The Works of Richard Wagner: Brünnhilde

In continuation of a series exploring the works of Richard Wagner, Lucas Dié next delves into the characterisation of Brünnhilde who appears in the four-opera cycle ‘The Ring of the Nibelung’

Out of all of Richard Wagner’s operas, Brünnhilde is first and foremost the female character with the most well known musical entrance. The famous and powerful ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ introduces her and her wild steed to the stage, together with her sisters Grimgerde, Siegrune, Rosshilde – and others with names as weird and wonderful. Giving her own name to The Valkyrie in the Ring cycle, Brünnhilde is the driving force of the operas’ narrative up to Siegfried’s death when she disappears from the narrative, only to then appear sporadically.

Wagner intentionally misspelled Brünnhilde; the correct version should be Brünhild (German story cycle) or Brynhild (Scandinavian story cycle). His deliberate mistake was done to ensure listeners remembered that Brün/Bryn was the same as Brünne (ring armour) and Hilde was ancient German for battle. As such, the woman on stage should conform to her powerful name; as strong as a horse, larger than life, armed, steel encased, with wild hair billowing from beneath a steel helmet. Think of a young Britannia, and you’ll be close.

In history, there are various queens and princesses called Brünhild that may have lent their name and story to the opera. The earliest was Queen Brunhilda of Austrasia, a Visigoth princess, whose tale and character creates a powerful template. After her sister was murdered, she embroiled the Frankish Royal family in murders that spanned four generations.

In Wagner’s Ring, Brünnhilde takes on a human form with a view to redeeming the human race – or, in other words, get hold of the Ring of the Nibelung. Once human, however, she begins to make mistakes; implementing decisions that are emotional instead of rational and helping people out of pity – behaviour that is against the orders of Wotan.

Therefore, when made aware of Siegmund’s imminent death, she tries to help him. Because of this human weakness, the goddess experiences a permanent fall from grace throughout the three operas. However, when she chooses to die on the burning pyre out of love and self-sacrifice, she finally breaks the spell of the ring and redeems the human race, thereby overthrowing the ruling gods.

They say that copying your predecessors is the only form of true compliment in literature and music, and to do so is the highest form of flattery. For Brünnhilde, Wagner is said to have been influenced by Le Prophète by Giacomo Meyerbeer when in Paris in 1850. While the Jewish composer was Richard Wagner’s arch-enemy, it seems he was certainly good enough to provide inspiration.