Listening Log – [Pt. II- Proj. 2]- Richard Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries theme’ (as used in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1978 film ‘Apocalypse Now’)


Richard Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries theme’ (as used in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1978 film ‘Apocalypse Now’) In October 2019 Listened and watched in film scene: ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’. (1965) Label: Decca. Conductors: Georg Solti (Conductor). Orchestra: Vienna Philharmonic.

The ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ (Walkürenritt) theme is from the third act of Richard Wagner’s 1870 opera The Valkyries (Die Walküre . The Valkyries is itself the second opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in which the Valkyries transport fallen warriors to Valhalla for the final battle of Ragnarok. The plot is loosely based on Norse mythology and Germanic folk tales. See link for extensive background information on history, plot, cast of characters and instrumentation.

Wagner – RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES – Furtwangler. The Ride of the Valkyries, by Richard Wagner, in a classic recording with Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Vienna Philharmonic. Illustrations are by Arthur Rackham.

‘The Ride’ (Walkürenritt) is circa 8 min long.  Opening up the third act, it is one of only two ensemble sections in the entire Ring cycle. The key signature is B minor and the time signature 9/8. tempo is Allegro at fortissimo dynamic. The theme opens with frantic trilling (on F# and G) Oboe, English Horn, two Clarinets in A and a Bass Clarinet. The trills are repeated as sequencing adding instrumentation layers and a short melodic motif from B to F# and back from F# to B. The string section starts playing arpeggiated sequences, passed between sections of the ensemble until the main theme (see figure) enters (on B-Trumpet, E-Trumpet, E- Horn and D- Bass-trumpet) in the shape of another melodic sequence, albeit at longer note values. The theme finally climaxes in a ‘call and response’ section.

Walkürenritt main theme.
Apocalypse Now (The arrival of the 1st Cavalry Division heading to a Vietcong held position) – Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner

How then can this already programmatic and distinct music be repurposed for an altogether different ‘programme’? Francis Ford Coppola successfully manages to do so by effectively turning the whole ‘meaning’ of the theme on its head. Although the music is entirely unaltered, the juxtaposition of the heroic, noble theme against what in essence amounts to despicable war crimes conducted by the American army against the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam war. The perversity of this act when set against Wagner’s leitmotif shines a light on the deluded self-righteousness which lurks in the sentiments of the composition and indeed in the American government and psyche of the U.S army. We see that this war, and perhaps all wars, are a descent into hell and the depravity of the human mind when normal social taboos are broken in the name of following orders.

The music is used both Diagenetically and non-Diagenetically in the film. Robert Duvall’s character Sargent Kilgore trains his soldiers whilst listening to ‘Walkürenritt‘, playing it for them in the helicopter. In essence it is a type of brain washing or conditioning trigger to excite and rouse them into violence.

Sargent Kilgore; ‘We’ll come in low, out of the rising sun and about a mile out we’ll put on the music… My boys love it!’

Coppola’s ‘assault on Charlie’s Point’ scene opens with a soldier pressing play on the tape, diagenetically starting the ‘Walkürenritt’ theme. Wagner’s theme plays as the choppers fly out launching the assault, rising and intensifying in tandem with the assault intensifying, getting louder and louder until the music is no longer diagenetic, but engulfs the action and the audience in an all-encompassing non-diagenetic way. As the music resolves to a beautiful B Major the assault ends. Thus, the scene and the spectacle of war ends with Francis Ford Coppola having successfully reimagined Wagner’s heroic leitmotif as a theme highlighting the horrors of war.

By using the leitmotif in such a sardonic way, he managed to make a profound and potent social statement, one most likely contrary to what would have been Wagner’s own standpoint. This aligns much more with my own sense of ethics and morality and I dare say that I much prefer this use of ‘Walkürenritt’ than Wagner’s own.