Culture Magazine

Descent Into Nibelheim

By Superconductor @ppelkonen

An examination of intervals in the score of The Ring.

Descent Into Nibelheim

Page from the score of Götterdämmerung belonging to a sound effects engineer.
From Bamboquiri's Flickr.com page, © the photographer.

The other night, I was listening to the 1967 recording of Das Rheingold, specifically to the opening scene, when I heard something new in the score. This recording, made at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and conducted by Karl Böhm is an old friend--I've owned one copy of it or another for the last 15 years. 
The Prelude to Rheingold is a single E Major chord, played by a pedal contrabass tuba and eight horns. The horns play the chord in an ascending eight-part canon for the first 90 seconds of the opera, breaking the chord into three notes: E, G, and B. This pattern repeats and overlaps as the horn calls sound together. 
Then Wagner pulls the most extraordinary sonic trick. As each horn climbs the ladder of the chord, you hear an artificial interval created: descending from B back down to E. This new interval foreshadows all the descending figures that will appear in the score of the Ring, from the atonal interval that indicates the enslavement of the Nibelungs by Alberich, to the minor-key drop intervals that characterize Mime (a third) and Hagen (a fourth) in the later operas.
It's no coincidence that the "rising" figures indicate Wagner's heroic characters. The Walsung motif ends on a higher note than its start, and the Sword theme (heard in the first act of Die Walküre) rises up a steep three-note climb. Siegfried's horn-call is another rising figure, as is the brash "heroism" theme that appears when he is first mentioned in Die Walküre. It only acquires any sort of descent when it it heard in Götterdämmerung, having been influenced by Brunnhilde's basket of motives and indicating the mature hero ready to do battle.
Those descending themes come back in force in the score of Götterdämmerung, chiefly surrounding the evil machinations of Hagen--Alberich's son. This grim figure's music dominates the latter half of the first act and all of the second, from the swirling "Hagen chords" that dominate the begining of that act to the great battle cry of "Hoi-ho!" Even Siegfried, confronted by the plot against him, has to pull off an octave-drop in this scene (kind of the sword theme in reverse) to try to get out of the trap he has fallen into. It doesn't work.
With all of these ups and downs (and yes, I'm aware that the 12-note scale indicating Wotan's spear is a descending figure) what of items like the Ring, Valhalla, and the Tarnhelm? These are all represented by figures that undulate up and down, indicating their neutral status in the battle of good vs. evil. It's also interesting that the "Redemption of Brunnhilde" theme heard at the very end of the cycle ascends and descends before landing on the D Major chord that brings the Ring Cycle to an end.


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