The Phono Project

Exploring the history of the groove

“Ride of the Valkyries” – Die Walkure

Performed by the Victor Symphony Orchestra, 1939
Original “Die Walkure” written by Richard Wagner and first performed in 1870.

When someone thinks of a magical ring that grants its owner the power to rule the world, not many people think of mid 1800s opera. But not many other operas compare to the fifteen hour opera series Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner and its most famous song, The Ride of the Valkyries.

This four part series about Norse gods has permeated throughout pop culture, appearing in cartoons, movies, and even pieces of propaganda. At first listen, the melody can seem repetitive and almost boring – but this melody is not meant to be a musical masterpiece on its own. In fact, it isn’t a melody at all – it’s what Wagner called a leitmotif. Throughout the entire Ring cycle, there are at least 90 main leitmotifs that act as the theme for main characters, events like a funeral or battle, and even setting effects like fire that would be accompanied by pyrotechnics. Weaving these leitmotifs together was a form of signalling that the themes were intermixed – the hero’s theme playing when a woman wishes to marry a man without fear foreshadows their future marriage. A character’s funeral march replays all of the themes he had before his death, reliving the man’s life through music. This song is the leitmotif of the Valkyries, signalling their arrival to carry fallen heroes to the warrior’s afterlife. As the song layers the leitmotif on top of itself, more and more Valkyries pick up arms and arrive to help these heroes reach Valhalla.

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