09 Sep 2022

WAGNER: Ride of the Valkyries

by Jeff Counts

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 (a five-year process itself) and only then began to craft the music, a monumental endeavor that occupied him off and on for another 21 years. It’s no wonder it took so long. Wagner was attempting to realign the operatic cosmos with his “music dramas”, a coinage and concept that purported to guarantee each word in the name would receive equal importance in his new world.

Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner

THE HISTORY– Act III of Die Walküre begins with the image of a rocky mountaintop flanked by storm-driven clouds. All of Brünnhilde’s Valkyrie sisters wait there in full armor, ready to perform their noble duty—the transportation of fallen heroes to Valhalla on their winged steeds. What follows for the next several minutes is perhaps the most popular music Wagner ever wrote and is certainly still among the most beloved orchestral opera excerpts ever written by anyone. The Ride of the Valkyries is most often heard today in its shorter instrumental iteration, but the operatic version includes the passionate war whoops of the sisters as they scan the mortal battlefields below. It makes for an incredibly exciting listening experience in a live performance and, in the hands of a great director, the dramatic visual possibilities are nearly endless. Though he received many requests, Wagner originally objected to (expressly forbade, in fact) the idea of The Ride taken out of its operatic context and presented as a stand-alone concert work. According to his wife Cosima he considered the proposal an “utter indiscretion” and complained in writing when it was published that way anyhow in the early 1870s. Clearly, at some point, the tide of interest in a concert version of The Ride became too strong to resist, but Wagner managed to hold it back until the full cycle finally premiered in 1876. After that, knowing he would not be able to keep The Ride locked in place much longer, he relaxed his stance on the matter and even succumbed to the temptation himself as a conductor now and then. It is impossible to discuss The Ride of the Valkyries without mentioning how frequently it appears in modern popular culture. From video games to advertising to television shows, this music is everywhere. The most memorable quotation, by far, is the helicopter assault scene of the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, where the cinematic similarities between Brünnhilde’s kin and the Vietnam-era war machines is both stunning and troubling.

THE WORLD– Elsewhere in 1876, Custer’s Last Stand occurred at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the most famous moment in telephonic history happened when Alexander Graham Bell said, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you” and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt was premiered in Norway.

THE CONNECTION– Ride of the Valkyries is programmed often by Utah Symphony, in virtually every concert setting. The most recent Masterworks Series performance was in 2011 under Thierry Fischer.