It was late at night. I was drifting off, as I usually do, with the bedside radio tuned in to Classical Station KHFM. I was just about to step through the floating door of dreams when Sigfried’s Funeral March music came on. So much for sleep. I sat up and listened to the whole thing.
Then by sheer coincidence, WNYC’s excellent Radio Lab show devoted an entire piece to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The episode is called “The Ring & I” and it examines the enormous hold the 20-hour operatic series holds on its devotees. Sigfried’s Funeral March is part of the cycle, called Götterdämmerung, or, Twilight Of The Gods.
Me? I know it as that incredible music from the end of Excalibur.
To this day, there are few films that move me in their final minutes as much as Excalibur does (Hal Hartley’s Trust also comes to mind, as does Caroll Ballard’s Never Cry Wolf.) In the case of the Boorman film, it is almost entirely because of the music. Boorman knew he was working with the stuff of myth and legend, so wisely, rather than use the work of a modern-day composer, he went straight to the classics and peeled bits of both Orff and Wagner to get the job done (possibly even Mozart’s Deis Irae if memory serves–or wait, maybe that was the trailer for Cliffhanger.) Remember the bit where a dying King Arthur instructs Percival, one of the last surviving knights of the round table, to take Excalibur and hurl the blade back into the lake? He rides and rides and decides he can’t do it. He returns to Arthur, whose dying plea is to return and try again. So Percival rides back to the lake and hurls Excalibur. The slender, sliver-clad arm glides from the lake and catches the sword. Holds it for a moment. Then retreats into the water, signaling the death of a king and the end of an era.
That was true Wagnerian stuff. The Twilight of the Gods. Götterdämmerung.
The Radio Lab episode is remarkable. Listen to it here. As for a definitive recording? Apparently, the Georg Solti version is the high watermark. And as long as we’re talking Excalibur, who could forget the remarkable art by Bob Peake for the one sheet?
The scene itself is on YouTube (of course.) I’ll post it here until the inevitable cease & desist knocks it out of commission:
And finally, the piece itself, as I heard it that night in the throes of insomnia:/>