
- The vassals are the first appearance of a traditional operatic chorus in the Ring. They are surprised that disagreeable Hagen is happy, not knowing the real reason.
- Siegfried kept the ring he stole from Brünnhilde, a sign of possessiveness in him as well, making him susceptible to its curse.
- Hagen is the first to suggest treason (295), hastily taking control of the situation; he later invents the cover story of the hunting accident (304).
- When Brünnhilde claims she's been tricked by Siegfried, Hagen's motif underneath her words may indicate she's lying about the sexual encounter. For her, however, one betrayal is much like another (i.e. he might as well have raped me).
- The fateful swearing on Hagen's spear appears to seal Siegfried's fate, if he is lying. However, as we learn at the end, it is Brünnhilde who in her anger has sworn falsely. Siegfried will die, but not because of this oath.
- Nibelungenlied tells of Siegfried bathing in dragon's blood, making him invulnerable except for one spot on his back where a linden leaf fell. Wagner invented the idea of Brünnhilde not protecting his back because of his bravery (301), perhaps inspired by Achilles (the subject of a possible opera at one time).
- The Rhinedaughters taunt Siegfried (as they did Alberich in the first scene). At first Siegfried is willing to trade the ring for love (the reverse of Alberich), but when they threaten him with its curse, he refuses (311), unlike Wotan who heeded Erda's advice. This show of pride and possessiveness places him under the ring's curse for the first time, leading to his first and only defeat by Hagen. When he says, "you'd still not get it from me," Power of the Ring motif plays.
- From another perspective, he also falls victim to Hagen's cursed desire to possess it, so the fault lies outside the hero himself. By the end of the composition, Wagner didn't consider Siegfried a tragic figure, as he is too unselfconscious. Some critics claim that he falls because of his false oath on the spear, but this assumes he was lying, a misunderstanding which Brünnhilde clears up in the finale.
- Siegfried's death during the hunt is taken from the German source Niebelungenlied. Wagner followed the Volsunga saga mainly up to this point.
- Siegfried refers to events in the third drama as happening long ago, in my boyhood days (316), which suggests that the three acts of Siegfried represent years of growing up, not just an afternoon's events. There is little sense of time in the myth, as he and Brünnhilde may have lived a long time on the mountain, and he seems to have had many other adventures before coming to Gibichung hall.
- There is a minor recognition scene as Siegfried's memory returns, but no time for remorse. He dies thinking of their first meeting.
- The funeral march contains all three Volsung themes, father, mother, son, the end of the "race."
- Tension mounts at the ominous moment when dead Siegfried raises his arm to prevent Hagen from taking the ring.
- Brünnhilde's final speech (the last of 6 versions which Wagner wrote) explains the truth about Siegfried's betrayal of her love, but not her sexuality that night. He was false, yet true.
- She accuses the gods of guilt of Siegfried's wrongful death, the curse meant for them falling on him. She gains wisdom through suffering (a common theme in Greek tragedy). She understands how their fate is intertwined with the gods, symbolically hurling the torch heavenward to light Valhalla's pyre.
- Before this final scene, the Rhinedaughters have spoken to Brünnhilde (312, 326) who in death returns the ring to the Rhine, restoring Nature (full circle). Hagen is pulled down by the Rhinedaughters to his death. When Hagen leaps to his death for the ring, the curse motif is heard but breaks in half.
- Thus Brünnhilde's sacrificial love, willing to forgive Siegfried and be eternally united with him in death, brings redemption from their mutual betrayal, and redeems the natural order by returning the ring's gold to the Rhine. We shouldn't read the redemption of the gods or all humanity into this final theme, as some critics do. Wagner's title for the redemption motif "the glorification of Brünnhilde" is probably more appropriate.
- Although Siegfried and Brünnhilde fall victims to the curse of the old order, they are also the first representatives of the new.
- Alberich is the only major player to survive at the end; does this hint that the cycle of evil will begin again? The closing music suggests that this isn't a return to the beginning but a transformation to a new world (even the key changes from the original E-flat to D-flat in the last few minutes).
- The final music weaves together motives of the Rhine, Rhinedaughters, Valhalla, Power of Gods, Siegfried, Twilight, Redemption.
Conclusion: Ring Transformations
- Wagner first saw Siegfried as a revolutionary hero, "the man of the future whom we long for but cannot ourselves bring into being, who must create himself by our destruction" (Bentley 158). "In Siegfried I have tried to portray the most highly developed and complete human being I can conceive of" (Wagner to Roeckel, in Ewans 167). Nietzsche at first called him the Superman, beyond good and evil.
- In early plans for an opera on Achilles, Wagner wrote that Man was intended to surpass God, just as Achilles was destined to surpass Thetis: "Man is the perfection of God. The immortal gods are only the elements which beget mankind. In Man creation achieves its end." (Ewans 77).
- But the Superman is not complete without the Superwoman. Wagner: "Siegfried alone is not the complete human being; he is only half. It is only with Brünnhilde that Siegfried transforms the world." This sentiment suggests the early influence of Ludwig Feuerbach on Wagner's thought (he dedicated "Artwork of Future" to Feuerbach). This philosopher taught that the meaning of existence was defined in terms of sexual love; one must love and be loved to exist truly and completely.
- In his first prose draft (1848), Wagner ends with Brünnhilde taking Siegfried victoriously to Valhalla, which isn't destroyed by fire. His wrongful death redeems the gods from their crimes, and he will live on gloriously after death.
- However, this optimism is not reflected in the final 1952 poem. Wagner decided to combine Siegfried's tragedy with the Twilight of Gods, a connection never suggested in the sources. Siegfried is now seen not as the gods' redeemer, but instead repeats Wotan's mistakes: possessiveness and trusting in his own power (seen in his stealing the ring from Brünnhilde by force and his defiance of the curse) and betraying love (although unwittingly).
- Typical of the period, Wagner's Romanticism was both idealistic (infinite longing) and fatalistic (inevitable disappointment). Attempting through abuse of power to hold onto what we cannot keep causes us to hurt and destroy others and is ultimately futile.
- With the emphasis now on freedom from the will rather than freedom of the will, the heroic center of the cycle shifted from Siegfried to Wotan and Brünnhilde, who both learn that redemption comes through renunciation of self.
- In Act 3, scene 2 of Siegfried (the turning point of the cycle), the will that once ruled the world now wills to renounce its claims. The death of Siegfried and Brünnhilde is now seen not so much as ultimate love as an earthly image of Wotan's own renunciation, their funeral pyre reflecting the burning of Valhalla.
- Wagner finally chose not to rely on words to express the poem's final meaning but on his music which speaks of beauty and harmony in a new world order despite the death of heroes and gods.
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Copyright 1999 by Larry A. Brown