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Ride of the Valkyries

Wagner: From Die Walküre

Ride of the Valkyries

‘Hysterical hyenas, perhaps laughing, perhaps sobbing, who scent out a corpse with all the irresistable savagery of their delight and pride in their duties as divine undertakers; that is how I see the Valkyries’. So wrote Pierre Boulez, conductor of the Ring cycle at Bayreuth from 1975 to 1979, in the description of the Ride of the Valkyries, which opens Act III of Die Walküre. Certainly in this wild uproarious storm whipped up by the orchestra hysteria is never far away; from all the exhilirating swooping going on in the brass and strings there is a tension that stops this all too famous piece from ever quite lapsing into vulgar exhibitionism.

 Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music

The storm of the Ride is of course, merely a prelude to the real storm which takes place in the third act, the confrontation between the god Wotan and his daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, who has disobeyed his command and tried to save a condemned man. His punishment is that she should become a mortal woman, and lie in enchanted sleep until claimed by the first man to come by, no matter how unworthy. After a long dialogue, during which Brünnhilde justifies her disobedience and protests against the severity of the judgement, Wotan finally relents, and it is with a great, impassioned outburst that the final monologue, Wotan’s Farewell, begins.

The Orchestra, which has been relatively subdued during the intense conversation earlier, now reclaims the pole position, supporting and embellishing the expansive, lyrical vocal line to superb emotional effect. Wotan, who is, at best, as ambivalent a character as Wagner, here redeems himself with the warmth of his expression of affection for Brünnhilde. He promises to surround the rock where she will sleep with a barrier of magical fire, so that only the bravest of heroes may approach her. As he takes his last farewell, the immense tenderness of this section and the slight lilt of the Magic Sleep motif combine to evoke the gentlest of lullabies. Finally, Wotan summons the fire, whose flickering motif takes over the last pages of the opera, an extraordinary shimmer of broken chords in the violins and harps that fades into the distance, not as if it was dying away, but rather as if the listener was moving slowly out of range.

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