Wagner: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, from Götterdämmerung

Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, from Götterdämmerung

BORN: May 22, 1813. Leipzig, Saxony
DIED: February 13, 1883. Venice

COMPOSED: Wagner conceived the project that ultimately turned into the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) in October 1848 and worked on the text of its final portion, originally called Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried's Death), later Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), between then and December 1852. He began the composition of the Götterdämmerung music on October 2, 1862. Act I, where Siegfried’s Rhine Journey occurs, was composed in the first half of 1870 and completed in full score on December 24, 1873

WORLD PREMIERE: The first performance of Götterdämmerung was given at Bayreuth on August 17, 1876, as the conclusion of the first presentation of the complete Ring cycle. Hans Richter conducted

US PREMIERE: The first performance in the United States (with a few brutal cuts) was given at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, on January 25, 1888, with Anton Seidl conducting. By then, orchestral excerpts from Götterdämmerung had already been heard in concert in this country. Siegfried’s Rhine Journey was conducted by Frank van der Stucken in New York on April 4, 1884

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—December 1912. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—May 2006. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, glockenspiel  triangle, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 12 mins

THE BACKSTORY  On October 4, 1848, the thirty-five-year-old Second Court Conductor at the Dresden Opera, who was also the composer of several stage works, among them Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin, jotted down a brief sketch for a music-drama on the Nibelungen myth. It would be five years before he composed the first note of music for this project, twenty-six years before it was finished, and twenty-eight years before it was staged in its entirety.

With Wagner, things had a way of getting out of hand. He had discovered soon enough that the apparently simple events of Siegfried's Death required explanation. But The Young Siegfried, written for just that purpose (and later performed and published as Siegfried, the third opera of the cycle), also turned out to need a pre-history. That necessity led to the composition of Die Walküre; and before everything was done, Die Walküre had also acquired a prologue, Das Rheingold. Complex in subject and execution, Der Ring des Nibelungen—four evenings in the theater and something like seventeen hours of music altogether—is one of the stupendous achievements of Western art. For the rest of the nineteenth century and into the present, composers would struggle to find their own artistic identities outside the long shadows cast by such works as the Ring cycle, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal.

Siegfried, whom we follow on one of his journeys here, is the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde. He is the grandson of Wotan, chief of the gods, and of a mortal woman whose name we never learn. Because Siegmund and Sieglinde were brother and sister—twins, in fact—he has only one set of grandparents. Siegfried knows next to nothing of this heritage. His father was killed within hours of engendering him; his mother died in childbirth; he himself was raised in isolation by Mime, a dwarf, a skilled smith, and a member of the race of the Nibelungs. In Götterdämmerung Siegfried is also the husband of Brünnhilde, the two having taken each other's virginity at the end of the previous opera, Siegfried. Brünnhilde is a former warrior maiden or Valkyrie, one of nine fathered by Wotan on Erda, the Earth Goddess. This means that Siegfried is married to his aunt and Brünnhilde to her nephew. (This is not Leave it to Beaver.)

Asked his occupation, Siegfried would no doubt have said, "hero." Everyone refers to him and addresses him as "Held,” and he had indeed established his claim to the title by slaying the dragon Fafner soon after cutting loose from the hearth of his guardian, Mime. He has also shattered Wotan's spear with a sword of his own forging, though without knowing the identity of the old man whose wide-brimmed hat hid the place where one eye was missing, and he strode fearlessly through the ring of fire in whose center Brünnhilde had lain in magic sleep.

THE MUSIC  In the excerpt from Götterdämmerung that we hear, Siegfried and Brünnhilde have awakened from their first night together. In recognition of their union, Siegfried has taken a gold ring off his own finger and placed it on Brünnhilde's: This is in fact the ring of the title, the ring about whose changing ownership the whole saga revolves. But Siegfried is not about to settle down in domestic bliss. Leaving Brünnhilde on the rock where he found her and where they consummated their marriage, Siegfried descends the mountain to the Rhine (along the way passing through the ring of fire he had braved to reach Brünnhilde). He is searching for a new adventure and finds it, but it will be his last. The music we hear as he makes his way along the river is the interlude that links Siegfried’s and Brünnhilde’s heroic duet and the scene at the court of the Gibichungs, where Siegfried will meet his death. The jubilant outburst with which the Rhine Journey begins is a grand transformation of Siegfried’s horn call. The music proceeds vigorously, recalling Brünnhilde, the swirling water of the Rhine, and the hymn of the Rhinemaidens to the gold they failed to protect.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

Great Orchestral Highlights from The Ring of the Nibelungs with George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Classical Super Audio)  |  Wagner: Orchestral Music from The Ring with Klaus Tennstedt conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI)  |  Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen: Excerpts, with Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Decca) 

ReadingRichard Wagner: The Last of the Titans, by Joachim Köhler (Yale University Press)  |  The Life of Richard Wagner, in four volumes, by Ernest Newman (Cambridge University Press)  |  The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner’s Life and Music, edited by Barry Millington (Schirmer)  |  Wagner Handbook, edited by Ulrich Müller and Peter Wapnewski (Harvard University Press)  |  Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round, by M. Owen Lee (Limelight Editions)  

(April 2018)