“Lohengrin,” a grand opera in three acts, with words and music by Richard Wagner, was first presented in Weimar, Aug. 28, 1850, under the direction of Liszt. It was produced so frequently during the next decade, a period spent by Wagner in exile, that he once remarked, ” I shall soon be the only German who has not heard Lohengrin.”
Its story is the blending of three legends, but the basic one is that of King Arthur and the Holy Grail.
Lohengrin. Frederick of Telramund. King Henry. Elsa of Brabant. Ortrud. Saxons and Thuringian nobles, retainers, trumpeters, maidens.
The scene of the opera is laid in Antwerp in the Tenth Century. Henry I. of Germany, surnamed the Fowler, has come thither to raise an army to send against the Huns, who are on the eve of an invasion. He finds Brabant stirred to its depths by the dreadful news that Elsa, daughter of the late Duke, while strolling in the wood with her younger brother, Godfrey, has murdered him to gain the sovereignty for herself. Telramund, guardian of Elsa and Godfrey, has previously been rejected by the maiden and is now the husband of Ortrud, daughter of the Prince of Friesland. Upon this marriage, Telramund bases his claim to the dukedom.
The curtain rises upon a meadow scene upon the banks of the River Scheldt, where King Henry is seated under the Oak of Justice, surrounded by his army and his nobles. Telramund retells the story to the king and voices his belief that Elsa has committed the unnatural deed to bestow the dukedom upon an unworthy lover. Thereupon, the king orders, that she shall be brought before him at once, to con-firm by trial her guilt or innocence.
When she comes, the sweetness and guilessness of her aspect win her instant favor, yet when the king questions her she can only exclaim, ” My poor brother ! ” Finally breaking her silence as if bidden by some unseen power, she sings in terms of wondrous beauty of a splendid knight who will be sent from heaven to be her champion. The people are so impressed by her words and demeanor that they refuse to believe her guilty and the chagrined Telramund declares it is his right to settle the matter by personal encounter if any champion will appear for Elsa. Accordingly, the trumpets are blown and the herald cries, ” Who will do battle here on life or death for Elsa of Brabant let him appear ! ”
Twice does the herald make the cry and there is no response. In her suspense, Elsa drops to her knees in prayer but as the trumpets sound for a third time, the people see approaching a gleaming boat drawn by a white swan and in it standing a beautiful knight, clad in silver armor. As the stranger bids his swan farewell, Elsa recognizes in him, Lohengrin, the knight of her dreams. He offers to appear for her on condition that, if he is successful, she will grant him her hand but that she never will question him as to his name or origin nor seek in any way to discover them. To both of these conditions she gladly agrees.
The struggle is of short duration, for the strength and dexterity of Lohengrin seem more than natural and Telramund is felled at one blow, amid the rejoicing of the people whose hearts are not with him. The Swan Knight spares his life, however, and the Saxon youths lift Elsa and her victor on their shields.
Night has fallen when the curtain rises again. We see Telramund and Ortrud, shorn of their honors, sitting upon the Minster steps and plotting revenge. Telramund is inclined to give up, but Ortrud, like another Lady Macbeth, declares herself unconquered. She tells him that the contest was won with magic arts and that if Elsa may be induced to disobey Lohengrin’s injunctions concerning the questioning as to his name and origin, both the strange Knight and Elsa will be at their mercy. While they engage in this discussion, Elsa appears on her balcony, transfigured with happiness, and sings of her love to the evening breezes. Ortrud accosts her with pretended humility and the gentle Elsa, too willing to forgive, hastens down and promises to intercede with the King in her behalf. The real object of the interview has been accomplished, for Ortrud casually but dextrously has succeeded in planting in the girl’s mind the seeds of doubt in regard to her bride-groom.
When the day dawns, the heralds announce the marriage of Elsa and the Swan Knight. The nobility assembles at the Minster Gate and the bridal procession begins to issue from the castle. At the church door Ortrud, richly attired and no longer wrapped in humility, pushes aside the bride, claiming precedence over one who does not know even the name and rank of her bridegroom. The King and his attendants and the Swan Knight approach from the palace but scarcely has Lohengrin soothed the agitation of his bride, when Telramund appears upon the steps and openly accuses him of sorcery. All refuse credence to the charge, however, and the procession passes into the church.
The third act takes place on the evening of the same day. Lohengrin and his bride, accompanied by her ladies, are conducted to the bridal chamber to the strains of the Bridal Chorus. The attendants depart and Elsa and Lohengrin are for the first time by themselves. But the doubts sown by the wicked Ortrud have been growing and at last overcome the present joy. No longer able to resist, Elsa gently chides her lord for failing in confidence in her and enforces with caresses her pleas for knowledge of him. He tries to lead her thoughts to other things but her foolish heart is full of the fear that the swan boat will come and bear him away as suddenly as it brought him to her. Finally she fancies she hears it coming, and, as her apprehension grows to frenzy, she puts the fatal question, ” Who art thou? ”
Before the sorrowing Lohengrin can frame an answer, Telramund and his assassins force their way into the room to take his life but the Swan Knight seizes his sword and kills Telramund with a single thrust.
The last scene takes place on the banks of the Scheldt, where the King and his men are again assembled and where the corpse of Telramund is brought. Hither comes Lohengrin with the pale and drooping Elsa and before the assembly he answers the forbidden question. He has no need to blush for his lineage, for he is no other than the son of Parsifal, the keeper of the Holy Grail, sent from Montsalvat to defend the oppressed. It has been sacredly decreed that he may remain on earth only on condition that his identity be kept unknown.
As he is speaking, the swan bark appears and, bidding a last farewell to the sorrowing Elsa, Lohengrin turns to the river amid the lamentations of the people. Only Ortrud enjoys the moment. Now she taunts Elsa with her lack of faith and confesses that the swan is Godfrey enchanted by her magic arts. As he hears this, Lohengrin kneels in prayer upon the river’s bank and the white doves of the Grail are seen hovering over his head. He perceives them and, rising to his feet, loosens the golden chain which binds the swan to the skiff. The bird dives into the water and in its place rises a young knight clad in silver armor. It is Godfrey, and Elsa is soon clasped in the embrace of her brother. Lohe ngrin is borne swiftly away in his boat drawn now by the doves, and as he vanishes over the waters of the Scheldt, Elsa sinks lifeless to the ground.
” Lohengrin,” with ” Tannhäuser,” enjoys the greatest popular favor of all the Wagner operas. It was received with public approval even when first presented and proved a potent factor in ultimately bringing success to the Wagner movement in Germany. It was ” Lohengrin ” which first interested and so wonderfully impressed Ludwig of Bavaria, that there was aroused in him the admiration which led to his proffer to the composer of a haven at his court. ” Lohengrin ” is difficult to surpass in romantic and poetic beauty and, while dealing with the mythical, is much easier of comprehension than either ” The Ring of the Nibelungs ” or ” Parsifal,” owing largely to the philosophical element being absent.
Among admired portions of the score are the wondrously beautiful prelude, which pictures in tones the appearance of the Holy Grail in a sky of unclouded blue, its descent to earth, and its return to its heavenly resting place ; Elsa’s description of her vision of Lohengrin, ” Einsam in trüben Tagen” (” Lonely in days of sadness”); Lohengrin’s farewell to the swan, ” Nun sei gedankt, mein lieber Schwan ” (” Now fare thee well, beloved swan”) ; Elsa’s song from the balcony, ” Euch Lüften, die mein Klagen ” (” Ye breezes, which so often “) ; the bridal chorus of Elsa’s maidens, used as a processional at numberless weddings, ” Treulich geführet ziehet dahin ” (” Faithful and true “) ; the love duet following and Lohengrin’s farewell on the banks of the Scheldt.