THERE seems a very magic about the name of Lohengrina mythical strength and beauty that at once characterize the whole opera. The fault is occasionally found that Wagner’s operas are long and at times tedious; but this term is never applied to ” Lohengrin.” One is disarmed of this suspicion in the very first prelude. Ah, what a prelude is that ! It is like the gradual drawing together from empty space all the music of the spheres. The two first measures are so pianissimo that we scarcely hear them, but the vague and far-away voices come slowly nearer. They mingle with each other and weave in and out, until there is a crescendo mighty and overpowering. We are now prepared for the legendary character of the opera; such music could not represent things earthly.
The curtain rises upon a scene of medieval coloring. It is a woodland upon the banks of the Scheldt in the province of Brabant. A throne is erected on one side, and here the king of Germany is holding court. He is visiting this province of his realm to solicit aid in a coming war. After this fact is announced by the herald, the king arises and in stately phrases greets the people and explains more fully the object of his visit. He closes with the observation that it grieves him to find this province in a state of discord, and he requests Frederick of Telramund, an esteemed noble-man of Brabant, to recount the situation.
Frederick, which is the baritone rôle, tells a strange and interesting story. The province is at present without any ducal ruler, owing to the recent mysterious disappearance of the young heir. He was last seen in company with his sister Elsa. The two were walking in the forest, but she returned alone and declared she had lost her brother. Frederick now charges Elsa with murder, and furthermore lays claim to the ducal throne in the name of himself and also his wife Ortrud, who bears some kinship to the late duke.
On hearing this charge the king summons Elsa, who presently comes forward with bowed head and sorrowful mien. This must have been a thrilling moment at that first performance in Baireuth when Lillian Nordica stepped before the audience. It was not only Elsa challenging her accusers, but an American girl challenging German critics under the dome of their most hallowed shrine, with their own music and in their own language. But whatever a singer’s emotions may be, she must give no evidence of them. It is wonderful how smoothly these great performances always run. Come what may, the play goes on.
Elsa can say no more in her behalf than has already been given; but when urged by the king to speak freely all that is on her heart, she tells of a wonderful vision which came in her hour of distress. An armored knight, more grand than any she had seen, appeared to her and promised to be her deliverer and champion. This dream-song of Elsa’s is like a musical apparition, so ethereal and spirituelle ; but one must not seek for these wonderful beauties in the voice-part alone. With Wagner the orchestra is never a mere accompaniment, but more often the principal part. A theme is sometimes begun in the orchestra and finished by the voice, or it may be altogether with the instruments. Wagner handles the voice like a noble metal which can be fashioned into useful vessels to carry and convey the emotions, in contrast to the Italian composers, who look upon the voice as a jewel to be displayed and admired for its own sake.
To return to Elsa’s song. It should be understood from the first that each theme in the opera expresses some emotion or idea which is consistently adhered to through-out. For instance, when Elsa describes the knight in her dream, there is heard in the orchestra a few bars of the Lohengrin- or swan-song, a theme ‘ which is constantly revealing itself in this great kaleidoscope of sound whenever the hero appears or is mentioned. Again, when she speaks of his glittering armor, the splendid warlike motif which asserts itself is the same one that is worked up in the crescendo preceding Lohengrin’s arrival.
After this strange recital of Elsa’s, Frederick still maintains his charge against her, and states as her motive for the crime that she hoped to gain the throne. The king decides to settle the question by single combat. Frederick must defend himself against whomever may come forward as Elsa’s champion. This custom is according to the ancient belief that ” might is right,” and that Heaven itself is the awarder of victory and defeat. The herald of the king announces, with a trumpet-call, the impending combat, and bids ” him who will fight for Elsa of Brabant to come forth at once.” The call dies away, but no one presents himself as her defender, and it appears as tho Heaven already indicates which side is right. Elsa piteously begs them to call again. Her wish is granted, and once more the cry rings forth. She falls on her knees, and in tones that vibrate with intense despair prays Heaven to send her the hero of her dream. ” Elsa’s prayer ” and “Elsa’s dream ” are two of the most beautiful soprano solos in the opera. The prayer is short, but it accomplishes a thrilling crescendo. The final climax is such a passionate outcry that we are not surprised to see an immediate answer granted.
Wagner is a master of crescendos, and he now commences one for the chorus which is truly wonderful in effect. Instead of starting all the voices pianissimo, or even part of the chorus, he starts with a single voice. One man has perceived a knight floating down the river in a boat drawn by a swan. He whispers it to his neighbor, who in turn says, ” Look ! ” and then another and another in quick succession join in exclamations, until all are singing of the strange sight. They rush to the bank, and still the wonder grows. The knight of the swan draws nearer, the orchestra crashes out its stupendous theme, the sopranos ring out above everything, and the whole chorus seems to have doubled its capacity. It is a greeting worthy of the subject, who is Lohengrin himself.
No wonder the people subside and look at him with awe as he steps upon the bank. He is clad in shining silver, with a helmet, shield, and sword. His face is fair and his hair is blonde. Before noticing the people, he turns to the swan and sings it a farewell. This song is only two lines long, and for the most part without accompaniment. It is apparently simple, and differs little from the form of a recitative, and yet so rare and strange is this melody that it portrays the legendary character of the opera more than any other phrase. It seems as tho Lohengrin is still singing in the mystical language and music of that other world from which he has come. Every one knows this song by its German name, Mein lieber Schwan,” and it is so much admired and so famous that it is actually paraphrased. A man must be great indeed to be caricatured; how much more is. this true of classical music !
Lohengrin soon comes forward and bows before the king, after which he announces that he has been sent as champion ” for a noble maid who is falsely accused.” But before entering the combat he speaks to Elsa, who has previously offered to bestow her hand and heart upon whomever would fight for her. She now reiterates this vow most gladly, and also makes another promise which the strange knight requestsshe must never ask from whence he came, nor what his name. Lest there be any misunderstanding, he repeats the impressive phrase in a higher key, and Elsa again promises. This short theme is most important. It might be described as the dark motif. It is the one most often heard when Ortrud and Frederick do their evil plotting, for it is by means of this interdiction of Lohengrin’s that they eventually succeed in accomplishing Elsa’s unhappiness.
When the two combatants face each other and all is ready, the herald again comes forward and solemnly proclaims the rules governing such contests. They are inter-testing to note : ” No one shall interfere with the fight under penalty of losing his head or his hand ; ” and furthermore, no sorcery or witchcraft shall be exerted, for Heaven alone must decide who is right. After this preliminary the king arises and prays for the just judgment of Heaven to show clearly which side is true and which is false. Wagner always favored the bass voice when possible, and so he has given to the king this splendid and impressive composition, with its rich, full chords and stirring rhythm. The chorus takes up the prayer and finishes it with inspiring breadth and grandeur. The king strikes upon his shield three times and the battle begins. It does not last long, for Frederick is soon disarmed and thrown down by Lohengrin, who, however, spares his life.
The victory has proven Elsa’s innocence and Frederick’s falsehood. The latter is disgraced utterly, while Lohengrin is regarded as Heaven’s favorite. Elsa sings forth her joy and gratitude in melodic phrases which would need no words. The music of Elsa and Lohengrin is like the music of dayit is so clear, so lucid and full of melody in contrast to the rugged, weird, and gloomy themes of Ortrud and Frederick.
The great chorus of victory is the last number of this act. t brings in with Wagner’s inimitable modulations the martial theme of the previous chorus and also Elsa’s song of praise. All excepting Ortrud and Frederick look happy and join in the singing right heartily as the curtain descends.
The second act comprises Ortrud’s great scene. This rôle may be sung by a contralto, but is better adapted to a mezzo-soprano. Ortrud is often called the operatic Lady Macbeth. She is not only as wicked and ambitious as Shakespeare’s heroine, but is also a sorceress of no mean ability. for it is she who made away with Elsa’s brother; but this fact is not revealed until the last act. She also exerted her power upon Frederick with such effect that he believed her to be a prophetess. He was sincere in his accusation against Elsa, for Ortrud told him she had witnessed the crime herself. But he is now awakened to her wickedness, and the scene opens with his maledictions against her and his abject wretchedness over his own disgrace. The two are seated upon the church steps facing the palace, where jubilant preparations are going on for the wedding of Elsa and Lohengrin, which will take place at dawn. t is yet night, and the music is deep and ominous. The dark motif and a new one which seems to represent Ortrud are the musical heart and soul of this scene. They stalk about the orchestra like restless phantoms, and are heard in all sorts of keys and instruments. After Frederick’s great harangue against his wife and fate and everything, she calmly inquires the cause of his anger. She declares that she never deceived him, and that the recent combat was unfairly influenced by Lohengrin’s sorcery. Such is her power over Frederick that he again believes and listens to her plans. She explains how Lohengrin may yet be robbed of his power and Frederick’s honor vindicated. Elsa must be induced to ask the hero his name, or he must be wounded, be it ever so slightly. Either of these methods will annihilate his power. This remarkable scene closes with a duet about revenge, which the two voices sing in unisona point indicative of their renewed unity of purpose.
The music now changes to harmonies that charm and soothe, and Elsa appears upon the balcony of her palace. The moonlight falls upon her as she clasps her hands in rapture and sings to the gentle zephyrs of her love. t is a song as peaceful as the night ; and in contrast to the recent somber and spectral themes, it beams forth like a diamond against black velvet. This solo of Elsa’s is one of the most difficult to sing because of its many sustained pianissimo tones. After the last sweet note has died away like a sigh, Ortrud, who is still seated on the steps beneath, calls to Elsa in a pleading voice. She appeals to the latter’s sympathy by announcing herself as “that most unhappy woman, Ortrud,” wife to the disgraced Frederick. “We are cursed by God and man, and welcomed nowhere.” Thus speaks the sorceress ; and Elsa, in the goodness of her heart, takes pity and impulsively offers to receive the outcast. She retires from the balcony and presently opens the door below to welcome Ortrud, who in this short interim has sung some splendid phrases of gloating animosity. But she kneels like a humble slave before the unsuspecting Elsa, who invites her to the wedding and also promises to induce Lohengrin to pardon Frederick.
As an expression of gratitude, Ortrud now offers to exert the power of prophecy for Elsa’s benefit. Prophecy and sorcery are regarded in different lights : the latter is wicked and implies collusion with the evil one, while the “prophetic eye ” is a gift to be coveted. Ortrud pretends to possess this power. She forewarns Elsa against too great confidence in her hero, and mysteriously hints that he may leave as suddenly as he came. These words are accompanied by the threatening dark motif, which hovers ever near like a lowering cloud. Elsa recoils at the thoughtthis first seed of suspicion,but she soon smiles assuredly and sings to Ortrud a lovely song about “the faith and trust that knows no doubt.” Wagner’s words are as beautiful as his music, and in this composition they seem to mount upward on the “wings of song ” like the spontaneous utterance of a pure heart. Elsa puts her arms gently about Ortrud and leads her into the palace. Frederick, who has kept in the background, watches them disappear, and the scene closes with his final descant on revenge.
After his exit the orchestra has a solo, so to speak, while the stage is occupied in rep-resenting the dawn of day. Villagers stroll in one by one, garlands are hung in honor of the wedding, and the scene becomes constantly brighter and more active. The herald appears above the gates of the palace and makes three announcements in the name of the king : First, that Frederick of Telramund is banned and shall be befriended by no none ; second, that the Heaven-favored stranger shall hereafter be called the guardian of Brabant; and, third, that this hero shall lead them soon to ” victorious war.” Then follows a chorus about the Heaven-sent guardian of Brabant, after which there is a momentary commotion caused by Frederick, who, in spite of the ban against him, comes forward and asserts that he will defy their much-lauded hero and will open their eyes to his duplicity.
But this incident is forgotten in the gorgeous scene which now commences. The wedding-guests come slowly from the palace, and wend their way in stately pro-cession toward the church. Their course is accompanied by a march of pontifical solemnity, which attains its grandest beauty when Elsa comes down the great stairway clad in robes of regal splendor. All voices join in praise for “Elsa of Brabant.”
The procession proceeds to the church ; the music increases in strength, when suddenly there is a discord. Elsa is confronted at the church entrance by Ortrud, who fiercely declares she will no longer follow like an attendant ; that she is the one to whom people should bow instead of Elsa, whose future lord comes of a land and family which he dare not tell ! Elsa is dumbfounded by this sudden onslaught from the woman she has befriended. But Ortrud maintains her position, and actually defies Elsa to ask the hero his name. This attack is diverted by the ceremonious entrance of the king and Lohengrin, to whom Elsa hastens with her grievance. Ortrud is promptly ordered aside, and the procession resumes its march. But again the solemn cathedral music crashes into a discord. Frederick, the despised one, dares to rush before the king and bar the way as he begs them to harken to his words. There is great indignation over the interruption, but Frederick so intensely cries for justice that at last even the king listens as he charges Lohengrin with sorcery. He sustains the charge by demanding Lohengrin to tell his name, if he be an honest man; if he can not do this there must be some dark secret to hide. All turn to the hero expectantly, but he only defends himself by saying that he has proven his worth in mortal combat, according to ancient usage, and that he will not answer Frederick nor even the kingonly Elsa shall be answered this question. He turns to her and finds her trembling with agitation. The orchestra tells us her thoughts, for we hear the Ortrudtheme and dark motif writhing in and out like venomous serpents. A murmuring sort of chorus about the strange secret which the hero so zealously guards is gradually re-solved into a song of allegiance and belief. The king declares Frederick unworthy of consideration. But during the jubilant chorus which follows, that Miserable steals up to Elsa and casts his final poison-shaft. He tells her that if Lohengrin were once wounded, “merely pricked in the finger,” he would then bestow upon her full confidence and never leave. Frederick further says he will “linger near the coming night,” and when she calls will enter and commit the deed without harm to Lohengrin. Elsa spurns the tempter away, and Lohengrin, who perceives him at her side, bids him forever begone. But finding Elsa even more agitated than before, he asks in the presence of all if she wishes to be told his name. She remembers her vow, and in tones of exultation declares that love is greater than doubt. The magnificent march music is again resumed, and they enter the minster without further incident, excepting the defiant gaze of Ortrud as Elsa passes ; and while the curtain descends we hear again, half hidden in the orchestra, the terrible dark motif.
There is a brilliant orchestral introduction to the third act, which represents the marriage fête. Its tempo and rhythm are positively gay, tho this is an adjective seldom appropriate to Wagner. But the hilarity has subsided by the time the curtain rises: the trumpets and cymbals are hushed, and the gentlest of music greets our ears as we look upon the bridal chamber. The voices are at first distant, but gradually approach, and the effect of their song steals over us like a potent charm. t is the weddingmarchthe ” Lohengrin Wedding-March ” ! We all know the power of that music. There are some compositions which become absorbed, as it were, by the world like important inventions or discoveries. People require certain musical forms of expression as they do artificial light, and we pity those who did without this ” Wedding-March,” or Chopin’s “Funeral March,” or the Schubert “Serenade,” as we pity our ancestors who made shift with tallow candles instead of incandescent lamps. The charm of the “Wedding-March ” is not diminished be. cause we know it so well. With Wagner as with Beethoven, every hearing reveals new beauties. When the chorus at last leaves Elsa and Lohengrin alone, we echo his first words : “The sweet song now is ended.”
But our regrets are quickly appeased by the delicious love-duet which follows. t is a scene of rapt delightof happiness too great to last. Not in vain did we have the dark motif jangled in our ears when the curtain last descended ; it meant trouble in the coming act, as we soon perceive. Elsa wishes she knew his namejust to speak it lovingly as he does hers. Then Lohengrin points to the open window through which the moonlight streams upon them, and he sings of the perfumed air which they enjoy without questioning its cause or source ; thus, he says, should they love. The exquisite melody of this song seems to exhale from his heart like fragrance from a flower. It is redolent of tenderest love.
The nobility and beauty of Lohengrin’s character so impress themselves, that Elsa feels oppressed with her own unworthiness. She wishes she might do something heroic to prove her love. For instance, if he would confide to her his secret, she would guard it so faithfully that death itself could not wrest it from her! Very sweetly and beautifully does she coax for this token of trust on his part. Lohengrin replies most gently that he has trusted her already by believing that she would keep her vow. Then he says she little knows how much she is to him ; that no earthly honornot the king’s kingdomcould replace what he has left. Only Elsa, his bride, can recompense the sacrifice; for not from night and grief does he come, but from a home of joy and pride.
Like a flash does this remind Elsa of Ortrud’s prophecy that he may leave her. The Ortrud-theme swoops down upon the orchestra and settles there like an ill-omened bird. The director’s baton may send it away for a moment, but down it comes again, and the dark motif with it. Poor Elsa becomes almost frenzied. She believes Lohengrin will long for his beautiful home, which even now he can not forget. She sees in her mind’s eye the swan-boat approaching to take him away. Lohengrin speaks reassuringly; but the spell is upon her, and nothingnothing can give her peace but to know the truth. With mounting tones, the last one of which is like an outcry, she asks the fatal question. Lohengrin gives an exclamation of grief.
At this moment the door is burst open by Frederick, who with drawn sword has come to wound the hero, or, more probably, to kill him. Elsa at once recognizes his intention, and frantically bids Lohengrin defend himself. With a single thrust he kills his would-be assassin.
This intense and tragic climax is followed by a lull. Elsa has fallen half-swooning on the couch, and Lohengrin stands sorrowfully to one side. He at last exclaims slowly and sadly : ” Now is our sweet joy fled ; ” and then we hear in the orchestra, faint and beautiful as a memory,. that first love-duet. t is only a fragment, a fleeting thought, but so touching and pathetic that we could weep with Lohengrin for the harmony that is gone.
The last act is short and almost entirely taken up by Lohengrin’s story and farewell. The scenery is the same as in the first act, and the entire chorus of noblemen and soldiers again assemble before the king. They have not yet heard of the tragic event which ended the last act, and are therefore surprised when a bier is carried in and placed solemnly before them. t bears the body of Frederick. They are still more surprised when Elsa enters, pale and dejected, and then their hero, who appears equally sad. But surprise reaches its climax when they hear him announce that he can not be their leader.
Lohengrin wastes no words. After the first assertion he informs them of Frederick’s death ; whereupon all voices declare his fate to be most just, and the body is re-moved. Lohengrin then announces that Elsa, his wife, has broken the vow which they all heard her make, and he has come before them to answer her question and dispel the mad suspicion which a wily tempter implanted in her heart, They shall all learn his name and heritage, and may then judge whether he was worthy of their trust. The people wonder with awe-hushed voices what revelation is in store, and then there floats in the orchestra the soft tremolo of the swan-music, as Lohengrin tells them of a distant land called Montsalvat, where is a radiant temple. And in this temple is guarded a sacred vessel which possesses wonder-powers. A dove descends from heaven once every year to renew its marvelous strength. This treasure-blessing is called the ” Grail,” and to its chosen votaries a matchless power is given. These knights of the Grail are sent abroad as champions of innocence and truth, and they may tarry so long as their name is unknown. But the Grail’s blessing is too pure and holy to be regarded by common eyes, and if disclosed its champion must leave at once. Lohengrin adds that this penalty now falls on him, for he is a knight of the Grail: his father, great Parsifal, wears its crown, and ” I am Lohengrin.”
As in the first prelude and swan-song, the harmonies of this last great recital seem not of earth but from another sphere ; they linger and abide with us like a beautiful blessing. This silver – clad knight of the Grail has been singing of a hallowed mystery whose purity and spirituality are revealed more in the music than by the words. After bidding farewell to the hapless Elsa, from whom he must part in spite of her piteous appeals, there comes gliding upon the river the swan-boat. He sings a sad welcome to the swan, and then announces to Elsa that could he have remained one year, through the mercy of the Grail her brother would have returned. He hands her his sword and horn and ring to give this brother if ever he comes back. The sword and horn will impart strength and victory, and the ring shall remind him of ” Lohengrin who loved Elsa and was her champion.”
A jarring interruption is now created by Ortrud, who cries out with reckless triumph that the swan who serves Lohengrin is the bewitched brother, and that Elsa has herself to thank for causing the hero’s departure, which forever prevents the young Duke’s return. On hearing this mocking invection from the sorceress, Lohengrin clasps his hands in a fervent prayer, which is at once answered. A dove descends from heaven and touches the swan, which is immediately changed into the young heir. He rushes forward to embrace his sister, while Lohengrin steps into the boat, which is drawn away by the dove it floats silently down the beautiful river, and the hero stands sorrowfully leaning upon his silver shield. This is our last glimpse of Lohengrin, the Knight of the Grail.