Die Walküre, Act One
How would we listen to this hour of music if Richard Wagner had only composed this one act and we knew nothing about music drama, Gesamtkunstwerk, Bayreuth or tetralogy? It is difficult to say because there are no magic potions to make us forget, even in Wagner’s case. More important, although the entire sequence of musical, textual and scenic events depicts every “now” as a web of before and after, it seems futile to listen to this incredible beginning of something new as what, on the face of it, it could be: the incredible beginning of something new. In the hope that there could actually be something entirely new in theatre, in life, in legend.
It begins tempestuously, with the powerful, driving music of a thunderstorm – a bold rhythmic attack. No slow fade-in or build-up in the vast flow of musico-dramatic world narrative as at the opening of the preliminary evening (Das Rheingold) or the beginning of the next part, Siegfried. This time the first gestures of the Walküremusic, the nervous tremolo in the violins, the furious ostinato of the double basses and cellos, do not contain the complete narrative of what came before and after. Thus, we can pretend to watch the events in Hunding’s hut naively, as though for the first time.
Before Siegmund, exhausted by the flight from his pursuers, collapses in Hunding’s hut, quite a lot has happened which will not be recounted until later, and only that will explain whom and what it is about. During the first act a substantial portion of the “plot” of Walküre already consists in clarification of its own premises, which are primarily acts of procreation. With Erda, the primeval earth mother and seer, the god Wotan fathered nine wild daughters, the Valkyries, warlike maidens who go to the world’s battlefields to carry fallen heroes to the afterworld of Valhalla on their winged horses. Wotan also fathered a pair of twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, with an unknown mortal woman in his disguise as Wälse [Volsa]. Siegmund roams through a hostile, brutal world with his father. One day they find their home burned, the mother dead, Sieglinde abducted. Father and son wander around aimlessly as Wolfe and Wölfing [Wolf-cub]; they are separated and Wolfe disappears. Meanwhile, Sieglinde has been handed over to Hunding by thieves and is forced to marry him. A stranger appears at the cheerless wedding, “an old man dressed in grey”; it is Wotan-Wälse-Wolfe. He thrusts a sword into the trunk of the ash tree that stands in the middle of Hunding’s hut: “The blade would fittingly go to him, who should draw it out of the tree.” No one has been able to do that until now.
All of this has already taken place as Siegmund, pursued by his enemies because he had become involved in a feud, unwittingly ends up in the house of his pursuer. Hunding is still out with his men. Sieglinde finds the “stranger” lying unconscious by the hearth. She brings him water, he awakens, their eyes meet and what now follows, without words, in eloquent cello recitatives, is a mutual process of realization and recognition in which the lost twins find each other again. Hunding appears and confronts the stranger, who calls himself Wehwalt [Woeful]. Only hospitality prevents him from killing the guest on the spot. Hunding lies down to sleep; it will be a deep sleep because Sieglinde has put sleeping powder into her husband’s drink. Siegmund is alone; he thinks about his desperate situation and remembers the sword that his lost father had promised him. Suddenly a ray of moonlight falls on the hilt of the sword in the trunk of the ash tree. Sieglinde slips into the room and tells her story (“All the kinsmen ...”). The recognition that they are brother and sister coincides with “knowledge” in the sexual sense after Siegmund, now under his real name, has pulled Wälse’s sword out of the trunk. In the darkness of winter, night falls on a moonlit spring (“The storms of winter have yielded to the month of May”); brother and sister become lovers (“So may the race of Volsungs flourish!”). “He holds her to him with passionate fervour” is Wagner’s stage direction for incest. “The curtain quickly falls.”
One element of Wagner’s dramaturgical genius is the way he creates suspense by combining the spheres of the earthly and unearthly, the natural and supernatural, in his staging. That works in Wagnerian theatre. After the prelude with gods, Nibelungs and Rhine maidens, in an abrupt transition we are now among mortals, that is, in historical time, insofar as it is perceptible. Hunding’s hut is in a bleak, archaic world, in an early phase of civilization, still close to nature, and Wagner the stage designer finds an obvious metaphor for it: “In the middle is the trunk of a mighty ash tree, whose magnificent roots disappear deep into the ground. The tree is separated from its crown by a timber roof which is pierced to allow the spreading limbs to pass through. Around the trunk a room is built; the walls are of roughly hewn logs, hung here and there with matting and woven hangings.” The world of early humans in which we are immersed is a violent environment. The law of the jungle prevails. Women are possessions; Sieglinde experiences this, like the unknown woman for whom the itinerant Wehwalt becomes entangled in a feud with Hunding’s kinsmen. Hunding’s music sounds crude and archaic. Entirely different are the long passages in the first act, in which gestures and, above all, gazes speak to us on the stage, but from the orchestra, treated with the subtlest refinement, we hear some of the most intense, inspired and organic music that Wagner ever composed. Anyone who is not swept away by the first act of Walküre – in which Wagner the dramaturge leads us from the stormy opening to the nocturnal resting point in Siegmund’s monologue and from there the excitement of recognition and consummation of love intensifies to the final climax in a tremendous crescendo – cannot be moved by Wagner’s art of emotionalization elsewhere either.
Greeting the Sun on the Staircase – SiegfriedIdyll
Sunday, 6 June 1869, early morning. The bells of Lucerne can be heard on the Tribschen peninsula at Lake Lucerne, probably chirping birds as well. Earlier, the sun rose over the Rigi mountains in brilliant orange. Orange is also the colour of the wallpaper on the concealed door to the bedroom of Cosima von Bülow, who gave birth to a boy at four o’clock that morning. “A son is there! – He had to be named Siegfried. For him and you I had to express thanks in music – What lovelier reward could there be for deeds of love? We nurtured within the bounds of our home the quiet joy that here became sound.”
Was any child ever welcomed more warmly to earth than this little Siegfried? Wagner, who was working on the score to his opera Siegfried just then, composed these 20 minutes of marvellous music for small ensemble for his son and gave the work the complicated title “Tribschen Idyll with Fidi’s Birdsong and Orange Sunrise”, later shortened to SiegfriedIdyll. It was performed for the first time on the staircase of the Tribschen villa eighteen months after the child’s birth, on the occasion of his mother’s 33rd birthday. Cosima was awakened gently, with a symphonic idyll tenderly evoking what accompanies the first shy, then euphoric and hysterical meeting of Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the third act of Siegfried: hesitation, heartbeats, greeting to the sun and horn call from afar, as a free orchestral fantasy. Perhaps Wagner’s most charming, ethereal music. Truly joy become sound – and truly an idyll.