In the final act of the opera Siegfried, the third of the Ring series, the hero has broken his grandfather Wotan’s spear and braved the magic fire to find the sleeping Brünnhilde. He never has seen a woman before, but he quickly determines that she is not a man and vaguely recollects his mother, who died in childbirth. He kisses her, and the orchestra wanders into a loud B-major seventh chord that is announced in a grand crescendo over two measures in which the tempo slows to a stop. The B-major seventh loudly resolves on what, at first hearing, seems to be its tonic, in the form of an E-minor chord that appears to be the harmonic goal of the whole passage (although Wagner leaves room for doubt by sounding the E-minor triad in the brass only, and in the middle register rather than the bass). The E-minor triad diminishes in volume (“very slowly,” according to the composer’s instruction), and its upper tone B resolves upward into C major. The tone B, which we first heard as an element of E minor, turns out to be the leading tone, or seventh step, in C major.
Retrospectively, we reinterpret the B3 as a leading tone in C major, which resolves upward in the expected way; the grandly announced E-minor chord that so beguiled us was not really a chord at all but, rather, temporary support for the passing motion of the seventh to the eighth step. We thought we were in one place and, to our surprise, find ourselves in another—a purely musical evocation of the passage from a sleeping to a waking state. It is, both literally and figuratively, “somewhere over the rainbow” in reverse: As the leading tone rises to the tonic in its delayed resolution, we return from dream to reality.
Brünnhilde’s awakening alters a well-worn compositional gesture to achieve a novel effect, which we might call retrospective reinterpretation. We hear backward from the eventual resolution to C major. Musical time has virtually stopped, for we stand transfixed at the juncture of two states: Brünnhilde’s somnolent divinity and her awakening into mortality. It is a musical effect that breaks up the longer-range motion of the work rather than propelling it forward.