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Night Falls On The Gods


Die Gottrerdammerung begins with an elaborate prologue. The three
Norns sit in the night on Brynhild's mountain top spinning their
thread of destiny, and telling the story of Wotan's sacrifice of
his eye, and of his breaking off a bough from the World Ash to
make a heft for his spear, also how the tree withered after
suffering that violence. They have also some fresher news to
discuss. Wotan, on the breaking of his spear by Siegfried, has
called all his heroes to cut down the withered World Ash and
stack its faggots in a mighty pyre about Valhalla. Then, with his
broken spear in his hand, he has seated himself in state in the
great hall, with the Gods and Heroes assembled about him as if in
council, solemnly waiting for the end. All this belongs to the
old legendary materials with which Wagner began The Ring.

The tale is broken by the thread snapping in the hands of the
third Norn; for the hour has arrived when man has taken his
destiny in his own hands to shape it for himself, and no longer
bows to circumstance, environment, necessity (which he now freely
wills), and all the rest of the inevitables. So the Norns
recognize that the world has no further use for them, and sink
into the earth to return to the First Mother. Then the day dawns;
and Siegfried and Brynhild come, and have another duet. He gives
her his ring; and she gives him her horse. Away then he goes in
search of more adventures; and she watches him from her crag
until he disappears. The curtain falls; but we can still hear the
trolling of his horn, and the merry clatter of his horse's shoes
trotting gaily down the valley. The sound is lost in the grander
rhythm of the Rhine as he reaches its banks. We hear again an
echo of the lament of the Rhine maidens for the ravished gold;
and then, finally, a new strain, which does not surge like the
mighty flood of the river, but has an unmistakable tramp of hardy
men and a strong land flavor about it. And on this the opera
curtain at last goes up--for please remember that all that has
gone before is only the overture.

The First Act

We now understand the new tramping strain. We are in the
Rhineside hall of the Gibichungs, in the resence of King Gunther,
his sister Gutrune, and Gunther's grim half brother Hagen, the
villain of the piece. Gunther is a fool, and has for Hagen's
intelligence the respect a fool always has for the brains of a
scoundrel. Feebly fishing for compliments, he appeals to Hagen
to pronounce him a fine fellow and a glory to the race of Gibich.
Hagen declares that it is impossible to contemplate him without
envy, but thinks it a pity that he has not yet found a wife
glorious enough for him. Gunther doubts whether so extraordinary
a person can possibly exist. Hagen then tells him of Brynhild and
her rampart of fire; also of Siegfried. Gunther takes this rather
in bad part, since not only is he afraid of the fire, but
Siegfried, according to Hagen, is not, and will therefore achieve
this desirable match himself. But Hagen points out that since
Siegfried is riding about in quest of adventures, he will
certainly pay an early visit to the renowned chief of the
Gibichungs. They can then give him a philtre which will make him
fall in love with Gutrune and forget every other woman he has yet

Gunther is transported with admiration of Hagen's cunning when he
takes in this plan; and he has hardly assented to it when
Siegfried, with operatic opportuneness, drops in just as Hagen
expected, and is duly drugged into the heartiest love for Gutrune
and total oblivion of Brynhild and his own past. When Gunther
declares his longing for the bride who lies inaccessible within
a palisade of flame, Siegfried at once offers to undertake the
adventure for him. Hagen then explains to both of them that
Siegfried can, after braving the fire, appear to Brynhild in the
semblance of Gunther through the magic of the wishing cap (or
Tarnhelm, as it is called throughout The Ring), the use of which
Siegfried now learns for the first time. It is of course part
of the bargain that Gunther shall give his sister to Siegfried
in marriage. On that they swear blood-brotherhood; and at this
opportunity the old operatic leaven breaks out amusingly in
Wagner. With tremendous exordium of brass, the tenor and baritone
go at it with a will, showing off the power of their voices,
following each other in canonic imitation, singing together in
thirds and sixths, and finishing with a lurid unison, quite in
the manner of Ruy Gomez and Ernani, or Othello and Iago. Then
without further ado Siegfried departs on his expedition, taking
Gunther with him to the foot of the mountain, and leaving Hagen
to guard the hall and sing a very fine solo which has often
figured in the programs of the Richter concerts, explaining that
his interest in the affair is that Siegfried will bring back the
Ring, and that he, Hagen, will presently contrive to possess
himself of that Ring and become Plutonic master of the world.

And now it will be asked how does Hagen know all about the
Plutonic empire; and why was he able to tell Gunther about
Brynhild and Siegfried, and to explain to Siegfried the trick of
the Tarnhelm. The explanation is that though Hagen's mother was
the mother of Gunther, his father was not the illustrious Gibich,
but no less a person than our old friend Alberic, who, like
Wotan, has begotten a son to do for him what he cannot do for

In the above incidents, those gentle moralizers who find the
serious philosophy of the music dramas too terrifying for them,
may allegorize pleasingly on the philtre as the maddening chalice
of passion which, once tasted, causes the respectable man to
forget his lawfully wedded wife and plunge into adventures which
eventually lead him headlong to destruction.

We now come upon a last relic of the tragedy of Wotan. Returning
to Brynhild's mountain, we find her visited by her sister
Valkyrie Valtrauta, who has witnessed Wotan's solemn preparations
with terror. She repeats to Brynhild the account already given by
the Norns. Clinging in anguish to Wotan's knees, she has heard
him mutter that were the ring returned to the daughters of the
deep Rhine, both Gods and world would be redeemed from that stage
curse off Alberic's in The Rhine Gold. On this she has rushed on
her warhorse through the air to beg Brynhild to give the Rhine
back its ring. But this is asking Woman to give up love for the
sake of Church and State. She declares that she will see them
both perish first; and Valtrauta returns to Valhalla in despair.
Whilst Brynhild is watching the course of the black thundercloud
that marks her sister's flight, the fires of Loki again flame
high round the mountain; and the horn of Siegfried is heard as he
makes his way through them. But the man who now appears wears the
Tarnhelm: his voice is a strange voice: his figure is the unknown
one of the king of the Gibichungs. He tears the ring from her
finger, and, claiming her as his wife, drives her into the cave
without pity for her agony of horror, and sets Nothung between
them in token of his loyalty to the friend he is impersonating.
No explanation of this highway robbery of the ring is offered.
Clearly, this Siegfried is not the Siegfried of the previous

The Second Act

In the second act we return to the hall of Gibich, where Hagen,
in the last hours of that night, still sits, his spear in his
hand, and his shield beside him. At his knees crouches a dwarfish
spectre, his father Alberic, still full of his old grievances
against Wotan, and urging his son in his dreams to win back the
ring for him. This Hagen swears to do; and as the apparition of
his father vanishes, the sun rises and Siegfried suddenly comes
from the river bank tucking into his belt the Tarnhelm, which has
transported hi from the mountain like the enchanted carpet of the
Arabian tales. He describes his adventures to Gutrune until
Gunther's boat is seen approaching, when Hagen seizes a cowhorn
and calls the tribesmen to welcome their chief and his bride.
It is most exhilarating, this colloquy with the startled and
hastily armed clan, ending with a thundering chorus, the drums
marking the time with mighty pulses from dominant to tonic,
much as Rossini would have made them do if he had been a pupil
of Beethoven's.

A terrible scene follows. Gunther leads his captive bride
straight into the presence of Siegfried, whom she claims as her
husband by the ring, which she is astonished to see on his finger:
Gunther, as she supposes, having torn it from her the night
before. Turning on Gunther, she says "Since you took that ring
from me, and married me with it, tell him of your right to it;
and make him give it back to you." Gunther stammers, "The ring!
I gave him no ring--er--do you know him?" The rejoinder is
obvious. "Then where are you hiding the ring that you had from
me?" Gunther's confusion enlightens her; and she calls Siegfried
trickster and thief to his face. In vain he declares that he got
the ring from no woman, but from a dragon whom he slew; for he is
manifestly puzzled; and she, seizing her opportunity, accuses him
before the clan of having played Gunther false with her.

Hereupon we have another grandiose operatic oath, Siegfried
attesting his innocence on Hagen's spear, and Brynhild rushing
to the footlights and thrusting him aside to attest his guilt,
whilst the clansmen call upon their gods to send down lightnings
and silence the perjured. The gods do not respond; and Siegfried,
after whispering to Gunther that the Tarnhelm seems to have been
only half effectual after all, laughs his way out of the general
embarrassment and goes off merrily to prepare for his wedding,
with his arm round Gutrune's waist, followed by the clan.
Gunther, Hagen and Brynhild are left together to plot operatic
vengeance. Brynhild, it appears, has enchanted Siegfried in such
a fashion that no weapon can hurt him. She has, however, omitted
to protect his back, since it is impossible that he should ever
turn that to a foe. They agree accordingly that on the morrow a
great hunt shall take place, at which Hagen shall thrust his
spear into the hero's vulnerable back. The blame is to be laid
on the tusk of a wild boar. Gunther, being a fool, is remorseful
about his oath of blood-brotherhood and about his sister's
bereavement, without having the strength of mind to prevent
the murder. The three burst into a herculean trio, similar in
conception to that of the three conspirators in Un Ballo in
Maschera; and the act concludes with a joyous strain heralding
the appearance of Siegfried's wedding procession, with strewing
of flowers, sacrificing to the gods, and carrying bride and
bridegroom in triumph.

It will be seen that in this act we have lost all connection with
the earlier drama. Brynhild is not only not the Brynhild of The
Valkyries, she is the Hiordis of Ibsen, a majestically savage
woman, in whom jealousy and revenge are intensified to heroic
proportions. That is the inevitable theatrical treatment of the
murderous heroine of the Saga. Ibsen's aim in The Vikings was
purely theatrical, and not, as in his later dramas, also
philosophically symbolic. Wagner's aim in Siegfried's Death was
equally theatrical, and not, as it afterwards became in the
dramas of which Siegfried's antagonist Wotan is the hero,
likewise philosophically symbolic. The two master-dramatists
therefore produce practically the same version of Brynhild.
Thus on the second evening of The Ring we see Brynhild in the
character of the truth-divining instinct in religion, cast into
an enchanted slumber and surrounded by the fires of hell lest
she should overthrow a Church corrupted by its alliance with
government. On the fourth evening, we find her swearing a
malicious lie to gratify her personal jealousy, and then plotting
a treacherous murder with a fool and a scoundrel. In the original
draft of Siegfried's Death, the incongruity is carried still
further by the conclusion, at which the dead Brynhild, restored
to her godhead by Wotan, and again a Valkyrie, carries the slain
Siegfried to Valhalla to live there happily ever after with its
pious heroes.

As to Siegfried himself, he talks of women, both in this second
act and the next, with the air of a man of the world. "Their
tantrums," he says, "are soon over." Such speeches do not belong
to the novice of the preceding drama, but to the original
Siegfried's Tod, with its leading characters sketched on the
ordinary romantic lines from the old Sagas, and not yet reminted
as the original creations of Wagner's genius whose acquaintance
we have made on the two previous evenings. The very title
"Siegfried's Death" survives as a strong theatrical point in
the following passage. Gunther, in his rage and despair, cries,
"Save me, Hagen: save my honor and thy mother's who bore us both."
"Nothing can save thee," replies Hagen: "neither brain nor hand,
but SIEGFRIED'S DEATH." And Gunther echoes with a shudder,


The devotion which Wagner's work inspires has been illustrated
lately in a public correspondence on this very point. A writer
in The Daily Telegraph having commented on the falsehood uttered
by Brynhild in accusing Siegfried of having betrayed Gunther
with her, a correspondence in defence of the beloved heroine
was opened in The Daily Chronicle. The imputation of falsehood
to Brynhild was strongly resented and combated, in spite of
the unanswerable evidence of the text. It was contended that
Brynhild's statement must be taken as establishing the fact that
she actually was ravished by somebody whom she believed to be
Siegfried, and that since this somebody cannot have been
Siegfried, he being as incapable of treachery to Gunther as she
of falsehood, it must have been Gunther himself after a second
exchange of personalities not mentioned in the text. The reply to
this--if so obviously desperate a hypothesis needs a reply--is
that the text is perfectly explicit as to Siegfried, disguised as
Gunther, passing the night with Brynhild with Nothung dividing
them, and in the morning bringing her down the mountain THROUGH
THE FIRE (an impassable obstacle to Gunther) and there
transporting himself in a single breath, by the Tarnhelm's magic,
back to the hall of the Gibichungs, leaving the real Gunther to
bring Brynhild down the river after him. One controversialist
actually pleaded for the expedition occupying two nights, on the
second of which the alleged outrage might have taken place. But
the time is accounted for to the last minute: it all takes place
during the single night watch of Hagen. There is no possible way
out of the plain fact that Brynhild's accusation is to her own
knowledge false; and the impossible ways just cited are only
interesting as examples of the fanatical worship which Wagner and
his creations have been able to inspire in minds of exceptional
power and culture.

More plausible was the line taken by those who admitted the
falsehood. Their contention was that when Wotan deprived Brynhild
of her Godhead, he also deprived her of her former high moral
attributes; so that Siegfried's kiss awakened an ordinary mortal
jealous woman. But a goddess can become mortal and jealous
without plunging at once into perjury and murder. Besides, this
explanation involves the sacrifice of the whole significance of
the allegory, and the reduction of The Ring to the plane of a
child's conception of The Sleeping Beauty. Whoever does not
understand that, in terms of The Ring philosophy, a change from
godhead to humanity is a step higher and not a degradation,
misses the whole point of The Ring. It is precisely because the
truthfulness of Brynhild is proof against Wotan's spells that
he has to contrive the fire palisade with Loki, to protect the
fictions and conventions of Valhalla against her.

The only tolerable view is the one supported by the known history
of The Ring, and also, for musicians of sufficiently fine
judgment, by the evidence of the scores; of which more anon. As
a matter of fact Wagner began, as I have said, with Siegfried's
Death. Then, wanting to develop the idea of Siegfried as
neo-Protestant, he went on to The Young Siegfried. As a Protestant
cannot be dramatically projected without a pontifical antagonist.
The Young Siegfried led to The Valkyries, and that again to its
preface The Rhine Gold (the preface is always written after the
book is finished). Finally, of course, the whole was revised. The
revision, if carried out strictly, would have involved the cutting
out of Siegfried's Death, now become inconsistent and
superfluous; and that would have involved, in turn, the facing of
the fact that The Ring was no longer a Niblung epic, and really
demanded modern costumes, tall hats for Tarnhelms, factories for
Nibelheims, villas for Valhallas, and so on--in short, a complete
confession of the extent to which the old Niblung epic had become
the merest pretext and name directory in the course of Wagner's
travail. But, as Wagner's most eminent English interpreter once
put it to me at Bayreuth between the acts of Night Falls On The
Gods, the master wanted to "Lohengrinize" again after his long
abstention from opera; and Siegfried's Death (first sketched in
1848, the year before the rising in Dresden and the subsequent
events which so deepened Wagner's sense of life and the
seriousness of art) gave him exactly the libretto he required for
that outbreak of the old operatic Adam in him. So he changed it
into Die Gotterdammerung, retaining the traditional plot of
murder and jealousy, and with it, necessarily, his original second
act, in spite of the incongruity of its Siegfried and Brynhild
with the Siegfried and Brynhild of the allegory. As to the
legendary matter about the world-ash and the destruction of
Valhalla by Loki, it fitted in well enough; for though,
allegorically, the blow by which Siegfried breaks the god's spear
is the end of Wotan and of Valhalla, those who do not see the
allegory, and take the story literally, like children, are sure
to ask what becomes of Wotan after Siegfried gets past him up the
mountain; and to this question the old tale told in Night Falls
On The Gods is as good an answer as another. The very
senselessness of the scenes of the Norns and of Valtrauta in
relation to the three foregoing dramas, gives them a highly
effective air of mystery; and no one ventures to challenge their
consequentiality, because we are all more apt to pretend to
understand great works of art than to confess that the meaning
(if any) has escaped us. Valtrauta, however, betrays her
irrelevance by explaining that the gods can be saved by the
restoration of the ring to the Rhine maidens. This, considered as
part of the previous allegory, is nonsense; so that even this
scene, which has a more plausible air of organic connection with
The Valkyries than any other in Night Falls On The Gods, is as
clearly part of a different and earlier conception as the episode
which concludes it, in which Siegfried actually robs Brynhild of
her ring, though he has no recollection of having given it to
her. Night Falls On The Gods, in fact, was not even revised into
any real coherence with the world-poem which sprang from it; and
that is the authentic solution of all the controversies which
have arisen over it.

The Third Act

The hunting party comes off duly. Siegfried strays from it and
meets the Rhine maidens, who almost succeed in coaxing the ring
from him. He pretends to be afraid of his wife; and they chaff
him as to her beating him and so forth; but when they add that
the ring is accursed and will bring death upon him, he discloses
to them, as unconsciously as Julius Caesar disclosed it long ago,
that secret of heroism, never to let your life be shaped by fear
of its end.* So he keeps the ring; and they leave him to his
fate. The hunting party now finds him; and they all sit down
together to make a meal by the river side, Siegfried telling them
meanwhile the story of his adventures. When he approaches the
subject of Brynhild, as to whom his memory is a blank, Hagen
pours an antidote to the love philtre into his drinking horn,
whereupon, his memory returning, he proceeds to narrate the
incident of the fiery mountain, to Gunther's intense
mortification. Hagen then plunges his spear into the back of
Siegfried, who falls dead on his shield, but gets up again, after
the old operatic custom, to sing about thirty bars to his love
before allowing himself to be finally carried off to the strains
of the famous Trauermarsch.

*"We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the
word. The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness;
and this fear is generated only when love begins to wane. How
came it that this loves the highest blessedness to all things
living, was so far lost sight of by the human race that at last
it came to this: all that mankind did, ordered, and established,
was conceived only in fear of the end? My poem sets this forth."
--Wagner to Roeckel, 25th Jan. 1854.

The scene then changes to the hall of the Gibichungs by the
Rhine. It is night; and Gutrune, unable to sleep, and haunted by
all sorts of vague terrors, is waiting for the return of her
husband, and wondering whether a ghostly figure she has seen
gliding down to the river bank is Brynhild, whose room is empty.
Then comes the cry of Hagen, returning with the hunting party to
announce the death of Siegfried by the tusk of a wild boar. But
Gutrune divines the truth; and Hagen does not deny it.
Siegfried's body is brought in; Gunther claims the ring; Hagen
will not suffer him to take it; they fight; and Gunther is slain.
Hagen then attempts to take it; but the dead man's hand closes on
it and raises itself threateningly. Then Brynhild comes; and a
funeral pyre is raised whilst she declaims a prolonged scene,
extremely moving and imposing, but yielding nothing to resolute
intellectual criticism except a very powerful and elevated
exploitation of theatrical pathos, psychologically identical with
the scene of Cleopatra and the dead Antony in Shakespeare's
tragedy. Finally she flings a torch into the pyre, and rides her
war-horse into the flames. The hall of the Gibichungs catches
fire, as most halls would were a cremation attempted in the
middle of the floor (I permit myself this gibe purposely to
emphasize the excessive artificiality of the scene); but the
Rhine overflows its banks to allow the three Rhine maidens to
take the ring from Siegfried's finger, incidentally extinguishing
the conflagration as it does so. Hagen attempts to snatch the
ring from the maidens, who promptly drown him; and in the distant
heavens the Gods and their castle are seen perishing in the fires
of Loki as the curtain falls.


In all this, it will be observed, there is nothing new. The
musical fabric is enormously elaborate and gorgeous; but you
cannot say, as you must in witnessing The Rhine Gold, The
Valkyries, and the first two acts of Siegfried, that you have
never seen anything like it before, and that the inspiration is
entirely original. Not only the action, but most of the poetry,
might conceivably belong to an Elizabethan drama. The situation
of Cleopatra and Antony is unconsciously reproduced without being
bettered, or even equalled in point of majesty and musical
expression. The loss of all simplicity and dignity, the
impossibility of any credible scenic presentation of the
incidents, and the extreme staginess of the conventions by which
these impossibilities are got over, are no doubt covered from the
popular eye by the overwhelming prestige of Die Gotterdammerung
as part of so great a work as The Ring, and by the extraordinary
storm of emotion and excitement which the music keeps up. But the
very qualities that intoxicate the novice in music enlighten the
adept. In spite of the fulness of the composer's technical
accomplishment, the finished style and effortless mastery of
harmony and instrumentation displayed, there is not a bar in the
work which moves us as the same themes moved us in The Valkyries,
nor is anything but external splendor added to the life and humor
of Siegfried.

In the original poem, Brynhild delays her self-immolation on the
pyre of Siegfried to read the assembled choristers a homily on
the efficacy of the Love panacea. "My holiest wisdom's hoard,"
she says, "now I make known to the world. I believe not in
property, nor money, nor godliness, nor hearth and high place,
nor pomp and peerage, nor contract and custom, but in Love. Let
that only prevail; and ye shall be blest in weal or woe." Here
the repudiations still smack of Bakoonin; but the saviour is no
longer the volition of the full-grown spirit of Man, the Free
Willer of Necessity, sword in hand, but simply Love, and not even
Shelleyan love, but vehement sexual passion. It is highly
significant of the extent to which this uxorious commonplace lost
its hold of Wagner (after disturbing his conscience, as he
confesses to Roeckel, for years) that it disappears in the full
score of Night Falls On The Gods, which was not completed until
he was on the verge of producing Parsifal, twenty years after the
publication of the poem. He cut the homily out, and composed the
music of the final scene with a flagrant recklessness of the old
intention. The rigorous logic with which representative musical
themes are employed in the earlier dramas is here abandoned
without scruple; and for the main theme at the conclusion he
selects a rapturous passage sung by Sieglinda in the third act of
The Valkyries when Brynhild inspires her with a sense of her high
destiny as the mother of the unborn hero. There is no dramatic
logic whatever in the recurrence of this theme to express the
transport in which Brynhild immolates herself. There is of course
an excuse for it, inasmuch as both women have an impulse of
self-sacrifice for the sake of Siegfried; but this is really
hardly more than an excuse; since the Valhalla theme might be
attached to Alberic on the no worse ground that both he and
Wotan are inspired by ambition, and that the ambition has the
same object, the possession of the ring. The common sense of the
matter is that the only themes which had fully retained their
significance in Wagner's memory at the period of the composition
of Night Falls On The Gods are those which are mere labels of
external features, such as the Dragon, the Fire, the Water and so
on. This particular theme of Sieglinda's is, in truth, of no
great musical merit: it might easily be the pet climax of a
popular sentimental ballad: in fact, the gushing effect which is
its sole valuable quality is so cheaply attained that it is
hardly going too far to call it the most trumpery phrase in the
entire tetralogy. Yet, since it undoubtedly does gush very
emphatically, Wagner chose, for convenience' sake, to work up
this final scene with it rather than with the more distinguished,
elaborate and beautiful themes connected with the love of
Brynhild and Siegfried.

He would certainly not have thought this a matter of no
consequence had he finished the whole work ten years earlier.
It must always be borne in mind that the poem of The Ring was
complete and printed in 1853, and represents the sociological
ideas which, after germinating in the European atmosphere for
many years, had been brought home to Wagner, who was intensely
susceptible to such ideas, by the crash of 1849 at Dresden. Now
no man whose mind is alive and active, as Wagner's was to the day
of his death, can keep his political and spiritual opinions, much
less his philosophic consciousness, at a standstill for quarter
of a century until he finishes an orchestral score. When Wagner
first sketched Night Falls On The Gods he was 35. When he
finished the score for the first Bayreuth festival in 1876 he had
turned 60. No wonder he had lost his old grip of it and left it
behind him. He even tampered with The Rhine Gold for the sake of
theatrical effect when stage-managing it, making Wotan pick up
and brandish a sword to give visible point to his sudden
inspiration as to the raising up of a hero. The sword had first
to be discovered by Fafnir among the Niblung treasures and thrown
away by him as useless. There is no sense in this device; and its
adoption shows the same recklessness as to the original intention
which we find in the music of the last act of The Dusk of the

*Die Gotterdammerung means literally Godsgloaming. The English
versions of the opera are usually called The Dusk of the Gods,
or The Twilight of the Gods. I have purposely introduced the
ordinary title in the sentence above for the reader's

George Bernard Shaw