A guide to Wagner's Die Walküre
We tell the story of the second opera of Wagner's Ring cycle
Premiered: 26 June 1870, Munich
Separated from his twin sister Sieglinde since childhood, Siegmund is reunited with her when sheltering from a storm at the house of her husband Hunding. They fall passionately in love. Hunding himself, though, realises that Siegmund once killed his brother, and challenges him to combat.
Wotan, who is Siegmund’s father, sends the Valkyrie Brünnhilde to protect him, but then, on the order of his wife Fricka, changes his mind. Brünnhilde does so anyway. Siegmund loses when Wotan shatters his sword; Brünnhilde, meanwhile, is condemned by Wotan to lie in a magic sleep, surrounded by a ring of fire.
The second Ring cycle drama begins with an almighty storm – storms are a Wagnerian speciality. Wagner gives himself over to an unprecedented portrayal of the growth of passion between two utterly wretched people, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who in the course of Act I discover that they are twins, which only adds to their ardour. They are also the children of Wotan by an adulterous relationship with a mortal woman, so they have everything against them. After only one night of fulfilment they have to be destroyed, in the name of Law.
Civilisation can’t afford such violations, as Wotan’s imperious wife Fricka makes clear. Wotan’s idea was to breed a race that was free of his taint but, like all gods, he is responsible for how the creatures he has made turn out. He also has a quasi-incestuous relationship with his Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde, who disobeys his command to assist in the killing of the twin Siegmund, because she witnesses the twins’ love and is so moved by it.
In Die Walküre Wagner explores states of mind with an intimacy and detail, set to music of unprecedented depth and beauty, so that our sympathies are involved to a degree that can otherwise only be found in Shakespeare. After Wotan has been defeated by Fricka in argument, he sinks in despair and tries, in an enormous monologue, to make sense of his life and find a way out of his hopeless dilemma.
But he knows that he is trapped and, torn as he is, wills ‘Das Ende!’ at the same time as he has plans for how to circumvent it – like all of Wagner’s major characters, like everyone who is aware of the richness of life, he wants to have his cake and eat it. In effect, he punishes Brünnhilde for doing what he had wanted to, as she herself points out.
Die Walküre is the most popular opera in the Ring, the only one that gets performed in isolation. Though it has the closest ties to the drama that precedes it, and generates the two that follow it, it is emotionally self-contained, instantly compelling, and overwhelmingly tragic.
Wagner wrote it immediately after Das Rheingold, but the feel of it is wholly different. Its most celebrated section, the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, is also quite unlike anything else in the work, which is dominated by passion and the ways in which society thwarts it.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.