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An Opera by Richard Wagner

Dramatis Personae

MIME, one of the Nibelungs
ALBERICH, one of the Nibelungs
WOTAN, the Wanderer
FAFNER, the Dragon

Plot and Music of Siegfried

After his parting from Brünnhilde, Wotan truly is nothing but a departed spirit; his highest aim can only be to let things take their course, go their own gait, no longer definitely to interfere; for that reason, too, has he become the "Wanderer." Take a good look at him! He resembles us to a hair; he is the sum of the Intellect of the Present, whilst Siegfried is the Man of the Future, the man we wish, the man we will, but cannot make, and the man who must create himself through our annihilation
-- Richard Wagner, Letter to August Roeckel, 1854

"Siegfried," the third drama in the tetralogy, was the second in order of conception. In it Wagner "was chiefly attracted by the charm of a character developed in immediate contact with Nature; being, indeed, one with Nature, and therefore, like Nature, fresh and ever new in its impulsive naiveté." This character is Siegfried, the hero of the two last dramas of the cycle.

A certain period of time is supposed to have elapsed since the curtain descended on the tragic close of the previous drama. Sieglinde had found refuge with the dwarf Mime, who was in the forest watching Fafner and his ill-gotten treasure. She died in giving birth to Siegfried, and Mime brought him up, hoping that when he grew to manhood he, with the welded fragments of Siegmund’s sword, would slay the dragon (Fafner) and win for him the Nibelung hoard. When the curtain rises Mime in discovered in his forest hut, trying to forge a sword for Siegfried; complaining all the time that the ungrateful youth always dashes the weapons which he makes to pieces on the anvil, as though they were the merest toys. Presently the impulsive, eager, discontented Siegfried enters, only to repeat his old performance with the newly-forged weapon.

He questions the cunning dwarf as to his birth, as to the import of certain strange emotions in his breast. Mime tells him the story of his origin, and produces as evidence the pieces of the broken sword. These fragments Mime shall reunite, declares Siegfried, as he rushes out again to the forest. But Mime is unequal to the task; to forge the weapon anew defies all the dwarf’s efforts. At this point Wotan arrives on the scene, disguised as a wanderer, and in an exchange of riddles with Mime, during which Mime forfeits his head, tells him that only one who "never knew fear" shall accomplish the task. Wotan departs, and Siegfried again enters, this time to weld the broken blade once more into a sword, thus triumphing over the frightened dwarf. With one mighty stroke of the new weapon, Siegfried cleaves the anvil in twain. The whole of this scene of the welding of the sword is "sung in music aglow with the flame of the forge, alive with the rhythm of the bellows and the hammer."

The Second Act takes place in the depths of the forest, whither Mime has brought Siegfried to slay the dragon, Fafner. Alberich, to quote Mr. Henderson’s summary of this part of the drama, lies in watch outside Fafner’s cave, and Wotan comes to warn the dragon that his fate draws near. Alberich listens, wondering, while Wotan addresses the dragon in his lair. Anon, Mime conducts Siegfried to the spot and leaves him. Alone the hero muses on his life, his birth, his mother’s death, his own lack of a mate. He hears the song of a forest bird, and thinks, could he but understand the songster, it might tell him of his needs. He fashions a reed pipe wherewith to talk to the bird, but his effort is futile. The scene is one of strange beauty, the orchestra imitating the weaving of the forest leaves and shadows in a wondrous tone-poem. Despairing of success with the reed, Siegfried winds a blast upon his horn, and Fafner emerges from his concealment.

Siegfried slays the dragon; and plucking his sword from the monster’s heart, he wets his finger with the blood, and cleanses it with his tongue. At once he understands the songs of the birds, who tell him of the ring and of the Tarnhelm, and warn him that Mime is treacherous. Mime’s aim is to poison Siegfried and secure the treasure for himself alone. In sudden disgust, Siegfried kills the dwarf, and throws his corpse into the dragon’s cave. Once more the birds sing to Siegfried, telling him that Brünnhilde lies asleep, guarded by flame, on the mountain top, where only the dauntless hero can approach her. Siegfried leaps forward on the path, a bird pointing him the way, and the Act comes to an end.

The Third Act, which represents a rugged landscape at the foot of Brünnhilde’s rock, introduces us again, and for the last time, to Wotan. The god has grown old. He knows that his end, "the dusk of the gods," is approaching, and willingly he signifies his intention of resigning the earth and its joys to youth, of handing over his kingdom to the new race. In this voluntary act of resignation lies the expiation of Wotan. Yet when he meets Siegfried on his way to Brünnhilde’s rock, he threateningly holds up his spear to bar the passage of the young hero. Impatient of delay, Siegfried treats the unknow’s advice with scorn, and cuts the opposing spear in pieces. The runes incised on its haft have lost their power; the old order of the world is broken, and Wotan disappears for ever from the scene, to prepare for his final doom. We hear of him, but see him no more till the flames of Walhalla reveal him in the blazing sky.

The tragedy of "The Ring," it may be said in passing, is the tragedy of Wotan. Yet Wotan is by many regarded as the bore of the piece; and certainly there are times when it requires all the charm of the music to make his prosings tolerable. But this is a digression.

To resume: gaily singing, Siegfried pierces the protecting flame, the fiery ring, and wakens Brünnhilde, the sleeping beauty. He "cuts the byrny from her bosom and wakes her with a kiss!" Wonderful is the music of the awakening --

Brünnhilde sings her hymn to sunlight and earth, and proclaims herself Siegfried’s from the beginning. One last struggle for her maidenhood, and she yields herself. The union is made, the old order is done; the new race is to come and rule the world. The drama closes with a duet of exquisite loveliness, and we are ready for "The Twilight of the Gods," the last of the great cycle of "The Ring."

"Siegfried" was Wagner’s own favourite: "the most beautiful of my life’s dreams," he called it. Readily may we agree with him. "Siegfried," as has been happily observed, is the Scherzo of the great Nibelungen Symphony. Its jubilant, outdoor life, the buoyant, fearless, militant innocence of the hero, make a refreshing change from the tragedy and gloom of "The Valkyrie." The vigour and sweetness of spring and of young manhood permeate it throughout. If it has less incident than "The Valkyrie," it has more sustained power. The music, the great bulk of which is freely composed and unfettered by the employment of guiding themes, is everywhere instinct with resource and beauty. In power, picturesqueness, and command of orchestral colour and device, Wagner never surpassed such scenes as the opening of the Third Act, or Siegfried’s scaling of Brünnhilde’s rock. The Third Act has been described as one long, impassioned love-duet, and such in truth it is, affording unique scope for dramatic vocalists. With most listeners, however, the jewel of the work is the wood music in the Second Act, in which "the murmuring sounds of the forest, with its calling of birds and rustling of leaves, are reproduced in delicate orchestral phrases that are interwoven to form a musical picture of the richest colouring."

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Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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