«Musical Motivation: A New Take on Wagner’s Die Walküre»

This article studies the musical process of dramatic motivation in the so-called ‘knowing orchestra’ in Richard Wagner’s music drama, Der Ring des Nibelungen, taking as an example the ‘Todesverkündigungsszene’ (Act 2, Scene 4) in Die Walküre.

   Starting with a critical appraisal of earlier studies in the dramatic function of the orchestra, whereby contributions by Carl Dahlhaus, Edward T. Cone, Thomas Mann and Carolyn Abbate are discussed in particular, the article then presents an alternative analysis of the musical process in this scene. The analysis emphasizes that the musical textures do not give mimetic representations of meanings that have already been established in text, theatrical staging, or in catalogues of Leitmotivs; instead, the term Leitmotiv is taken, as denoted by Wagner, to mean ‘motivation’, implying that the inner course of the theatrical drama is largely motivated through the thematic interaction of musical events in the orchestra. The analysis focuses on the gradual musical processes of quasi-symphonic development, underlining that the dynamics of the orchestral process should be construed not as a fait accompli, but rather as a fait s’accomplissant, taking on ever-new meanings through the interaction of musical elements as a driving force in the totality of the music drama. This analytical approach draws on technical features in the score, supplemented by an understanding of the aesthetic experience of musical and theatrical performance.

   The analytical findings are then discussed in light of notions of musical time and process in musical comprehension, spanning from Nietzsche’s idea of becoming (Werden) to Bergson’s conception of la durée and Kurth’s understanding of dynamic musical form. Concepts from Barthes (signifiance), Derrida (dissémination) and Deleuze (différence and répétition) are introduced in an effort to contextualize and reconsider Wagner’s own dictum that the music drama is nothing but ‘die ersichtlich gewordene Taten der Musik’ – ‘the deeds of music becoming visible.’ Consequently, this article argues that Wagner’s orchestra in certain sections takes on a narrative voice that does not speak in the past tense of representation of fixed meanings—or of ‘Sein’—but rather produces new and unpredictable meanings in the constantly developing process of musical motivation, of becoming—or of ‘Werden.’

Keywords: Musical time, process, becoming, orchestral voice, Wagner, Die Walküre