Skip to main content

Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

Richard Wagner

BORN: May 22, 1813. Leipzig, Saxony (Germany)

DIED: February 13, 1883. Venice, Italy

COMPOSED: Wagner wrote the text from Autumn 1851 through the beginning of 1853 and composed the music largely from June 1854 to March 1856

WORLD PREMIERE: June 26, 1870. Franz Wüllner conducted, with soprano Therese Vogl as Sieglinde, tenor Heinrich Vogl as Siegmund, and bass Kaspar Bausewein as Hunding, at the Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater in Munich

US PREMIERE: April 2, 1877. At the Academy of Music in New York, NY

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—While the SFS has played music from Die Walküre many times, beginning in 1912, the only performances of Act I were in May 1977. Seiji Ozawa conducted, with Jessye Norman as Sieglinde, Peter Hofmann as Siegmund, and Paul Plishka as Hunding

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 8 horns, 4 Wagner tubas, 3 trumpets and bass trumpet, 4 trombones, contrabass tuba, 2 pairs of timpani, 3 harps (though up to 6 are possible), and strings, in addition to the singers.  

DURATION: About 60 mins (for this act)

THE BACKSTORY Richard Wagner’s earliest operas amalgamated more-or-less standard traditions of German Romantic Opera (as codified in the works of Carl Maria von Weber, Heinrich Marschner, and others) and French Grand Opera (a large-scale enterprise typified by Giacomo Meyerbeer and his contemporaries in Paris). He moved increasingly toward realizing his ideal of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a work synthesized from disparate artistic disciplines, including music, literature, the visual arts, ballet, and architecture. The operas of Wagner’s maturity are so distinct that they are often referred to not as operas at all, but rather as “music dramas,” in an attempt to underscore the singularity of his aesthetic goals. Nonetheless, he was not averse to extracting sections from these closely woven works to present apart from their operatic context, and on various occasions he conducted such excerpts as standalone concert works.

Die Walküre is the second opera in the gigantic tetralogy known as Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Wagner labored over it from 1848 until 1874, taking time out to write Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger. In the end its four pieces together—Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung—would run some fifteen hours. Wagner hoped performances would occupy four separate evenings scheduled in close succession.

He turned to medieval Germanic-Nordic legends for his material, most specifically to a group of Icelandic eddas and sagas, an Old Norse prose narrative, and the Middle High German epic Das Nibelungenlied. He processed this material through his own ultra-Romantic sensibilities to yield a highly stylized, in no way colloquial text that evoked its ancient roots while rendering it captivating to mid-nineteenth-century audiences. He was nothing if not confident. In a letter to Theodor Uhlig, one of his closest friends and supporters, he spoke of his libretto-in-progress: “The whole will become—out with it! I am not ashamed to say so—the greatest work of poetry ever written.”

THE PLOT The complex strands of Der Ring des Nibelungen broadly relate how a potent treasure of stolen gold, forged into a ring, passes through the hands of various gods, demigods, and mortals, bringing tragedy in its wake and ultimately leading to the downfall of the godly race. But the ring itself makes no appearance in Act I of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), which is devoted to a taboo-laden episode. It opens with a brief orchestral prelude that sets the scene with musical suggestions of thunder and lightning. The hero Siegmund (tenor), weaponless and wounded, takes refuge in a hut built around an ash tree, the abode of Hunding (bass). Hunding is not at home, but his wife is—Sieglinde (soprano). She and Siegmund sense a chemistry between them, and it starts to grow by the time Hunding arrives. He notes a curious physical resemblance between his wife and this stranger, who launches into explaining who he is. The stranger goes by the name of Wehwalt (Woeful). His mother is dead, his sister was abducted years ago, and he has been separated from his father since enemies fell upon them in the forest. Recently he killed some men in a fight (they were related to a woman in a loveless marriage whom he hoped to aid). Hunding, realizing that those slain fellows were his kinsmen, vows to battle Siegmund in the morning; but, for the time being, Sieglinde drugs her husband with a sleeping potion. Siegmund recalls that his father had promised him a sword in a time of need, and Sieglinde points out the sword that has been embedded in the ash tree, waiting for a special someone to extract it. Things heat up between Siegmund and Sieglinde and the wintry storm gives way to a beautiful spring night. As the act ends, passion ignites between the pair, who have realized that they are the long-separated brother and sister—and you can bet there will be a price to pay.

THE MUSIC In Act I of Die Walküre, Wagner achieves admirable balance of words and music. The language, if stylized in its poetic method, is delivered with a naturalness that respects spoken accents and sentence contours. The music maintains compelling melodic content. Otherwise put, this act fully realizes the ideals of musical-poetical synthesis Wagner had outlined in his 1851 book Opera and Drama, which abjured the earlier models of “number operas” made up of discernable arias, ensembles, and choruses. This balance, easy enough to articulate as a theoretical principle, could prove tricky in practice, but Act I of Die Walküre unrolls as a seemingly inevitable, unbroken drama. Although a character may sing an extended solo passage—as when Siegmund provides details about his backstory, beginning “Friedmund darf ich nicht heissen,” or when Sieglinde relates the tale of the sword in the tree at “Gast? Ich bin’s”—aria-centered practice hangs on only as a remnant. Even Siegmund’s famous “Winterstürme,” though often extracted as a solo (Wagner himself provided an alternate concert ending for that purpose), is less a self-contained aria than a rapturous effusion on the arrival of Spring—and love—that connects seamlessly to Sieglinde’s adoring response, “Du bist der Lenz.”

This sense of continuity owes much to Wagner’s use of leitmotifs (which he preferred to call Grundthemen—“foundational themes”), musical motifs that are identified with specific ideas, objects, or actions and that recur (sometimes at the forefront, sometimes woven subtly into the musical texture) to underscore moments of the plot or to serve as reminders of undercurrents to the narrative. More than thirty of these motifs figure in Die Walküre, seventeen in the first act alone. Some had already been used in Das Rheingold, the Prologue to the entire Ring cycle and therefore, most immediately, to Die Walküre. For example, at the end of the stormy Prelude that opens Act I of Die Walküre we may discern a motif (tweaked to end on a questioning note) that, in Das Rheingold, had been associated with the spear of Wotan, the God-in-Chief—and the father of both Siegmund and Sieglinde. Wotan does not appear as a character in this act (though he will later in Die Walküre), but such a musical reference nonetheless proclaims his presence since, when all is said and done, the action plays out according to his will.

The three characters in this act may not be paragons of virtue—one is abusive and murderous, two become cognizant incestuous lovers—but at least they are patient and respectful conversationalists, which adheres to Wagner’s principles of operatic text-setting. Nobody talks over anybody else; nobody interrupts. In the entire hour-plus of this act, there is only one instance of two voices overlapping—and that for only about one second. It is in the scene where Siegmund and Sieglinde acknowledge each other as brother and sister, recognizing their resemblance thanks to having seen their own reflections in a stream. Even there, it is little more than an unusually fast rejoinder: Siegmund is still holding the last word of his sentence “Du bist das Bild, das ich in mir barg” (You are the image I held within me) when Sieglinde responds “O still!” (Be still)—a cut-off that makes perfect conversational sense and probably also signals their familial union and even their impending romantic concord. —James M. Keller

LISTEN AGAIN: Simone Young conducting the Hamburg Philharmonic with mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef as Sieglinde, tenor Stuart Skelton as Siegmund, and baritone Mikhail Petrenko as Hunding (OehmsClassics)