KS3: Richard Wagner - ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ from ‘Die Walküre’

Christopher Eccleston introduces Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries'.

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was a 19th Century musician and composer, and a very controversial figure. He is credited with the 'birth of modern music'. Wagner had a pretty established musical reputation in Germany and wrote music for the King of Saxony. His comfy royal set-up was interrupted by his involvement in the 'May Uprising', though. As a result he had to flee for his life to Sweden. Whilst in exile he began to write a series of essays laying out what he thought the art-work of the future should be like. One of those essays is considered anti-Semitic as it falsely claimed that Jewish people were responsible for the poor quality of contemporary art and music. This was particularly damning and damaging as some of his teachers and early supporters of his work were Jewish.

Wagner was finally able to return to his homeland in 1862 where he continued work on his biggest undertaking: The Ring Cycle – a set of four operas or "Music Dramas" (he hated the word 'opera' because it reminded him of stuffy, boring people and pretty tunes sung in Italian by warbling sopranos). Wagner wanted his music dramas to be total art works which combined the worlds of theatre, literature and music. With this approach, Wagner revolutionised opera and changed the path of musical history.

Ride of the Valkyries comes at the beginning of Act 2 of Die Walküre, the second of the four operas that make up Der Ring des Nibelungen or The Ring Cycle. The whole thing took 27 years to compose and takes over 15 hours to perform. If you want to settle in and listen to the whole thing, make sure you've got plenty of snacks and drinks! His compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex textures and rich harmonies and orchestration. If he was still alive today he would probably be the biggest film composer around.

Listen out for: The elaborate use of leitmotifs - musical phrases associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements.

Full orchestral performance: Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries'.

Richard Wagner

BORN: 1813 / DIED: 1883 / NATIONALITY: German

Was there anything Richard Wagner couldn’t do? He wrote enormous operas (story, words and music), conducted them and designed the sets. He even invented instruments and developed many of the theatrical conventions we still use today. The orchestra sit below the stage in a theatre 'pit' because Wagner decided it would sound better. We dim the lights in the audience because Wagner thought it would focus us more on the action. Wagner was a true theatrical genius in control of all aspects of his work.

During his early career, Wagner would write an opera and get into enormous debt getting it ready for the stage. When it opened he would move on to the next project in the next town, leaving all his debts and chaos behind him. In 1871 he settled in the town of Bayreuth, Germany and it was here that he had his biggest success with the ‘Ring Cycle’ – a series of four operas, each one over four hours long, that are performed on four consecutive nights. The Bayreuth Festival continues to this very day and is still managed by members of Wagner's family.

MP3: Listen to or download the music

Download the Ride of the Valkyries MP3

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Richard Wagner

Lesson Plans

Download classroom lesson plans to explore Wagner's music. To save to your computer: PC - right-click and save, Mac - ctrl-click and save.

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Secondary lesson plans:

Exploring and creating musical characters using leitmotifs (PDF)

Listening lesson (PDF)

Lesson plan 1 written by Richard Mainwaring.
Lesson plan 2 written by Ann Barkway.

Suitable for:
Key Stage 3 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland\ Third and Fourth Level, S1-S3 in Scotland

Arrangements: Play the piece with simplified parts

All parts have been designed to work together to enable mixed-ability groups to perform together

Richard Wagner

Combined score

Original instrumentation

In case you're considering using original parts together with these arrangements, you may find the composer's original instrumentation helpful: – – 2tmp+3, strings