As noted below, I have a piece in this week's New Yorker on a single, highly charged moment in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung: a ten-bar passage that plays in the orchestra at the end of Act II, Scene 1 of Die Walküre. Essentially, I've tried to write a piece that approaches Wagner in microcosm, rather than from the grand historical perspective that so often dominates discussion of the composer. Aiding me in this quest are the scholars Thomas Grey and Barry Millington, the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (who sings Fricka in the Met Walküre that opens on Friday), and the conductors Justin Brown, Simone Young, Simon Rattle, Christoph von Dohnányi, and James Levine (on the podium this Friday, if all goes well). All offered their thoughts about the music. Accompanying the article is a podcast with the New Yorker's Blake Eskin.
Starting at 7:20 in the YouTube video above, you can hear most of the music I discuss in the piece. Fricka, Wotan's wife and the goddess of marriage, has just conducted an interrogation in which she takes apart her husband's grandiose scheme to win back the cursed ring. She leaves him in a psychologically shattered state, spiraling toward the self-accusatory monologue of the following scene. You first hear Fricka's closing arioso ("Deiner ew'gen Gattin"), in which she demands that Brünnhilde, Wotan's loyal Valkyrie, uphold her eternal values and allow the rebellious hero Siegmund to die. Wotan swears that Brünnhilde will do so ("Nimm den Eid"). Then come those ten remarkable bars in E-flat major (see also the post below). Finally, Fricka's parting words to Brünnhilde—"Your father has something to tell you" was Blythe's wonderful paraphrase to me—and the orchestral announcement of the motif of the Curse. Rosalind Plowright is Fricka, Bryn Terfel is Wotan.
I used a couple of favorite older recordings on the podcast. For "Deiner ew'gen Gattin," I chose Margarete Klose, recorded in 1938 as part of EMI's incomplete prewar Walküre set. Klose is even more penetrating on this rare recording from the 1940 Bayreuth Festival, which a YouTube poster retrieved from an undisclosed source. (I consulted a couple of discographic experts, who believe it to be authentic.) For Wotan's monologue, I chose Hans Hotter on the 1955 Bayreuth Ring, which many Wagner connoisseurs now prize as the one Ring to rule them all, to take a phrase from Tolkien. Hotter's delivery of the lines "Endloser Grimm! Ewiger Gram!"—"Endless rage! Eternal grief!"—tears at the heart, and Joseph Keilberth's orchestra positively boils behind him.
I'm fascinated by the dissonance that rumbles in the orchestra as this passage begins. First, the double basses and timpani play octave Cs, which are sustained throughout. Over that drone there appears a chord of D-flat major, creating a semitone clash with the C. Then a D-natural — the second note in the rising bass-trumpet line — sounds against the D-flat, dissonance doubled down. And when a C-flat is added to the D-flat harmony, it, too, jars with the fundamental C. After Wotan's first cry ("O heilige Schmach!"), the sequence is repeated, now with a chord based on G-flat. For a moment, you effectively have C major colliding with G-flat major. These clashes are sufficiently spread out in the orchestra that you don't hear them as painful conflicts: it's more an immense, vague groaning, as Wotan's world is loosed from its moorings.