Many film-music scholars believe that if Wagner was living today, he would be a film-music composer. In his operas, he engaged all aspects of production including music, libretto, staging, lighting, costuming, etc. on an equal platform. Because of the connections between Wagnerian opera and cinematic works, it is not a surprise when the music of Richard Wagner appears in a film’s compilation score (a score using pre-existing music). You’ll notice the use of Wagner in cinema in several of my topics this month.
One example of an excellent use of Wagner in a compilation score can be found in Terrence Malick’s The New World in which he effectively uses the prelude to the opera Das Rheingold. As in Wagner’s opera, the prelude to Das Rheingold in Malick’s film symbolizes the loss of innocence leading to the destruction of a species, and the return to Mother Nature. This piece occurs three times throughout the movie.
The prelude to Das Rheingold is first heard at the very beginning of The New World. This opening scene gives viewers a glimpse at how the new world may have appeared to the explorers as they approached it in its beautiful and pure state. They had certainly found what they were looking for but little did they know at this point how mankind would come to lose the innocence of this land. Malick’s placement of the orchestral prelude during this opening scene is significant in that it signifies the beginning state of nature both in Wagner’s opera and in The New World. This state of nature that is seen at the onset of both opera and film does not last long.
Malick’s second placement of the prelude to Das Rheingold in his film is significant in that it signifies the fall of innocence. In Malick’s film, the prelude is again heard when Captain John Smith and Pocahontas discover their love for one another and declare their marriage vows in the presence of Mother Nature. Though love may seem innocent enough, it is because of this that Pocahontas eventually is to leave her family and land forever. Thus, the loss of innocence.
The third and final placement of the orchestral prelude to Das Rheingold is found during the last scene of Malick’s film. During this scene, Pocahontas is shown frolicking through the garden with her young child outside their new home in the old world. The camera then shoots to the Indian princess lying in bed, taking in her last breaths of life. Her time has come to return to nature.
If you’re interested, here’s a clip from the opening scene of Malick’s The New World which uses the prelude to Das Rheingold.
For more information on Das Rheingold to help understand these connections to the film, I recommend reading the synopsis on the Met’s website.