Wagner and colour

Some thoughts from David Edwards

Several reviewers, commenting on this year’s new Lohengrin at Bayreuth, attributed the production’s overall colour to Nietzsche’s description of the Act 1 Prelude (in A major) as ‘blue’. It was at a performance of Lohengrin at the Bolshoi in 1896 that the artist Wassily Kandinsky claimed to have experienced his synesthesia, connecting colour and sound, for the first time. But was Wagner a synesthete? Did he associate colours with specific musical keys?

Here are some examples of Wagner indicating colour in his stage directions, and the music with which it was connected – with the proviso of course that the music may also be referring to something else as well:

The opening bars of Das Rheingold in E flat major

RG prelude

Grünliche Dämmerung, nach oben zu lichter, nach unten zu dunkler – greenish twilight, lighter towards the top, darker towards the bottom

Illuminated from above, the gold of the Rhine in C major

RG Gold

Ein zauberisch goldenes Licht – a magical golden light

When Alberich approaches the gold, the key shifts to C minor (relative minor to the E flat of the opening) and as he steals it, there is sudden dichte Nacht – dense night as the orchestra follows Alberich into the depths of the river

RG end of scene 1

In dichtester Finsternis verschwinden die Riffe, die ganze Bühne ist von der Höhe bis zur Tiefe von schwarzem Gewogen erfüllt – The reefs disappear in the thickest darkness, the entire stage is filled from top to bottom with black billows…

As the scene transforms, Wagner’s stage directions describe a fine mist giving way to a brightening dawn light as day breaks on the mountain top overlooking Valhalla. There’s no mention of colour per se, or of the sun, leaving us to picture the bright daylight for ourselves. Nor is there much reference to colour during Scene 2, apart from Loge being a ‘damned flame’ and to gold – both of the Rhine, and of Freia’s apples. For the Giants, Alberich’s treasure is actually red: des Nibelungen rotes gold…das Rheingold licht und rot.

When the Giants leave with Freia ein fahler Nebel – a pale mist (grey? white?) fills the stage, and Loge observes Wotan’s grämlichem Grau – his sullen greyness, possibly a description of his bleak despair at the situation as much as his actual skin tone. Wotan and Loge descend through die Schwefelkluft, a gaseous crevasse issuing clouds of sulphurous – presumably a sickly yellowish colour – vapour which darkens into a black cloud the further down they travel.  The music slips through several keys until it reaches B flat minor, the key of Nibelheim and

Descent to Nibelheim

her dämmert aus der Ferne dunkelroter Schein auf – from the distance a dark red light dawns as we hear the subterranean anvils for the first time.

At Bayreuth in 1876 these and other effects were attempted with gas and electric lighting and copious amounts of steam – Patrick Carnegy gives a full and fascinating account of this in chapter 3 of his Wagner and the Art of the Theatre.

In Nibelheim, it is again darkness and fog – Nacht und Nebel – into which the Tarnhelm makes Alberich ‘disappear’ when he torments Mime. Nibelheim itself is a place of darkness: Wotan refers to it as a nächt’gem Land – land of night – and Alberich warns of his nächtlichen Heer – army of the night – but without specific reference to colour. Even the serpent into which Alberich turns himself is left to our (and the stage designer’s) imagination, but the toad is clearly Krumm und grau – crooked and grey.

We return to the mountain top, still pale and misty, for the start of Scene 4. Only after Alberich’s departure does the stage grow lighter and the fog clears away from the foreground, leaving Valhalla still shrouded in mist upstage. Colour is absent from the stage directions now until the action reaches its greatest crisis with Wotan’s refusal to surrender the ring. Suddenly


Aus der Felskluft zur Seite bricht ein bläulicher Schein hervor – from a fissure in the rock at the side, a blue light bursts out. The key changes to C sharp minor and Erda emerges from the depths of the earth.

The final colour-spectacle of Das Rheingold is intended to be the most impressive and technically demanding. Donner gathers together the swirling mists and disappears inside them. He smashes his hammer on the rock, there is lightning, a clap of thunder and suddenly the clouds disperse to reveal

Rainbow bridge

mit blendendem Leuchten eine Regenbogen-Brücke…die jetzt im Glanze der Abendsonne strahlt – with dazzling light, a rainbow bridge…which shines in the radiance of the evening sun. The music glows in D flat major (relative major to the key of Nibelheim) – a key that will become prominent in the Ring cycle, and the key in which it will end.

There is no specific colour mentioned in the settings for the first Act of Die Walküre . We are now in the human world and Wagner assumes we know what we’re looking at: a huge tree, a wooden hut, a hearth. References to light are reserved for the sword flashing in the firelight, where we hear the sword motive in C major, and for the Sonne Licht which Siegmund recalls seeing in the eyes of Sieglinde. Having drugged Hunding, she returns in weissem Gewande – in a white robe – to tell Siegmund how the sword came to be buried in the tree. Only when the door of the house flies open do we read that there is aussen Frühlingsnacht; der Vollmond leuchtet herein und wirft sein helles Licht auf das Paar – Spring night outside, the full moon shines inside and throws its bright light onto the pair. The music pivots from G major to the B flat major of Winterstürme in a dramatic and explosive modulation that expresses an emotional release, rather than one of colour.

to be continued