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Wagner: Wotan's Farewell and Magic Fire Music from Die Walküre

Wagner: Wotan's Farewell and Magic Fire Music from Die Walküre


518 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2014 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

“Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music” from Die Walküre
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (1st doubling Eb clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings

Composed 1852-1856. First performance: December 26, 1862, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria.

In composing The Ring of the Nibelung, Wagner intended nothing less than the creation of an entirely new artform. The composer had long been interested in pushing the limits of dramatic impact in opera. By the time he completed Tannhäuser in 1845, he had begun to develop his concept of “Gesamtkunstwerk” (“all-encompassing artwork”), and in 1851, he announced in an essay that “it no longer occurs to me to write operas, but to communicate my poetic ideas in the living artistic form of Drama.”

The not-an-opera (technically, not-four-operas) that he went on to propose does more than present artistic expression and entertainment. The Ring of the Nibelung develops an entire cosmology exploring the whole of human experience through a saga drawn from ancient Norse mythology. This “stage festival play” explores expansive questions regarding the conflict between tradition and progress, nature and technology, and the corrupting influence of power on the human spirit.

The second evening of this epic saga brings a touching story of the love between a father and his daughter. Wotan, going against his personal desires in order to fulfill his moral and divine duty (and to avoid angering his wife), orders Brünnhilde to ensure the victory of a wronged husband in a duel. Brünnhilde, however, senses his true wishes and tips the battle in the other direction. Wotan, discovering her defiance, is forced to intervene and finds himself duty-bound to punish her: her divinity will be stripped from her and she will be placed into a magic sleep, vulnerable to the first man to discover her. Brünnhilde protests that she was only acting as he truly willed, seeing beyond his words into his heart. Her words move him, and he amends the punishment. Though unable to revoke his sentence, she will now be protected by a magic fire through which only the bravest of heroes will be able to pass.

Few scenes in opera present the conflict between love and duty quite so touchingly as the finale of Die Walküre. Wotan, gazing upon his daughter, reflects:

That bright pair of eyes
That I often smilingly kissed…
Let them refresh me today
One last time
With a final farewell kiss!
Their star will shine
On a happier man,
But for this cursed immortal
They must close in parting.
So the god departs from you.
So he kisses away your divinity.

The father gently leans over his dearest daughter—a woman guilty only of attempting to please him—and kisses her sweetly on the eyelids. As she slips into eternal sleep, he cries out in sorrow, slams his spear into the ground, and orders Loge to bring forth the flames:

Arise, magic fire!
Encircle the cliff with fire for me!
He who fears the tip of my spear
Shall never pass through this fire!

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