Siegfried, the third opera in the Ring, as sung by Lauritz Melchior, Heldentenor

Here we are at the next installment of Siegfried’s journey down the Rhein (pun intended).  This opera brings us closer to the eventual downfall of the gods.  This particular aria is from Act I, and it is a song that Siegfried sings while he is trying to weld together the various pieces of Notung, his sword.  This excerpt is brief, I would guess maybe one-third of the whole aria, but I selected it because Lauritz Melchior is singing it, and it was recorded in 1928.  I think that I listened to 13 Wagnerian tenors (or Heldentenors) singing various arias from Wagner’s operas, and I was dissatisfied with all of them except Melchior.  Melchior was accused of sloppy musicianship, but the power of the voice was, and still is, breathtaking (pun intended again).  If I were to give you the entire opera, I would be giving you something like 4 hours of music.  It is well worth listening to, but for our purposes, this aria will suffice.

As a piece of listening advice, I would say, notice the breath control, notice where he breathes, and notice the placement of the breath in his head.  Most of the time, he is allowing air to flow into the resonating cavities of his head, and that is where the power of his sound comes from.

Nothung! Nothung!, Siegfried’s aria from Siegfried

Nothung! Nothung!
Neidliches Schwert!
Was mußtest du zerspringen?
Zu Spreu nun schuf ich
die scharfe Pracht,
im Tiegel brat’ ich die Späne.
Hoho! Hoho!
Hohei! Hohei!
Blase, Balg!
Blase die Glut!
Wild im Walde
wuchs ein Baum,
den hab’ ich im Forst gefällt:
die braune Esche
brannt’ ich zur Kohl’,
auf dem Herd nun liegt sie gehäuft.
Hoho! Hoho!
Hohei! Hoheí! Hoho!
Blase, Balg!
Blase die Glut!
Des Baumes Kohle,
wie brennt sie kühn;
wie glüht sie hell und hehr!
In springenden Funken
sprühet sie auf:
hohei, hohei, hohei!
zerschmilzt mir des Stahles Spreu.
Hoho! Hoho!
Hohei! Hoho!
Blase, Balg!
Blase die Glut!

Notung! Notung!, Siegfried’s aria from Siegfried

Notung! Notung!
Sword of my need!
What mighty blow once broke you?
I’ve filed to splinters
your shining steel;
the fire has melted and fused them.
Hoho! Hoho!
Hohi! Hohi! Hoho!
Bellows, blow!
Brighten the glow!
Wild in the woodlands
grew that tree
I felled in the forest glade;
I burnt to ashes
branches and trunk;
on the hearth it lies in a heap.
Hoho! Hoho!
Hohi! Hohi! Hoho!
Bellows, blow!
Brighten the glow!
The blackened charcoal
so bravely burns;
how bright and fair its glow!
A shower of sparks
is shooting on high:
Hohi! Hoho! Hohi!
and fuses the splintered steel.
Hoho! Hoho!
Hohi! Hohi! Hoho!
Bellows, blow!
Brighten the glow!

Lauritz Melchior

Lauritz Melchior (March 20, 1890 – 18 March 18, 1973) was the first of the great Wagnerian heldentenors (heroic tenors) to sing on records, and he was the first operatic tenor to sing on radio. His recorded legacy is considered a benchmark for all subsequent Siegfrieds and Tristans. One can only imagine what a legacy was lost when he and his wife fled Germany in 1939; his home there was subsequently occupied and looted by both German and Russian soldiers and a collection of unpublished recordings was used for target practice. Contemporary reviews indicated that he was frequently lax in keeping rhythms, and many of his debuts were not completely successful, but he had a long operatic career.

Melchior started singing at an early age, when a boarder in his father’s house who was a voice teacher gave Melchior and the other children in the family singing lessons. He often accompanied his sister (who was blind) to the opera, and from her reactions he learned how dramatically powerful a voice can be, even without stagecraft. Like many Wagnerian and heroic tenors, he started his career as a baritone (and very briefly as a bass), first studying privately with Paul Bang, and after he turned 21, studying at the Copenhagen Royal Opera School. His unofficial debut was in 1912 as Germont in La Traviata with a tiny touring company, the Zwicki and Stagel Opera Company, and he made his official debut in 1913 as Silvio in I Pagliacci at the Royal Opera. He remained there for several seasons, first in comprimario roles, and later in major roles, beginning what looked like a solid career as a Verdi baritone when singing di Luna in Il Trovatore and the elder Germont in La Traviata.

A colleague heard him take an unwritten high C in Il Trovatore one evening and told the directors of the Royal Opera she heard the foundation of a heldentenor in Melchior’s voice. The management agreed and made arrangements for him to restudy his voice with the tenor Wilhelm Herold. He made his debut as a tenor in 1918 as Tannhauser, again at the Copenhagen Royal Opera. However, he was still uncertain of his technique and voice. In 1919, a wealthy patron encouraged the conductor Henry Woods to audition him, and he had his London debut at the Proms in 1920. He came to the attention of another patron, Hugh Walpole, the noted author, who provided Melchior with a generous allowance to further his studies as well as support his family. His Covent Garden debut was in 1924 as Siegmund. He auditioned for Siegfried Wagner (the son of the composer) and made his Bayreuth debut in 1924 as Parsifal. He continued to take leading roles there, including the legendary 1930 Tristan und Isolde under Toscanini, who dubbed him “Tristanissimo,” until shortly before World War II. His Metropolitan debut was in 1926 as Tannhauser, and he sang there regularly until 1950, when one of Rudolf Bing’s first actions as general manager was to decline to renew his contract. This was partly for extra-musical reasons, including a predilection for practical jokes and appearing on “low brow” venues such as radio comedy and variety shows with Fred Allen and Bing Crosby, and partly for a growing disinclination to attend lengthy rehearsals.

After this dismissal, Melchior retired from the stage, though he continued to appear in films and operettas, sang on the radio (including a broadcast of the first act of Die Walküre from Copenhagen on his 70th birthday), and as part of his own touring music company.