Twilight of the Gods Program Notes

Tranquil Abiding

CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Ibéria from Images

Achille‑Claude Debussy was born at St. Germaine‑en‑Laye, Department of Seine‑et‑Oise, France, on August 22, 1862 and died in Paris on March 25, 1918. He composed Ibéria in the years i906‑08, completing the score on December 25 of the latter year. Gabriel Pierné conducted the orchestra of the Conccrts Colonne in the premiere, which took place in Paris on February 20, 1910. Ibéria is scored for three flutes (third doubling second piccolo), piccolo, two oboes and English horn, three clarinets, three bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, tambourine, snare drum, castanets, xylophone, celesta, cymbals, chimes, two harps, and strings. Duration is about 20 minutes.

After completing his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, which is all hints and subtleties, pastel shades and mists, Debussy was eager to move into a different mode, to compose livelier, more outgoing music. The years following Pelléas were busy, seeing the composition of La Mer, the Danse sacre and Danse profane, the two books of Images for piano, and the triptych entitled Images for orchestra, of which Ibéria—itself a triptych—is the second panel. These were the years in which Debussy began to become voguish; Pierre Lalo noted in 1906, “The Debussyist religion has replaced the Wagnerian religion.” His popular success, however, was short‑lived. Debussy’s constant search for new paths, though enormously fruitful to his fellow composers, outstripped the willingness of his audiences to follow much beyond La Mer and Ibéria, so that, just as his health was beginning to decline with the first signs of the cancer that was eventually to prove fatal, he was also starting to lose the audience that had so recently discovered him.

The orchestral Images started in Debussy’s mind as a set of works for two pianos, obviously intended as a counterpart to the Images for solo piano. In September 1905 he wrote to his publisher Durand, “I am now going to complete as quickly as possible the Images two pianos.” This alone would not identify the works in question, but on July 9, 1906, he wrote, “I hope to have finished Ibéria next week and the two other pieces in the course of the month.” This can only refer to the piano yersion of Ibéria, since the orchestral score was still more than two years from completion.

As published, the orchestral Images consists of three pieces : Gigues, Ibéria, and Rondes de printemps. The order, however, is purely arbitrary, not reflecting the order of composition. Ibéria, which came first, is further subdivided into three sections, reflecting aspects of Debussy’s imaginative picture of Spain. Like Bizet, whose Carmen so richly evokes the Spanish scene, Debussy knew his Spain only by way of literature and art, though he did study the collections of Spanish folk music assembled by Felipe Pedrell. Still, he did not quote any actual folk tunes in his “Spanish” score, but rather recreated the imagined “feel” of a day in Spain. So successful was

he in this respect that Ibéria is widely regarded as the finest “Spanish” music ever written, even by native Spanish composers like Manuel de Falla, who found here the way to treat their own cultural heritage in music. Debussy did, in fact, spend one lone afternoon in Spain, crossing the border just long enough to watch a bullfight at San Sebastian. Falla, in a 1920 article about Debussy’s contribution to Spanish music, hypothesized:

He remembered, however, the light in the bull‑ring, particularly the violent contrast between the one half of the ring flooded with sunlight and the other half deep in shade. The Matin d’un jour de fête (Morning of a day of festa) from Ibéria is perhaps an evocation of this afternoon spent just over the French frontier. But this was not the Spain that was really his own. His dreams led him farther afield and he became spellbound by an imaginary Andalusia. We have evidence of this in Par les Rues et par les chemins (By the streets and by the paths) and Parfums de la nuit (Perfumes of the night) from Ibéria.

Debussy plays with the full orchestra in all its richness and variety, suggesting Spain in the characteristic melodic and rhythmic turns, in actual Spanish instruments (such as the castanets heard already in the opening measures), or imitations thereof (such as the violins‑turned-guitar in the last movement, where the players are specifically told to place the instruments under the arm in traditional guitar position while they pluck the strings).

The first movement is built of a series of brief ideas that weave in and out like fragments of songs half‑heard while passing from street to street. The central nocturne is sultry and laden with suppressed passion. But Debussy avoids a cheap erotic climax. Instead he links the movement directly to the final “festa,” in a transition from night to day of which he was particularly proud (Debussy to his friend Andre Caplet after rehearsals were underway for the premiere: “You cannot imagine how naturally the transition from Les Parfums de la nuit to Le Matin d’un jour de fête is achieved. It sounds like music which has not been written down! And the whole rising feeling, the awakening of people and of nature. There is a watermelon vendor and children whistling—I see them all clearly.”). The last movement is replete with splashes of one thing and another-‑the composer called them “realities”—thrown out in a display of seemingly incoherent energy, brilliantly lighted throughout by the masterful treatment of the orchestra.

We can defer once more to Manue] de Falla, to whom Ibéria was a guide and textbook, perhaps the most satisfying piece of “Spanish” music hitherto composed:

A sort of Sevillana, the generating theme of the work, suggests village songs heard in the bright scintillating light; the intoxicating magic of the Andalusian nights, the light-hearted holiday crowds dancing to the chords struck on guitars and bandurrias–all these musical effects whirl in the air while the crowds, as we imagine them, approach or recede. Everything is constantly alive and extremely expressive.

RICHARD WAGNER (1813-1883)
Suite from Götterdämmerung

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Saxony, on May 22, 1813, and died in Venice on February 13, 1883. The planning and composition of Die Götterdämmerung lasted from October 1848 (when Wagner created a prose draft of the libretto) to November 21, 1874, when he completed the full score. The first performance took place in the Bayreuth Festspeilhaus on August 17, 1876. The excerpt known as Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, which connects the Prologue and Act I, calls for three flutes (third is an optional piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets (trumpet 3 is optional), three trombones and tuba, timpani, tenor drum, cymbals, triangle, harp), and strings. Duration is about NN minutes.

Wagner originally conceived what was to be his greatest work as early as 1848; it was finally realized on the stage twenty-eight years later, in 1876, with the first production in his own theater at Bayreuth of the complete tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Nibelung’s Ring”). Few artistic creations of such scope and power exist in the European tradition. Perhaps only two literary works—Dante’s Divine Comedy and Goethe’s Faust—can be mentioned in the same breath with Wagner’s gigantic composition. All three of these mighty creations present an all-encompassing world view in a work of epic size that spanned the entire universe, dominating the creative lives of the artists who envisioned them.

Time and time again in his operas—including the two youthful works already finished by the mid-1840s, The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser, Wagner chose a dramatic situation in which the principal character or characters were in need of redemption, and this usually came from the self-sacrifice of a noble, courageous woman. In the Ring, Wagner casts his tale of redemption on the grandest possible scale, covering more than one generation chronologically and the entire physical world from subterranean caverns to rocky mountain heights geographically.

Although the Ring ostensibly deals with gods, giants, dwarves, dragons, magic helmets and an all-controlling ring of power, its philosophical and ethical basis grows directly out of mid-nineteenth century European social problems, generated by the unfettered capitalism of the industrial revolution. It is surely no coincidence that Wagner wrote an essay on “The Nibelung Myth as a Sketch for a Drama” in 1848, the same year that Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto. In their characteristically different ways (Marx with an outline for a formal essay in economic philosophy, Wagner with a draft for a theatrical work), both men addressed the theme that wealth was a dominating force, potentially destructive, in human relations.

Wagner imagined his story in terms of powerful and flexible symbols that could be visualized on the stage. Gold, in itself an innocent natural object, is stolen from the bed of the river Rhine by the Nibelung dwarf Alberich, who has learned that by forswearing love, he can fashion the gold into a Ring that will give him supreme power over creation. The gods, chief of whom is Wotan, enjoy the highest respect of any race in this mythical world, partly on the strength of the fact that Wotan is the protector of agreements and treaties by which all creatures live. Runes carved on his spear, the visual representation of his power, affirm this.

Wotan and the other gods have contracted with the giants Fasolt and Fafner to build them a strong and secure castle, Valhalla. According to the contract, Wotan agreed to give the giants Freia, the goddess of youth and love, in return for his fortress. In doing so he has, in moral terms, foresworn love in return for power, just as Alberich had done. But he has no intention of keeping his bargain once the castle is finished. The ingenious Loge, god of fire, promised to find a substitute payment acceptable to the giants.

Alberich’s theft of the Rhine’s gold and fashioning of the Ring of power could bring great danger to all the other races on earth. Wotan, with the help of Loge, gains the Ring through through trickery and violent theft—a denial of the very agreements he is supposed to uphold. Alberich lays a fearful curse on the Ring: It will bring doom to all who possess it and envy to all who do not. The earth goddess Erda warns Wotan of the danger of holding onto the Ring, and he glumly gives it to the giants as part of the payment to ransom Freia. No sooner do the giants get the Ring than one of them, Fafner, kills his brother to get his hands on it, demonstrating the efficacy of Alberich’s curse.

The situation is perilous for the gods. The vicious giant Fafner controls the Ring, though he is content simply to convert himself, through magic, into a dragon and to sleep on his new golden hoard. But if Alberich should ever recover it, the power of the gods would be completely undone. Wotan determines to act—though he must do so indirectly, since to attack Fafner and take back the gold would be to break his own contract, and in so doing would destroy his own divine power. Already tainted through one theft, such an act would leave him morally bankrupt.

Wotan’s solution has two parts. First he visits Erda again to learn as much as she will tell him of the future. Like the Greek Zeus, the Nordic Wotan spreads his wild oats far and wide. His visit to Erda has a significant consequence; she bears him nine daughters, the martial Valkyries, who ride through the sky over battlefields, choosing the bravest heroes to bring to Valhalla, where they can serve as a defensive force in the event of war with Alberich. Wotan’s favorite from among these daughters is Brünnhilde, who is the title character of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), the second part of the Ring.

Wotan next tries to solve his moral dilemma by creating a human hero who can act for him in regaining the Ring, but of his own free will—thus, Wotan believes, he can avoid the moral taint that would come if he acted himself. Through a liaison with a mortal woman, he has two children, fraternal twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde. He arranges matters so that Sieglinde is carried off and forcibly married to the brutish Hunding. Their mother is killed and Wotan simply disappears without trace, leaving the young Siegmund to fend for himself. Operating invisibly in the background, Wotan arranges for Siegmund to be driven, at the last stages of exhaustion, to the house in which the unhappy Sieglinde is living. After Hunding, drugged by Sieglinde, has gone to sleep, the two talk.

She tells him that years before, during the drinking that accompanied her forced wedding to Hunding, a stranger—Wotan, as the orchestra informs us—stalked into the house, which is built around a great ash tree, and drove a sword deep into the tree’s trunk, from which none of the wedding guests was able to budge it. Siegmund realizes that this was the weapon promised by his father in his hour of greatest need. Realizing that Sieglinde, with whom he has fallen in love, is his long-lost sister, he pulls the sword from the tree and the two rush away together.          

Wotan orders his favorite daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, to protect Siegmund in the inevitable fight with Hunding. But Wotan’s wife Fricka forces him to admit, against his will, that by providing Siegmund with the sword and arranging his life so as to leave him no choice but to act under compulsion, he has failed to create the “free hero.” If Siegmund kills Fafner and reclaims the Ring, it is morally no different than if Wotan himself had done the deed. Reluctantly Wotan agrees to order Brünnhilde not to protect Siegmund in the coming battle.  She, however, understands that, in his heart, Wotan wants Siegmund to win; so she disobeys her father. But Wotan ensures that Siegmund’s sword shatters during the battle, allowing Hunding to kill him. Brünnhilde, fearing her father’s anger, rushes away with Sieglinde.

Wotan’s plan has failed so far, but a development he had not anticipated seems to have saved it. The warmth of Siegmund and Sieglinde blossomed into a passionate love. Though Siegmund is dead, Sieglinde carries his unborn son, to be named Siegfried. He will be the “free hero” growing up without Wotan’s support, who will be able to reclaim the Ring. Brünnhilde herself faces severe punishment for her misbehavior. She will lose her immortality, and be left asleep on a mountain height, to be taken by the first man who comes along. She begs Wotan  that at least she may be taken by a hero, not some craven coward. Moved by his favorite daughter’s pleas, Wotan agrees to surround her sleeping body with a magic fire that will frighten away all but a great hero.

Once Brünnhilde has been put into the magic sleep, a generation passes. Sieglinde has ridden into the depths of the forest, where she had collapsed in exhaustion. Mime, the half brother of the Nibelung Alberich, cared for her at his forge-cabin until she died in childbirth, leaving Mime with the baby to be called Siegfried. The timid Mime’s main desire is to get hold of the Ring; he cannot accomplish this by himself. But he hopes to entice young Siegfried to help him, especially as the boy grows into vigorous, strapping manhood. A mysterious Wanderer (Wotan in disguise) has told Mime that only a sword remade from the broken pieces shattered in Siegmund’s fight with Hunding will avail against the dragon (Brünnhilde had collected these and given them to Sieglinde). The Wanderer had also told Mime that only one without fear could successfully reforge the sword; the timid Mime has already tried many times without success. But the boisterous Siegfried does it himself and proves its strength by using it to cut the anvil in half.

Like Alberich, Mime has a murderous mind. He plans to persuade Siegfried to slay the dragon (on the pretext of giving him the experience of fear, which the boy has never felt and about which he is curious). Once the dragon is no longer a threat, Mime will offer Siegfried a refreshing drink, which will be drugged. When it puts Siegfried to sleep, Mime can use the sword to chop off his head. 

While waiting in the forest for the sleeping dragon to appear, Siegfried ponders life’s mysteries, including his awareness that he knows of no other creatures like himself (surely he is not the offspring of the loathesome Mime!). He hears a forest bird and wishes he could understand her cheerful song. He plays his hunting horn in response to the bird. This awakens the dragon whom, after a fight, Siegfried stabs mortally. A drop of the dragon’s blood falls on his hand, burning hot. Instinctively he puts the hand to his mouth to suck it off and finds that he can now understand Mime’s thoughts as well as the song of the bird. Though Mime pretends merely to be offering a drink, Siegfried hears his murderous thoughts. Angrily he kills the evil dwarf. The forest bird now tells him where he can find one of his own kind, sleeping on a high rock not far away. Siegfried rushes off to find it.

Everything Wotan has attempted in order to undo his fatal moral error at the beginning of Das Rheingold has gone against him. Soon, confronting his grandson Siegfried, he will find that he can no longer direct events at all. The headstrong Siegfried wishes to pass through the magic fire and climb the mountain. The Wandered extends his spear to stop the boy, but with his sword, Siegfried breaks the spear/ The once mighty god can no longer prevent his passage. Siegfried moves through the wall of fire to the top of the mountain, where Brünnhilde still lies in her magic sleep. He awakens her with a kiss; she recognizes him as the world’s greatest hero whom she had predicted, and the two fall passionately in love.

This is where Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the final component of this massive work, begins, in dark of night as three Norns, or Fates, are weaving the rope of destiny. Just as they are ready to predict the future, the rope breaks. They have lost their powers and disappear.

At this point the selections to be heard in the present performance begin: Sunrise. Siegfried and Brünnhilde wake after their night of love. Dawn Duet. Brünnhilde, now a mortal woman, urges Siegfried to undertake heroic adventures that will make him worthy of her. The orchestral tone poem known as Siegfried’s Rhine Journey functions as the link between the prologue and Act I; it is built up of many musical themes already connected in the listener’s mind with Siegfried (his lively horn call, which gives this excerpt the character of a great symphonic scherzo), of past events (the Magic Fire behind which Brünnhilde slumbered before Siegfried’s kiss awakened her) and the mighty stream of the Rhine itself, followed by the song of the Rhinemaidens whose loss of the gold had set in motion the whole tragic train of events.

In Act I, Siegfried meets a family along the shores of the Rhine: Gunther, his sister Gutrune, and his half-brother Hagen, who is the son of the dwarf Alberich who set the entire story in motion by stealing the Ring from the Rhine-Maidens, and who will do anything to get it back. But first he counsels Gunther to make a great marriage for himself by wedding Brünnhilde, while his sister marries the hero Siegfried. (He does not tell them that the two are already promised to one another.)  When Siegfried arrives on his heroic quest, Hagen assures that he is served a drugged drink that makes him forget his recent experiences with Brünnhilde and to fall in love with Gutrune. Then he is asked to go to the fire-surrounded rock and bring the woman who is there to be Gunter’s wife. Without realizing that he has broken his vow to Brünnhilde, he agrees to do so. Disguising himself with a magic helmet that changes his features, he returns to the rock and forces Brünnhilde to accept him as Gunther—and tears the Ring off her hand as compensation. (She, meanwhile, has learned from one of her former Valkyrie sisters that Wotan now despairs of the future and simply waits in Valhalla for the end of everything.)

The Prelude to Act II continues the plot to destroy Siegfried and recover the Ring. Nocturnal music brings Alberich to speak to his son Hagen, sleeping by the Rhine. Hagen promises to recover the Ring, which Siegfried has given to Brünnhilde.

Hagen summons Gunther’s men (“Hoi ho!”) who gather to go on a hunt in the forest. When Brünnhilde arrives, thinking she has been carrier there by Gunther, she is surprised and angered to see him speaking warmly with Gutrune. Seeing the Ring on his hand, she is confused, having thought that Gunther stole it from her. She charges Siegfried with having stolen the Ring and with having slept with her (which he had done previously). Siegfried, still under the effect of the drug, swears an oath that he has never slept with her, and saying that he is ready to die if the opposite were true. Brünnhilde blesses the spear Hagen is holding, as the point that will pierce Siegfried if he has sworn falsely. When Siegfried leaves, Brünnhilde, Gunther, and Hagen decree that he will die during that event.

The final act begins with Siegfried encountering the Rhine Maidens, who plead with him to return the Ring, but he refuses, explaining that he slew a dragon to win it in the first place.

Siegfried’s meeting with hunting party of Hagen, Gunther and the vassals seems to be entirely sociable. Hagen invites Siegfried to tell about his adventures. Siegfried’s Narrative

When he almost reaches the point of finding Brünnhilde on the fire-surrounded rock, Hagen offers him a cool drink—the antidote for the drug that had befogged his mind. Siegfried goes on to tell how he found Brünnhilde, awakened her, and slept with her. Gunther is shocked. Hagen has set up this moment:  He seizes the spear that Brünnhilde had blessed and drives it into the back of the hero, exclaiming: “I avenge perjury!”

Siegfried’s Death comes slowly as he turns his eyes to the sky and calls upon Brünnhilde, imagining that she calls him to her.

The curtain falls between the two scenes of the act and the orchestra plays a passage known as Siegfried’s Funeral March, a darkly somber march that unfolds all the themes associated with the tragic hero and his family from the beginning of the story.

In the final scene, along the banks of the Rhine, Brünnhilde has come to learn how she and Siegfried were both deceived by Hagen, with the foolist connivance of Gunther and Gutrune. Then she begins the great final vocal section of the work: Brünnhilde’s Immolation. She orders Gunther’s men to pile up logs into a funeral pyre for the hero’s burial. She says that she will follow him in death, declaring that no one was ever as pure as he, even though he betrayed her. She turns to Valhalla in the distance and invokes Wotan, whose long-ago crime ultimately brought this fiery fate on the gods, men, dwarfs and all of creation. She takes the Ring from Siegfried’s finger and puts it on her own, telling the Rhine Maidens that they will be able to take it and cleanse it once again its curse. She throws a torch on the pyre and its fire begins to consumer it all. Calling for her great horse, on which she used to ride through the air like a Valkyrie, she cries out to the body of Siegfried, “Behold! Blissfully your wife greets you!’

 As she leaps onto the pyre, too, the flames shoots up and burns everything it sight. The Rhine then rises and floods everything. Hagen, determined to get the Ring from Brünnhilde’s finger, follows into the water, but the Rhine Maidens seize him and carry him to his death, then swim upward again showing the Ring. Finally, in the distance, the gods fortress of Valhalla takes fire and burns, both the palace and all the gods sitting helplessly within. A soaring theme is heard in the orchestra—symbolizing the new world order that will grow out of the total destruction, a world of redemption by love.

© Steven Ledbetter (