Original Title: The Valkyrie
Day One of Der Ring des Nibelungen
Libretto by the composer
Time: Legendary, some time after Das Rheingold
Place: Hunding's hut; a rocky height; a rock-strewn mountaintop
First performed in Munich, 26 June 1870
The orchestral prelude depicts a turbulent, elemental tempest, cellos and basses representing
the relentless wind, with lightning and thunder in the brass. When the storm begins to die down, the curtain rises
on the interior of a dwelling-place, in the center of which stands the trunk of a huge ash-tree whose roots spread
themselves over the ground. The upper part of the tree is cut off by the roof, the spreading boughs passing through
openings made to fit them. Around the tree, a hut has been crudely built of logs, hung here and there with matting
and woven cloth. In the foreground to the right is a hearth, the chimney of which passes through the roof. Behind
the hearth is a small store-room, in front of which hangs a half-drawn curtain. At the back is the entrance door
to the hut, and on the left another door leads to the sleeping-quarters. A table and some wooden stools comprise
the only furniture in the hut.
It is early evening. As the storm outside continues to subside, the entrance door is flung open and Siegmund enters hastily. Standing in the doorway for a moment he surveys the room, and then, exhausted, closes the door behind him, staggers to the fireplace and throws himself wearily down on a bearskin. 'Whoever owns this hearth,' he mutters to himself, 'I must rest here.' He sinks back, and remains motionless, sleeping. A moment later, Sieglinde enters from the storeroom. Startled to find a stranger lying in front of the fire, she approaches him, at which he awakens and asks for water. Sieglinde takes a drinking-horn from the wall, goes out, and returns with it filled with water which she offers to him.
Siegmund drinks gratefully. As he hands the horn back, his eyes fix upon Sieglinde with growing interest. He asks who it is who has so refreshed his spirit and delighted his sight, to which she replies that the hut belongs to Hunding, whose wife she is, and invites Siegmund to rest until Hunding's return. Siegmund tells her he is wounded. Harried by a pack of foes, he had been forced to flee when his spear and his shield were shattered. Sieglinde brings him a horn filled with mead, which he drinks. He then rises quickly, exclaiming that he must go. Bad luck pursues him everywhere, and he would not wish to bring it upon the woman who has befriended him. Sieglinde bids him stay. Bad luck, she says, can hardly be brought into the house in which bad luck already lives. Siegmund, deeply moved, remains standing. 'I named myself Wehwalt [Woeful],' he tells Sieglinde. 'I will wait for Hunding.' They stand, looking meaningfully into each other's eyes, until Sieglinde hears her husband leading his horse to the stable outside. She goes quickly to the door and opens it.
This first scene has been conducted entirely in recitative, but Wagner's recitative throughout The Ring is made up of countless melodic fragments. Here, the thematic material is all new, various motifs being introduced: most notably the love motif, which reveals to the audience the feelings which Sieglinde and Siegmund entertain for each other, before they have been expressed verbally.
Heralded by a phrase of dark foreboding in the horns, Hunding now enters armed with shield and spear, as the orchestra thunders forth his menacingly violent motif. Pausing at the threshold when he notices Siegmund, Hunding turns to Sieglinde with a look of stern inquiry. She explains that she had found Siegmund lying exhausted and, asked by Hunding if she had looked after him, admits that she has given him water and treated him as a guest. Siegmund, who has been watching Hunding intently, confirms that Sieglinde gave him shelter and a drink. 'Surely you will not chide your wife for that?' he asks. The taciturn Hunding replies, 'Sacred is my hearth. Treat my house as sacred, too.' Taking off his armor, he hands it to Sieglinde, who hangs it on a branch of the ash-tree. He orders her to serve a meal for the men, which she proceeds to do, bringing food from the storeroom. Examining Siegmund's features keenly, Hunding observes to himself that the stranger looks remarkably like Sieglinde. 'That snake-like deceit gleams in his eyes as well,' he murmurs.
As they eat, Hunding asks Siegmund where he has come from, and why he is so exhausted. Siegmund's reply is evasive. He was chased through forests and fields by storms and deep distress. He knows neither where he has come from, where he is going, nor where he is now. He would be glad to know. Hunding informs him that to the west are the wealthy estates of the kinsmen who guard his honor. 'If my guest respects my honor,' Hunding continues, 'he will tell me his name.' Siegmund at first makes no reply, but gazes thoughtfully into space. Sieglinde, who has placed herself opposite Siegmund at the table, stares intently at him. 'If you are wary of trusting me,' Hunding says to Siegmund, 'tell your story to my wife here. See the eager questioning in her look.'
Embarrassed, Sieglinde confesses to Siegmund that she would dearly love to know who he is. Gazing into her eyes, he begins to speak. He cannot call himself Friedmund (Peaceful), and he wishes he were called Frohwalt (Cheerful), but his name has to be Wehwalt (Woeful). His father was Wolfe (Wolf), also known as Wälse, of the Volsung race. (In fact, he was Wotan in human guise.) At his birth, he had a twin sister, but he was prematurely bereft of both mother and sister. One day, while he was still a child, he and his strong, warlike father returned home from hunting to find their house burned to ashes and the body of Siegmund's slaughtered mother lying in the ruins. Of his sister there was no trace. The years of his youth Siegmund had spent in the woods with Wolfe, often pursued by enemies against whom they defended themselves bravely. 'A Wölfing [Wolf-cub] tells you this,' Siegmund concludes his recital, 'and to many I am known as "Wölfing".'
Hunding comments that Siegmund's narrative is a strange and brutal one. He fancies he has heard dark tales of that warlike pair, father and son, though he never knew the names Wolfe or Wölfing. When Sieglinde asks where his father is now, Siegmund continues his narration. Their enemies had begun a fierce attack upon them. Fleeing through the woods, he had become separated from his father. Later, when he searched for him, he found only a wolfskin in the forest. He left the woodland and took up the company of men and women, but wherever he went he was always unpopular. Whatever he thought right seemed wrong to others, and what seemed wrong to him was approved of by everyone else. He ran into feuds everywhere, and yearning for happiness he found only misery. This is why he can only be called Woeful.
'The Norn certainly granted you a wretched fate,' observes Hunding. 'No one is likely to welcome you as a guest.' But Sieglinde asks the stranger to tell them more. How did he come to lose his weapon? Siegmund now brings his story up to date. A young girl forced by her family into marriage with a man she did not love had called on him for help. He had fought and killed the brothers who had been oppressing her, but was surprised to find that the girl then lamented the death of her siblings. Their kinsmen rushed to the spot, thirsting for vengeance, but the girl would not move from the corpses of her brothers. He had protected her for as long as he could, until his spear and shield were destroyed in the fight. Unarmed and wounded, he saw the girl die, and then fled, pursued by a furious horde of her kinsmen. 'Nun weisst du, fragende Frau, warum ich Friedmund nicht heiße' (Now you know, questioning woman, why I do not call myself Peaceful), Siegmund concludes in a phrase of intense yearning, gazing at Sieglinde with a sorrowful fervor as the orchestra announces the motif of the suffering race of Volsungs.
Hunding makes it clear that those whom Siegmund had slaughtered were his kinsmen. He was called to avenge their deaths, but arrived too late. He has now returned home to find in his own house the villain who had fled. The laws of hospitality require him to offer Siegmund shelter for the night, but on the morrow they must fight. 'Arm yourself with stout weapons,' he advises Siegmund, 'for tomorrow you will pay for your crimes.' He orders Sieglinde to leave the room, prepare his night drink and wait for him to come to bed. Before she goes, Sieglinde attempts to indicate to Siegmund silently with her eyes a particular spot on the trunk of the ash-tree, while the sword motif from Das Rheingold sounds quietly in the orchestra, first on the bass trumpet and then on the oboe. A sudden violent gesture from Hunding drives Sieglinde from the room. With a final warning to Siegmund to be on his guard the next day, Hunding follows Sieglinde into the bedchamber. The closing of a bolt is heard from within.
It has become quite dark. Siegmund sinks on to a bench by the fire, and begins to muse upon his misfortunes. He remembers his father telling him that, in his hour of greatest need, a sword would be given to him. He has come now, without a sword, to the house of his enemy, but it is the woman he has found there who has brought an enchanting fear to his heart. Where, he asks, is the sword that was promised to him? ('Wälse! Wälse! Wo ist dein Schwert?': tenors have been known to hold the G-flat of the first 'Wälse' and the G-natural of the second for an unconscionably long time.) Suddenly Siegmund notices the firelight shining upon a spot in the trunk of the ash-tree which Sieglinde had been attempting to indicate to him, and where now the hilt of a sword gleams brightly. The sword motif bursts forth on the trumpet as though to give the distressed hero a helpful clue, but the firelight gradually sinks again, and Siegmund imagines it to have been the radiance of Sieglinde's gaze which she left behind her when she went out of the room.
When the fire is completely extinguished, and the room totally dark, the door at the side opens softly, and Sieglinde enters quietly, dressed in a white garment. She whispers to Siegmund that she has placed a sleeping-draught in her husband's drink, and urges the young hero to take the opportunity to flee and save his life. 'I am already saved by your presence,' a joyful Siegmund replies, but Sieglinde urgently directs his attention to the sword in the ash-tree, and proceeds to tell him how and why it was put there.
On the evening of her wedding-feast, when the miscreants who had kidnapped her gave her to Hunding as his unwilling bride, she had sat sadly while the men drank and caroused. At the height of the festivity a stranger, an old man dressed in gray, entered the hall. He wore his hat low on his forehead, hiding one of his eyes, but the glint of stern authority in his other eye brought fear to the hearts of all the men present. To Sieglinde alone, the stranger's eye seemed to suggest a sweet, regretful yearning, sorrow and solace combined. He glowered at the men assembled and, raising his sword, stuck it into the trunk of the ash-tree, right up to the hilt. The sword would belong to whoever could pull it from the tree.
None of the heroes present could wrest the sword from the tree-trunk and, although guests came and went, the sword remained deeply embedded in the tree. It was then, says Sieglinde, that she realized who the stranger must be, and for whom the sword was implanted in the tree. 'Oh, could I find that friend here and now,' she continues, 'my shame and dishonor would be avenged, and I would embrace him as a hero.' The musical interest has begun to quicken with Sieglinde's narrative ('Der Männer Sippe saß hier im Saal': The kinsmen sat here in the hall), which is of such eloquence that it transcends its arioso form to become almost a bel canto aria. From this point to the end of the act Wagner's music is at its most beautiful, yet simultaneously obedient to the demands of the drama, hastening it forward with an urgent lyrical flow. It is in this final part of Act I of Die Walküre that Wagner's mature genius blazes forth in all its glory for the first time in The Ring.
Siegmund's reply to Sieglinde is to embrace her ardently, and declare his love for her. Suddenly, the outer door swings open to reveal a moonlit spring night. 'What was that? Who went out?' asks Sieglinde, startled. 'No one went, but someone has come,' replies Siegmund. 'It is the spring.' In an ecstatic aria ('Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond': Winter storms have waned in the wondrous month) he sings rapturously of the passing of winter storms and the radiant approach of spring, which he describes as a brother (Spring) in search of his sister (Love). 'The sister as bride is freed by her brother. Joyfully the young couple greet one another, and love and spring are at last united,' he concludes in a state of jubilant elation.
'You are the spring for which I longed throughout the frosts of winter,' Sieglinde assures him in her answering aria, 'Du bist der Lenz.' An urgent outpouring of love ensues, in which each speaks of having recognized the other as in a dream. 'In the stream I saw my own likeness, and now I see it again in you,' exclaims Sieglinde, to which Siegmund replies, 'You are the likeness that I hid in myself.' Once again Sieglinde asks him his name. Is he really called Woeful? 'Not now that you love me,' cries Siegmund. When he tells her that the real name of his father was not Wolfe but Wälse, Sieglinde exclaims 'If Volsa [Wälse] was your father, you are a Volsung, and it was for you that Volsa thrust his sword in the tree. Let me then name you Siegmund [Victor].'
Siegmund proudly accepts his name. As the sword motif rings out in a triumphant fortissimo, he approaches the tree with confidence and succeeds in drawing from it the sword, which he names 'Nothung' (Needful). Turning to Sieglinde, he tells her 'You see Siegmund, the Volsung, woman! He brings this sword as a wedding gift, and thus weds the fairest of creatures.' 'If you are Siegmund, I am Sieglinde who longed for you,' she replies. 'You have won your own sister as well as the sword.' 'Wife and sister you shall be to your brother,' cries Siegmund. 'So let the Volsung blood increase.' The curtain fails on their passionate, incestuous embrace as the orchestra excitedly combines the motifs of the sword and of love.
Though it lacks the musical and dramatic unity of Act I, the second act of Die Walküre contains its share of dramatic episodes. A fiercely energetic orchestral prelude combines several by now familiar motifs. It might seem to suggest the feverish flight of the Volsung twins, but at its climax it introduces the rhythm of what will later become the accompaniment of the Ride of the Valkyries. The curtain rises on Act II to reveal a wild, rocky place. In the background a gorge slopes from below to a high ridge of rocks, from which the terrain sinks again to the foreground.
Wotan, fully armed and carrying his spear, addresses his daughter Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie, who is also fully armed. He orders her to fly to the aid of Siegmund and ensure that he wins his imminent fight with Hunding. Shouting her battle-cry ('Ho-jo-to-ho'), Brünnhilde springs from rock to rock up to the highest peak. (The Valkyrie's battle-cry has become so widely known out of context and used for purposes of satire so frequently that its intended effect is not easy now to achieve in performance.) After looking down into the gorge beyond, Brünnhilde calls to Wotan that his spouse, Fricka, is hastening furiously towards them. 'Be careful, Father,' she warns him, lightheartedly. 'Fricka approaches in her chariot drawn, by rams. Look how she cracks the golden whip. The poor animals are bleating in fear. I take no delight in this kind of skirmish; the battles of men are more to my taste. I happily leave you to your fate.' And with a further whoop of her war-cry, the fierce Brünnhilde disappears down the slope.
Fricka, in a chariot drawn by two rams, comes up from the ravine to the top of the pass, where she stops suddenly, alights and strides impetuously towards Wotan, who mutters to himself, 'The same old storm, the same old trouble. Yet I must make a stand.' Chiding him for having hidden himself in the mountains in order to avoid her, Fricka tells Wotan that Hunding has sought her aid, and that she, the guardian of wedlock, has promised to avenge him and punish the behavior of Siegmund and Sieglinde, an impudent, blasphemous pair who have wronged a husband. Wotan attempts to defend the lovers, but Fricka insists that he support her in upholding the sanctity of the marriage vow. She is shocked not only at the adultery committed by the lovers but also at its incestuousness, for she is well aware that Siegmund and Sieglinde are her husband's twin offspring, begotten of a mortal woman.
To Fricka's complaint that he himself has broken his marriage vows time and time again, prowling around the woods like a wolf and coupling with a vulgar human being, Wotan replies that Fricka has never learned to understand actions before they have become accepted. It is convention alone that she understands, whereas Wotan's mind is concerned with deeds not previously attempted. It is imperative, he tells her, that a hero be created who, free from divine protection, will be released from divine law, and thus able to perform the deed which, much as the gods need it, they are prevented by their godliness from doing.
Fricka accuses Wotan of trying to confuse her. Siegmund is no hero, she says, but a creature of Wotan's will. When Wotan insists that he has never sheltered Siegmund, who grew to manhood by himself in bitter sorrow, Fricka pounces on the weakness in his argument. 'Then do not shelter him today,' she orders Wotan. 'Take away the sword which you gave him.' Wotan claims that he did not give the magical sword to Siegmund, who had won it himself in adversity, but Fricka points out that it was Wotan who created the adversity. It was for Siegmund that he had thrust the sword into the tree-trunk, and it was Wotan's cunning which had led Siegmund to find the sword.
Defeated, Wotan agrees not to aid Siegmund in the fight, but Fricka is not satisfied. 'Look me in the eye,' she commands him. 'Don't try any tricks. Keep the Valkyrie away from him too.' When Wotan angrily replies that the Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, will no doubt do as she pleases, Fricka contradicts him. 'Not at all. She carries out your wishes alone. Forbid her to let Siegmund win.' Brünnhilde can be heard approaching as Fricka demands from Wotan his sacred promise that the Volsung, Siegmund, will die in the battle, and that her honor as Wotan's wife will be upheld. Most of this scene has been carded on in dramatic recitative. It is only at the end, when Fricka is confident that she has won her battle of wills with Wotan, that she is able to broaden her utterance into a serene cantabile ('Deiner ew'gen Gattin heilige Ehre': Your eternal consort's holy honor). Reluctantly, Wotan gives his solemn oath.
Brünnhilde has appeared with her horse on the rocky path above. On seeing Fricka, she slowly and silently leads her horse down the mountain path and hides it in a cave. She approaches as Fricka is leaving. 'Your war-father awaits you,' Fricka tells her. 'He will inform you what plans he has made.' As the goddess enters her chariot and drives quickly away, Brünnhilde comes forward anxiously to Wotan, who is now seated on a rock, sunk in a mood of the utmost dejection. When she enquires the cause of his gloom, he erupts in an outburst of shame, rage and despair, describing himself as the most joyless of all living creatures. With loving concern, Brünnhilde lays her head on his breast and embraces him, while Wotan, stroking her hair tenderly, begins to relate to her the history of the Ring.
Wotan's lengthy narration ('Als junger Liebe Lust mir verblich': When the delight of young love fled from me) takes in Alberich's theft of the gold from the Rhinemaidens, the subsequent theft of that gold from the Nibelung by Wotan himself with the aid of Loge's cunning, and his payment of the gold, including the magic ring, to Fasolt and Fafner, after receiving Erda's warning. Wotan describes to Brünnhilde how he descended into the bowels of the earth, anxious to learn more from Erda. 'I learned her secrets,' he recalls, 'but she exacted a fee from me.' The world's wisest woman had borne him Brünnhilde and eight other daughters, the Valkyries. The task of these warlike women was to fetch heroes from the world's battlefields to Valhalla, to strengthen the power of Wotan and the gods.
'But we have filled Valhalla with heroes,' Brünnhilde protests. 'I alone have brought you a multitude. What is it that troubles you?' Wotan confesses his concern that the ring, which is still in the possession of Fafner, should not come into the hands of Alberich who, with its power, could bring about the downfall of the gods whom he hates. Since he, Wotan, had made a pact with Fafner, he cannot himself snatch the ring away from him. 'I became a ruler through treaties,' he tells Brünnhilde, 'but now I am enslaved by those treaties.' Only a human hero not helped in any way by the gods, indeed a man opposed to the gods, can perform the deed which Wotan must avoid. How, he wonders, can he bring into existence such a person who, of his own accord, will do what he, the god, desires but must not demand?
When Brünnhilde suggests that Siegmund may be the hero whom Wotan seeks, her father explains to her why this is not so. In a mood of despair, he yearns for the end of everything, exclaiming bitterly that Alberich is working for that same end. Wotan tells Brünnhilde of a rumor he has heard, which is that Alberich had overpowered and seduced a woman who is now about to bear him a child. The god utters an ironic blessing upon Alberich's son.
Wotan's narrative has been long and, of necessity, repetitive, ranging as it does over the entire story of The Ring. There is no denying that, in performance, it can seem one of the work's more tiresome longueurs, and one might wish that Wagner had found a more musically and dramatically sophisticated method of conveying to audiences the god's dilemma at this point in the action.
Brünnhilde, puzzled, asks what she must do, and is instructed by Wotan to fight on the side of Fricka. When she pleads for Siegmund, whom she knows Wotan loves, he insists that she must bring about the death of Siegmund and procure victory for Hunding. Brünnhilde is bold enough to tell Wotan that she will never be turned against Siegmund by his two-faced orders, at which Wotan angrily reminds his daughter that she is nothing but an extension of his will. Her task that day is to see that Siegmund is defeated. As Wotan departs in a fury at her attempted rebellion, Brünnhilde stands for a long time in confusion. 'Oh, my poor Volsung,' she murmurs as she leaves slowly and reluctantly, 'I must forsake you in your hour of greatest need.' She ascends to the rocky pass, and looks down into the gorge, where she observes the approach of Siegmund and Sieglinde. After watching them for a moment, she goes into the cave to her horse.
A passionate agitation now enters the music as Siegmund and Sieglinde appear. Sieglinde attempts to hurry on, but Siegmund gently restrains her. Sieglinde is overcome with remorse at having, as she believes, brought shame and disgrace upon her brother and lover. Siegmund tries to comfort her, promising her that the husband whom she detests will soon die, but Sieglinde is alarmed by the horn-calls of Hunding and his followers not far behind them in the valley. She becomes hysterical, imagining she can see Hunding's dogs tearing Siegmund's flesh, and falls to the ground in a faint. Siegmund kneels beside her, cradling her in his arms as the love theme is remembered quietly in the orchestra. The musical interest of this scene is greatly enhanced by the rich colors and pulsating rhythms of the orchestra.
Slowly Brünnhilde, leading her horse by the bridle, emerges from the cave and moves solemnly forward, carrying her shield and spear in one hand. After pausing to observe Siegmund from a distance, she comes closer until she is standing on a ridge just above the spot where Siegmund is seated on the ground with Sieglinde's head in his lap. The solemn motif of death is heard quietly in the brass. After a further pause, Brünnhilde addresses Siegmund in musical phrases of solemn grandeur and beauty ('Siegmund! Sieh auf mich': Siegmund! Look on me), announcing that she has come to call him away. When he asks who she is, Brünnhilde tells him that those to whom she appears are doomed to die in battle, and that she will take him to Valhalla and to Wotan. Siegmund asks if he will find his father in Valhalla, and Brünnhilde assures him that he will. The Valkyries, too, will attend to his every wish. But when Siegmund asks if his sister Sieglinde will be able to accompany him to Valhalla, he is told that she must remain behind on earth. Brünnhilde's Todesverkundigung, or announcement of death, to Siegmund is one of the musical highlights of the opera.
Before responding, Siegmund bends softly over Sieglinde and kisses her gently on the brow, then he turns again to Brünnhilde. 'Greet Valhalla for me,' he says firmly. 'Greet Wotan, my father Wälse and all the heroes. Greet the beautiful daughters of Wotan. I will not follow you to them.' Brünnhilde attempts to explain to him that he has no choice. 'As long as you live,' she tells him, 'nothing can force you. But death, foolish boy, will force you. I have come here to announce your death to you.' Told that Hunding is to strike the blow that will kill him, Siegmund replies scornfully that Brünnhilde will need to threaten with stronger blows than Hunding's. He shows her his sword, boasting that he who made it promised victory.
Brünnhilde disconcerts him by replying that he who made the sword for Siegmund has now decreed his death, and will remove from the sword its magic power. Siegmund exclaims bitterly that he has been treated shamefully. If he must die, he prefers hell to Valhalla as his final destination, and he will first kill Sieglinde rather than lose her. Moved by his distress, Brünnhilde resolves to give Siegmund her support in the imminent fight. Promising him victory. she hastens away.
It has now grown dark. Heavy storm-clouds sweep across the sky, gradually covering the cliffs, the ravine and the rocky pass. Siegmund lays the still sleeping Sieglinde gently on the ground, and kisses her brow in farewell. Hunding's horn-call is heard, at which Siegmund starts up resolutely, drawing his sword, and hastens to the pass, where he disappears from view. Thunder and lightning awaken Sieglinde, who stares about her in growing terror as she hears the voices of Siegmund and Hunding defying each other.
The two men now appear, fighting. Flashes of lightning intermittently illuminate the scene, as Brünnhilde appears, seeming to float above Siegmund, protecting him with her shield. Just as Siegmund aims a deadly blow at Hunding, a glowing red light breaks through the clouds in which Wotan appears, standing over Hunding, holding his spear out to deflect Siegmund's blow. Brünnhilde, terrified at the sudden arrival of her father, retreats, and Siegmund's sword snaps on Wotan's outstretched spear. Hunding plunges his spear into Siegmund's breast, and Siegmund fails lifeless to the ground. Sieglinde swoons, but Brünnhilde hastens to her, lifts her on to her horse, and immediately disappears with her. Wotan, gazing sadly on the body of Siegmund, kills Hunding by contemptuously ordering him to go and kneel before Fricka. He then erupts in rage against his disobedient daughter, announcing his intention of inflicting a dreadful punishment upon her. As Wotan disappears in more thunder and lightning, the curtain quickly falls and a brief orchestral postlude leaves one in no doubt of the violence of his anger.
Act III takes place on the rocky summit of a mountain. On the peaks, four of the Valkyries, in full armour, are watching the return of their sisters, who arrive one by one, each with a slain warrior hanging over her saddle. Brünnhilde is the last of all to arrive, and when she does it is not a fallen hero whom she brings with her but an unconscious Sieglinde. The famous Walkürenritt (Ride of the Valkyries) with which the act begins combines the warlike theme of the Valkyries with Brünnhilde's battle-cry. Its dotted rhythm and pulsating energy contribute to an exciting opening scene.
Brünnhilde appeals to her sisters for assistance, telling them that she is being pursued by the furious Wotan. She explains what has happened, but the Valkyries are too afraid of their father to help her.
Recovering consciousness, Sieglinde exclaims that she needs no help. Death is all she craves. She would far rather have been struck down by the same weapon that killed Siegmund. However, when Brünnhilde tells her that she is carrying Siegmund's child, her attitude changes and she begs the Valkyries to save her and her child. Wotan is rapidly approaching, so Brünnhilde advises Sieglinde to escape quickly and leave her to face the god's wrath. The Valkyries tell of a forest to the east, where Fafner guards the ring and the Nibelung treasure: Wotan dislikes the place, and never ventures there. Brünnhilde gives Sieglinde the broken pieces of Siegmund's sword, which she had gathered up from the battlefield, and tells her to keep them for her son to forge anew. She, Brünnhilde, names the as yet unborn child 'Siegfried' (peaceful in victory). The motif which will be associated with Siegfried is sung by Brünnhilde and repeated by the horns. The eight bars of passionate melody with which Sieglinde responds ('O hehrstes Wunder': O greatest wonder) are among the most affecting in the entire Ring. They will be heard only once more, in the closing scene of the entire cycle.
Sieglinde flees just in time, for Wotan now arrives calling for Brünnhilde, whom her sisters have hidden in their midst. The Valkyries plead with their father to deal leniently with her, but Wotan chides them as a soft-hearted bunch of females and accuses Brünnhilde of cowardice in attempting to evade her punishment. At this the music suddenly softens, and a chastened Brünnhilde steps forward humbly, asking Wotan to pronounce judgement on her.
Wotan makes it clear to his favorite child that she has chosen her own punishment. Though she existed only as the agent of his will, she has acted against his will. 'I made you bearer of my shield, but you raised that shield against me,' he tells her sorrowfully. 'I made you the disposer of fates, but you disposed fate against me. I made you the inspiration of heroes, but you inspired a hero to act against me.' Wotan pronounces his sentence sadly, to the theme with which Brünnhilde had announced Siegmund's death to him. Banished from his sight, Brünnhilde is no longer to be a Valkyrie. She will lie on the mountaintop confined in sleep, and will belong to the first man who awakens her.
At this, Brünnhilde's sisters exclaim in horror, and plead with Wotan to rescind his dreadful sentence. But Wotan is adamant. 'She will never again ride with you through the air on horseback,' he tells them. 'Her youth will wither, she will minister to the needs of the husband who wins her, and she will grow old sitting and spinning by the fire, the butt of all jests.' He threatens with the same fate any of her sisters who dare to plead for her. The terrified Valkyries scatter in flight, and Brünnhilde sinks to the ground at Wotan's feet.
After a long pause, Brünnhilde begins to address her father, at first timidly but later with increasing firmness. Was her offense really so shameful, she asks, that she must be so dishonored? Did she not merely act as Wotan himself secretly desired to act? Was his command to destroy Siegmund not given against his will, at the insistence of Fricka? The music of Brünnhilde's pleading is of a heart-breaking tenderness. But it is precisely because she dared to do what he, the god, could not do that Wotan cannot forgive her. Brünnhilde begs that, if she must be the slave to a mere human, her master may be no cowardly boaster, but a real hero. She prophesies that the greatest hero of all will be born to the Volsung race, at which Wotan angrily interrupts that he has turned against the Volsungs as well as against Brünnhilde. He will offer no protection to Sieglinde or to the child she is to bear.
Wotan tells Brünnhilde that she is now about to be enclosed in deep sleep. At her urging, however, he agrees to encircle her with a ring of magic fire, so that only a fearless hero will be likely to break through it and awaken her, In the orchestra, mysterious chords now introduce the motif of Brünnhilde's magic sleep. Solemnly, Wotan embraces his child for the last time, taking away her divinity with a kiss. His farewell to her ('Leb' wohl, du kuhnes, herrliches Kind!': Farewell, valiant and glorious child) is immensely affecting. Brünnhilde sinks down in sleep, and Wotan covers her with her shield. Summoning Loge, the god of fire, he conjures up flames from the earth which completely surround the rock on which Brünnhilde lies, while the orchestra conjures up the glorious magic fire music. As Wotan departs slowly and sorrowfully with one final backward look at the daughter he loves most, the fire music begins to fade, and the curtain falls.
DESPITE ITS occasional longueurs, Die Walküre is a marvelously rich opera. In Das Rheingold, most of the excitement was to be found in the orchestra: Die Walküre's orchestral writing is often thrilling, but by now Wagner has found a way to integrate his voice parts into the overall structure without sacrificing their lyrical independence. Like its predecessor, Die Walküre is still primarily a work for solo voices: it is not until the last act of Siegfried that we shall hear a real duet, and we shall have to wait until Götterdämmerung for the introduction of the chorus. There is, however, an impressive ensemble in Act III of Die Walküre when the eight Valkyries are heard together, first in exaltation at the beginning of the act, and then later in fear and dismay.
Die Walküre is best experienced as part of a complete performance of The Ring, but it is also popular enough (and sufficiently self-contained) to be frequently staged on its own. Of the four Ring operas, it is the one which stands up most firmly outside the context of the tetralogy.
In 1881, when Die Walküre was first heard in London, the nature of the relationship between the twin siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde was found distressing by the puritanical British temperament. The critic of The Era, taking a short view of this segment of the intensely moral Ring, wrote:
... The subject may be simply told. It is nothing less than a sudden impulse of sensual passion between brother and sister. There is no mistake about it, no excuse that the relationship is unknown, for the hero openly requests Sieglinde to become 'his sister and his bride', which the lady consents to without the slightest hesitation, and the climax of the first act is when the guilty and incestuous pair agree to fly at once; the act closing with a duet, the music of which is evidently written to suggest animal passion in its utmost excess.
We have told this brutal and degrading story in as few words as our disgust will permit, but it is not thus told in the scene itself. All the resources of musical, scenic, and histrionic art are employed to make this sensual incident more striking. It is not lightly passed over - not referred to as some painful but necessary incident introduced for the elaboration of the story, but it is brought forward in the most prominent manner possible, as we could prove if we chose to offend the taste of our readers by quoting the libretto. A composer must have lost all sense of decency and all respect for the dignity of human nature who could thus employ his genius and skill to heighten and render more effective a situation which should never again, if our authorities exert their power, be witnessed upon the English stage.
The critic goes on to admit that, although Wagner's lack of taste is lamentable, he is able to supply fine music when the mood takes him. His conclusion, however, is that, despite much in the score that is of musical value, 'nothing can justify the representation of such a story in public. Immoral and unspeakably degrading, it should have no place in true art.'