Brünnhilde’s Horse

The following is an excerpt from Richard Wagner: The Lighter Side by Terry Quinn.

In Götterdämmerung, the final opera of The Ring, Brünnhilde’s horse is named Grane. At the climax  of Act III Wagner’s stage direction calls for Brünnhilde to mount Grane and ride into the flames of Siegfried’s funeral pyre and the burning Valhalla. Most directors consider that discretion is the better part of valor, and Brünnhilde addresses her comments to an offstage Grane. In some productions a mock horse has been used, but this has often had an unwanted comical effect just as the production approaches its emotional climax.

At Bayreuth in 1926 the horse playing the part of Grane kicked out and injured both Siegfried and a stagehand, who suffered a broken ankle. No singers or stagehands were injured by the Grane in the 1939 production, but the unfortunate horse could not stand the excitement and died after the first act. A replacement horse was found and performed admirably.

In the 2001 and 2005 productions of the Seattle Opera Ring, the director, Stephen Wadsworth, used a real horse, although not for Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene. The horse, a handsome animal with a gleaming black coat, made a surprise appearance in Götterdämmerung. When Brünnhilde and Siegfried trade gifts before he leaves her mountain cave, he gives Brünnhilde the ring and she tells him that she will give him her horse, Grane. Brünnhilde, played by Jane Eaglen, walked offstage and seconds later reappeared leading the magnificent animal, at which point the normally silent Seattle audience collectively gasped. Siegfried, played by Alan Woodrow, held the horse on a short bridle to reduce the chances of an unplanned movement. But he need not have worried. Grane performed beautifully during the short walk along the mountain path high on Brünnhilde’s rock. The  horse took a good long at the sea of faces to its left before rounding the rock to make his exit.

Speight Jenkins, general director of the Seattle Opera, revealed later that contrary to Wagner’s specification, the role of Grane was played by a filly called Blackie, but it is safe to assume that few in the audience noticed or cared. When the Wadsworth Ring returned years later, the role of Grane was played by Star. The prize for bravery must go to the director of the Vienna Opera’s first production of The Ring in 1877. It featured eight Valkyries hurtling around the stage on live horses. The director had enlisted the help of the riding teacher of Empress Elizabeth to help train the eight army horses borrowed for the occasion. He also hired accomplished Polish horsemen who were outfitted with wigs and helmets and doubled as Valkyries for the scene.

Live horses had been used the year before, in the first Bayreuth Ring, but there Wagner decided to take no risks, and the singers walked the horses onto the stage. In Vienna no punches were pulled, and even the critic Eduard Hanslick found the sight appealing. It all went according to plan. The only problem was complaints from the Polish riders that the music was too loud.

However, it was not such smooth going for Amalie Materna, the Vienna Brünnhilde. During  rehearsals she had problems with the horse playing the part of Grane and could not persuade it to stand still. The director, Franz Ritter von Jauner, came up with a cunning plan. He hid a soldier from the Army Service Corps behind a stage rock and instructed him to feed the horse a handful of oats whenever it became restless. But there were some negative audience reactions, according to Marcel Prawy in his book The Vienna Opera:

“Malicious tongues maintained that every now and then a great red orb came bobbing out from behind the rock; it was generally assumed to be  the rising sun—in fact it was only the seat of the soldier’s trousers.”

Richard Wagner: The Lighter Side appeals to classical music and opera enthusiasts in general, but particularly the many thousands of members of the 135 Wagner Societies around the world. There are many books about every aspect of Wagner’s life and works, but none has focused on the trivia, the interesting facts, anecdotes, and quotations about the man and his operas. For more than twenty years, Terry Quinn has collected information on each of Wagner’s 13 completed operas and the difficulties encountered in staging them; famous Wagnerian directors, conductors, and singers; key persons in the composer’s life, especially the women, not to mention the dysfunctional Wagner family; Wagner’s visits to London; the festival and theater he created in Bavaria; and a great deal more. Also included are interviews with current Wagnerian scholars.


Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group, the trade book division of Hal Leonard Corporations, publishes books on the performing arts under the imprints Hal Leonard Books, Backbeat Books, Amadeus Press, and Applause Theatre and Cinema Books.

Posted on September 16, 2013, in Classical & Opera and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Sally Milne and Dale Salter

    Newly come to the Ring Cycle and Wagner…Really interested in feminist interpretations of the Ring Cycle especially Brunnhilde’s role. Any suggestions gratefully received.

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