Few composers divide opinion quite as sharply as Richard Wagner. Even in his own lifetime his music and philosophy were the cause of much bitter argument. His legacy to Western music is both fiercely disputed and inescapable, while the feuding and power-seeking that have engulfed his descendants and the opera house he built at Bayreuth would provide material for a plot as
outrageous and extravagant as that of any of his operas.
The four operas (some 15 hours of music) that comprise The Ring of the Nibelung tell an epic
tale of Gods, Men and Fate. To its admirers The Ring is an astounding, groundbreaking
evocation of the ancient Germanic myths that fuses music and theatre into a “Total Work of
Art”. Others would side more with Rossini’s assessment:“good moments but bad quarterhours”.
It is, however, very difficult to be indifferent.
“Bleeding chunks” and potpourris of Wagner’s operas presented in concert are no longer as
fashionable as they once were: rather they tend to be frowned upon as a distortion of the
composer’s intentions. Forest Murmurs is different, in that it is the work of the composer himself. It weaves together passages from Act Two of Siegfried, the third part of the tetralogy. These moments depict birdsong, heard against the background of the gentle rustling of trees in the breeze.
The forest is of course an enchanted one. The eponymous hero has entered it on his way to do battle with the dragon Fafner. A bird seems to be trying to talk to him, but he cannot understand it. He tries to communicate with it, first by fashioning a pipe from a reed, then by sounding his horn. This awakens the dragon. Siegfried battles and kills the creature. As he plunges his sword into the dragon, its blood splashes and burns his hand. He instinctively puts his hand to his mouth, and is amazed to discover that having tasted the dragon’s blood he now understands the birdsong. The bird tells him that he now owns the Ring of the Nibelung and the hoard of gold that the dragon has been guarding. It also tells him of the warrior maiden Brünnhilde, asleep in a ring of fire at the top of the mountain. She waits to be woken by the touch of one fearless enough to cross the fire. Realising that he is this fearless one, Siegfried sets out to meet his destiny.