Richard Wagner: “The Ride of the Walkyries” from the opera, Die Walkyrie

In high school, in the 1970s, I became aware that every Sunday, the local classical radio station, which originated from Notre Dame University in the next town over from my hometown, had a call-in request program. This is where I first heard a good number of classical pieces in high school. The down side of call-in request shows, is that you end up hearing the same popular, and less challenging pieces, over and over again, sometimes ad nauseum. But in all fairness, who wants to spend a reflective Sunday afternoon listening to something that sounds like a cat walking across a piano keyboard?

As mentioned in previous posts, in high school I checked many albums out of my little hometown library that I heard on the radio. “The Ride of the Walkyries” got a lot of air play, and it is one of those rousing pieces that gets everyone’s attention—even my pre-teen daughters’. For a teenager with not much cash, the library gave me access to works of music that I couldn’t even think about buying. Most of the works of Wagner fell into that category.

Wagner is probably most famous for his magnum opus, Ring Des Niebelungen, a series of four operas based on themes from Norse mythology. Die Walkyrie appears second in the collection. I think back in the 70s, the library had a couple of sets of the entire Ring cycle, which altogether took up 18 vinyl LPs. Think of 36 sides times 20 minutes (playing time of one side) for a total of 12 hours! Recording the Ring was no mean feat for a record company, so only the premium labels–Deutsche Grammaphon,, Phillips, and London–did so. At eight or nine dollars a disk, to own the Ring would have cost over a hundred dollars (two to three hundred dollars today). And I had to save for college!

So I ended up checking it out of the library several times. I never seemed to have the time to listen to the entire set and most often I just searched for and listened to all the most famous arias or choruses. Those excerpts like the “Ride of the Walkyries” were exciting and rousing. At the check-out desk of the library worked a friendly college student, who was majoring in music at the local university. He used to advise me on piece of music. During my “Wagner” period, I remember telling him once that I really liked Wagner and whether he could direct me to any other pieces that Wagner had written that were, well, “lighter.” He looked at me and said, “Wagner didn’t write light operas.” I felt a bit embarrassed.

I have a friend, a mezzo soprano named Ellen Rabiner, who sang the role of one of the Walkyries at the Metropolitan Opera. She explained to me the scene in which this piece appears. The Walkyries were the daughters of some Norse god. Their job was to ride around after the big battles and pick up the corpses and transport them to Valhalla, the Norse heaven. In the scene, the Walkyries return after a successful run and give each other the “high five.” The filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola used the “Ride of the Walkyries” in the late 1970s in his film, Apocalypse Now! It’s blasted from helicopters that conduct a napalm bombing of a Vietnamese village. Coppola’s probably not first person one to think of this as a militaristic sounding piece.

In the early 1970s, the budget Seraphim record label, a subsidiary of Angel, re-issued the entire set of the Ring for the modest price of $40. Even that was a lot–to give you an idea, my driver’s education course at the time cost me $50, which was really expensive. But I bought it anyway, despite the protests of my parents. At the time, it was touted as an historic recording by the German Conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler recorded by the Italian radio company. When I bought it, it turned out to be a mono-recording that had been reworked to sound like stereo. And even more disappointing, it wasn’t even from the original master tapes, which because of the Italian musicians’ labor union rules (it figures), were destroyed.

Truth be told, I never listened to the entire Ring. To my untrained and novice ear, all those years ago, the rest sounded, well, kind of boring. A couple of years ago, while cleaning house, I gave my copy of the Ring Des Niebelungen to a friend who is a bassoonist and Wagner fan.

There was a point in college, where someone once told me that Wagner’s nationalistic ideas and music became popular among the Nazis. That’s not Wagner’s fault, just as the use of his music by Coppola had nothing to do with it either. It’s especially important to keep an open mind about these things, I’ve learned over the years, but back in college, I was a bit of a prankster. So to get a dig in at Wagner and the classical call-in show that always played the same music I once played the following trick. I called up the station during the request show and asked them to play the entire Ring, and then I left to go to the library.

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