Götterdammerung – Final Scene

To understand why in the final scene of Wagner's four part Ring Cycle, Brünnhilde voluntarily throws herself on the pyre, why the ring on her finger has to be purified with fire and returned to the spirits of the Rhine requires us to narrate a long, complex story. It is not sufficient to know just the events, because even then, we could not experience the finale with its full importance and weight. Wagner also found himself confronted with the same problem, when he began work on the composition Siegfrieds Tod (the Death of Siegfried). The sketches from his 1850 project Norna have survived. This would have been a scene based on initial plans to help narrate the antecedents to the heroic tragedy, the divine myth presented as an epic. Wagner had to confront the problem that dramatically speaking, a sharp fracture emerges between the staged tragedy and a myth which is only related. Because of its introductory epic character, he could not portray the characters musically in the full depth of their being, because the musical depiction of the myth was absent. Wagner therefore sensed it necessary to depict in detail the preceding action, not only dramaturgically but musically as well.


And he had to broaden Siegfried's death into a dual drama. The depiction of the music drama associations only become unambiguous if the music can concretely refer to each character or event; if the individual references become a symbol for a given theatrical train of action. The splendour of the system of musical references, known by the German term leitmotif, is that it enables things on the stage to be linked with events that are not. Wagner wrote to Liszt in November 1851, saying “The depiction can be achieved through its clarity, since at the same time, the current lengthy narrative element is absent, or at least is restricted to necessary actions, and I obtain sufficient space to increase the abundance of associations to the most stunning degree.”


While the length of the epic element in Siegfrieds Tod makes the musical dramatic effect almost impossible, until in the actual four part concept, it is reversed: the narrative backward glances to earlier events give the possibility for a rich motific unfolding of a system of musical symbols. Wagner derives the necessary plethora of motives, which continually supplies the listener with background material, from a few basic motifs, the simplicity of which is the guarantee of the transparency of the entire system: “In Rheingeld I chanced upon a new path, in which I had to first find flexible nature motifs; this developed in an increasingly individual fashion, and became the embodiment of the diverging action and the flood of emotional affinities.” (Epologischer Bericht, 1871).


The closing scene of Götterdammerung, the passionate song of Brünnhilde subsumes the listener into its spell as a pure musical experience, while the system of musical symbols through the person of the Walkür who becomes a mortal gives a cathartic summary of the dual drama with the evocations of the events of the four operas, from the “original sin” to the purification by fire, as well as the story of the characters and the more important locations.