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About this Piece

Composed: 1869-1874
Length: c. 13 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 8 horns (5th and 6th = tenor Wagner tubas, 7th = bass Wagner tuba), 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, 2 timpani, percussion (cymbals, tenor drum, triangle), 6 harps, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 17, 1920, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

After he completed Tristan und Isolde, Wagner returned to work on his monumental four-part operatic work Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Wagner first started work on what became a 15-hour saga, meant to be performed over four evenings, in 1848 and completed the tetralogy 26 years later, in 1874.

Siegfried is the cycle’s tragic hero. With his father’s sword, he has slain the dragon Fafner, recovered a cursed ring forged from gold stolen from the Rhine by the evil Nibelung Alberich, and rescued Brünnhilde, who is one of the Valkyries and a daughter of Wotan. In Götterdämmerung, Siegfried ignores a warning to give up the ring and dies at the hand of Alberich’s illegitimate son Hagen, who literally stabs the hero in the back.

Two musical motives dominate Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music: a two-note rhythmic tag and a rumbling bass motive that give the music its epic, tragic scope. The selection opens with the dying Siegfried’s farewell to Brünnhilde, a tender passage crowned by the restatement – over a pulsating woodwind accompaniment – of a theme associated with the hero throughout The Ring.

The Funeral Music begins as the two-note rhythm and rumbling low strings return. Moonlight breaks through the clouds as the funeral cortège approaches. During the central climax, we hear a number of motives, including those associated with Siegfried, his sword, and his mission, intoned by the brass, a musical eulogy for the fallen hero.

John Mangum