With “Die Walküre ” or “The Valkyrie” the human interest of the cycle begins. As a spectacle, the drama is picturesque and splendid. The music is a wonderful fabric of guiding themes, so expressive that the auditor familiar with them could follow the complete development of the story, without reference to the libretto.
Siegmund. Hunding. Wotan. Sieglinde. Brunnhilde. Fricka. The eight Valkyries.
There is much that happens between the close of ” The Rhinegold ” and the opening of the trilogy proper in ” The Valkyrie.” Wotan, dwelling in Walhalla, has brooded long over Erda’s prophecy and his contact with the curse of the ring which has fallen upon the world has engendered in him the lust for power. As Fafner has secured the gold by just contract, Wotan himself cannot recover it. It must be regained by some independent agent acting of its own free will. Wotan descends into the domain of the earth goddess to consult her whose wisdom enables her to know everything and there he woos her so successfully that she accepts him as her spouse. To the union are born nine daughters, the Valkyries, who are to assist him in the work the mother predicts for him. He has waved his spear over the earth and unending war and strife have been kindled. It is the mission of the Valkyries to ride forth each day upon flying horses and to choose and carry to Walhalla the bravest of the slain. In their celestial dwelling-place, these revived heroes regale themselves upon boar heads and mead, drunk from the skulls of their enemies, and keep themselves ready to defend Walhalla from the Nibelungs should the need arise. Fafner, meantime, has changed himself into a dragon, the better to guard the ring. Wotan resolves to breed a race of heroes who shall be able to win it from the monster. To this end, he visits the earth in the guise of the man Volse and unites himself to a mortal woman, who bears him the splendid Volsung twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde.
While the children are still young, the savage hunter, Hunding, discovers their hut, which he burns, killing the mother and carrying off the daughter. Volse and Siegmund, returning to find this demolition, swear an oath of vengeance upon their enemy. When Siegmund has grown to manhood, his father suddenly disappears, leaving behind only a wolf skin, and the youth is forced to fight alone against the foes which surround him. While one day defending a maiden, he is overpowered by numbers and, losing his sword, is forced to take refuge in a hut. It is here that the action of ” The Valkyrie ” begins.
It is Hunding’s hut where Sieglinde dwells, for much against her will the cruel hunter has forced her to become his wife. She is startled when, while the storm rages without, a disheveled stranger staggers in and falls exhausted before the fire.
Sieglinde brings the intruder food and drink and the two instantly are drawn toward each other by the power of some strange attraction. Hunding enters and, from Siegmund’s recital of his story, he discerns in him his mortal foe. Restrained by the sacred traditions of hospitality, he informs his guest that he will be safe until the morrow, but that at dawn he must be ready to fight for his life. Siegmund, left alone, bemoans the loss of his sword but finally remembers his father’s promise that in the hour of greatest need a weapon would be found. Soon Sieglinde, who has drugged her husband’s night draught, comes to urge the guest to fly. She points out to him the ash-tree which supports the dwelling and shows him a sword embedded in its trunk. She relates how, on the day that made her an unwilling bride, an unbidden guest strode in and, glancing at her, thrust a sword deep into the trunk of the tree saying that to him who could draw it forth, it should belong. Many guests had come and gone since then, many had tried to loosen the weapon and had failed. Siegmund, feeling his dire necessity for means of defense on the morrow, seizes the hilt and, with a mighty tug, draws forth the sword to which he gives the name of Nothung or Needful. The brother and sister, who now recognize their relationship, fall into each other’s arms, knit by a closer and more passionate tie.
The storm has passed and the light of the springtime moon pours its benediction upon the two, who in rapture plight their strange troth, Siegmund singing
Bride and sister Be to thy brother, Thereby to cherish the Volsung name.
The next act is laid in a wild mountainous pass where the armored Wotan is discovered conversing with his favorite Brunnhilde, the leader of the Valkyries. He tells her of the conflict which is soon to take place between Siegmund and Hunding and bids her, by means of her protection, throw the victory to Siegmund. As Brunnhilde departs on her errand, Fricka, the goddess of wedlock, whose feelings have been outraged by the unnatural union of the Volsung twins, appears in her chariot drawn by rams. There follows a long altercation but finally the lordly Wotan is compelled by the wifely remonstrances to reverse his decree of victory. Hunding, the wronged husband, shall triumph. Brunnhilde, whose warlike cry has been echoing in the mountains, is recalled and entrusted with the new orders, which the sorrowing Wotan gives though knowing that if Siegmund is destroyed he him-self never shall be freed from the curse of the ring. To Brunnhilde he confides his sore distress over having his scheme to avert destruction thus foiled.
Siegmund and Sieglinde appear fleeing from the wrath of Hunding. Foreboding has entered into the soul of Sieglinde and, overcome with sorrow and exhaustion, she falls senseless into her brother-husband’s arms. As Siegmund attempts to kiss her back to consciousness, the stern Brunnhilde appears to warn him that his hour is near and that soon he shall go to join the heroes in Walhalla. He protests that he will relinquish that joy rather than be separated from Sieglinde, at which the Valkyrie inquires
So careless art thou Of heavenly rapture? One weak woman To thee is all.
Rather than leave Sieglinde to some unknown fate, he lifts his sword to slay her with his own hand, when Brunnhilde, deeply touched, relents and tells him that in defiance of her father’s command, her shield shall be for his defense. Even now Hunding’s horn is heard and Siegmund rushes to the encounter . The combatants meet in the midst of the din of thunder which announces the coming of Wotan. Brunnhilde hovers over Siegmund to ward off the force of Hunding’s blows and, just as the victory is to be the Volsung’s, Wotan, who has arrived in the fury of the storm, thrusts his spear between the two warriors. Siegmund’s sword is splintered upon it and Hunding strikes him dead. But the hunter has not long to celebrate his triumph, for Wotan slays him with an accusing look. Brunnhilde collects the fragments of Siegmund’s sword and escapes bearing the fainting Sieglinde with her upon her horse.
The third act is upon the summit of a rocky hill capped with fir-trees. Riding through the storm-clouds upon their winged steeds come, one by one, the eight Valkyries in full armor, some with dead warriors hanging from their saddles. The sound of their martial shouts fills the air. Last of all arrives Brunnhilde, carrying the wretched Sieglinde. The woman pleads for death but is entreated by her protector to live for the sake of Siegfried, the son that she is to bear, who shall be the greatest hero of the world.
Brunnhilde bestows upon her the fragments of Siegmund’s sword and bids her escape to the tangled forest where Fafner the dragon watches over his Ring and whither Wotan dares not go. The voice of the angry god is heard even now in the midst of the thunder and, as he rushes in, he commands the trembling Brunnhilde to stand forth from among her sisters who try to conceal her. She is to hear the penalty imposed for her disobedience. For failing in her duty, she shall be banished from the valorous sisterhood, and may never hope to see Walhalla again. Nor is this all. She shall be changed from her high estate to mere mortality, shall be mastered by a man and be but a housewife. To this end she shall be thrown into a deep sleep and shall lie upon the mountain top, the prey of the first man who comes to waken her. Her tears and passionate entreaties wring from Wotan only the promise that in order that no one but a hero may win her she may be encircled while asleep by a wall of magic fire.
Wotan presses a tender kiss upon the eyes of his beloved daughter and, as her godhood slips away and slumber comes upon her, he places her gently upon the grassy slope, adjusts her helmet and spear and lays her shield over her for protection. Then calling upon Loki, he bids him surround her with fire. As the god disappears, the flames leap up about Brunnhilde who is to lie here in slumber until her hero shall come to waken her.
Among the great moments in this, the most popular of the four parts of the cycle, are the prelude, which depicts the tumult of the thunder-storm; Siegmund’s spring song, one of the loveliest of the Wagnerian melodies, beginning
No one went Yet some one came, See how the spring smiles in the hall, and Sieglinde’s rapturous response, Thou art the spring, For whom I lay longing And fasting through the winter’s frost.
The ride of the Valkyries; Wotan’s farewell to Brunnhilde ; and the concluding magic fire scene are also well known numbers.