Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) is the most popular and most frequently performed of the four operas comprising Richard Wagner's great cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung. This is somewhat ironic, as it is the only one of the four in which neither Alberich the Nibelung nor his Ring ever appears. Taken alone, its story does not make a very coherent nor self-contained drama. Wagner considered the cycle to be a trilogy with a prelude, and Die Walküre, as the second opera, the first “day” of that trilogy. As in all three of the trilogy works, the background and plot motivation must be expressed in extended explanations by the characters themselves, often introduced for no other dramatic reason. These passages, which may appear to interrupt or weaken the flow of the dramatic action, nevertheless provide crucial opportunities for the development of the musical material that binds the entire 19-hour cycle together. On first encountering these passages, audiences may find them repetitive and tiresome, and they have been the butt of easy satire; they are what people often think of when they read Gioacchino Rossini's comment that “M. Wagner has beautiful moments, but bad quarters of an hour.”1. But as the musical and dramatic structure of the Ring begins to be appreciated in its entirety, they emerge as some of its most exquisite and intensely involving moments. Its breathtaking musical architecture is one of the many reasons for the compelling hold of the Ring. But another is the status of its story as a modern myth.
Wagner wrote the poetic texts of the four operas of the Ring in reverse order, starting with the last, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). That work was originally conceived as a stand-alone grand opera to be called Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried's Death), for which a complete libretto was drafted and eventually published. It was to tell a story of how Siegfried the dragon-slayer, having won Brünnhilde as the bride of Gunther through deception in order to gain the hand of Gunther's sister Gutrune, is found out and murdered at the behest of Brünnhilde, who then takes her own life. It was initially based on the first half of the Nibelungenlied, an anonymous 13th-century epic poem thought to have originated in southern Germany. A similar story, however, is found in two other 13-century works of unknown authorship, the Thidrekssaga, an Old Norse translation or adaptation of a lost German text, and the Volsungasaga, part of the large body of medieval Icelandic literature. Wagner began to fuse elements from these disparate sources into a growing series of “prequels” to his original drama.
Although elements of all of these medieval sources are mixed in all of the Ring operas, each piece of the cycle is shaded to a particular one. Götterdämmerung owes most to the Nibelungenlied. Siegfried, the story of how Siegfried slew the dragon and first won Brünnhilde (for himself), stems largely from the Thidrekssaga, while Die Walküre, concerned with Siegfried's progenitors and Brünnhilde's transgression, owes most to the Volsungasaga. (For Das Rheingold, setting the background among the Norse Gods, Wagner turned largely to the Prose Edda, yet another 13th-century Icelandic work, the source for much of what is actually known of Norse mythology.) These distinctions are important. The Nibelungenlied and Thidrekssaga are works from continental Europe in the Middle Ages, and although they tell of events and heroes of many centuries earlier who may still have believed in the pagan gods, they were written from a thoroughly Christian perspective. The Norse gods and the Valkyries, so significant a feature of Wagner's telling of the story, simply do not exist in them. With the Icelandic literature it is different. Although Iceland converted to Christianity in the 11th century, some two hundred years before the composition of its earliest surviving literature, it did so deliberately, democratically, and peacefully, unlike the other northern lands. Its people felt no need to expunge the old gods from the national consciousness. Indeed, the writing of the Sagas and the Eddas evidently sprang from a desire to keep alive a record of the beliefs of their ancestors as part of their cultural heritage. In pondering the unusual pessimism of a religion that foresaw the ultimate downfall of its gods, it is well to remember that virtually all we know of the Norse gods was written by those for whom they were already dead.
In Siegfrieds Tod, the original of the text for Götterdämmerung, Wagner introduced a chorus of Valkyries, something like an ancient Greek chorus, in the scene now replaced by the confrontation between Brünnhilde and Waltraute, for the express purpose of explaining how it was that Brünnhilde originally came to be lying asleep on a mountaintop encircled by fire. (The chorus they were to sing was of course ultimately jettisoned, but the music that Wagner must have sketched for it became the theme inextricably linked with those warrior-maidens swooping over fields of battle on their winged steeds, the second most famous piece of music the composer ever wrote.) It is clear from this that Wagner was already turning to the Volsungasaga for source material, for it is only there that Brünnhilde is identified as a Valkyrie herself. She is an Icelandic princess in the Nibelungenlied, a Swabian noblewoman in the Thidrekessaga. But even though Brünnhilde is described as a Valkyrie in the Volsungasaga, that does not imply that she is a goddess, certainly not the daughter of Odin. Indeed, she is rather the daughter of King Budli, a Hun, and the sister of Attila. Valkyries in the Icelandic sagas appear to have been demigods at best, high-born ladies selected to serve Odin (Wotan), and apparently only on condition of good behaviour. And although Odin and the gods are mentioned in the Volsungasaga, they take no significant part nor interest in the affairs of the protagonists.
It was Wagner's idea to mythologize the story by making Brünnhilde Wotan's daughter and a goddess, and the Volsungs Siegmund and Sieglinde his immediate offspring and his tools, not just heroic human figures claiming distant totemic ancestry from the gods. Wagner brought a classical sensibility to the story, and in so doing framed it in the epic form of Homer and Virgil, wherein men and gods meet, and the deeds of mankind reflect the cosmic struggles of the gods. And that is the unique hold of Die Walküre, for it is in this work, more than the other parts of the Ring, that gods and humans directly face one another. Das Rheingold can be justly criticised for lacking human interest. Götterdämmerung is in many respects a grand heroic opera with only an overlay of myth; its world-ending denouement would be no more than a stage effect if we had not met the gods of Valhalla before. Wotan moves in and out of Siegfried, it is true, but as a ghost of a god, an observer rather than a mover. Even his dialogue with Erda, symbolically heaven and earth, carries remarkably little dramatic weight, seeming to be little more than vituperation. This is especially notable when compared with the titanic confrontation between Fricka and Wotan in Die Walküre.
That scene between Fricka and Wotan is one of the two pivotal tragic crises of the entire Ring, both of which occur in Die Walküre, indeed within its central act. More than the robbing of gold and ring, they are what truly set the gods on the road to their downfall. For it is Fricka who recognizes, and forces Wotan to see, that an order based on law cannot be sustained by evading the law. Truly, Wotan does have a blind eye, and Wagner's little invention in Das Rheingold that it was the price of wedding Fricka, here comes to personify in her the traditional idea that it was the price of wisdom. The old order must vanish, and before the hour has passed, the next generation will have revolted and thrown in its lot with a new order, one based on love rather than law. Where that will lead is a mystery, not only at the end of this First Day, but even at the end of the Ring Cycle. Is it in fact a cycle? The gold will return to the water, but both the gods and the heroes will vanish. Ideologically, Wagner's Ring was a product of the Revolution of 1848. Revolutions are always confused, and usually lead far from their intended goals. Not even the gods can see where. «Du folgtest selig der Leibe Macht: folge nun dem, den du lieben mußt!»
1. «Monsieur Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart d'heures.» This famous quotation is from a letter written to Emile Naumann by Rossini in April 1867, just a year before the composer's death, and more than two years before even the first of the Ring operas was heard. Although Wagner lovers may still take exception, the Swan of Pesaro was undoubtedly referring to Tannhäuser and Lohengrin.