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,  the key in which the Ring will end. D flat is the key of Valhalla, which we heard at the beginning of Scene 2, and it’s also the relative key to the B flat minor of Nibelheim, thus contrasting the worlds of Wotan and Alberich yet also linking them together. Wagner’s stage directions indicated that Nibelheim was glowing ‘red’ but whether D flat major had a colour association in his mind is much less certain. Unless perhaps Götterdämmerung also concludes with a rainbow…

There is no specific colour mentioned in the settings for the first Act of Die Walküre. We are now in the human world (it opens in D minor, a semi-tone higher than the conclusion of Rheingold) 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.

The large door springs open…the full moon shines inside
…increasingly bright moonlight

So what colour is the moonlight? It is Spring outside, and the moon is full but it could still be viewed in various shades of pale creamy white to dazzling ice-blue white colour. It seems there is no record of how this was achieved at Bayreuth in 1876. Today the theatrical convention has become to use either a 10K backlight in a light steely-blue or an HMI (Hydrargyrum Medium-Arc Iodide) which gives out a very harsh, cold pure-white colour. However Siegmund sings, in B flat major, of the mildem Lichte – gentle light – suggesting a warm white moonlight flooding into the hall.

Digression: some moonlight keys in music

Schubert  An den Mond D296 in A flat major : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZaDCFWI7_g

Dvořák  Rusalka Song to the Moon in G flat major: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anQlB3-PQZ4

Debussy  Clair de Lune in D flat major: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNcsUNKlAKw

Strauss  Capriccio Moonlight music in A flat major: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vm3Ad0EoziA

Britten  Peter Grimes Act 3 Moonlight Interlude in E flat major:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZJMjumZCGM

All in flat keys, except for (possibly) the most famous example:

in C sharp minor

but this wasn’t Beethoven’s title for his Op.27 no.2 – it was given to the work by Ludwig Rellstab, five years after the composer’s death.

Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire – ‘Pierrot of the moon’ – is an atonal melodrama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQVkbKULKpI

Act 2 of Die Walküre gives us no clues as to the colour of Wagner’s Wildes Felsenbirge – wild rocky mountains. Not even the scene where Brünnhilde announces his death to Siegmund elicits a mention of godly v. mortal lighting or colour: the music says it all, though Patrice Chereau’s Brünnhilde wrapping Siegmund in a white shroud at Bayreuth will be a potent image for many: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2t7ybyTI_Y

Black storm clouds gather, and lightning strikes as the action reaches its terrifying climax but it is Wotan who appears in ein glühend rötlicher Schein – a glowing red light – angry at his daughter’s defiance, to shatter Sigmund’s sword and witness the death of his own son

Wotan shatters Sigmund’s sword

The end of the Act in 1876 was made vivid, once again, with clouds of steam. Visual colour takes the back seat to music and drama here.

Act 3 takes place on a rocky mountain-top shrouded in storm clouds and illuminated by flashes of lightning. Two of the Valkyries’ horses are described as Braunen and Grauen – a bay and a grey, and Gerhilde refers to Siegmund as dem braunen Wälsung – implying his skin is swarthy or tanned. (Incidentally, this line also makes it clear that Gerhilde, and therefore maybe the other Valkyries, knows that Brünnhilde has gone to deliver the necessary Todesverkündigung to her half-brother Siegmund, although of course Gerhilde has no idea yet of the outcome of that encounter).

Wotan’s approach is accompanied by schwarzen Gewitterwolken… wachsender Feuerschein – black thunderclouds and a growing fiery light:

Sieglinde rushes out as Wotan’s voice is heard

The music switches from Sieglinde’s joyous G major into the frightening D minor, as she sings Weh – sorrow – and the angry god’s voice sounds offstage. Wotan’s arrival is presaged with a grellem Feuerschein – harsh fiery light, indicating his rage against his daughter. There is no mention of colour in the scene that follows: there’s no need to add to the violence of the scene. Wotan sentences Brünnhilde to sit as a mortal housewife am Herde – by the fireside and perhaps we recall briefly where Sigmund’s journey brought him at the start of Act 1: Wess’ Herd dies auch sei, her muss ich rasten – whoever’s hearth this is, here I must rest.

As the Valkyries disperse, the storm dies down

Gradually the storm clouds give way to calmer weather and in the next scene twilight falls, followed by night

to be continued