With the possible exception of the Bridal March from Lohengrin, the music that opens Act 3 of Die Walküre – The Ride of the Valkyries – is the most familiar written by Richard Wagner. The Ride takes around eight minutes, and begins in the prelude to the third act, building up successive layers of accompaniment until the curtain rises to reveal a mountain peak where four of the eight Valkyrie sisters of Brünnhilde have gathered in preparation for the transportation of fallen heroes to Valhalla. As they are joined by the other four, the familiar tune is carried by the orchestra, while, above it, the Valkyries greet each other and sing their battle cry. Apart from the song of the Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold, it is the only ensemble piece in the first three operas of Wagner’s Ring cycle.

The music is ubiquitous turning up in multiple forms in different settings. Below are eight examples of the tune which according to Rossini’s classification belong to the “moments” category. The Italian master said, “Wagner has his moment, but he also has his half hours.” At first, Wagner objected to performing the piece apart from the opera, but the demand for the music was so great that he gave in, and he even performed it himself as a conductor away from the opera.

The first version is the music as Wagner wrote it. It’s taken from the telecast of the complete opera by the Met in 2019. While the music is come scrito, the sets are quite distant from the opera’s first performances in Munich in 1870 and Bayreuth in 1876.

Next is a version for solo piano. I’m surprised that Franz Liszt, Wagner’s father-in-law, who outlived Richard by 13 years never did a piano transcription of the piece.

Here’s another version of the music as written. It’s from a concert performance of the opera in Hong Kong. It’s followed by an orchestral adaptation of the music that omits the vocal parts. It’s probably most often performed this way as it obviates the need to hire eight singers for just a few minutes of performance time. And the music works quite well as an orchestral piece.

Orchestral version of the Ride of the Valkyries

The next version is a real oddball. It’s for eight pianos. That’s right – eight! If you look carefully you’ll see the late James Levine on piano #1.

The most striking scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now is the helicopter attack on a Viet Cong held village. The Ride is an example of diegetic music. It’s played from a tape recorder through loudspeakers to encourage the bellicosity of the strike force.

The next version is very short. It’s for four trombones. There’s only so much you can do with the Ride and four trombones.

Finally, there Bugs Bunny whose career was punctuated by a lot of opera and classical music. This cartoon shows the LA Phil accompanying the cartoon. The music is all Wagner. In addition to The Ride, there’s music from The Flying Dutchman and music from Tannhäuser.

What’s Opera, Doc?