Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical – #3 Wagner Götterdämmerung
Coming in at #3 on my Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical is Richard Wagner’s crowning achievement, the final story of his massive Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Götterdämmerung, the four and a half hour long opera. And yes, I do listen to the full opera frequently because the music is so damn good. Loving Wagner’s music gets really complicated because the man was a virulent racist and anti-Semitist. His kind of beliefs, which are a part of his operas (because it really is very hard to separate your beliefs from infiltrating your artistic expressions), are not what I believe about life and people.
On April 28, 1994, I purchased the Sir Georg Solti recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of the four opera set, Der Ring Des Nibelungen, and over the next two weeks, I listened through the whole set, and read the full script. I had heard pieces of Wagner’s music earlier, such as the Ride of the Valkyries. I had seen Apocalypse Now and its intense action scene, the attack on the Vietnamese village set to Ride of the Valkyries.
But these paled in comparison to hearing the full opera. I’ve mentioned earlier about the Ride of the Valkyries scene from Die Walküre how good it sounds with the characters singing their “Hai-hoos!” Götterdämmerung was, right from the start, my favorite of the operas. I immediately fell in love with what Wagner did with the music, how the drama unfolds through the music.
As I mentioned in the previous post on Gershwin’s American in Paris, the recordings matter, and in the case here of Wagner’s Der Ring, after 26 years, I still haven’t heard a better, clearer, sound than done by Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic from back in the 1950s, or whenever they recorded the operas. I’m not sure what Wagner would think of his operas recorded and played frequently in people’s homes, or on iPhones with wireless headphones, as opposed to just his one stage at Bayreuth with a limited audience. In this case, I just don’t care for his opinion. Our society today works with recorded music available at all corners of the world whether you are mobile, and on the go, or plopped on your couch at home. In this case, the best recording to have is that of Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic.
In this recording, Solti draws out the right balance. The full brass ensemble, from trumpets, French horns, Wagner tubas, bass trumpets, trombones, bass trombones and tubas sounds clear and crisp. The strings resonate gorgeously. No one voice over-dominates. The soloists are fantastic. Wolfgang Windgassen is Siegfried. Birgit Nilsson is Brünhilde. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is Gunther. Claire Watson is Gutrune. Gustav Neidlinger appears briefly as Alberich. Finally, Gottlob Frick is Hagen, and, man does he grab this role by the neck!
Götterdämmerung is the culmination of 25 years of music creation and 8 hours of previous full opera. When Wagner started the full Ring cycle, he had in mind that the first opera, Das Rheingold would act as a prelude to the main story. It sets the background for the action amongst the mortals in the following operas. Die Walküre sets the tale of Siegfried’s parents and the banishment and imprisonment of Brünhilde. Siegfried tells the tale of Siegfried, raised by Mime, creating Notung, slaying the dragon, Fafner, guarding the riches of Valhalla, and finding and rescuing Brünhilde from her fiery prison.
Throughout each of those operas, leitmotifs were established for particular characters, feelings, or events. So when we get to Götterdämmerung, the leitmotifs return to bring a deeper connection to the tale and the feelings Wagner wishes to emote. The opera begins ominously in Eb minor, with a similar opening as to when Brünhilde awoke in Siegfried. However, that opened on a big bright C major. The key signature matters. The Eb minor is for the three Norns that foreshadow the dangers ahead for the gods as well as for Siegfried. The remainder of the prologue is in Eb major, the heroic key for the heroic Siegfried with his love, Brünhilde.
My issues with the story start here. Siegfried is apparently not satisfied enough having achieved everything, slain the dragon, rescued the damsel; he still pines for the adventure and so he sets himself recklessly on an adventure that will lead to his death because he does not know the deceptions of man, having been, essentially, raised in the wild. So goes into the lands of the Gibichungs on the Rhine River, gladly accepts whatever drink they wish to give him, causing him to lose his memory, and get taken advantage of that leads to his death.
I don’t care for that part of the story at all. However, I am fascinated by the more human characters, such as Hagen, and I think secretly, Wagner likes him too. The music is most fascinating during Hagen’s scene. Musically, he’s a scene stealer, and if you have the right singer, man, those are the best parts of the opera.
My favorite parts of the opera deal directly with Hagen. The first act introduces us to Gunther, the ruler of the Gibichungs, his sister Gutrune, and Hagen, his half brother. Hagen’s father is Alberich who desperately wants the ring of power back. Hagen also has grievances because people discriminate against him because his blood is not pure. He refuses to join in the blood oath the drugged Siegfried takes with Gunther. But this part of the opera is where the music shines. Right after Siegfried ingests the drug and loses his memory, he falls for Gutrude and cooks up a plan for Gunther to take himself a wife, Brünnhilde. The two take a blood oath, drinking each other’s blood (ew!) and set off on their merry way to steal Brünnhilde. The music is exciting and phenomenal. And then Wagner raises the bar even higher.
When Siegfried and Gunther leave, Hagen stays behind and monologues about his motivations and desires. Wagner employs the minor/major 7th chord, exactly the same sonority as the Tristan chord, no less (F – Ab – B – Eb), to fantastic effect expressing Hagen’s passions and desires to take Siegfried down and take the ring for himself. The music is so good, Wagner repeats the section with full brass to express Hagen’s vengeful desires in an interlude giving time for the stage to switch to Brünnhilde’s scene.
I generally skip over the scene of Waltraute coming to warn Brünnhilde to give the ring back to the river and the taking of Brünnhilde by a disguised Siegfried. The music is good, but in this scene, Wagner really needed an editor.
We then arrive to the Vorspiel to the second act. It opens on that foreboding Bb minor with a hell of a lot of tremolos and chromatic rises in the contrabass. Hagen’s theme plays a strong part in the prelude. It signals the hell about to happen in the second act. The opening scene is again with Hagen, visited by his father Alberich in which he gets Hagen to swear to kill Siegfried. Everything about this scene, musically, is astounding. It pauses for soft, tense moments when Hagen sings, half asleep, and then moves fast for Alberich’s passionate anger.
Hagen wakes with the morning, meets Siegfried who came ahead of Gunther and then Hagen sets his plan in motion. He calls for all the Gibichung to show up with the awesome Hoiho scene. Again, the music when Hagen is around is absolutely fantastic. Gunther and Brünnhilde show up and everyone is shocked when Brünnhilde sees Siegfried. It is now public that Siegfried has wronged Brünnhilde, and Siegfried’s death is imminent. The rest of the second act is how everyone now plans on killing Siegfried.
In the third act, the Rhinemaidens try to convince Siegfried to give them back the ring, but, proud idiot that he is, he declines. Hagen hatches up the last act of his plan and gives Siegfried a potion to help him remember. Siegfried tells the tale of his self named opera all the way to kissing Brünnhilde. That was enough to prove to Gunther and everyone that Siegfried violated the stupid blood oath, and Hagen takes his revenge by stabbing Siegfried in the back. Everyone is like “Hagen, was tust du!” “Was tatest du!” Wagner gives Siegfried a final goodbye in the form of his own short monologue and then the funeral march where he plays Siegfried’s leitmotif one more time with full brass.
The rest of the third act is Hagen killing Gunther and Brünnhilde taking charge to burn the ring, to burn Valhalla and destroy all that has caused so much destruction in her life. Hagen tries to take the ring but is drowned in the overflowing of the Rhine and the Rhinemaidens take the ring back.
I don’t care as much for the story, and I think Siegfried is a cocky moron. I think Wagner doesn’t treat female characters well, and I think he uses racist tropes in creating all the other characters. But the music is stunning, gorgeous and fantastic. That’s why this opera is so high on my list. The storytelling through the music is at peak form.
In terms of videos, there are a bunch of versions of the live performance. But firstly I’m going to recommend a couple of videos from the Solti/Vienna Philharmonic recording. The first one is of the Siegfried Funeral Music.
The Immolation Scene.
The Vengeance Trio.
Gottlob Frick as Hagen.
You can listen to the whole opera with Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic here.
And there are two versions of the full stage production here that are worth your four and a half hours. 🙂 Enjoy!
#03 – Wagner Götterdämmerung
#04 – Gershwin An American in Paris
#05 – Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550
#06 – Dvorak Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95
#07 – Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64
#08 – Ellington Afro-Eurasian Eclipse
#09 – Rimsky-Korsakov Sheherazade, Op. 35
#10 – Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Overture
#11 – Dvorak Serenade for Strings in E major, Op. 22
#12 – Stravinsky Le Sacre du Printemps
#13 – Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue
#14 – Mozart Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551
#15 – Coltrane My Favorite Things
#16 – Dvorak Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70
#17 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
#18 – Mozart Don Giovanni, K. 527
#19 – Liszt Les Preludes, S. 97
#20 – Mozart Le Nozze di Figaro, K. 492
#21 – Tchaikovsky Swan Lake, Op. 20
#22 – Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C minor
#23 – Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11
#24 – Williams Empire Strikes Back
#25 – Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb major, Op. 73
#26 – Bernstein West Side Story
#27 – Enescu – Octet for Strings in C major, Op. 7
#28 – Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110
#29 – Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain
#30 – Webber Phantom of the Opera
#31 – Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky
#32 – Chopin Nocturne in Bb minor, Op. 9, No. 1
#33 – Debussy Images, Book 1, L110
#34 – Debussy Pour Le Piano, L. 95
#35 – Chaminade Guitare, Op. 32
#36 – Chopin Berceuse in Db major, Op. 57
#37 – Boulanger Nocturne pour violon et piano
#38 – Schönberg Les Miserables
#39 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
#40 – Miranda Hamilton
#41 – Strauss Salomé
#42 – Britten Peter Grimes
#43 – Loewe My Fair Lady
#44 – Liszt Mephisto Waltzes
#45 – Webber Evita
#46 – Poledouris Conan The Barbarian
#47 – Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti
#48 – Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
#49 – Chaminade La Lisonjera, Op. 50
#50 – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
Wolfe Fire in my Mouth
Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition
Glass Anthem, Pt. 2
Weber Der Freischütz
Coleman Lonely Woman
Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125
Jobim Girl From Ipanema
Shostakovich Suite for Variety Orchestra
Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C major, D 944
Saariaho L’Amour de Loin
Schubert String Quartet No. 14 “Death and the Maiden”
Desmond Take Five
Wagner Die Walküre
Davis So What
Wagner Tristan Und Isolde
Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings
Williams Raiders of the Lost Ark
Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht
Grisey Les espaces acoustiques
Gade – Octet for 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 violoncellos in F major, Op. 17
Schubert – Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759