In addition to art, I’ll also be exploring classical music. This week?
The Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner
When I first listened “Ride of the Valkyries” for this project, I was in my yearbook class. After the first few bars, my students began complaining that they didn’t want to listen to Star Wars. I had to explain to them (multiple times) that this was not John Williams’ Star Wars score, rather an excerpt from an opera by Richard Wagner.
“Frogger?” they asked.
I can’t really blame them. My first exposure to this song was the napalm scene in “Apocalypse Now” where they attach speakers to the helicopters and play this song while bombing Vietnam. To this day, whenever I see a helicopter, this tune goes through my head. Check out that scene here (song starts at 1:17; violence and language warning).
This song has been excerpted several times as a concert piece, used at Nazi Party rallies, and made appearances in pop culture from early Bugs Bunny to The Big Bang Theory.
It’s definitely great music to play while going on a heroic quest, am I right?
“The Ride of the Valkyries” is the popular name for the beginning of Act 3 of Die Walküre, an opera written by Richard Wagner in 1856. It was one of the first compositions drafted upon completion of the libretto (text/story). Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music of the opera. A regular Lin-Manuel, he was.
It premiered in Munich in 1870.
Die Walküre is the 2nd opera of a trilogy based on Norse mythology.
The opera begins with our hero, Siegmund, seeking shelter as he is fleeing from some unknown pursuer. A woman takes him in, but her husband is not home. When her husband returns, Siegmund tells them his sad tale of coming home one day to find his mother dead and twin sister gone. He and his father had struck out to go find them, but he eventually parted ways with his father as well, but not before his father told him that one day he would find a sword when he needed it most.
The woman’s husband, Hunding, reveals that he is one of the men pursuing Siegmund and therefore they must battle in the morning. Siegmund drugs him into a deep sleep. At this point, Hunding’s wife, Sieglinde reveals that she was forced to marry Hunding and is unhappy. Evidently, during their wedding feast, an old man had walked in and stabbed a sword into the tree in the middle of their house. Despite numerous attempts by Hunding and his friends, no one could remove it. Sieglinde eventually realizes, “hey this guy looks a lot like me…OMG, it’s my twin brother!” Siegmund easily draws the sword out of the tree and declares his love for Sieglinde (I like to call this “pulling a Lannister”).
At the beginning of Act 2, we meet Wotan, a Norse god, on a mountaintop, watching the whole thing. He instructs his daughter, Brünnhilde to protect Siegmund in the upcoming battle with Hunding. Fricka, goddess of marriage and wife of Wotan, comes along and basically says, “no – he’s an adulterer and incester. Not to mention you cheated on me to make him – he’s gotta lose this battle.” Yup – Wotan is actually the father of Siegmund and Sieglinde, and therefore Siegmund cannot be allowed to live.
Fricka leaves and Wotan is bummed out about a bunch of stuff that happened in the first opera of the trilogy. To headline news it – the Valkyries (Wotan’s other daughters) need to gather the souls of fallen heroes to build Wotan’s army against some other god-like dude. From here, it kind of reads like Lord of the Rings. They need to defeat this one guy because if he gets a hold of the Ring (*ahem*), he’s gonna give it to the bigger bad guy and they’re all screwed.
Switch back to Siegmund and Sieglinde having fled Hunding’s house. Sieglinde passes out, exhausted and full of guilt. Brünnhilde shows up and basically says, “you’re gonna die, but good news – you get to come to Valhalla.” Siegmund doesn’t want to leave Sieglinde behind. He figures that since he has his father’s sword, there’s no way he can lose. Brünnhilde tells him it’s lost its power. Siegmund threatens murder-suicide until Brünnhilde relents and agrees to grant victory to Siegmund.
Hunding shows up and they battle. Siegmund is doing well and winning until Wotan shows up and shatters his sword (following Fricka’s word). Seizing the opportunity, Hunding stabs Siegmund to death. Angry and bitter, Wotan strikes Hunding dead. As he is grieving, Brünnhilde grabs Sieglinde and runs off.
Act 3 opens with our little ditty as the other valkyries gather on the mountaintop with their souls for the army. Brünnhilde shows up with Sieglinde and begs their help, but they’re not interested. Sieglinde wants to die in her grief, but Brünnhilde tells her she’s pregnant with Siegmund’s child. She is given the fragments of Siegmund’s broken sword and flees to avoid Wotan’s wrath.
Enter Wotan, pissed off. He strips Brünnhilde of her status as a Valkyrie and condemns her to mortality. He punishes her to be in a magic sleep, and (as Wikipedia puts it), “prey to any man to happens by” (I know – icky, right?). Brünnhilde tries to appeal to Wotan’s sympathies, knowing she carried out Wotan’s true wishes – he didn’t want Siegmund to have to die.
Unable to renege on his punishment, Wotan encircles the mountaintop with a magic flame to protect her from all but the bravest heroes (spoiler alert: it’s Sieglinde’s son in the next opera).
The curtain falls, and the audience is left wanting for the conclusion to the trilogy.
Since you managed to read this far, I’ll reward you with something cool that I found while researching this opera. You can now sing along to it! The Valkyrie chorus is as follows:
Nach Süden wir ziehen, Siege zu zeugen,
kämpfenden Heeren kiesen das Loos,
für Helden zu fechten, Helden zu fällen,
nach Walhall zu führen erschlagene Sieger!
To southward we ride now, Vict’ry bestowing,
midst warring armies choosing the fate,
of heroes in combat, heroes now fallen,
to Valhalla to lead the victorious slain ones!
Gotta love it.