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Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung

From Wagner: Götterdämmerung

Siegfried’s Rhine Journey

Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, which links to the Prologue to Act I of Götterdämmerung, is as straightforward a piece of musical description as Wagner ever wrote, especially if the listener is able to identify all of the motifs. We hear Brünnhilde sending Siegfried off to accomplish more heroic deeds and watching until he is out of sight. Then, in an abrupt and startlingly effective modulation, his horn call rings out and his journey has begun. We hear, quite distinctly, the moment of re-crossing the barrier of fire, and of reaching the Rhine, a broad, sweeping version of the motif which opens the entire cycle, which is developed in decidedly pastoral vein. This is interrupted by the foreboding intrusion of the Ring and Renunciation of Love motifs, and the mood is finally broken by a grim, clear reminder of the identity of the character Siegfried is about to meet – Alberich’s son, Hagen.

Siegfried’s Funeral March

The true conclusion of the curse of the Ring lies in the devastation of Siegfried’s Funeral March. Again the density of this passage is formidable. In the space of a few minutes, Wagner assembles a great mass of the motifs directly connected with Siegfried, virtually in their original forms and at their most recognisable, and crushes them in the inexorable grip of the funeral march. The march itself is composed of only two strands, a steady rhythmic pattern from the timpani, like some giant’s heartbeat, and a desolate, chromatic figure which casts a pall of gloom over the whole piece. The extraordinary synthesis creates a sense of black disillusion, that the very elements which made Siegfried a hero, the hope of the world, should also be the direct cause of his treacherous assassination.

Brünnhilde’s Immolation

As the spectator approaches the end of the Ring cycle, one question must surely lurk uneasily in the back of the mind: ‘Can there possibly be more – and better ?’ Yet, at the end of Götterdämmerung, Wagner presents us with a scene of such overwhelming intensity that it constitutes, arguably, the most beautiful finale in all the operatic repertoire.

Only its extremely careful construction saves the Immolation Scene from being a simple jumble of Leitmotifs. It falls clearly into six sections. At the start, Brünnhilde re-asserts her semi-divine authority, once more the Valkyrie and no longer prey to human confusion, as she orders the funeral pyre to be built. Thereafter, she ignores the bemused Gibichungs, the rest of the scene being a monologue, principally addressed to Wotan.

In the second section, she meltingly remembers Siegfried, the dead hero, his purity, his nobility, his love and his apparent betrayal of his vows, from which she scathingly condemns the gods, particularly Wotan. However, she understands Wotan’s plan and accepts her destiny, expressing a great depth of pity for the tired god.

She takes the Ring from Siegfried’s hand and announces that she is returning it to the Rhine, speaking, for the first time, of the curse of the Ring. It has been a significant feature of both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung that neither she nor Siegfried have ever seen the Ring as anything other than a ring. Wotan and Alberich’s preoccupation with the Ring as a symbol of absolute power means nothing to them, and Brünnhilde only agrees to return it because it was a gift of love whose donor is now dead and she has chosen to die with him. Even then, she tells the Rhinemaidens to take it from her ashes; a legacy, not a gift.

Her other legacy is the voluntary destruction of Valhalla, leaving the humans to their own devices in a world where the only supernaturals are the elements – the fire and the water that dominate the final section of this scene. She does not, however, leave the humans totally without guidance. Even as she joyfully throws herself into the flames, the Liebeslösungsmötif (Redemption through Love) spreads its radiant sweetness over the conflagration like a healing balm.

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