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.
Wotans 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, Wotans 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.