The Complete Wagner - Götterdämmerung

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013
Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) is the last in Richard Wagner's cycle of four operas titled 'Der Ring des Nibelungen' (The Ring of the Nibelung).
It received its premiere at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus on 17 August 1876, as part of the first complete performance of the Ring.
The title is a translation into German of the Old Norse phrase Ragnarök, which in Norse mythology refers to a prophesied war among various beings and gods that ultimately results in the burning, immersion in water, and renewal of the world, however, as with the rest of the Ring, Wagner's account diverges significantly from his Old Norse sources.

Mythological Background

Norse mythology is unique in that it includes a narration of future events, the end of the gods in a great battle. Ragnarok means "fate or doom of the gods" which in German becomes 'Gotterdammerung', (Twilight of the Gods).
The great battle is preceded by three year-long winters and general moral decay.
Ominous signs appear: wolves that eat the sun and moon, and the stars fall.

The Wolf Fenrir
Bifrost - Rainbow Bridge
At Ragnarok, Loki escapes his chains (his punishment for plotting Balder's death), captains the ship Naglfar (made of dead men's nails) to attack Asgard along with the frost giants, riding on tidal waves created by the loosing of Jormungandr, the world serpent, from the ocean bottom.
Fenrir the giant wolf breaks his bonds, and Surt and the fire-demons attack from the south.
Heimdall, guardian of the Rainbow Bridge (Bifrost), who never sleeps and sees and hears everything, sounds his trumpet as warning, but it's too late to avoid the final battle.
In the battle all the gods meet their end: Wotan is swallowed by Fenrir, who in turn is torn asunder by Wotan's son Vidar.
Thor kills Jormungandr but dies of its venom.
Loki and Heimdall kill each other.
Surt kills Freyr, then destroys the world by fire.
Some things manage to survive Ragnarok: Valhalla itself, Thor's hammer and his two sons, Odin's favorite son Balder returns to life, and two humans, protected under the World Ash Tree Yggdrasil, who repopulate the world.
Wagner's innovation was to link the story of the gods' end with the death of Siegfried and Brunnhilde.


Siegfried and Brunhilde
The opening scene depicts the Norns, daughters of Erda, weaving the threads of fate at the base of the World Ash Tree.

The Norns in Nordic mythology are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men, and comparable to the 'Fates' in Greek mythology.
The three most important norns, Wyrd, Verðandi and Skuld, come out from a hall standing at the Wwell of Fate, and they draw water from the well and take sand that lies around it, which they pour over Yggdrasill so that its branches will not rot.
Ther is a theory that the three main norns should each be associated exclusively with the past, the present, and the future.

The Norns see glimpses of things to come involving Siegfried before the thread mysteriously breaks.
The scene shifts to the mountain where the two lovers are saying their farewells before Siegfried leaves in search of adventure.
Siegfried gives the ring to Brunnhilde for safe-keeping as a symbol of their love.

Hall of the Gibichungs
Siegfried and Gutrune
Traveling down the Rhine river, Siegfried arrives at the hall of the Gibichungs.
In a dream Alberich incites his son Hagen to help him regain the ring, which Hagen does with the unwitting aid of his half-brother and sister, Gunther and Gutrune.
Hagen gives Siegfried a drugged drink, causing him to forget his relationship with Brunnhilde, and he falls in love with Gutrune instead.
Meanwhile, one of Brunnhilde's sisters arrives at the mountain to tell her that Wotan has cut branches off Yggdrasil (the World Ash Tree) and has surrounded Valhalla with them, intending to set himself and the gods on fire.

Yggdrasil - World Ash Tree
In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil  is an immense tree that is central in Norse cosmology, in connection to which the nine worlds exist.
Yggdrasil is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson. In both sources, Yggdrasil is an immense ash tree that is central and considered very holy. The gods go to Yggdrasil daily to assemble at their things. The branches of Yggdrasil extend far into the heavens, and the tree is supported by three roots that extend far away into other locations; one to the well Urðarbrunnr in the heavens, one to the spring Hvergelmir, and another to the well Mímisbrunnr. Creatures live within Yggdrasil, including the wyrm (dragon) Níðhöggr, an unnamed eagle, and the stags Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór.
Conflicting scholarly theories have been proposed about the etymology of the name Yggdrasill, the possibility that the tree is of another species than ash, the relation to tree lore and to Eurasian shamanic lore, the possible relation to the trees Mímameiðr and Læraðr, Hoddmímis holt, the sacred tree at Uppsala, and the fate of Yggdrasil during the events of Ragnarök.

She asks Brunnhilde to return the ring to Wotan but she refuses.
Siegfried then appears but has transformed himself into the guise of Gunther with the help of the tarnhelm.
He forcibly takes back the ring and kidnaps Brunnhilde for the real Gunther to marry.
On discovering Siegfried's treachery, Brunnhilde betrays him to Hagen, revealing how Siegfried may be killed by striking him in the back, the only place that she has not covered with a protective spell.
Hagen promptly slays him during a hunt.
Learning too late that Hagen has tricked them both in order to regain the ring, Brunnhilde orders Siegfried's funeral pyre to be lit and she rides her horse into it, forgiving Siegfried and uniting them in death.
Wotan and the other gods are consumed by the flames that destroy Valhalla.
Hagen is drowned in the rising waters of the Rhine, as the Rhinedaughters repossess the ring; its curse is lifted when it is returned to nature.


This scene mirrors the opening of Rhinegold with the three Rhinedaughters and the crime against nature with the theft of the gold, which Wagner reminds us of with the Rhine motif.
Three Norns, Erda's daughters, weave the threads of fate (their weaving becomes an inversion of the Rhine motif).
They sing of long ago when they wove at the base of the World Ash Tree.
There Wotan gave up an eye to drink from the stream of wisdom, but also he tore a limb from the tree to make his spear.
Because of this violence, the tree is now dead, the result of Wotan's abuse of power, perverting his wisdom, symbolized by the stream of wisdom drying up.
The Norns tell of the final collapse of the old world order which has become rotten at its 'roots.'
The tree now provides the funeral pyre for the waiting gods, resigned to their doom.
As the Norns weave their rope around the rocks, it breaks, signifying the end of Erda's foreknowledge, but does this mean fate no longer rules, that humanity is now completely free?
Fate (or lot) is mentioned infrequently in the text of the Ring, mostly in Valkyrie - but the Fate motif is heard frequently (ex: when Brunnhilde enters to prepare Siegmund for death, before the Wanderer/Erda confrontation, at Siegfried's discovery of Brunnhilde, her confusion at his later betrayal, at Siegfried's last breath, at the immolation scene).

Mythological background to the World Ash Tree:
Yggdrasil (old Norse name) lies at the center of the world, its three roots separating Asgard (land of the gods), the land of the Frost Giants, and Hel (name for both the place of the dead and its queen). The World Tree represents and sustains life, and its fate determines life's end (Ragnarok). A serpent gnaws at its roots; three Norns (Fate, Being, Necessity) sit at its base at the well of Urd and carve runes in its trunk telling the future of each person. Also at its base lies Mimir's well of wisdom (Mimisbrunn) where Odin came for a drink and left one eye as payment. One cryptic reference in the Poetic Edda implies that Odin hung himself on the tree for nine days, pierced with his spear, in order to gain control of the magic runes (one of his names is "God of the hanged"). Some critics think this might be a late Christian influence on the older myth. Wagner invented the ideas of Wotan's tearing a branch from the tree, causing it to wither and die, and using its wood for kindling at the fiery end of Valhalla.

When the rope breaks, the themes of the Ring's Curse and Siegfried's horn and sword predict a future that the Norns can no longer see.
Later in Act 3 Siegfried boasts to the Rhinedaughters that his sword can sever the Norn's thread into which the curse is woven.
Fate is closely associated with the ring and its curse throughout, so breaking the rope may not mean the end of fate itself but the end of the curse and the gods' foreknowledge and influence in the world.
Siegfried doesn't escape the curse, but his actions, along with Brunnhilde's devotion unto death, eventually break it.
When we next see Siegfried and Brunnhilde, both receive new motifs (Siegfried's is a majestic version of his horn call), signifying their new relationship and new beginning.
Brunnhilde is no longer the warrior maid but a mortal woman, her music soft and feminine.
Unfortunately, the hope heard in these new themes won't last long.
Both of them are unknowingly caught up and manipulated by the old order.
They too must perish before humanity can be truly free of the gods' influence.
As day breaks, Siegfried and Brünnhilde emerge from their cave, high on a mountaintop surrounded by magic fire.
Brünnhilde sends Siegfried off to new adventures, urging him to keep their love in mind.
As a pledge of fidelity, Siegfried gives her the Ring of power that he took from Fafner's hoard. Bearing Brünnhilde's shield and mounting her horse Grane, Siegfried rides away as an orchestral interlude known as 'Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt' -  (Siegfried's Journey to the Rhine) starts.
'Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt' includes these Leitmotifs: Siegfried, his horn-call,  Loge's fire, Rhine, Erda, Rhinegold, Rhinedaughters.
At his arrival at Gibichung hall: Leitmotifs - the curse, the god's destruction, sword, power of the Ring.

Act 1

The act begins in the Hall of the Gibichungs, a population dwelling by the Rhine. Gunther, lord of the Gibichungs, sits enthroned. His half-brother and chief minister, Hagen, advises him to find a wife for himself and a husband for their sister Gutrune.
He suggests Brünnhilde for Gunther's wife, and Siegfried for Gutrune's husband.
He reminds Gutrune that he has given her a potion that she can use to make Siegfried forget Brünnhilde and fall in love with Gutrune; under its influence, Siegfried will win Brünnhilde for Gunther.
Gunther and Gutrune agree enthusiastically with this plan.
Siegfried appears at Gibichung Hall, seeking to meet Gunther. Gunther extends his hospitality to the hero, and Gutrune offers him the love potion.
Unaware of the deception, Siegfried toasts Brünnhilde and their love.
Drinking the potion, he loses his memory of Brünnhilde and falls in love with Gutrune instead.
In his drugged state, Siegfried offers to win a wife for Gunther, who tells him about Brünnhilde and the magic fire which only a fearless person can cross.
They swear blood-brotherhood and leave for Brünnhilde's rock.
(Hagen holds the drinking horn in which they mix their blood, but he does not join in the oath.)
Hagen, left on guard duty, gloats that his so-called masters are unwittingly bringing the Ring to him (Monologue: Hagen's watch).
Meanwhile, Brünnhilde is visited by her Valkyrie sister Waltraute, who tells her that Wotan returned from his wanderings with his spear Gungnir shattered.
Wotan is dismayed at losing his spear, as it has all the treaties and bargains he has made - everything that gives him power - carved into its shaft in runes.
Wotan ordered branches of Yggdrasil, the World tree, to be piled around Valhalla; sent his magic ravens to spy on the world and bring him news; and currently waits in Valhalla for the end.
Waltraute begs Brünnhilde to return the Ring to the Rhinemaidens, since the Ring's curse is now affecting their father, Wotan, however, Brünnhilde refuses to relinquish Siegfried's token of love, and Waltraute rides away in despair.
Siegfried arrives, disguised as Gunther by using the Tarnhelm, and claims Brünnhilde as his wife.
Though Brünnhilde resists violently, Siegfried overpowers her, snatching the Ring from her hand and placing it on his own.

Act 2

Hagen, waiting by the bank of the Rhine, is visited in his semi-waking sleep (sitting up, eyes open, but motionless) by his father, Alberich.
On Alberich's urging, he swears to kill Siegfried and acquire the Ring.
Alberich exits as dawn breaks. Siegfried arrives via Tarnhelm-magic, having resumed his natural form and left Brünnhilde on the boat with Gunther.
Hagen summons the Gibichung vassals to welcome Gunther and his bride by sounding the war-alarm.
The vassals are surprised to learn that the occasion is not battle, but their master's wedding and party.
Gunther leads in a downcast Brünnhilde, who is astonished to see Siegfried.
Noticing the Ring on Siegfried's hand, she realizes she has been betrayed - that the man who conquered her was not Gunther, but Siegfried in disguise.
She denounces Siegfried in front of Gunther's vassals and accuses Siegfried of having seduced her himself. Siegfried swears on Hagen's spear that her accusations are false.
Brünnhilde seizes the tip of the spear and swears that they are true.
Once again Hagen supervises silently as others take oaths to his advantage, but this time, since the oath is sworn on a weapon, the understanding is that if the oath is proven false, the weapon's owner should avenge it by killing the perjurer with that weapon.
Siegfried then leads Gutrune and the bystanders off to the wedding feast, leaving Brünnhilde, Hagen, and Gunther alone by the shore.
Deeply shamed by Brünnhilde's outburst, Gunther agrees to Hagen's suggestion that Siegfried must be slain for Gunther's standing to be regained. Brünnhilde, seeking revenge for Siegfried's manifest treachery, joins the plot and tells Hagen that Siegfried would be vulnerable to a stab in the back.
Hagen and Gunther decide to lure Siegfried on a hunting-trip and murder him.
Brünnhilde and Gunther then vow in the name of Wotan, "guardian of oaths", to kill Siegfried, while Hagen repeats his pledge to Alberich: to acquire the Ring and rule the world through its power.

Act 3

Siegfried and the Rhinemaidens
In the woods by the bank of the Rhine, the Rhinemaidens mourn the lost Rhine gold. Siegfried happens by, separated from the hunting party.
They urge him to return the Ring and avoid its curse, but he laughs at them and says he prefers to die rather than bargain for his life.
They swim away, predicting that Siegfried will die and that his heir, a lady, will treat them more fairly.
Siegfried rejoins the hunters, who include Gunther and Hagen.
While resting, he tells them about the adventures of his youth.
Hagen gives him another potion, which restores his memory, and he tells of discovering the sleeping Brünnhilde and awakening her with a kiss.

Der Tod von Siegfried
© Copyright Zac Sawyer 2015
Wotan's ravens fly up distracting Siegfried, and Hagen stabs him in the back with his spear.
The others look on in horror, and Hagen explains in three words ("Meineid rächt sich!" – "Perjury avenges itself") that since Siegfried admitted loving Brünnhilde, the oath he swore on Hagen's spear was obviously false, therefore it was Hagen's duty to kill him with it.
Hagen calmly walks away into the wood.
Siegfried recollects his awakening of Brünnhilde and dies.
His body is carried away in a solemn funeral procession (Siegfried's funeral march) that forms the interlude as the scene is changed and recapitulates many of the themes associated with Siegfried and the Wälsungs.
Back in the Gibichung Hall, Gutrune awaits Siegfried's return.
Hagen arrives ahead of the funeral party. Gutrune is devastated when Siegfried's corpse is brought in.
Gunther blames Siegfried's death on Hagen, who replies that Siegfried had incurred the penalty of his false oath, and further, claims the Ring on Siegfried's finger by right of conquest.
When Gunther objects, Hagen appeals to the vassals to support his claim.
Gunther draws his sword but Hagen attacks and easily kills him, however, as Hagen moves to take the Ring, Siegfried's hand rises threateningly.
Hagen recoils in fear.
Gutrune meanwhile dies of grief.
Brünnhilde makes her entrance and takes charge of events (the Immolation Scene).
Brünnhilde issues orders for a huge funeral pyre to be assembled by the river.
She takes the Ring and tells the Rhinemaidens to claim it from her ashes, once fire has cleansed it of its curse. Lighting the pyre with a firebrand, she sends Wotan's ravens home with "anxiously longed-for tidings"; they fly off.
After an apostrophe to the dead hero, Brünnhilde mounts her horse Grane and rides into the flames.
The fire flares up, and the hall of the Gibichungs catches fire and collapses.

The Rhine overflows its banks, quenching the fire, and the Rhinemaidens swim in to claim the Ring.
Hagen tries to stop them but they drag him into the depths and drown him.
As they celebrate the return of the Ring and its gold to the river, a red glow is seen in the sky.
As the people watch, deeply moved, the interior of Valhalla is finally seen, with gods and heroes visible as described by Waltraute in Act 1.

Flames flare up in the Hall of the Gods, hiding it and them from sight completely as the gods are consumed in the flames.
With the emphasis now on freedom from the will rather than freedom of the will, the heroic center of the cycle shifted from Siegfried to Wotan and Brunnhilde, who both learn that redemption comes through self-renunciation. In Act 3, scene 2 of Siegfried (the turning point of the cycle), the will of the god that once ruled the world now wills to renounce its claims.
The deaths of Siegfried and Brunnhilde are now seen as an earthly image of Wotan's own renunciation, their funeral pyre a reflection of the burning of Valhalla.
Wagner's unique Romanticism was both idealistic (infinite longing) and fatalistic (inevitable disappointment).
Attempting through abuse of power to hold onto what we cannot keep causes us to hurt and destroy others and is ultimately futile.
Wagner finally chose not to rely on words to express the poem's final meaning but on his music,
The final bars of Götterdämmerung speak of  the beauty and harmonyof 'new world order', despite the death of heroes and gods.

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