About the Valkyries

Valkyries figure prominently in the Norse mythology recorded in the Icelandic sagas, and a few archeological artifacts as well. Many are named in the various sagas, but with one exception Wagner's names for his eight Valkyries are original. In inventing their names, Wagner followed the standard Teutonic scheme of combining two root words, as exemplified by his own given names (Wilhelm, from wil «will» and helm «helmet»; Richard, from ric «power» and hard «brave»). Here are the Teutonic stem-roots and meanings of the Valkyries' names:
Ger «spear» – Hild «battle»
Helm «helmet» – Wig «war»
Wald «rule» – Thrud «strength»
Schwert «sword» – Leiter «leader»?
Ort «point» – Linde «gentle, soft»
Sigu «victory» – Run «secret»
Ross «steed» – Weiss «white»
Grim «mask» – Garthr «enclosure»
*In the original prose sketch for Die Walküre, Wagner gave these names as Geerhilde and Roßwilde.

The word Valkyrie itself means «chooser of the slain», from val «carrion» (Valhalla means «hall of the slain») and kyrja «chooser». The word kyrja is related to the archaic and poetic German word kiesen, «to select», which Wagner uses frequently throughout the opera, and the Anglo-Saxon word ceosan, whence comes English choose.

The Ride of the Valkyries

It's the second most famous piece of music Wagner penned, the characteristic theme associated with the Valkyries, along with their battle cry of Ho-jo-to-ho, the sound most likely to be identified with the opera, the entire Ring, even Wagner himself. Excerpted as a concert piece, it has figured in everything from Nazi Party rallies to Apocalypse Now to the Bugs Bunny cartoon What's Opera, Doc? It is based on a simple motive repeated on either a major and minor triad, perhaps reflecting the nature of the Valkyries as creatures of both the Will (Wotan) and Nature (Erda). It occurs almost entirely as an orchestral motive; I believe that it is sung only twice in the cycle, once by Wotan in the first of his second act monologues (Brünnhilde sings a major key variant in her response), and once by Siegrune, a single fragment in its minor figuration, announcing Brünnhilde's approach. Nevertheless, it originated as a musical setting of text for the grand opera that Wagner originally conceived, Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried's Death), before it ballooned into the four-day extravaganza of the Ring.

Siegfrieds Tod has a structure very similar to (and much text identical with) that of Götterdämmerung. In the third scene of the first act, Brünnhilde, alone on her rock, awaits Siegfried's return. An offstage chorus of Valkyries sings to her, very much in the manner of a Greek Chorus, relating the state of affairs and questioning how they came to be, all to provide the essential background story that Die Walküre was ultimately to provide. (The scene is of course replaced in Götterdämmerung with the much less formal and now highly charged individual confrontation between Brünnhilde and Waltraute.) Only at the close of that scene are the Valkyries (or their magic lantern images) seen, eight in number, in gleaming armour riding their white steeds through the black storm clouds. During this tableau the Valkyrie chorus sings the following lines:

Nach Süden wir ziehen, Siege zu zeugen,
kämpfenden Heeren kiesen das Loos,
für Helden zu fechten, Helden zu fällen,
nach Walhall zu führen erschlagene Sieger!*
So if you want to sing along with the Ride of the Valkyries, these are the words!

*My own poor translation:

To southward we ride now, Vict'ry bestowing,
midst warring armies choosing the fate,
of heroes in combat, heroes now fallen,
to Valhall to lead the victorious slain ones!

Recorded Interpreters

Among the 129 recordings of the complete opera or excerpts including the scene with the Valkyries (through 2009), there have been many well-known interpreters of each of the Valkyrie roles. Some of local or global fame include: Lucine Amara (Helmwige), Sylvia Anderson (Schwertleite, Siegrune), Ingrid Bjoner (Helmwige), Hannelore Bode (Gerhilde), Sona Cervená (Roßweiße), Lili Chookasian (Schwertleite), Katherine Ciesinski (Siegrune), Marie Collier (Gerhilde), Elizabeth Connell (Waltraute), Irene Dalis (Waltraute), Helga Dernesch (Ortlinde), Mignon Dunn (Waltraute), Rosalind Elias (Siegrune), Brigitte Fassbaender (Waltraute), Edna Garabedian (Waltraute), Batyah Godfrey (Schwertleite), Rita Gorr (Grimgerde), Joann Grillo (Grimgerde), Nancy Gustafson (Helmwige), Wendy Hillhouse (Grimgerde), Grace Hoffman (Waltraute, Siegrune), Linda Kelm (Helmwige), Margarete Klose (Siegrune), Gillian Knight (Siegrune, Roßweiße, Grimgerde), Jean Kraft (Roßweiße), Berit Lindholm (Helmwige), Christa Ludwig (Waltraute), Jean Madeira (Schwertleite, Roßweiße), Janis Martin (Roßweiße), Danica Mastilovic (Gerhilde, Helmwige), Yvonne Minton (Waltraute, Schwertleite), Marita Napier (Gerhilde, Helmwige), Birgit Nilsson (Ortlinde), Susan Quittmeyer (Waltraute), Eva Randová (Waltraute), Regina Resnik (Helmwige), Laura Brooks Rice (Grimgerde), Hilde Rössl-Majdan (Schwertleite), Gabriele Schnaut (Waltraute), Hanna Schwarz (Roßweiße), Elisabeth Söderström (Ortlinde), Risë Stevens (Schwertleite), Cheryl Studer (Ortlinde), Josephine Veasey (Roßweiße), Thelma Votipka (Gerhilde), Sieglinde Wagner (Schwertleite, Roßweiße, Grimgerde), Sandra Warfield (Roßweiße), Claire Watson (Helmwige), Helen Watts (Schwertleite), Ljuba Welitsch (Helmwige) and Dolora Zajick (Schwertleite) Here is the complete list for each Valkyrie. For each singer the date or dates of her recordings of the role (exact if live, approximate if studio or composite or unknown) and the conductor are given. N.B. All of the recordings are in German with the following exceptions, sung in English:
14 Feb 1970 (Goodall)
Dec 1975 (Goodall)
29 July 1980 (Holt)









3 Jun 2013, 21:34 PDT