The Ring of the Nibelung
An Introduction and Notes with Musical Examples
Part Two: Valkyrie
In the Icelandic Volsunga Saga (13th century), Siegmund (Odin’s great-great-grandson) and his twin sister Signy are the children of King Volsung from whom the family gets its name. Against her wishes, Signy is given to another king in an arranged marriage which she prophesies is doomed. At the wedding feast a stranger with one eye (Odin) appears and thrusts a sword into the tree which grows in the midst of the palace. Only Siegmund can pull it out. Shortly after, Signy’s husband betrays Volsung and he dies in a battle. Years later, Signy changes shape with a sorceress, visits Siegmund who is hiding in the forest and sleeps with him. She bears him a son who, when grown, joins him for many adventures. Eventually they plot with Signy to avenge their father’s death and kill the king by setting the palace on fire, but Signy dies with her husband.
Siegmund becomes king and marries Hjordis who will be the mother of Sigurd (Siegfried). Siegmund is killed in battle when Odin smashes his sword with his spear (but not as punishment for incest; the text gives no reason for this act). After his father’s death, Sigurd is born and raised at the court of Denmark with Regin (Fafner’s brother) as his ward, leading to the story of the dragon slayer. See the continuation of the original myth in the notes to Siegfried.
The 8th century old English epic Beowulf mentions Sigemund the Waelsing killing a dragon and gaining his treasure.
In adapting his source material, Wagner makes Siegmund and Sieglinde Wotan’s children and his intended means to regain the ring. He makes Brunnhilde and the valkyries the daughters of Wotan and Erda, and he invented Brunnhilde’s rebellion against Wotan by rescuing Sieglinde.
Numbers in the notes refer to pages in the Andrew Porter translation (Norton publishers 1977), unless otherwise noted as SS, which indicates a quote from the translation by Stewart Spencer (Thames & Hudson 1993). See the bibliography at the end of part four for further reading.
THE VALKYRIE (Die Walkure)
A young man runs through the storm seeking shelter. He comes across the rustic home of Sieglinde who treats his wounds. They immediately feel a strange bond between them. Eventually we learn that they are long-separated twins, the children of Wotan. Siegmund vows to rescue Sieglinde from her loveless marriage to Hunding. Years before, Wotan placed a sword in the tree which grows in the midst of the house. Only Siegmund has the ability to pull the sword from the tree. As Hunding lies asleep from a drugged drink, the lovers escape into the woods.
Wotan secretly plans for Siegmund to gain back the ring. He hopes that an independent agent will be able to accomplish what he is forbidden to do. However, his plan infuriates his wife Fricka. As goddess of marriage, she insists that Wotan uphold the law and withdraw his protection from the incestuous lovers. If Wotan wants Siegmund truly to be free, he must not protect him now. Reluctantly Wotan agrees that Siegmund must die in battle with Hunding, and he sends Brunnhilde to announce his fate.
Siegmund refuses Brunnhilde’s promise of Valhalla and vows to kill both Sieglinde and himself before Hunding finds them. Moved by their love, Brunnhilde disobeys Wotan and vows to save the couple. However, Hunding kills Siegmund when Wotan intervenes by shattering the sword with his spear. Sieglinde says she cannot live without Siegmund, but Brunnhilde announces that she carries their child. Brunnhilde gathers up the broken bits of sword and gives them to Sieglinde. She sends her away into the forest while she faces the wrath of Wotan alone.
Brunnhilde’s punishment for defying Wotan’s authority is to be put to sleep on a mountain top ringed by fire. She can be awakened only by the kiss of a hero fearless enough to walk through the flames.
Read an English paraphrase adaptation of The Valkyrie here.
The opening storm motif is 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 entrance at this point associates him with the spear motif, as he was born to be an extension of Wotan’s will (Ring Disc). Later in the drama the god will have to deny his own will by sacrificing his hero.
Sieglinde finds this strange man in her house but immediately has sympathy for him. His fatigue, played by the lower strings, gives way to her loving care, heard on the violins.
Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love theme is a slower, tender 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.
When Hunding returns home to find a stranger with his wife, he recognizes the same “serpent’s glance” in both their eyes, foreshadowing their son Siegfried the dragon-slayer (a detail Wagner adopted from the Eddas). Hunding protects the guest in his house, even though an enemy. Siegmund tried to save a girl from an unwanted marriage to Hunding’s kin, just as he will rescue Sieglinde from an unhappy union.
Siegmund’s would-be names mean “peaceful,” or “joyful,” but he claims to be Wehwalt “woeful” or Wolfing. He and his father were forced to live like animals (in the Volsunga saga Siegmund is cursed to live as a werewolf for a time). Later we learn Wotan’s human name is Walse, father of the Walsungs. The peace motif is heard again in Twilight of the Gods in Siegfried’s death march when he is finally at peace.
In his troubled life thus far, Siegmund has always challenged conventional morality: “What I thought right, others thought wrong” (83). According to Wagner, the true hero of the future will follow his instinct, his inner need, not the moral laws imposed by organized religion or society (an idea which inspired Nietzsche’s concept of the superman).
Siegmund’s desperate 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. The Valhalla theme in the orchestration 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 which is distinct from the curse on the ring he pronounces later in scene four. Siegmund falls under the curse on love, as this 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 Twilight of the Gods. In Act One, scene 3, Brunnhilde vows, “I shall never relinquish love” (276), set to the “renunciation” theme, but her refusal to give up the ring, symbol of her love, 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 in mythology. Many gods marry their sisters (Osiris and Isis, Zeus and Hera). Symbolically, it signifies an ultimate closeness between divine pairs, but this relationship is almost always forbidden to humans.
In Opera and Drama, Wagner compares Siegfried to Antigone, both children of incest who defy society’s law for a higher morality (as they define it). The old world order is life-frustrating, artificial, and restrictive, whereas the new order will be life-affirming, natural, 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 further discussion of this idea, see Rather and McCreless in the bibliography at the end of part four).
The word valkyrie (walkure in German) means “one who chooses the slain.” We hear for the first time the familiar Ride of the Valkyrie theme. Brunnhilde will fight today, but vanquished Hunding will not be worthy to come to Valhalla (97).
Described as a coming storm, Fricka is musically linked with Erda’s motif on her entrance; she is 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.
In contrast to the two lovers in Act 1, Wotan and Fricka’s marriage appears loveless. She is not surprised that her husband defends the adulterous pair, as Wotan has betrayed his own marriage vows numerous times. 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 from Act 1, we are led to view marriage (and the goddess of marriage) in an unfavorable light. Despite our moral reservations, we prefer the incestuous love of Siegmund and Sieglinde. Wagner plays our ethical judgment against our feelings. The music supports our sympathy as Fricka’s strident arguments are accompanied by the motifs of Alberich’s curse and Hunding’s heavy tones, while Wotan sings to the themes of the couple’s tender love.
Ironically, Wotan plays love’s defender here, which he was willing to trade for power in Rhinegold. Wotan argues for the pre-eminence of true love; marriage is unholy if no longer based on love (an ironic commentary on Wotan and Fricka’s relationship). When she counters that this forbidden relationship is not merely adultery but incest, he claims Siegmund and Sieglinde have set a new precedent, while Fricka is bound by tradition.
Wotan criticizes his wife who thinks only in terms of customs of the past, while he envisions something completely new, revealing his ultimate plan (conceived at the end of Rhinegold): Siegmund will be his free agent to regain the ring. Fricka plays the trump card, however, insisting that if this hero is truly to be free, Wotan cannot help him now.
Wotan tells her that love supersedes all law, but he knows that breaking his own laws would make a mockery of the god’s honor and all universal statutes. These laws bind even the god so that he has no true liberty of action. Soon Wotan bemoans the fact that he is the “least free of all living” (105).
Brunnhilde claims to act as Wotan’s will, his alter ego. Wagner created this idea (not found in the original myths), allowing him to dramatize the god’s unconscious will working against his conscious will as Brunnhilde tries to protect the lovers, which she knows is Wotan’s true desire (note Wagner’s insight into modern psychology before Freud made these terms popular).
Wotan admits his lust for power came when love faded. Remember Wagner’s comment (Rhinegold notes) 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 assembled to fight his enemies at Gotterdammerung.
Wotan’s paradox: “How can I create a free agent? … for the free man has to create himself” (SS). Although he doesn’t realize it now, 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. He understands her fateful words: “When the foe of love gains a son, the gods may know their doom is near.” With gold Alberich has bought a woman’s favors and had a son by her. Wotan remarks bitterly that this “loveless Nibelung” (sung to the loveless motif first heard in Rhinegold) has done what he could not do: “I who loved so truly, my free son I never could win” (111). As Wotan storms off, leaving Brunnhilde to complete her sad duty, Wotan’s rage motif leads into the loveless motif, ending with the frustration motif. Brunnhilde will face this terrible rage after she disobeys her father’s command.
Fate sounds when Brunnhilde announces to Siegmund that she’s come for him; only those doomed to die can see the Valkyrie. However, he refuses the glory of Valhalla for the love of Sieglinde, as we hear a defiant version of the love theme from Act 1. When he threatens to kill them both rather than leave her behind, Brunnhilde has compassion on them and revolts against the law of god, later claiming she acted according to Wotan’s true, if unconscious, desires.
When Brunnhilde fails to act, Wotan enters and shatters the sword Nothung, ironically at the time of Siegmund’s greatest need. After Siegmund dies, Wotan “dismisses” Hunding with a wave of his hand, having only contempt for him as Fricka’s “slave.”
To the thrilling theme of the Ride of the Valkyries, Brunnhilde’s sisters are soaring through the air, gathering the slain warriors for Valhalla. They observe her hurrying toward them with an unusual burden, not a warrior but a woman.
Sieglinde wants to join her husband in death, but revives when she learns she carries his son. This news gives her the will to live. When Brunnhilde announces the name of Siegfried, Sieglinde sings the Redemption motif (which Wagner called “the glorification of Brunnhilde”), heard only once more at the end of Twilight of the Gods. Sieglinde’s statement to Brunnhilde, “Be blessed by Sieglinde’s woe” (138) foreshadows the next play when her son will awaken the sleeping Valkyrie.
To her angry father, Brunnhilde justifies her actions. As Wotan’s true will she defied his will, as his shield-bearer she held her shield against him. When she defends her defiance as acting as he truly wanted, we hear the spear motif, symbol of Wotan’s will, transformed into love’s triumph (also called “compassionate love”), its falling notes in the orchestration interrupted twice by rising octave leaps, 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 selfish power.
Thomas Mann said that Wagner’s work surpassed previous opera in its fusing of psychology and mythology. Prior to the theories of 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 Brunnhilde announces to Wotan, “Sieglinde bears the holiest fruit” (148) we hear a combination of motifs: the Walsung theme, Siegfried, sword, fate, and Fafner, musical foreshadowing of the next drama.
Brunnhilde fears that she will be awakened by an ordinary man, unworthy of her. When she implores Wotan to protect her, under her words we hear the fear motif. Wotan agrees to surround her with Loge’s magic fire, and the minor motif transforms into the major assurance theme. (In his notes on the Ring Disc, Stone argues that in context these names make more sense than the traditional title “Brunnhilde’s slumber” for this motif. For another example see Siegfried Act 1)
The renunciation (love-curse) motif is heard as Wotan turns away from his beloved daughter.
Loge is the divine source for the magic fire, both useful (protecting Brunnhilde from unworthy suitors) and destructive (seen in the later burning of Valhalla).
The Siegfried theme plays when Wotan says he who fears my spear shall never pass through the flames, foreshadowing the only man brave enough to challenge Wotan in the next drama.
These pages were originally uploaded in 1998. Latest revision September 2018.