Notes by TŌN violist Leonardo Vásquez Chacón
They say that a river cuts through rock not because of its power, but its persistence. Such a virtue is exemplary of Richard Wagner, the composer of the titanic tetralogy of operas (who actually used the term music dramas) known as Der Ring des Nibelungen or “The Ring of the Nibelung.” The fourth in the saga, Götterdämmerung or “Twilight of the Gods,” was completed in 1874 and is the opera from which Siegfried’s Rhine Journey comes.
The music starts with a somber line in the cellos, depicting Siegfried and Brünnhilde waking up after their first intimate encounter. As the fog dissipates, we hear four French horns proudly announcing the hero Siegfried’s theme. This is answered by the clarinet, which brings a different and much more tender musical idea: Brünnhilde’s theme. Wagner keeps developing these two themes throughout the piece by changing their character, instrumentation, and the harmony around them, almost like the two lovers dancing or having a discussion. At some point we also hear the sinuous and ever-flowing music that represents the Rhine river in Das Rheingold, the very first opera of the cycle.
From Darkness to Heroism
The composer’s mastery in orchestration and use of drama always impacts me. The piece depicts an epic journey filled with contrasts between darkness and heroism, while other parts remind me of the most innocent and tender moments in Debussy or Ravel, composers of a later generation. Wagner’s music is something that even musicians in a professional symphony orchestra do not always get to perform because it is mostly in the field of opera companies, so being able to perform it today is really a great opportunity.
Thank You, Wagner
Like the Rhine river that knows no rest, Richard Wagner’s relentlessness gave us a work comprised of four operas that needs four days to be performed—almost 17 hours of music. His use of Norse mythology, along with plots that involve romance, murder, magic, etc. are what inspired much of our modern epic sagas like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Next time you find yourself awestruck by the latest episode of your favorite show, remember you have Wagner to thank.