The re-entry of a particular theme at the end of Götterdämmerung — heard only once before, in Act III of Die Walküre — has moved listeners and puzzled analysts since 1876. The entire Ring Cycle closes with this theme, in D-flat (the same key as Wotan’s greeting Vahalla in Das Rheingold). Early commentators labeled it “Redemption Through Love,” but that moniker has proven unsatisfactory — or at least inadequate in its romantic assumptions.
Sieglinde doesn’t get redeemed, and neither do Brünnhilde or Siegfried, the only characters even remotely involved in the story on the two occasions when the theme is heard. Moreover, it is a minimal expectation that whatever the connotation of its first appearance, that same connotation should obtain in the theme’s last iteration. That is to say, the announcement of Sieglinde’s bearing Siegfried must have some import that is shared with the last bars of the end of the Cycle.
So, titles and labels aside, what does it mean, That Damn Theme? Why does the Ring end that way and no other?
On Sunday March 15, 1874, Cosima wrote in her diary:
Together a lot with the children morning and afternoon; did not go out on account of great tiredness; pleasure in the warmheartedness of them all. In the morning R. sings me Sieglinde’s theme to Brünnhilde and says, “That is you–” In the evening the copyist musicians, who, however, give R. little pleasure.
Shall we take this as a sweet nothing, a throwaway to his dearest, a flippant billet-doux in passing, the equivalent of a pat on the cheek? Or are we to take dissembling Richard at his word this time? Is this theme Cosima? What would be the consequences if the words “That is you –” were actually true?
The proposition is not as crazy as it first appears. For five months earlier Cosima had written — on her birthday, December 25, 1873, as follows:
Early in the morning I hear the children in the adjoining room, singing the “Kose- und Rosenlied” — so touching, so affecting! Then they come to my bedside and Siegfried recites the poem to me! Deepest feelings of happiness, all outward things disappear, everything inside me speaks, a thousand voices rejoice in my soul, singing the song of love, like a thousand birds in spring, the one and only song!
What did she hear her children sing, and why did she respond to the song with so intoxicated a rapture?
This incident is the lesser known of the two “Christmas surprises” prepared by Wagner for Cosima. Siegfried Idyll was performed for her on Christmas Day 1870, on the stairway of Triebschen. This 1873 composition is formally titled the Kinder-Katechismus zu Kosel’s Geburtstag, the “Children’s Catechism for Kosel’s [i.e., Cosima’s] Birthday.” It is a cute setting of a simple responsive poem in which the mother of Wagner’s children is serenaded by them in a simple tune lauding her virtues and their love for her. It is scored for a very small orchestra, solo and children’s choir. (Those lucky enough to still posses their London LPs of Deryck Cooke’s Ring analysis can hear the composition, which shares Side Six with the Idyll.)
So what? Well, so what is the ending of Kinder-Katechismus. After the final words by the children, “allerliebste, allerschönste Cosima,” the orchestra goes into a modest coda with triplet rhythms against a simple melody:
Then — O Hehrstes Wunder — seven bars before the end we have That Damn Theme (though in E, not D-flat):
So, what is the theme that ends a 17-hour epic doing, ending a 32-bar ditty? What do we know about what Wagner thought of it?
We know that this theme, for Wagner, sparks in Sieglinde the will to persist. It also tells Wagner, on a Sunday morning in May, that his own life has found meaning through Cosima, and his children by Cosima. We know that it is Wagner’s way of telling Cosima that her children love her, and that he loves her through them.
And perhaps, therefore, it tells the audience for the Ring that life doesn’t just happen — it means something. And that meaning arises, or is confirmed, in the profound engagement that we have in each other, the consequence of which is our own progeny. The theme has to do with children, with embracing life with such voluptuous fullness that in its presence laws — laws engraved on Wotan’s spear or laws disapproving building a family with another man’s wife — dissolve and fall away. The present, and the “presents” to come, are all that matter.
Philip Kitcher and Richard Schacht, in their book Finding an Ending (Oxford 2004), are exceptionally eloquent in articulating this truth:
Only Brünnhilde’s way holds the promise of an answer to the more fundamental problem that originally drove Wotan to the World-Ash: the problem of endowing life (and death) with meaning. …
Love does not and cannot conquer all… Yet the possibility of a love like that expressed in Brunnhilde’s final act changes everything, in a way that heroism does not, even in the face of death and the ending of the world as we know it.
And though the world ends, the earth remains, still capable of renewal, still charged with this promise that we have come to know.
Great works of art live with one all one’s life, and their meanings and teachings change as one grows older with them, through different stages of one’s life, through different needs for meaning and increasing familiarity with both ecstasy and despair. Since I was 17 years old, the D-flat motif has moved me to sudden tears. Now at 62 years old, I’m beginning — beginning, I say — to understand perhaps why.