“Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre

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            The works of Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi together largely dominated the important world of nineteenth-century opera.  But the two could not have been more different in almost every regard—save that of musical excellence.  Verdi built simply upon the traditional elements of Italian opera and took them to new heights of dramatic artistry and coherence, gradually incorporating some progressive reforms of the medium as he grew into old age.   Wagner, on the other hand, after his early attempts, and some real successes thereafter, embarked upon an unprecedented, new theoretical thrust in opera composition that changed forever the history of music.  While Verdi had long Italian tradition to draw upon, Wagner took upon himself to build upon Carl Maria von Weber’s seminal work, Der Freischütz (1823), and build a German romantic opera tradition, more or less from scratch.  To be sure, his time in Paris as a young man exposed him to the grand operas of Meyerbeer and others, and they played an important part in his development, notwithstanding his later contempt for, and denial of that obvious fact (Wagner was notoriously ethically challenged). 

            In mid-career, Wagner spent much time in laying out an entirely new conceptual basis for German romantic opera based upon librettos that stemmed from Nordic myth as an allegory for universal human behavior.   He postulated an emphasis upon all the dramatic arts—poetry, lighting, scenery, acting--functioning together as equal elements to create what he called “music dramas.”  The support for all of this was a large orchestra, with an enlarged wind section, that wove an inspired musical web throughout.   In some respects it became a major character, itself, in the carefully wrought drama on the stage.  It not only supported and accompanied the singers, like a Greek chorus, it participated in the dramatic action by musical comment and interpretation—even prediction!

            His magnum opus, was the great tetrology of four “music dramas,” The Ring of the Nibelung, comprised of—in order—Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung.  The story that threads continuously and successively through all four is impossibly detailed, but speaks directly and authentically—like the legends of the Greek gods—as metaphor for all human passions and traits of character.  The glorious music, spun out by his unprecedented mastery of a large, expressive orchestra, and his innovative personal melodic and harmonic music style makes for a triumphant partner to the thoughtful dramatic considerations.  The rôle of the orchestra is so memorable and evocative that it has long been the popular practice to perform important orchestral excerpts on the concert stage.

            Perhaps the most familiar of those is the “Ride of the Valkyries” from the beginning of the third and last act of the second of the four dramas, Die Walküre (1870).  Wagner here depicts the formidable warrior maidens, daughters of Wotan and sister to Brünnhilde, swooping down from the sky, mounted on flying horses, to scoop up the souls of fallen heroes and take them to Valhalla. 

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan