Ride of the Valkyries
The Ride of the Valkyries (German: Walkürenritt or Ritt der Walküren) is the popular term for the beginning of Act III of Die Walküre, the second of the four operas by Richard Wagner that constitute Der Ring des Nibelungen. The main theme of the Ride, the leitmotif labelled Walkürenritt, was first written down by the composer on 23 July 1851. The preliminary draft for the Ride was composed in 1854 as part of the composition of the entire opera, which was fully orchestrated by the end of the first quarter of 1856. Together with the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, the Ride of the Valkyries is one of Wagner's best-known pieces.
In the opera house, the Ride, which takes around eight minutes, begins in the prelude to the Act, building up successive layers of accompaniment until the curtain rises to reveal a mountain peak where four of the eight Valkyrie sisters of Brünnhilde have gathered in preparation for the transportation of fallen heroes to Valhalla. As they are joined by the other four, the familiar tune is carried by the orchestra, while, above it, the Valkyries greet each other and sing their battle-cry. Apart from the song of the Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold, it is the only ensemble piece in the first three operas of Wagner's Ring cycle. Outside the opera house, it is usually heard in a purely instrumental version, which may be as short as three minutes.
The Ride of the Valkyries, performed by the American Symphony Orchestra for Edison Records in 1921.
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The complete opera Die Walküre was first performed on 26 June 1870 in the National Theatre Munich against the composer's intent. By January of the next year, Wagner was receiving requests for the Ride to be performed separately, but wrote that such a performance should be considered "an utter indiscretion" and forbade "any such thing". However, the piece was still printed and sold in Leipzig, and Wagner subsequently wrote a complaint to the publisher Schott. In the period up to the first performance of the complete Ring cycle, Wagner continued to receive requests for separate performances, his second wife Cosima noting "Unsavoury letters arrive for R. – requests for the Ride of the Valkyries and I don't know what else." Once the Ring had been given in Bayreuth in 1876, Wagner lifted the embargo. He himself conducted it in London on 12 May 1877, repeating it as an encore.
Within the concert repertoire, the Ride of the Valkyries remains a popular encore, especially when other Wagnerian extracts feature in the scheduled program. For example, at the BBC Proms it was performed as such by Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on 6 August 1992 and also by Valery Gergiev with the Kirov Orchestra on 28 August 2001. It was also performed as part of the BBC Doctor Who Prom on 27 July 2008.
The Ride of the Valkyries was used to accompany several editions of Die Deutsche Wochenschau, the German wartime newsreel. These films were typically narrated by Harry Giese and featured sequences of Luftwaffe bombings.
In popular culture
The Ride of The Valkyries is frequently used in filmmaking and television productions. In the earliest days of Hollywood, the original score for D. W. Griffith's controversial film The Birth of a Nation (1915), compiled by Joseph Carl Breil and Griffith, used the music in the climactic scene of the third act, when "The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright" against liberated former black slaves after the end of the American Civil War. The beleaguered white group is rescued by the Ku Klux Klan to the sound of the music.
More recent examples include its usage in Chuck Jones's 1957 animated short What's Opera, Doc? and the 1979 war film Apocalypse Now, where the 1/9 Air Cavalry regiment plays the piece of music on helicopter-mounted loudspeakers during their assault on a Vietnamese village as psychological warfare and also to motivate their own troops.
- Cosima Wagner, Diaries, entry for Wednesday 25 January 1871, translated Geoffrey Skelton.
- Cosima Wagner, Diaries, entry for Tuesday March 28, 1871.
- Cosima Wagner, Diaries, entry for Wednesday, 25 December 1872, translated Geoffrey Skelton.
- Cosima Wagner, Diaries, entry for Saturday 12 May 1877. Also note on above entry p.1150.
- Nick Breckenfield (2006) Feature Review – Klaus Tennstedt Concerts on CD, www.clasicalsource.com, link checked 7 August 2007.
- Geoffrey Norris review of (Prom 50) 28 August 2001, Daily Telegraph, link checked 7 August 2007.
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- Wagner, Cosima. (1978). Diaries: Volume I 1869–1877. Edited and annotated by Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack, translated by Geoffrey Skelton. Collins, London.