At the end of the third and final act of Wagner’s Die Walküre, Wotan bids farewell to Brünnhilde, sending her into an enchanted sleep. Loge, the Norse god of fire, creates a protective circle of fire around the rock where she lies. Only the bravest of heroes will be able to penetrate the fire. At the opera’s 1870 premiere in Munich, the special effect of the flames terrified the audience.
From the beginning of this excerpt, magic is in the air in the form of bright, shimmering colors. Notice the dizzying descending chromatic sequence beginning around 0:43. (There is a similar passage in the final movement of Franz Liszt’s transformational 1854 “Faust” Symphony). Siegfried’s leitmotif becomes a soaringly heroic proclamation in the low brass. In the moments before the final curtain falls, you’ll notice at least two other prominent leitmotifs which occur throughout the Ring Cycle: the ominous “Fate” motif (3:07), followed by the “nature” or “genesis” motif. This final motif, evoking the gently rising and falling water of a mythical Rhine River, emerges in the gradually-unfolding Prelude of Das Rheingold, the first opera of the Ring Cycle.
The circle of fire was transformed into a laser box in this 1992 Bayreuth Festival, conducted by Daniel Barenboim with English bass, John Tomlinson:
Photograph by Marty Sohl