Wagner’s Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung

Notes by TŌN violist Leonardo Vásquez Chacón

The Ring
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 Themes
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.

Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini

Notes by TŌN cellist Sarah Schoeffler

The Background
Francesca da Rimini is a symphonic fantasia written in 1876. It musically depicts the tragic story of the title character, as told in the Inferno cantica of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Tchaikovsky was initially drawn to this tale due to its operatic possibilities, and although an opera never came to fruition, the idea resulted in a work that was successful from its initial premiere and has become a beloved part of the symphonic repertory.

The Second Circle of Hell
In the fifth canto of Inferno Dante meets Francesca, who narrates the story of how she was forced into a marriage with a cruel warlord husband but instead falls in love with his brother. The lovers are discovered after reading the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere together, and in a jealous rage her husband kills them both. The two lovers are condemned to the Second Circle of Hell, where their punishment consists of being trapped together and hurled relentlessly about in a violent storm, never to walk on firm soil again. This tragic tale was especially popular with the Romantics of this time period, and Franz Liszt used it as inspiration for the Inferno movement of his “Dante” Symphony. One can hear strong influences of both Liszt and Wagner within Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini.

The Music
Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem has three parts, with a short introduction. The piece opens with a dark, somber effect by the basses and winds, which portrays Dante as he strays from the right path. The influence of Wagner is clearly felt in the tonally ambiguous harmonies of the introduction. As Dante proceeds deeper into the circles of Hell, the music continues into the first main section of the piece. In the second section, the tempo accelerates into a syncopated Allegro as Dante watches the violently spinning storm of souls in the second circle of Hell. In the last section, the music calms as Dante requests to speak to the condemned lovers. This section is introduced by a heartrending clarinet solo, which depicts Francesca’s point of view. The piece ends with a large orchestral tutti as we are drawn, along with Dante, through the terrifying tempest of souls once more.