Friday, September 21, 2007

More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Hojotoho

So in my last post I asked a trivia question of my readers, to see if anyone knew the significance of the post's title "Hojotoho!"

Jason Santymire, an old friend of mine from the Bay Area, came back with the answer: "It is the 5th melody of the Valkyrie where they yell out hojotoho with the woodwinds on the last measure sounding like a horse...."

Now, the arrow didn't hit the bullseye, but it didn't miss the target entirely, either. This fact is in and of itself amazing, because--whatever other qualities Jason has, and he has many great qualities in abundance--I don't think any of his friends or acquaintances would have suspected that he had a deep store of Opera knowledge locked up in that wrinkly brain of his.

And I figured to myself, that the answer to this riddle was most likely contained in his login name, Jason "Google Me" Santymire (emphasis added). So, I decided to call his bluff, and I asked him why I'd decided to use this term as the title of my post.

I got this email in response, entitled "Curious Minds Want To Know!"

I would assume you are referring to the knight and horse book you had purchased reminded you of the epic battle portrayed in The Valkyrie, especially where in the fourth scene in the second act where Siegmund meets Brünnhilde and she decides to protect him in the battle.


Jason Santymire

That settles it. He googled it all. He don't know nuttin'. But he did manage to put the umlaut in Brünnhilde, and that counts for something. ;-)

So, since curious minds want to know, here's the answer to my trivia questions, along with more than you ever wanted to know about Valkyries.


I'll start with the simple questions first. These pictures:

...reminded me of Valkyries--midget Valkyries, to be sure, but they looked pretty imposing nonetheless. And in Richard Wagner's opera Die Walküre, the battle-cry of the Valkyries in the first scene of the third act is "Hojotoho!" Don't ask me to explain the fevered workings of Wagner's brain; no one else has been able to figure out the meaning of the phrase either. (Although it's apparently pronounced "HohYoh Toh.... HO!" with the emphasis on the last syllable.)

Great. I'm reminded of that timeless quotation by Noah:

"Right! [pause] What's a cubit?"

What's a Valkyrie? And why did the above pictures remind me of them? And who was this Wagner guy, anyway?

The Valkyries (from two words meaning slain+choosers) were divine warrior maidens in Nordic Mythology. They were generally daughters of the chief god Odin (or Wotan or Woden, depending on the regional variation), but in some sources you find a Valkyrie daughter of Thor or someone else. At any rate, their job was to collect the souls of warriors slain on the battlefield and take them to the gods' fortress of Valhalla (meaning slain+halls, Halls of the dead), where they would train for the big battle to come at the end of time. They were described in the Nordic sagas as beautiful, fearsome young ladies with armor, shields, and spears, who would swoop down over battlefields on their flying horses to harvest the souls of the dead.

Now, the German composer Richard Wagner--who lived in the late 19th century--was a German nationalist who was fascinated with the old Germanic and Nordic mythos. He decided to take an old Norse legend, the Niebelungenlied (meaning Song of the Dwarves, I think) and write it into Opera form. Now, this is a huge saga with many story elements that are familiar to readers of Tolkien and other fantasy writers, including a Cursed Ring of Power that ultimately causes the death of everyone who attempts to possess it. And as Wagner worked on the story, it got longer, and longer... until in order to do justice to the story, he had to break it into a cycle of four operas, each one longer than the last--something like fifteen hours of opera by the time the whole thing is done. The central character in this cycle is the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, the youngest of the Valkyries, and Wotan's favorite.

And yes, at the end of the Ring Cycle (as it's called), everyone dies.

Anyway, here's a clip from the second opera in the series, Die Walküre, Third Act, opening scene. The music to this scene has popularly become known as the "Ride of the Valkyries".

Unfortunately there aren't many versions of this scene on YouTube, and I don't particularly like this staging. The music is supposed to evoke the war-steeds of the shield maidens swooping through the storm onto the battlefield; this staging doesn't evoke that vision at all. It rather has the Valkyries dragging dead bodies around like a bunch of looters. I almost expect one of the bodies to sit up and protest, "I'm not dead yet!"

Now, there are a couple of things worth remembering about Richard Wagner. First, as I mentioned above, he was a strong Nationalist. To his thinking, Germany was the pinnacle of civilization, German Culture was superior to all other culture, German thinking was superior to all other thinking, and so on. The worth of other cultures was directly tied to how much they had in common with German Culture. This thinking led Wagner to reject most of the traditional sources of ideas for writing Opera. All these cute little stories that involve lovers and mistaken identities, all those stories from the Bible or from history, all those stories from recent novels--Wagner rejected all of them in favor of Germanic, Nordic, and even Celtic legends--most of which were pretty grim, actually. So far as he was concerned, these sources produced ideas far more inspiring and far more instructive than any other sources. And just as Wagner thought that German Culture was the pinnacle of civilization, he saw the Jews as the enemies of German Civilization (and thus of civilization in general). He was quite anti-semitic, and one of his operas (Parsifal) even sports Jewish villains.

So when the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, Wagner and his music were practically worshipped. Ever since then there has been an unfortunate association in the minds of many between Wagner's music and White Supremacy. Wikipedia mentions two movies that use the Ride of the Valkyries theme: the highly controversial Birth of a Nation, that uses this music when the oppressed white people rise up and throw off their black oppressors; and Apocalypse Now, which uses this music during an airborne raid in which Americans destroy a Vietnamese village. So Wagner's music does have some dark connotations to it in popular culture--which is a shame, because it's very well-written, stirring, intellectual music. (There's just so much of it....)

The other thing to remember about Wagner is that he was really really pretentious. He practically had no sense of humor about his work; he took himself way too seriously. He saw his work as an homage to the accomplishments of the mighty German Culture, and a worthy addition to it; he saw Opera as the most complete, the most intellectual, the finest form of art around. He even coined a term for it: Gesamtkunstwerk, the Total Art Work, because it embodied everything else: poetry, literature, music, theater, architecture, and all kinds of engineering. So while his operas are genuinely magnificent accomplishments, they tend to be pretty grim, joyless affairs that are frequently hard to sit through all the way, unless you're in a serious mood. One's brain gets tired pretty quickly in a typical Wagner opera, and it takes someone of seriously firm fortitude to make it all the way through the four operas of the Ring Cycle.

And in a way, Wagner unwittingly did the whole genre of Opera a big disservice. After all, when someone like my friend Jason thinks of Opera, what does he imagine? He imagines big women standing around on stage with a spear, shield, armored boobs, and horned helmet, and singing as loudly as is humanly possible. Well, guess what? That image comes directly from the Ring Cycle! That big woman with the armored boobs and horned helmet is Brünhilde! This is where that whole image comes from! Not that I have anything wrong with armored boobs--like most guys, I think they greatly improve whatever artistic endeavor employs them. Nevertheless, this idea that "That's what opera is;" this grim, joyless, Wagnerian worldview, is in my opinion one of the reasons that Opera is disdained by so much of the population--which is sad, because nearly everyone I know who has ever gotten up the gumption to go to an opera has absolutely loved it. So if you haven't been to one yet, by all means go! But don't start with Wagner, start with someone a little easier, like Rossini, or Mozart or even Gilbert and Sullivan.

Anyway, Wagner's pretension, his demand that we all take him and his music so seriously is a big part of the reason why the following clip is so funny. And the more you know about Wagner and the Ring Cycle, the funnier it gets. (One piece of advice: try to make it at least partway through the Walküre clip above before watching this one. Having seen the former will enhance the experience of watching this one. And listen for the "Hojotoho!" Believe it or not, I hadn't caught it before tonight.)

Now, the concept of the Valkyrie has proven to be a compeling one in popular culture. The very idea of ghostly shield-maidens swooping down upon the battle to grant victory or inflict defeat is so cool that people want to use it over and over and over. Consider, for example, this beast:

That, my friends, is the North American XB-70 Valkyrie, our attempt in the 1950s and 1960s to build a Mach 3 bomber. This plane did reach Mach 3 on numerous occasions (before crashing after its massive wingtip vortex sucked one of its chase planes into a mid-air collision). By the time we built it, the threat of surface-to-air missles had convinced us to change our air power doctrines away from high-speed high-altitude bombers like this one toward lower altitude tactics for which this kind of plane wasn't appropriate, but that doesn't take anything away from the sheer beastliness of the machine itself.

And while we're looking at Valkyries of all types, who could overlook the Honda Valkyrie:

Now, I don't even ride--but even as a lifelong door-banger, I have to admit: That is a thing of beauty.

So, Jason! Um... You still here, or did I lose you back about the point where I was talking about seriously firm fortitude? ;-) Hope you found this whole thing useful. If not, eh... you'll live.


Jason "Ho-tojam-o" Santymire said...

My dear friend, your use of the english language and power of photo insertion has not diminished one bit since the first time we have met. Very interesting post and very enlighting. Thank you for correcting me as you had rightly assumed I hadn't the foggiest idea what Ho-tojam-mo meant until I revved up my search engine. But I must correct you on one thing. When I think of Opera I do not think of plus sized women with eye pokers, yet I think of the Nutcracker (or are they synonomous?).

Timothy Power said...


I love ya, man. But, um... the Nutcracker was a ballet, not an opera.

But that doesn't change the fact that I still love ya, man...


Chris said...

My guess (which is certainly from an uninformed distance) is that you lost him not at "seriously firm fortitude", but rather at "armoured boobs".

That's when I started straying from the line of thought.

Gary B said...


For reasons I'm not sure I understand, I thought you might be interested in this brief gig:

Viking wanted

Gary Brewer

pjd said...

Very erudite and amusing. Found this by searching for hojotoho.

jlr said...

What pjd said.

APatriot1 said...

Nicely written, however in the opera, Brünnhilde has a winged helmet, not horns.

Anonymous said...

Wagner did the world of opera a disservice? It's no secret that Wagner was a wretched little man and an antisemite. His music, on the other hand, is utterly glorious and is seemingly universal in its themes, ideologies and appeal. There is nothing about his music or the stories it is set upon that wreaks of German Nationalism. I defy anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Wagner to challenge me on that one. Yes, the music was exploited by the Third Reich, but they only put his works under a microscope- looking for elements that could be exploited. As a result- his works will forever be stained by his antisemitism and the horror of German Nationalism and the Third Reich, but it's a stain on a vast array of colors and textures that make up the whole of his work. I can reconcile the man with his music- some people cannot. That is fair in my eyes. I don't defend Wagner the man, but I will defend his music till my dying breath. There is a lot the author does not know about Wagner. In fact, the summary of all the author does not know about him is more or less the reason why, I think, he has come to the conclusion that Wagner has done the opera world a disservice. On the contrary, Wagner revolutionized the world of opera and changed it forever. If the author did his homework, he would know that. A wikipedia search is insufficient, I'm afraid. In closing, it is not my intent to prowl this person's blog like some decrepit troll. I'm just so passionate about Wagner's music that I felt an overwhelming desire to defend it when I read this blog.

Paul R said...

Great blog, fella! I'm with pjd...

Grover said...

There's a cool version of Walkure now on youtube by Kirsten Flagstad, with an intro by Bob Hope.
Not many people know this next bit, but Odin (father of the legendary Walkure)was a real person, an ancestor of Scandinavian Kings and descendant of Noah. He features in most ancient European histories, in the genealogies of the royals.

Dave Glo said...

Sorry, but I'm going to call you out! In "Die Meistersinger," 3rd act, near the end: the lead character Hans Sachs, who otherwise is one of the kindest, warmest, smartest characters in all opera, suddenly interrupts his monologue that is straight out of National Socialism. It's shocking. Where did this speech come from? Totally out of character for Sachs. Cringeworthy. Full of dire warnings about 'alien' (meaning Jewish) influences on pure German culture. People sometimes say there is antisemitism in Parsifal and the Ring, but you have to look pretty hard to find it. In Meistersinger, however, it's right there for everyone to see.