Wagner considered himself first a writer and poet, and secondarily a composer. So far as he was concerned, he only wrote music because his words made a stronger impression when sung. Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote all his librettos himself. Thanks to the curiously dual nature of his genius, his words and music, united, are much stronger than either by itself. When pontificating about his art (a favorite pastime), he loved to speak of a ‘marriage’ between words and music, sense and sound, with the masculine word planting a seed in feminine music, who then brings to bear glorious fruit.
Curiously, despite Wagner’s own bias towards words and ideas, some of the liveliest moments in his operas come when his characters stop singing words and start singing nonsense instead. In The Flying Dutchman, for example, the maritime setting and sea-shanty-soaked score calls for lots of “Yo Heave Ho” sailor/pirate jabber.
You’ll hear such cries (spelled “Ho-ho! Je holla ho!” in Wagner’s libretto) in the refrain of the sleepy Steersman’s song. Listen in particular at 1:00 in the track:Jason Collins sang the Steersman at Seattle Opera in 2007 and Asher Fisch conducted.
Wagner spells his sailor jargon differently at other moments in the opera. When you attend Seattle Opera's upcoming Flying Dutchman, keep your ears peeled for moments including:
Daland’s crew seek a safe haven: “Hojohe! Hallojo!”
Senta begins her ballad: “Johohohe! Johohe!”
Sailors make merry: “Ho! He! Je! Ha! Klipp’ und Sturm’, He! Sind vorbei, he! Hussahe! Hallohe!”
Why is The Flying Dutchman full of such glorious nonsense? Der Freischütz, the 1817 opera by Carl Maria von Weber, is the real source of all the lusty gibberish in The Flying Dutchman. Freischütz was Wagner’s favorite opera when he was a kid; he idolized Weber, a family friend, and, in his autobiography, fondly remembers forcing all his ten-year-old buddies to act out scenes from Der Freischütz with him.
Historically, Der Freischütz was a significant step in the advancement of a German opera tradition as something distinct from the Italian tradition. The two operatic cultures employ non-verbal singing differently. In Italian bel canto opera, words regularly fall away whenever the vocal writing gets florid; usually, singers just sing an “Ah!”-vowel in such passages. But in the famous “Hunting Chorus” from Der Freischütz, Weber’s über-German hunters merrily sing nonsense with a few more consonants: “Joho tralala la la la!” (listen at 0:42 in the example below).Gerard Schwarz conducted Der Freischütz at Seattle Opera in 1999.
For your further befuddlement and amusement, here are more examples of delightful Wagnerian gibberish.
Tristan und Isolde: Sailors’ Cries
Evidently Wagner remembered the Dutchman sailors fondly when he wrote Tristan und Isolde fifteen years later. Tristan’s first act also takes place on a boat, and sure enough the sailors interrupt the increasingly frenzied Isolde with some cries of “Yo-Heave-Ho” as they steer their boat into the harbor. But Wagner keeps these guys in the background, unlike his Dutchman sailors. They’re an intensification of the scene, not a distraction.
Die Meistersinger: Sachs’s Cobbling Song
Wagner’s only comedy climaxes in a ridiculous battle of wits between Hans Sachs, the wise cobbler of Nürnberg, and his nemesis Sixtus Beckmesser, the insufferably pedantic and irritating town clerk. Sachs is up late, working in the street outside his cobbler shop. Trying to prevent a) young Eva from eloping with a handsome but possibly rascally adventurer, b) Beckmesser from irritating the neighborhood with a nocturnal serenade, and c) furious Walther von Stolzing from attacking Beckmesser in revenge for events from Act One, Sachs bellows his own work song in the street in the middle of the night.
His refrain of “Jerum! Jerum! Hallo hallo he! O ho! Trallalei!” begins with a fascinating bit of gobbledygook, “Jerum,” a word which Wagner knew from other old German songs. It’s a traditional substitution for the medieval Latin Jesu Domine. (In English, an equivalent would be yelling “Jiminy Cricket!” or “Jeez!” to avoid pronouncing the actual name of the Lord.) Sachs goes on to amuse himself by improvising a witty Mastersong about Eve’s guilt over being exiled from Paradise, guilt-tripping his own opera’s Eva (who’s hiding in the bushes with her Walther) into abandoning her plan to elope, without giving her away to Beckmesser. Here’s an attempt at equivalent English lyrics for the first verse of Sachs’s song:
When Eve from Paradise was chased,
her sin she soon repented,
for, toiling o’er the stony waste,
her feet were sore tormented.
This deeply pained the Lord:
her toesies he adored.
An angel he did quickly choose:
“Go make that pretty sinner shoes!
And since poor Adam limps around,
and stubs his toes on stony ground,
that well and wide his legs may stride,
measure him for boots beside!”
Listen for Eva and Walther’s muttered asides, and Beckmesser’s attempt to interrupt, foiled when Sachs begins his second verse with further “Jerums”:Hermann Michael conducted Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Seattle Opera in 1989 with Roger Roloff as Sachs, Julian Patrick as Beckmesser, Helen Donath as Eva, and Ben Heppner as Walther.
There’s loads more hilarious babbling in Die Meistersinger, including Beckmesser’s incomprehensible bungling of the stolen serenade in the final scene. But for now, we’ll stop at “Jerum!”
Das Rheingold: Rhine Daughters’ Cries of Glee
The first scene of the Ring is all fun, games, and wonderful gibberish until its terrible conclusion. Scholars love to scrutinize Woglinde’s famous opening line, “Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle! Walle zur Wiege” (which sounds a bit like “Goo-goo ga-ga” baby talk in German, only with references to sanctity, water, waves, and a cradle) and Alberich’s sputtering scat of “Garstig glatter glitschriger Glimmer!” But the Ring’s first great explosion of nonsense comes when the three Rhine Daughters salute their magic gold as the sun wakes it up, with terrific cries of “Heiajaheia! Heiajaheia! Wallalalalala leiajahei!” and (in Seattle Opera’s ‘Green’ Ring, at least) lots of airborne cartwheels and somersaults:
Die Walküre: Valkyrie Hooting and Hollering
Probably the most famous example of Wagnerian gibberish is Brünnhilde’s wild Valkyrie cry of “Hojotoho! Heiaha!”, taken up, complete with requisite high Cs, by her sister Valkyries in their famous Act 3 ride. I’ve never heard anybody try to uncover a hidden meaning in these syllables; the closest English language equivalent, in terms of sheer high spirits, seems to be “Yippee ki-yay.” (Probably somebody somewhere has staged the Valkyries as a bunch of cowgirls. In Wagner’s original scheme, they’re riding thunderclouds.)
Siegfried: Forging Songs
Wagner loved putting “work songs” in his operas, songs traditionally used (by sailors, weavers, cobblers, smiths, etc.) to facilitate the doing of work. It takes young Siegfried two entire songs to reforge his family heirloom, the mighty but shattered sword Nothung, in Act One of Siegfried.
Siegfried’s second Forging Song, with its nonsense refrain of “Hoho! Hoho! Hohei!”, is usually drowned out by the loud banging Siegfried must perform on the anvil. (Like the scene in which Sachs ‘marks’ the errors in Beckmesser’s serenade by noisily pounding on his cobbler’s last, this music was a bizarre result of the time when Wagner, broke as usual, found cheap lodgings upstairs from a blacksmith.)
But Siegfried’s first Forging Song is one of the great proving-grounds for heroic tenor. Its nonsense refrain goes “Hoho! Hoho! Hohei! Hohei! Hoho! / Blase, Balg! Blase die Glut!” (Bellows, blow! Brighten the glow!)At Seattle Opera in 2013, Asher Fisch conducted Stefan Vinke in Siegfried’s Forging Song.
Götterdämmerung: Rhine Daughters’ Siren Song
There’s a wealth of gibberish in Götterdämmerung. Basses who sing Hagen are judged by the mighty “Hoiho!” he uses to summon the Vassals, and tenors singing Siegfried strive for a glorious high C in the “Hoihe!” he uses to attract the hunting party. The Rhine Daughters, who opened the Ring with such ecstatic babbling in Scene One of Das Rheingold, have a very different sound—and even different meaningless syllables, “Weialala leia, wallala leialala”—when they return in Götterdämmerung. Here, in the fallen world of a river that has lost its gold, their music carries the emotion of yearning, not ecstasy; here their trio is a seductive siren song which attracts men (like Siegfried and Hagen) at their peril. Their music reminds me of words Wagner’s contemporary Melville wrote in Moby-Dick: “There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath...here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.”
Parsifal: Kundry’s Ravings
All the characters of Wagner’s swansong, Parsifal, are in dire need of psychological help. With most of them, there’s method in their madness; when Parsifal asks “Who is the Grail?” or Gurnemanz tells him “Here, time becomes space,” it’s not exactly nonsense—like much modern art, these utterances are unclear, but in a wonderfully provocative way. The one Parsifal character who’s obviously quite crazy is Kundry, Wagner’s final incarnation of the Flying Dutchman, a world-weary immortal who’s sometimes a ghastly and ill-tempered servant of the Grail Knights, sometimes a formidably beautiful prostitute working against her will for their nemesis, Klingsor. Like Tolkien’s Gollum, Kundry’s fascination comes from her grotesquely ambivalent nature.
When Klingsor summons Kundry back to his side, at the beginning of Parsifal’s second act, she spews, not gibberish per se, but an expressionist indication of her mental/emotional state: “Ach! – Ach! Tiefe Nacht...Wahnsinn...Oh! – Wut...Ach! Jammer! Schlaf...Schlaf...tiefer Schlaf...Tod!” (Ah! – Ah! Deep night...madness...oh! – Rage...Ah! Lamentation! Sleep...sleep...deep sleep...death!”) As text by itself, this blather doesn’t have much value. But wed to Wagner’s music, it sounds and feels like someone waking up after a really rough night:Linda Watson sang Kundry at Seattle Opera in 2003, with Asher Fisch conducting the orchestra of Seattle Opera.
In addition to the libretti of his ten great operas, from Wagner’s pen a river of letters, essays, diatribes, and polemics spilled forth. But much of that is a different order of Wagnerian gibberish. Here at Seatle Opera, we pay more attention to the words—and sometimes, the non-words—he set so brilliantly to music!