The Love Song of Richard Wagner’s The Valkyrie.
Good evening and welcome to this chat about this evening’s program. My name is Andrys Onsman and I am an adjunct at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University. Before I begin, I must firstly acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land where we are gathered and marvel at the fact that people have been coming to this very spot for thousands of years to sing and dance and swap stories. And it was an early version of a dating site, a place where those in the market for a wife or husband would meet. If you were lucky, here on the banks of the Yarra River you would find someone to love and marry.
That’s not an entirely irrelevant aside because what I would like to chat about is one of the most beautiful, meaningful and modern pieces of Wagner’s music, Siegmund’s Spring Song. Not only that but for me it is also among the earliest examples of lyrics and music intertwining to the point that the music is composed in response to the words. Barry Millington wrote that “act 1 is packed with musico-poetic lines that are pregnant with dramatic significance and yet have the utmost appeal”. I completely agree; and not only is a lot of Wagner’s libretto remarkably poetic, in my opinion the words that convey the narrative arc are really quite important to the whole cycle, all four operas, as semiotic signifiers of both culture and psychology. Wagner himself referred to his lyrics being like poems. They certainly are in the original German but they tend to be translated prosaically to within an inch of their literary and musical lives. Nowhere is that better exemplified than in Siegmund’s Spring Song.
To quickly recap the scene. A thunderstorm rages outside a house. An exhausted man wounded and weapon-less, enters and lies down in front of the hearth. Sieglinde, who lives in the house, finds him and gives him water. She informs him that the house belongs to Hunding, her husband, and that he should wait for the master of the house. Siegmund says that misfortune haunts him and that he must leave lest he should bring it to the house but she asks him stay, telling him that he cannot bring woe where woe already lives. Siegmund calls himself “Woeful” and waits for Hunding, who when he arrives greets him in a formal manner, indicating he is a man who holds on to traditional values, and then wants to hear his story.
Siegmund says his father was “Wolf” and he had a twin sister. “Wolf” was very warlike and had many enemies. One day Siegmund returned home to find that his mother had been killed and the home burned. His sister and father were nowhere to be found, so off he trudged. Some days later he saw a damsel in distress: she was being forced into a marriage she did not want, so Siegmund jumped to her defence, killing some of her assailants – only to learn they were actually her brothers and kinsmen. In the fight Siegmund was wounded, lost his sword and the girl was killed.
Here the story takes a twist. Unbeknownst to Siegmund, Hunding has been charged by the wedding party to avenge the dead by killing the very chap the gods have dropped in his lap. But protocol demands that guests must be treated respectfully, and Siegmund can stay the night. But tomorrow Hunding will fight him to the death. Hunding goes to bed to get a good night sleep. Sieglinde slips him a mickey to ensure that it is a REALLY good night sleep so she can meet Siegmund in private. She tells him that a mysterious stranger left a sword in the main beam of the house and anyone who can pull it out of the beam can have it. Sieglinde believes Siegmund is the man for the job: the hero who would free her from her miserable life as Hunding’s property.
So far, so romantic but as they reveal their true feelings for each other, Sieglinde reveals to Siegmund that she is his lost twin sister as well, and calls him his true name, Siegmund. Siegmund draws the enchanted sword from the tree and names it Nothung (“Needy”) and thereby gives rise to a plethora of psychology conferences on marriage, social mores, incest, desire and pre-ordination.
Towards the end of all that, when the declarations of love are being made, the door flies open, startling the pair. Then follows what is surely one of the most affecting syntheses of lyrics and music:
Sieglinde asks, “Ha, who went out and who passed in?” Siegmund replies, “No one went out but someone came in: see, spring’s smiles fills the room!” and then goes on to present a very seductive context:
When winter tempests yield to May’s soft moon,
Spring weaves wonders in the tender light.
He rides on the balmy breezes over wood and meadow,
His gentle laughter heard in the blissful songs of birds.
With every breath he exhales scents mild and sweet,
And from his warm life-blood flowers blossom,
New shoot and buds spring forth at his command.
With gentle control he balances the world anew:
Winter yields to his sway and life begins again.
It was at his touch that the strong and stubborn
Door that has kept us apart from him gave way.
See how clever that last line is? The door that the storm flung open on the stage to allow Spring to enter hadn’t kept Siegmund and Siegliende apart; it had kept them, already a conjoined entity, apart from Spring. Because in Nature Spring is Love. I’m not the first to make that connection. In February 1889, B. F. Wyatt-Smith wrote “Siegmund’s spring-song is as irresistible as is the first breath of spring itself; in the music one hears the fresh flow of life and movement after the ice-bound silence.”
It is a beautiful metaphor, isn’t it? Even with climate change reducing the extent of that ice-bound silence to less than a square kilometre around the North Pole, you get the idea. Good times are a-coming. But Wagner also has another purpose. He has to prepare the audience for the bombshell that Siegmund and Sieglinde are not only working their way up to becoming adulterers and lovers, but that they are also brother and sister, and this ain’t Egypt and they ain’t pharaohs.
Wagner turns to metaphysics and the earthiness of nature to make the relationship palatable. Later in the scene, Siegmund goes on to say – and excuse my Frisian accent –
Die bräutliche Schwester befreite der Bruder;
zertrümmert liegt, was je sie getrennt:
jauchzend grüßt sich das junge Paar:
vereint sind Liebe und Lenz!
Translation of figurative language is exceptionally difficult. There have been some perfunctory, prosaic attempts that generally ignore the deeper meaning and the lyricism of the original. I wouldn’t award my efforts any prizes but I think it get closer to what Wagner was saying:
As a bride, sister freed brother by
Breaking down what kept them apart
And making them free to meet as lovers,
To bring spring and love back together.
In response, Sieglinde tells Siegmund that he is Spring, just before they work out that they are twins and it’s all very passionate and intense – you’ll see it yourself later on – and the whole scene ends with the lines that portend the calumnity that will befall them and their offspring.
Bride and sister be to your brother:
and the Wälsung clan will flourish!
And according to Wagner’s stage directions, “He draws her to him with passionate fervor”. It’s racy stuff, even in 2018. No wonder the stage directions say, “The curtain falls rapidly”. And we know that their off-spring, Siegfried, will eventually awaken his aunt Brünnhilde with a kiss, and their relationship does not end well either, to say the least. Somewhat surprisingly, nearly a hundred and thirty years ago, Wyatt-Smith was okay with it, writing “Spring and Love are brought together with the deepest passion and tenderness”.
So, how did Wagner marry the poetics and the narrative to the music? It is, as I’ve said, a heavy topic presented in quite delicate, or at least carefully crafted language. Think of all the possible directions Wagner could go. He could write music that is defiant, or that is passionate, or even apologetic. But, he doesn’t. He writes tender beautiful music, music so enchanting you could forgive anything that is happening on the stage.
First, let’s listen to the leitmotiv, the representative theme of the music that Wagner builds on and around throughout the whole piece, which to my mind is quite like an aria. The words are
Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond,
in mildem Lichte leuchtet der Lenz;
auf linden Lüften leicht und lieblich,
Wunder webend er sich wiegt;
Listen for how the sound of the words (in the original German) not only complements the notes but also how they push the articulation and emphasis.
[You can listen here. Stop after about 15 seconds.]
It is so beautiful a theme, isn’t it? The wonderful late music critic Deryk Cooke, hardly the most pedantic of theorists, tells us that a motiv should originate as a melodic line clothing a verbal utterance, should take from the words a concrete meaning and retain that meaning throughout the drama as a pure ‘motive of reminiscence’. So, where does this motiv originate and does it hold its meaning? It’s an easily answered question. It originates in Scene 2 of The Rhinegold signifying how love is omnipresent in the natural world, and it reappears in Siegfried when our eponymous hero takes a moment to listen to the sounds of nature to remind himself (and us the audience) what his part in the whole Ring Cycle is all about.
The point here is that the leitmotiv gets added power and beauty from being a consistently recognisable strand in a complex tapestry. In Siegmund’s Spring Song Wagner uses both the melodic line and the literary referent to give the words and the action on stage a convincing context.
Let’s listen to the whole thing. Bear in mind that this is a very old recording of Lauretz Melchior and this evening you will have all that magnificence swirling around your ears live and for real. Consider it a taster for what is to come.
For me, in Wagner’s Spring song, the music matches the lyrical beauty of the words and together they become something so very moving that even after having heard it hundreds of times and having studied it academically, it still can bring a tear to the eye. That is the essence of great operatic music. You can analyse it until your ears bleed but when everything has been said and done, it still exists as clear and clean as before.
So, there is my argument. The music and the words soar intertwined into something that is beautiful and that, in the end, is all that matters.
Thank you for your attention. You have just about enough time for a glass of wine or two before the real thing.
The Love Song of Richard Wagner’s The Valkyrie.