Original Title: Siegfried's Death
Day Three of Der Ring des Nibelungen
Libretto by the composer
Time: Legendary, immediately after Siegfried
Place: The Valkyrie's rock on the mountaintop; Gunther's castle on the Rhine; a wooded area by the Rhine.
First performed in Bayreuth, 17 August 1876
The first act of Götterdämmerung is preceded by a Prologue. An orchestral prelude begins with two chords in the wind instruments reminiscent of those with which Brünnhilde saluted the world on her awakening at the end of Siegfried, followed by the arpeggios which earlier characterized the Rhine. Other motifs are woven into the orchestral texture: throughout Götterdämmerung, Wagner's motifs proliferate to such an extent that it is hardly profitable to attempt consciously to separate and identify them.
When the curtain rises after about eighteen bars of prelude, the scene is Brünnhilde's rock, as it was at the end of Siegfried. It is night. There is a gleam of firelight from the background, which serves to illuminate the three Norns, tall women in dark, veil-like drapery, who weave the rope of fate on which the future of the world depends. The first and oldest Norn lies under a fir-tree in the foreground, while the second sits on a rock in front of the cave, and the third and youngest on another rock further off. As they weave the rope of the world's destiny, the Norns tell one another what all three of them presumably already know - the story of Wotan, his spear and its runes, the ring and its history. Finally, their rope snaps as the curse motif is insisted upon by the bass trumpet. The three Norns start up in terror, grasping the pieces of broken rope, which they use to tie their bodies together. 'Our eternal knowledge is at an end,' they lament. 'The world will know nothing more of our wisdom.' They vanish into the depths to return to Erda, the earth-mother.
The scene with the Norns has been comprised almost entirely of motifs from Das Rheingold. As dawn approaches, the orchestra paints its picture of sunrise, beginning with a long cello melody which is interrupted by phrases characterizing the newly transfigured Siegfried (tranquilly, on the horns) and Brünnhilde (on clarinet). It is broad daylight when the music rises to a more impassioned level and the lovers emerge from the cave, he fully armed and she leading Grane, her horse, by its bridle. Brünnhilde and Siegfried embrace as they reaffirm their love for each other, and he places on her finger the fateful ring. In return, she offers him her horse to bear him away into the world to perform great deeds. When their duet has reached its exultant climax, which takes the soprano to a final sustained high C, Siegfried leads Grane down from the rock. Brünnhilde is left standing alone, watching their descent into the valley, Siegfried's horn is heard from below, and Brünnhilde continues to watch, waving rapturously to him until he is lost from her sight. In the orchestra, the motifs of Brünnhilde and Siegfried ring out, as well as, finally, the theme of the love duet with which Siegfried had ended.
Wagner directs that the curtain be quickly lowered as the orchestra begins its description of Siegfried's boisterous journey down the Rhine, an episode well-known outside the opera house because of its frequent concert performances. In due course, the more ebullient motifs of Siegfried's journey give way to darker harmonies, foreshadowing the malevolent plotting of Hagen. When the curtain rises on Act I of Götterdämmerung, the scene has changed to the hall of the tribe of Gibichungs on the Rhine, beyond which one glimpses the shore of the river, surrounded by rocky heights. Gunther and his sister Gutrune share a throne, with drinking-vessels on a table in front of them. At the other side of the table sits their half-brother Hagen, the son of Alberich. Gunther, the legitimate head of the tribe, concedes that the wise member of the family is Hagen, whose advice he now seeks. He wishes to be reassured that he has properly maintained the glory of the Gibichungs, and when Hagen points out that Gunther has, as yet, no wife, nor Gutrune a husband, Gunther asks how this situation may be remedied.
Hagen tells Gunther of Brünnhilde, whom he describes as the finest woman in the world, waiting on her rock for a suitor who can break through the ring of fire which surrounds her. Gunther will not have the strength to accomplish this task, but Siegfried, strongest of heroes, is destined to do so, and he is the man whom Hagen would wish to see Gutrune marry. He describes how Siegfried slayed the dragon Farher and won the Nibelung hoard. Gunther is upset at having his desire aroused for a woman whom he cannot win, but Hagen reveals his plan by which Siegfried could be made to bring Brünnhilde to Gunther. It will be necessary for Gutrune to capture the hero's heart. She doubts her ability to do this, but Hagen reminds brother and sister that he possesses a magic potion which will make Siegfried forget any other woman he may have loved, and will turn his desire towards Gutrune. In exchange for Gunther allowing him to wed Gutrune, Siegfried will have to help him win Brünnhilde.
Gunther and Gutrune approve of this plan. When Gunther asks how they are to find Siegfried, a horn-call is suddenly heard from the distance. After it has sounded a second time, closer, Hagen goes down to the shore and calls back to the others that a warrior and a horse in a boat are swiftly proceeding against the current. The robust strength with which the young warrior wields the oar suggests that this must be Siegfried. Hagen calls to the hero, and invites him ashore. When he arrives in the hall, Siegfried reveals that he had been searching for Gunther. 'From far along the Rhine, I have heard of your fame,' he tells the Gibichung. 'Now fight with me or be my friend.'
Gunther sensibly chooses friendship. While Hagen leads Grane away to be stabled, Gutrune goes off to prepare the magic potion, and the two new friends exchange vows of alliance. Gunther offers his inheritance, his land and his people to Siegfried, who replies that in return all he can offer is the aid of his mighty sword. Returning, Hagen asks if Siegfried is not also lord of the Nibelung treasure. Siegfried says that he had almost forgotten that. He left the gold lying in Fafner's cave, and took only a piece of chain mail, which he wears in his belt, and a ring which he has already given to a wondrous woman. Hagen explains to him the significance of the Tarnhelm, which he has only to put on his head to be immediately transported to wherever he wishes to be, and which will also enable him to assume any shape or disguise.
Gutrune now returns with a filled drinking-horn, which she offers to Siegfried as a cup of welcome. He bows courteously to her, holds the horn in front of him and murmurs, 'Brünnhilde, to you I drink this in token of my faithful love.' The potion has an immediate effect for, as he hands the horn back to Gutrune after drinking from it, Siegfried addresses her in passionate terms and offers himself to her in marriage. Gutrune feigns modest confusion and leaves the hall, while Gunther agrees to give his sister to Siegfried if the hem will help him win the maiden of his choice, who dwells high upon a rock, surrounded by fire which Gunther is not strung enough to break through. At mention of Brünnhilde's name, Siegfried seems to be making an intense effort to remember something which eludes him. But it is clear that he now has no recollection of Brünnhilde, despite the orchestra's promptings. He agrees to break through the flames, in the guise of Gunther, whose shape the Tarnhelm will enable him to assume, to win Brünnhilde and to bring her to Gunther.
Gunther and Siegfried swear an oath of blood brotherhood by pricking their arms with their swords and holding them for a short time over the mouth of a horn before drinking from it. A new motif, that of the vow, is introduced, but is soon followed by the two warning chords of Hagen's motif. Hagen has declined to join in the oath, claiming that his cold and sluggish blood would taint their drink.
Siegfried invites Gunther to accompany him as far as the foot of the Valkyrie's rock. 'For one night you will have to wait by the bank in the boat,' he tells the Gibichung. 'Then you can lead your wife home.' Gunther and Siegfried quickly leave in Siegfried's boat, while Gutrune excitedly looks forward to her marriage with the hero, and Hagen sits guarding the hall and dreaming of the ring which he intends to acquire when Siegfried brings it and Brünnhilde back with him. His solo passage, known as Hagen's Watch, is pervaded by the spirit, and indeed the motif, of his father, the Nibelung Alberich. At the conclusion of Hagen's brooding monologue, the curtain is lowered. After a brief, somber orchestral interlude, the scene changes back to the rocky summit as in the Prologue. Brünnhilde sits at the entrance to the cave, contemplating the ring which Siegfried bad given her, covering it with kisses as she recalls their happiness together and the appropriate motif is heard in the orchestra. A sudden burst of thunder and a flash of lightning in the distance draw her attention to a dark cloud approaching the rock, bearing a winged horse. The voice of one of Brünnhilde's sisters, the Valkyrie Waltraute, is heard calling her, and Brünnhilde hurries down to the edge of the cliff to greet Waltraute, returning immediately with her.
Brünnhilde hopes that her sister has come to tell her that Wotan's anger with her has abated, but in a long narrative Waltraute pours out a sorry tale of the decline of the gods. After his sword had been shattered by Siegfried, Wotan had returned to Valhalla. He had ordered the world ash-tree to be felled, and the logs from its trunk to be piled in towering heaps around the sacred hall of the gods. There Wotan sits on his throne, speaking not a word and refusing Freia's apples. Waltraute had heard him whisper that the gods and the world could be freed from the weight of the curse placed on the ring only if Brünnhilde were to return it to the Rhinemaidens. Throwing herself at Brünnhilde's feet, Waltraute begs her to do this and bring the torments of the gods to an end. She pleads in vain, for Brünnhilde tells her sister that Siegfried's love means more to her than Valhalla and the glory of the gods. She will never part with the ring which Siegfried had given her. Waltraute rushes off in anger and despair, and soon her receding thunder-cloud can be seen racing away across the sky.
Night has now fallen, and Brünnhilde observes that the wall of flame around her rock is leaping up furiousIy. Thinking that this denotes the return of Siegfried, she hurries to the edge of the rock, but is halted by the sudden appearance of Siegfried wearing the Tarnhelm, which gives him the form of Gunther. She shrinks back in fear as Siegfried, in a baritonal timbre instead of his usual tenor, announces himself as a suitor who, unafraid of the flames, has come to claim Brünnhilde as his bride. He tells her that he is Gunther, a Gibichung, and that she must now follow him.
Brünnhilde threatens him with the power of the ring, but Siegfried seizes her and they struggle violently. As the motif of the curse rings out, Siegfried tears the ring from Brünnhilde's finger, at which she gives a piercing scream and sinks, as if crushed, into his arms. With an imperious gesture, he drives her before him towards the cave. Several appropriate motifs are now combined in the orchestra: those relating to the oath Siegfried has sworn with Gunther, the sword Nothung, Wotan's treaty, and Hagen. As Brünnhilde sadly and with faltering step enters the cave, Siegfried draws his sword, Nothung, which he declares he will place between him and Brünnhilde in order to keep faith with Gunther. He follows her into the cave as the curtain fails to a violent flurry of motifs in the orchestra.
Act II has been described as Wagner's finest achievement. Its music is certainly of great dramatic power throughout, based on an intricate weaving of the work's musical motifs. After a brooding orchestral prelude depicting the plotting of Hagen and Alberich, the curtain rises to reveal a scene dose by the Rhine, in front of the hall of the Gibichungs. Wagner's stage directions, rarely adhered to in modern productions, describe the open entrance to the hall as being on the right with, on the left, the bank of the Rhine from which a rocky eminence, intersected by several mountain paths, rises diagonally towards the background. An altar-stone dedicated to Fricka can be seen, and above it a larger one for Wotan. At the side is another stone erected to Donner. It is night. Hagen, with his arm around his spear, sits sleeping with his sword by his side, leaning against one of the pillars of the hall. The moon suddenly throws a vivid light on the sleeping man and his surroundings, revealing Alberich crouching before him, leaning his arms on Hagen's knees.
The apparition of Alberich penetrates Hagen's slumber. 'Are you asleep, Hagen, my son?' Alberich asks. 'Do you not hear me?' Hagen, apparently still sleeping, although his eyes are open, replies softly, without moving, 'I hear you, hateful gnome. What have you to say in my sleep?' What Alberich has to say, of course, is a recital of the story of how the ring was stolen from him by Wotan. He and Hagen can now inherit the world from the gods, for Alberich has bred Hagen for the express purpose of avenging him and retrieving the Rhinegold. A new motif, that of murder, is heard in the orchestra as the Nibelung unfolds his familiar tale. Hagen swears to obtain the ring, and Alberich gradually disappears from sight, his voice fading with his image as he orders Hagen to remain loyal and faithful to him.
Hagen retains his position without moving, as day begins to dawn and the orchestra takes on a warmer tone. Suddenly, Siegfried emerges from a bush close to the shore. He removes the Tarnhelm which he has been wearing, hanging it from his belt as he steps forward to greet Hagen, whom he informs that he has been transported back from Brünnhilde's rock by the Tarnhelm in a split second, while Brünnhilde and Gunther are following more slowly by boat. Hagen calls Gutrune, who enters from the hall, and Siegfried tells them both how he wooed Brünnhilde for Gunther. walking through the fire with ease because of the strength of his desire for Gutrune.
Not surprisingly, Gutrune wishes to hear the story in more detail. 'So you overcame the intrepid woman?' she inquires. 'She surrendered - to Gunther's strength.' is Siegfried's tactful reply. 'And then you married her?' Siegfried's answer this time can hardly avoid sounding evasive. 'Brünnhilde', he tells Gutrune, 'submitted to her husband throughout the bridal night.' Gutrune is puzzled. 'But you passed for her husband?' she asks. 'Siegfried remained here with Gutrune,' he replies. Gutrune is even more perplexed. 'Yet Brünnhilde was by his side?' is her next question.
Siegfried explains that, on the next morning, Brünnhilde had followed him down to the Rhine where, in a trice, Gunther changed places with him. Through the Tarnhelm's magic power, Siegfried swiftly wished himself back in the hall of the Gibichungs, leaving Brünnhilde and Gunther to make a more stately progress along the Rhine. Their boat is now sighted by Hagen, and Gutrune departs with Siegfried to call her women to greet the lovers, asking Hagen to summon the vassals to attend the wedding ceremony.
Climbing on to a high rock in the background, Hagen turns away from the river to the surrounding countryside, blows a rough series of notes on his cowhorn, and announces not so much an invitation to a celebration as a call to arms. 'Take up your weapons,' he commands, 'for there is danger. Rouse yourself, Gibich vassals!' Hunting-horns answer from various directions, and along the mountain paths armed men begin to hurry towards the hall, at first singly, and then in increasing numbers. When they are gathered together on the shore in front of the hall, they address Hagen as a chorus. With the exception of the Valkyries in Die Walküre, who do not really function as an ensemble, this is the first time that a chorus has been heard in Wagner's Ring.
In a rough, boisterous outburst, accompanied at first by their own motif, the vassals ask Hagen why they have been called to arms. What foe is approaching? Is Gunther threatened? Hagen explains that they must greet Gunther, who is bringing home a formidable wife. 'Are the woman's hostile family in pursuit?' the vassals wish to know. They are not. Has Gunther, then, overcome them already? No, Siegfried the dragon-slayer protected him. 'Then why are we needed?' ask the vassals. 'To slaughter steers on the altar of Wotan, to kill a boar for Froh, a goat for Donner and a sheep for Fricka,' Hagen tells them. 'And then what should we do?' they ask. 'Drink until drunkenness overcomes you, in honor of the gods so that they may bless the marriage,' Hagen replies. In another wild choral outburst, the vassals tell one another that prosperity has indeed come to the Rhine if grim Hagen can be so merry.
Hagen, already plotting the downfall of Siegfried, now comes down among the Gibichung vassals. Pointing to the Rhine, he orders them to welcome Gunther's bride, Brünnhilde, to serve her loyally and, if she is ever wronged, to be quick to avenge her. When the boat carrying them comes alongside the river bank, Gunther and Brünnhilde disembark and are greeted by the vassals in a huge chorus based on the theme of the Gibichung tribe.
Gunther leads his bride, who follows him slowly with her eyes cast down, into the hall to meet Siegfried and Gutrune. It is only when he mentions Siegfried's name that Brünnhilde, startled, raises her eyes and sees her beloved. She gazes at him in astonishment, while all wonder at her strange behavior, and the orchestra emphasizes the significance of the dramatic situation with its combination of the motifs of Siegfried, the sword and Hagen. 'Is she demented?' the vassals wonder, while the orchestra already busies itself with the motif of vengeance. Siegfried innocently asks what troubles her, and when Brünnhilde, scarcely able to control herself, asks who Gutrune is, he replies that she is Gunther's gentle sister, married to him as Brünnhilde is to Gunther.
Brünnhilde staggers and is about to faint. 'Does Siegfried not know me?' she asks feebly. Then, as she notices the ring on his finger, she asks how it got there. 'This man', she exclaims, indicating Gunther, 'snatched it from me.' Siegfried answers that he did not get it from Gunther, Brünnhilde demands that Gunther claim the ring back from him, while a bewildered Gunther protests that he did not give it to Siegfried, and wonders how Brünnhilde comes to know the ring. The orchestra here is at its most eloquent, fiercely quoting a number of motifs, among them those of the ring, the curse, vengeance and Valhalla, at the appropriate moments. Hagen, meanwhile, has been moving among the vassals, urging them to note well Brünnhilde's complaint. She now furiously accuses Siegfried of having forcibly taken the ring from her. All look expectantly at Siegfried, who can only remember that he took it from the dragon's cave after he had slain Fafner.
Stepping between Brünnhilde and Siegfried, Hagen tells Brünnhilde that, if she really recognizes the ring as the one which Gunther took from her, then Siegfried must have obtained it by trickery, for which he must atone. Though she does not clearly understand exactly what happened, Brünnhilde now accuses Siegfried, to whom she considers herself married, of having broken his vows to her. Astonished, Siegfried insists that his sword, Nothung, lay between them, but of course this is not the occasion to which Brünnhilde refers. There is general consternation, which Siegfried attempts to quell by swearing an oath, on Hagen's spear, that Brünnhilde's accusation is false, and that he has not broken faith with his blood-brother, Gunther.
Pushing Siegfried's hand away from Hagen's spear, Brünnhilde grasps the point and, using the same melodic phrases as Siegfried but doubling the tempo, swears an oath of her own. 'Spear-point, mark my words,' she exclaims. 'I dedicate your great power to his downfall, for he has broken his oath and has now perjured himself.' Siegfried, however, maintains an even temper. Taking Gunther aside, he suggests that he had probably not been completely disguised by the Tarnhelm, and that this must be the cause of Brünnhilde's anger. Advising Gunther to give her time to calm down, he leaves, gaily calling to the women and the vassals to accompany him to the feast.
Brünnhilde, Gunther and Hagen now remain behind, and the trio with which they bring Act II to a conclusion is magnificent in its passionate intensity. When Hagen offers to avenge Brünnhilde by killing Siegfried, she scornfully remarks that a single flash of Siegfried's eyes would make Hagen quake with fear. However, accompanied in the orchestra by music of the deepest feeling, she tells Hagen how he can overcome the valiant hero. Unknown to Siegfried, she had enveloped the young hero in her magic, protecting him from all wounds. However, she did not protect his back, for she knew he would never turn away from an enemy. No weapon, therefore, can harm Siegfried in combat, but if he were to be struck in the back he would be vulnerable.
Though at first reluctant to join in a conspiracy against the man with whom he has sworn blood-brotherhood (as the orchestra's horns now ironically remind him by repeating the musical theme to which he and Siegfried had sworn), and by no means completely convinced that Siegfried has betrayed him, Gunther is finally persuaded to agree to Siegfried's death, on being reminded by Hagen of the immense power which will be his when the Nibelung's ring is in his possession. At Hagen's suggestion it is agreed to keep the truth from Gutrune, who will be told that Siegfried has been killed by a wild boar during the next morning's hunt. As the three of them swear to put this plan into action, the bridal procession emerges from the hall, with Siegfried carried on a shield and Gutrune on a chair. At Hagen's urging, Gunther and Brünnhilde take their places in the procession, which moves on towards the altar-stones on the summit, servants following with beasts to be sacrificed. Conveying a sense both of the nuptual celebration of the crowd and of the murderous plotting of the three conspirators, the orchestra excitedly combines several motifs, among which those of Gutrune and of revenge are most prominent. The curtain falls.
Beginning with Siegfried's horn-call, which is answered by the cowhorns of the Gibichung hunting-party in the distance, the orchestral prelude to Act III moves on through the flowing Rhine motif to a hint of the song of the Rhinemaidens. When the curtain rises on the first scene, it reveals a wild, partly wooded, partly rocky valley by the Rhine, the river flowing past a steep cliff in the background. The three Rhinemaidens, Woglinde, Wellgunde and Floßhilde, rise to the surface and swim, circling around one another as though in a dance. They pause in their swimming to sing to the goddess of the sun, asking for her rays to illuminate the depths of the Rhine as once they did. Hearing Siegfried's horn-call in the distance, they stop to listen, and then renew their plea to the sun, begging now for the arrival of the hero who will restore their gold to them. Their bittersweet melody sets the mood of the Rhinemaidens' subsequent scene with Siegfried, one of the few instances of comparative relaxation and charm in The Ring.
Siegfried's horn is heard again from the cliffs above, and the Rhinemaidens quickly disappear into the depths of the river as Siegfried himself appears on the cliffs in full armor, having lost his way while hunting. He grumbles that an elf must have led him astray, at which the Rhinemaidens suddenly rise again to the surface of the water to engage him in teasing banter. He has so far been unsuccessful in the hunt, and the Rhinemaidens offer to find some quarry for him, but ask what he will give them in return. Wellgunde draws attention to the golden ring gleaming on his finger, and the three Rhinemaidens ask for it. Siegfried points out, however, that he slew a dragon to get it. Do they expect him to give it up in exchange for a paltry bearskin?
When they accuse him of being mean, Siegfried resorts to the excuse that his wife would scold him were he to part with the ring. The Rhinemaidens laugh at the idea of a hero who fears his wife. Flirtatiously lamenting that so handsome, strong and desirable a youth should be such a miser, they dive below. Amused by their antics, Siegfried decides to let them have the ring. Taking it from his finger, he holds it out over the water and calls to the Rhinemaidens, who come to the surface again, but this time in a less skittish mood. They solemnly warn him of the curse attached to the ring, and of the evil that is in store for him unless he relinquishes it. Siegfried replies that their threats are even less effective than their wheedling. A dragon once warned him of the curse, but did not teach him to fear it. He would give up the ring for love but never in response to threats. The Rhinemaidens swim away, prophesying as they leave that a proud woman will that day inherit the ring and will give them a better hearing.
Siegfried tells himself that he is learning much about the ways of women, both on land and in the water: when their cajoling does not succeed, they resort to threats. And yet, he tells himself, if he had not already pledged himself to Gutrune, he would happily have chosen one of those pretty nymphs for himself. He is aroused from these reflections by horn-calls and the approach of the hunting-party, consisting of Hagen, Gunther and the vassals. They descend from the cliff-top to join him, bringing with them the spoils of the hunt, and producing drinking-horns and skins containing wine. Siegfried admits he has caught nothing, not even the three wild waterbirds who have told him that he would be slain that very day. Gunther looks gloomily at Hagen on hearing this, and in the depths of the orchestra there is a reminder of the oath of vengeance sworn against Siegfried.
Asked by Hagen if it is true that he can understand the song of birds, Siegfried replies that some time has passed since he heeded their chirping. Hagen gives Siegfried a drinking-horn filled with wine, which Siegfried shares with Gunther, noticing that he is in low spirits. Siegfried offers to cheer Gunther up by singing stories of his boyhood days. Encouraged to do so, he embarks upon a narrative involving Mime, the forging of Nothung, the slaying of Fafner, the advice of the woodbird, and Siegfried's scornful foiling of Mime, each episode bringing with it the appropriate motif. At this point, Hagen refills Siegfried's drinking-horn and adds to it the juice of a herb, telling him that its magic will awaken his remembrance of things he had forgotten. As Siegfried sings, recol-lection slowly returns to him. Gunther listens with astonishment, which turns to horror as Siegfried describes how he burst through the magic flames to awaken the sleeping Brünnhilde with a kiss. Two ravens fly up from a bush, circle above Siegfried, and then fly off towards the Rhine. 'Can you understand the cry of those ravens?' Hagen asks. When Siegfried turns to gaze after the birds, Hagen plunges his spear into the hero's back, shouting 'To me, they cry revenge.' Gunther, too late, attempts to restrain Hagen. Siegfried lifts his shield up high with both hands to bring it down upon Hagen, but his strength fails him, the shield drops behind him, and he falls back upon it as the orchestra contributes, fortissimo, a motif which will become the germ of Siegfried's Funeral March. The horrified vassals ask Hagen what he has done, to which he replies that he has avenged perjury, and calmly walks away into the now darkening twilight. A grief-stricken Gunther and the vassals tend the dying Siegfried, whose last words are of Brünnhilde, with whom he confidently expects to be reunited in death. The phrases to which she had awakened to his kiss are heard as he first breathes her name, followed by motifs associated with their love, and finally by the somber strains with which Brünnhilde had announced the imminent death of Siegmund to him in Die Walküre.
Siegfried falls back and dies. At a silent command from Gunther, the vassals lift Siegfried's body on his shield, and solemnly carry the dead hero towards the hilltop, with Gunther following sorrowfully. The moon breaks through the clouds, throwing an increasing light on the funeral procession as it reaches the summit. Then mists rise from the Rhine, gradually filling the whole stage until the cortege is invisible and the stage completely veiled in mist, as the noble, tragic music of Siegfried's Funeral March sounds forth. Almost unbearably moving in its context, the march reviews the dead hero's life and character, using the appropriate motifs.
When the mists disperse, the hall of the Gibichungs is revealed to view as in Act I. It is night, and moonlight is reflected on the Rhine. Gutrune, her motif issuing sadly from the orchestra, anxiously awaits the return of Siegfried with the hunting-party, and voices her disquiet at the odd behavior of Brünnhilde, whom she had glimpsed earlier walking down to the river bank. About to return to her room, Gutrune pauses when she hears the voice of Hagen outside, loudly calling for torches and announcing that the spoils of the hunt are being brought back, while the orchestra offers a reminder of the vengeance motive. 'Arise, Gutrune, and greet Siegfried,' Hagen calls to her. 'The mighty hero is coming home.'
Terrified, Gutrune asks him what has happened, for she has not heard Siegfried's horn. 'The pallid hero can blow it no more,' Hagen replies grimly, as Gunther and the vassals enter, bearing Siegfried's body, which they set down on a dais in the centre of the hall. As Gutrune screams and falls upon the body, Hagen announces that Siegfried was the victim of a wild boar. Gutrune, however, accuses her brother Gunther of having murdered him, at which Gunther places the blame firmly upon Hagen: 'He is the accursed boar who savaged this noble hero.' Hagen freely acknowledges the deed, and demands Siegfried's ring as a reward. but Gunther regards the ring as family property. 'Would you steal Gutrune's inheritance, you shameless son of a dwarf?.' he cries, at which Hagen draws his sword.
The two men fight, and Gunther is killed. But when Hagen goes to Siegfried's body and attempts to remove the ring, the dead hero's hand rises threateningly while all stand transfixed with horror. The motif of the downfall of the gods, heard first from Erda in Das Rheingold, now reappears as Brünnhilde enters. She has learned the truth from the Rhinemaidens, and assumes the status of grieving widow, to the fury of Gutrune, who accuses her of having brought disaster upon the Gibichungs. Brünnhilde calmly announces that Siegfried had sworn his eternal love to her long before he ever saw Gutrune, at which Gutrune vents her anger upon Hagen, who stands leaning on his spear in silent defiance.
Brünnhilde now begins her great final scene. Bidding the vassals to stack and light a pyre by the shore of the Rhine, she delivers Siegfried's funeral oration, remembering him lovingly, and castigating Wotan for having sacrificed him. As the vassals lift Siegfried's body on to the funeral pyre, Brünnhilde takes the ring from his hand and places it on her own. She will wear it, she exclaims, as she rides her home Grane into the flames of Siegfried's pyre, and the Rhinemaidens can reclaim it from her ashes. Snatching a torch from one of the vassals, she calls to Wotan's ravens to fly home to their master and recount what they have observed by the Rhine. She then hurls the torch on to the pile of wood, which quickly ignites.
Two ravens fly up from the shore and disappear into the sky, as Grane is led in. 'Do you know, my friend, where I am leading you?' Brünnhilde addresses her horse. 'Radiant in the fire, there lies your lord, Siegfried, my blessed hero. Are you joyfully neighing to follow your friend? Do the laughing flames draw you to him? Feel my bosom too, how it burns. My heart yearns to embrace him, to be enfolded in his arms, united with him in the most powerful love. Greet your master!' With a final cry, 'Siegfried, see, your wife blissfully greets you,' Brünnhilde mounts Grane and rides into the burning pyre.
Motif has tumbled over motif in Brünnhilde's great scene, a magnificent apotheosis in which all the most important themes of The Ring pass in review. The moving theme of redemption by love, first enunciated by Sieglinde in Act III of Die Walküre, is sounded quietly in the orchestra as Brünnhilde addresses Grane, to become more expansive as she sings of the blissful reunion with Siegfried which she confidently anticipates.
The end is described in Wagner's stage directions. The flames immediately blaze up, so that the fire fills the entire space in front of the hall, which it appears to seize on as well. The terrified vassals and women press to the foreground. When the stage is completely filled with fire, the glow suddenly subsides, leaving only a cloud of smoke which drifts towards the background, where it lingers on the horizon. At the same time, the Rhine overflows its banks in a mighty flood which inundates the fire, and the three Rhinemaidens are seen swimming on its waves. Hagen, who has been watching Brünnhilde with growing anxiety, is filled with the greatest alarm at the appearance of the Rhinemaidens. Hastily throwing aside his spear, shield and helmet, he plunges, as though insane, into the flood with a cry of 'Keep back from the ring!'
Woglinde and Wellgunde twine their arms around Hagen, drawing him with them into the depths as they swim away, while Floßhilde, swimming in front of the others, exultantly holds aloft the ring which they have recovered. An increasingly bright glow breaks through the bank of cloud on the horizon, in whose light the Rhinemaidens can now be seen swimming in circles, happily playing with the ring in the calmer waters of the Rhine, which has gradually returned to its natural level. From the ruins of the Gibichung hall, the vassals and women watch the growing fire in the sky with increasing apprehension. When the light reaches its brightest, there becomes visible in the distant sky the palace of Valhalla in which the gods and heroes sit assembled, as described by Waltraute in Act I. The fire appears to envelop Valhalla and, as the gods become completely hidden from view by the flames, the curtain fails. The orchestra has followed this dénouement with a magnificent outpouring of all the relevant motifs. But after the doom-laden motif of the twilight of the gods as Valhalla is consumed by fire, the consoling theme of redemption by love wells up in the orchestra to spread its balm over all. The immense Ring des Nibelungen ends on an uplifting note.
Ernest Newman and other Wagner commentators have pointed out that the ending of the great tetralogy is distinctly confusing. As Wagner's friend August Reckel wrote to the composer, 'Why, since the gold is returned to the Rhine, is it still necessary for the gods to perish?' The reply Reckel received was unsatisfactory, for there could be no logical answer. Wagner the poet had initially planned that Siegfried's death and Brünnhilde's return of the ring to the Rhinemaidens would lead to a new and happier era for gods and mankind. Musically, however, he was drawn inexorably to the tragic conclusion of 'das Ende' - the end of everything, as wished for by the world-weary Wotan in Die Walküre. As composer, Wagner nevertheless contrived to ensure the softening of this tragic conclusion by the consoling power of music. His concept of redemption through love is really redemption through the art of music: art consoles as life ends. One must hope so.