An Introduction and Notes to
THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG
Part 3: The Valkyrie
By Larry Brown
Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
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In the Icelandic Volsunga Saga, Siegmund (who is not Odin's son in the original) obtains his sword from the tree, mates with his sister "Signy" but unknowingly (she's in disguise), and kills her cruel husband, but in the end she dies with her husband in a fire. By another wife, Siegmund has "Sigurd." Siegmund is killed in battle when Odin smashes his sword (but not as punishment for incest). Sigurd is brought up at the court of Denmark, with Regin (Fafner's brother) as ward (leading to the story of the dragon slayer).
See more details of the original myths in the notes to Siegfried.
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
VALKYRIE (Die Walküre)
- Opening storm mixed with Donner's thunder: note how the spear motif's descent on the cellos and basses is checked and moves back upward; the hand of Wotan is present, but the upward turn indicates that his will may be challenged. (see a similar transformation of the spear motif into Wotan's frustration, below)
- Siegmund's first motif is related to the spear, as he was born to be an extension of Wotan's will; later the god will have to deny his own will by sacrificing his hero.
- Love theme between Siegmund and Sieglinde is a slower, compassionate version of Freia's motif.
- After the renunciation of love by several characters in Rhinegold, Wagner gives us a breathtaking portrait of compassionate love in this opera, holding out the promise that human beings may turn out to be better than the gods.
- Hunding recognizes the same "serpent's glance" in both their eyes, foreshadowing their son Siegfried the dragon-slayer (a detail Wagner adopted from the Eddas).
- Siegmund's would-be names mean "peaceful," "joyful," but he claims to be Wehwalt "woeful" (81) or Wolfing, as he and his father were forced to live like animals (in Volsunga saga Siegmund is cursed to live as a werewolf for a time). Later we learn Wotan's human name is Walse (86) as father of the Walsungs (or Volsungs).
- Siegmund challenges conventional morality: "What I thought right, others thought wrong" (83), a lesson learned from his father? According to Wagner, the true hero of the future will follow his instinct, inner need, not the moral laws imposed by organized religion or society.
- Siegmund tried to save a girl from an unwanted marriage to Hunding's kin, just as he will rescue Sieglinde from an unhappy union.
- Hunding protects a guest in his house, even though an enemy. This host-guest relationship is more a Greek value than Teutonic (one of many influences on Wagner of Greek culture).
- Siegmund's cries to his father, "Walse! Walse! where is your sword?" foreshadow the octave jumps which identify the Nothung motif. Nothung means "sword of need" (Wagner invented the name) left in the tree on Sieglinde's wedding day (88). The Valhalla theme identifies the stranger who left the sword as Wotan.
- At first it seems puzzling that Siegmund sings "Holiest love in highest need" (94) to the so-called Renunciation of Love theme. Why does he sing this theme at the moment he is longing for true love? Note that Alberich first put a curse on love (15-16) which is distinct from the curse on the ring he pronounces later in scene four. Siegmund falls under this curse on love, as this new relationship with Sieglinde is doomed because of its incestuous nature, which Wotan by law must punish. Compare this use of the "renunciation of love" motif with a similar case in Götterdämmerung. In Act One, scene 3, Brünnhilde vows, "I shall never relinquish love" (276), set to the "renunciation" theme, but her refusal to give up the ring causes her to fall under its possessive spell at this moment. For these reasons, this motive might better be called the Love Curse. Wagner uses it in this scene in Valkyrie to connect Siegmund's action to Wotan's grand scheme, Siegmund becoming his unwilling means to regaining the ring (Cooke).
- The theme of incest is not uncommon to mythology; many gods marry their sisters (Osiris / Isis, Zeus / Hera). Symbolically, it signifies an ultimate closeness between divine pairs, but this relationship is almost always forbidden to humans. However, Wagner didn't think incest was unnatural, otherwise Nature would not bless such unions with children. In his mind the societal taboo against incest was the unnatural restriction.
- In Opera and Drama, Wagner compares Siegfried to Antigone, both children of incest who defy the law for a higher morality (as they define it). The old world order is life-frustrating and restrictive, whereas the new order will be life-affirming and spontaneous. Representatives of the old order, Creon and Wotan, can only rule by law and power, whereas Antigone and Siegfried are free to follow the leading of inner necessity. Wagner knew that society would condemn the free individual as immoral and a lawbreaker without recognizing that he lives according to a higher, more human standard of morality (for commentary, see Rather and McCreless in bibliography).
- In contrast to the two lovers in Act One, Wotan and Fricka's marriage seems loveless. We may agree with her reasoning (that the incestuous lovers are breaking taboo) but we also share Wotan's frustration that she's right. Along with Hunding's example, we are led to view marriage (and the goddess of marriage) in an unfavorable light. We prefer the incestuous love of Siegmund and Sieglinde. Wagner plays our moral judgement against our feelings.
- The word Valkyrie (Walküre in German) means "one who chooses from the battlefield." We hear for the first time the familiar Valkyrie theme. Brünnhilde will fight today, but vanquished Hunding will not be worthy to come to Valhalla (97).
- Described as a coming storm, Fricka is linked with Erda's motif on her entrance, as another representative of feminine wisdom who counters Wotan's self-deception. She is not simply a shrewish, jealous wife but Wotan's divine counterpart, reminding him of his duties (upholding laws against adultery and incest) which in his right mind he acknowledges.
- Ironic that Wotan plays love's defender here, which he was willing to trade in Rhinegold.
- Wotan's defense: marriage is unholy if no longer based on love (ironic commentary on Wotan and Fricka's relationship?)
- When she counters that this is not just adultery but incest, he claims Siegmund and Sieglinde have set a new precedent, while Fricka is bound by tradition (99).
- He tells her that love supersedes all law, but knows that breaking his own laws would make a mockery of all universal statutes. These laws bind him so that he has no true liberty of action. Wotan bemoans the fact that he is the "least free of all living" (105).
- Wotan finally reveals his ultimate plan: Siegmund will be his free agent to regain the ring (101), but Fricka suggests if he is to be truly free, Wotan cannot help him now.
- Frustration theme is heard frequently after she points out the contradiction of his actions (102), a twisted version of the spear, thus a symbol of his will now thwarted.
- Brünnhilde acts as Wotan's will (106), his alter ego; Wagner's original device soon depicts dramatically the god's unconscious will working against his conscious will (note Wagner's insight into modern psychology before Freud made these terms popular).
- Wotan's lust for power came when love faded (106). Remember Wagner's comment (Rhinegold) that the absence of sexual love is the root of all antisocial behavior; without it people turn to materialism or politics/power.
- Wotan is motivated also by fear: the armies of Valhalla have been collected to fight his enemies at Ragnarok (107).
- Wotan: "How can I create a free agent? ... for the free man has to create himself." (SS). His words actually describe the future Siegfried: "foe to the gods, free of soul ... who acts alone by his own design" (109). Of course, Siegfried's freedom will leave him free to defy the god as well.
- Frustrated and in despair, Wotan now has only one desire -- for the End to come, as Erda prophesied (111).
- Fate motif sounds when Brünnhilde announces to Siegmund that she's come for him (119); only those doomed to die can see the Valkyrie. However, he refuses the glory of Valhalla for the love of Sieglinde. When he threatens to kill her and himself, Brünnhilde has compassion on them both and revolts against the law of god, later claiming she acted according to Wotan's true (if unconscious) desires.
- After Siegmund dies, Wotan "dismisses" Hunding with a wave of his hand, having only contempt for him as Fricka's "slave."
- Brünnhilde's sisters are seen riding through the air. They observe her hurrying toward them with an unusual burden, not a warrior.
- Sieglinde wants to die with her husband, but revives when she learns she carries his son. This news gives her the will to live. When Brünnhilde announces the name of Siegfried (137), Sieglinde sings the Redemption motif (which Wagner called "glorification of Brünnhilde"), heard only once more at the end of Götterdämmerung. Sieglinde's statement to Brünnhilde, "Be blessed by Sieglinde's woe" (138) foreshadows the next play when Siegfried will awaken the sleeping Valkyrie.
- Notice Brünnhilde's reversal of roles (141): as Wotan's will she defies his will, as his shield-bearer she held her shield against him, etc. When she defends her defiance as acting as he truly wanted (146), we hear the spear motif (symbol of Wotan's will) transformed into "love's triumph" (also called "compassionate love"), its falling notes interrupted twice by rising octave jumps, also transposed from the minor key to major. In this crucial scene, a key turning point in the entire Ring cycle, Wagner demonstrates both musically and dramatically that the will that shows compassionate love toward others now triumphs over the will which seeks only power.
- Thomas Mann said that Wagner's work surpassed previous opera in its combining psychology and mythology. Prior to Freud and Jung, Wagner saw myth not merely as proto-science (early humanity's attempts to explain the mysteries of creation) but as proto-psychology (our attempt to understand the mysteries within ourselves).
- When Brünnhilde announces to Wotan, "Sieglinde bears the holiest fruit" (148) we hear a combination of motifs: the Volsung theme, Siegfried, sword, fate, and Fafner, musical foreshadowing of the next drama.
- The renunciation (love-curse) motif is heard as Wotan turns away from his beloved daughter (151).
- Loge as the divine source for fire, both useful (protects Brünnhilde from unworthy suitors) and destructive (seen in the later burning of Valhalla).
- Siegfried theme plays when Wotan says he who fears my spear shall never pass through the flames (152), foreshadowing the only man brave enough to challenge Wotan in the next drama.
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Copyright 1999 by Larry A. Brown