The final act of Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”), the last of the four operas that make up Wagner’s Ring Cycle, is about annihilation and renewal. The gods are brought down by their desire for absolute power. As Todd Sullivan writes in his program notes,
The whole world of the gods crumbles in Act III of Götterdämmerung. The long-awaited hero, Siegfried (the misbegotten son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, twin offspring of the god Wotan), participates in a hunting expedition, when he is murdered by Hagen. His lifeless body is accompanied to the hall of the Gibichungs by the solemn tones of the Funeral March. Hagen tries to remove the accursed ring (forged from gold stolen from the Rhinemaidens) from Siegfried’s hand, which mysteriously rises into the air. Brünnhilde—who was awakened from her eternal sleep by the pure-hearted Siegfried—seizes the ring and promises to return it to the Rhinemaidens. She sets a pile of logs on fire and rides her horse Grane into the flames (Immolation Scene). This blaze extends to Valhalla, the palace of the gods, which is destroyed.
Many of the Ring Cycle’s most prominent leitmotifs, from the heroic Siegfried motif to the Sword motif, emerge in this orchestral interlude which follows the death of Siegfried. It begins quietly with what sounds like a faltering heartbeat in the timpani and a snaking chromatic line in the low strings.
An extraordinary, raw intensity underlies this October, 1988 performance featuring Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall:
As the curtain falls on Götterdämmerung, the Rhine River overflows its banks. The river is an eternal force, signifying redemption and renewal. It’s where the Ring’s first opera, Das Rheingold, begins amid an astonishing continuous E-flat major chord lasting more than four minutes.
- Wagner: Siegfried’s Funeral Music, Klaus Tennstedt, London Philharmonic Orchestra lpo.org
- Wagner: Orchestral Music, Klaus Tennstedt, Berlin Philharmonic Amazon
Photograph: “The Victrola book of the opera: stories of one hundred and twenty operas with seven-hundred illustrations and descriptions of twelve-hundred Victor opera records” (1917)