17 Oct 2011

Wagner – Ride of the Valkyries from “Die Walküre”

Written by Jeff Counts



Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, snare drum, triangle, strings

Duration: 5 minutes

THE COMPOSER – RICHARD WAGNER (1813-1883) – Though it was not premiered as a complete, four-day Bühnenfestspiel (stage festival play) until August of 1876, Wagner had been working on parts of Der Ring des Nibelungen since as far back as 1848. He completed the text of the four operas in 1853 and only then began to craft the music, a process which occupied him off and on for another 21 years.

THE MUSIC – Act III of Die Walküre begins with the image of a rocky mountaintop flanked by storm-driven clouds. Four of Brünnhilde’s Valkyrie sisters wait there in full armor, ready to perform their noble duty – the transportation of fallen heroes to Valhalla. What follows for the next eight minutes is the most popular music Wagner ever wrote and is certainly still among the most beloved orchestral excerpts ever written by anyone. The Ride of the Valkyries is most often heard today its shorter instrumental iteration but the operatic version includes the passionate war whoops of the sisters as they scan the mortal battlefields below, an incredibly exciting listening experience in a live performance. Though he received many requests, Wagner originally objected to (expressly forbade, actually) the idea of The Ride as a stand-alone concert work separate from the complete opera. According to his wife Cosima he considered it an “utter indiscretion” and complained in writing when it was published that way anyhow in the early 1870s. The tide of interest was becoming too strong to resist but he managed to hold it back until the full cycle finally premiered in 1876, after which he relaxed his stance on the matter and even succumbed to the temptation himself. It is impossible to discuss The Ride of the Valkyries without mentioning how frequently it appears in modern popular culture, the most memorable example being the helicopter assault scene of the 1979 film Apocalypse Now.

THE WORLD – Custer’s Last Stand occurred at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. It was also the year of the most famous moment in telephonic history when Alexander Graham Bell said, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”