Götterdämmerung

Composed: 1869-74

Premiered: 17 August, 1876, Bayreuth

Siegfried is tricked by Hagen, son of Alberich, into drinking a potion that will make him forget his love for Brünnhilde. He then offers to use his power to win Brünnhilde for Hagen’s half-brother Gunther – all part of Hagen’s plan to grab the Ring, currently in her possession. Siegfried succeeds, puts the Ring on his own finger and is subsequently killed by Hagen. But when Hagen tries to remove the Ring he is resisted by Siegfried’s dead body. Brünnhilde takes the Ring back and rides with it into Siegfried’s funeral pyre to purify it. As the opera closes, the Rhine overflows its banks and the Rhinemaidens reclaim the Ring. All the while, up in Valhalla, Wotan has silently been waiting for the end of the gods to arrive…

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Götterdämmerung, ‘The Twilight of the Gods’, draws its title roughly from the Old Norse apocalypse Ragnarokr, in which the universe is shattered and reformed. Originally titled Siegfried’s Tod, though, it told only of the young hero’s betrayal and assassination at the hands of his fellow-men; but Wagner expanded the drama to incorporate the Ring’s mythical framework.

The work has a different feeling from the others in the Ring. In part because it was drafted first, it retains the archetypal structures of grand opera with its huge choruses and set-pieces, even an opening duet and a brief but fiery revenge trio. Many solo passages assume distinct arioso form, such as Waltraute’s Narration. The main setting – the court of the Gibichungs, chief kingdom along the Rhine – is also more ‘operatic’ than the earlier huts, caves and wild places.

But by the same token, the score – written during preparations for the 1876 Bayreuth Festival – is much more advanced. Wagner’s mature style rises confidently to the drama’s awesome scale, founded on a rich texture of leitmotifs evolved and entwined into almost subconscious complexity. The Rhinemaidens’ music, for example, while recognisably in the same idiom as in Rheingold, has become more subtly sensual and sophisticated over the intervening 20 years; and even the music between scenes includes what amounts to two brilliant tone-poems: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and the shattering Funeral March. There is some amazing brass writing, especially Act II’s dawn sequence.

But this blend of old and new feels entirely fitting to the climax of the cycle and the nature of the tragedy, propelled by Hagen’s machinations, which builds up in levels of increasing irony, influenced by Wagner’s love of Greek and Shakespearian tragedy. 

Irony, too, probably helps to explain one of the central questions of Götterdämmerung and the Ring, one Wagner himself had some difficulty explaining: namely, since the Ring is returned to the Rhinemaidens, why do the gods have to be destroyed? In the opera’s original conception they weren’t – Brünnhilde’s Valkyrie spirit brought the late Siegfried to Valhalla, to confront Wotan. Indeed, the wonderful concluding music could still suggest this.

But Wotan’s quest to preserve his authority has been so tragic that he no longer deserves or desires it. When forced to order Siegmund’s death, he lost the will to rule and live; now the children he hoped would inherit the world have also met their end. Alberich, to whom he dared not leave the world, is reduced to an impotent shadow. Brünnhilde bids the god rest and leave the world free – governed, in words Wagner later cut, only by love. The coda’s soaring redemption theme makes the words redundant.

Michael Scott Rohan

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