Opera: Tannhauser – Richard Wagner

“Tannhauser,” or “The Singer’s Contest at the Wartburg,” a grand romantic opera in three acts with text and music by Richard Wagner, was first presented at the Royal Opera, Dresden, Oct. 20, 1845.


Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia. Tannhäuser. Wolfram von Eschenbach. Walter von der Vogelweide. minstrels. Biterolf. Heinrich der Schreiber. Reimar von Zweter. Elisabeth, niece of the Landgrave. Venus. A young herdsman. The Thuringian nobility. Ladies, pages, old and young pilgrims, sirens, naiads, nymphs and bacchantes.

Holda, the Teutonic Venus, makes her abode in a cavern in the mountain Hörselberg or Venusberg, where, surrounded by her train, the goddess holds her voluptuous court. She dwells thus near the haunts of men to be better able to lure them into slavery. Among her victims is Tannhäuser, one of the most famous of the Thuringian minstrels, who has left the world above to bask in the fatal beauty of the goddess and to enjoy the lustful pleasures of her kingdom. We are afforded in the opera a glimpse of the outer fairness of this sensual monarchy. We see the grotto extending to interminable distances and bathed in rosy light. We behold the form of Venus stretched upon a couch, while Tannhäuser reclines beside her, his head reposing in her lap. Lovers idle languidly, half tired of caresses; nymphs sway to voluptuous music; a procession of bacchantes reels through a drunken dance; by the lake are seen the gleaming figures of bathing naiads and from its distant surface floats the invitation of the sirens.

Amid such seductive scenes has the straying minstrel dwelt for many months. But the soul-destroying pleasures afforded by the high priestess of love have not yet brought forgetfulness and Tannhäuser now remembers the life in the outer world with its simple but wholesome duties and pleasures. Especially does he recall the fairest and gentlest of maidens, who once thrilled to his songs in the musical tournament, — the Princess Elisabeth, niece of the Land-grave.

At the beginning of the action, a longing to return to his own world has awakened in the breast of Tannhäuser. Venus, vexed and disappointed to find her influence waning, breaks into impassioned arguments to prove his folly. But the man’s human heart speaks conclusively :

Alas, ’tis but the gods supernal Find joy and bliss in love eternal; My heart longs not alone for pleasure, Of grief, too, it must have its measure.

At last Venus overwhelms her dissatisfied guest with maledictions and hints that he already has remained too long with her to hope for salvation.

” I shall be saved by the Virgin’s grace,” he exclaims and at the sound of the holy name which has not crossed his lips for a year, Venus and her kingdom disappear.

Tannhäuser finds himself in a quiet green valley near the Castle of the Wartburg, with the blue sky of heaven above him. There is a wayside shrine near by and, in place of bacchanal revels, there comes to his ears the tinkle of the bells of cows and the voice of a herdsman singing on a knoll. He hears in the distance the notes of a hymn issuing from the lips of a party of pilgrims as they move along the mountain path on their way to Rome. The vocal expression of their simple faith awakens in Tannhäuser a sincere desire for repentance and forgiveness.

He sinks to his knees before the shrine and is discovered there by a hunting party, which includes the Land-grave and the minstrels, Wolfram von Eschenbach being among the latter. They urge their old comrade to return to the Wartburg. Feeling himself now alien and oppressed by a sense of remorse, he refuses, until the noble Wolfram, who himself loves Elisabeth, speaks her name and tells him that since his disappearance she has grown wan and has sought only seclusion. Tannhäuser, deeply moved, embraces his whilom associates and moves on with them to the Wartburg, led by the thought of again seeing Elisabeth.

The second act takes place in the hall of the minstrels in the Wartburg, whose threshold Elisabeth, who has learned of Tannhäuser’s return, crosses now for the first time in many months. Wolfram and Tannhäuser enter and Tannhäuser falls at the feet of the agitated princess, who tells him that he should not kneel in a hall which as a singer is his kingdom by right. So pure is her mind and spirit that the possibility that he can be touched with dishonor does not occur to her and she gladly exchanges with him a confession of love, while Wolfram in the background watches what can but mean the death of his own hopes. The knights and ladies assemble and the Landgrave announces as the theme of the song contest, ” The nature and power of Love.” He hints that the hand of the Princess Elisabeth shall be the prize, for he has fathomed her heart and remembers Tannhäuser’s former supremacy as a singer.

Wolfram’s name is drawn first and he sings of a chaste ideal as pure as crystalline waters, an ideal which he is con-tent to worship from afar, lifting his eyes to it as to a star. Walter von der Vogelweide voices his poetical conviction that the crystal fountain’s sacred treasure is spiritual bliss rather than lawless pleasure. But Tannhäuser, as if again under the spell of Venus and mindful only of the voluptuous joys of unholy love, scoffs at their pale ideals in impassioned terms and even boldly recommends the delights of Venus’ abode. Expressions of horror are heard on every hand and women hastily rush from the hall. As the knights press upon Tannhäuser with drawn swords, Elisabeth, who has remained behind, springs forward and begs that he be not forever doomed to hell but that he be allowed time to live and repent. Touched by her pleading, his accusers draw back. The sensual madness of Tannhäuser slips from him like a besmirched garment and he falls prostrate. The Landgrave advises him to seek grace in the Eternal City and, as the song of a party of young pilgrims floats up from the valley, the disgraced and repentant singer hastens to join them.

A weary stretch of time has elapsed before the third and last act, the scene of which is again the peaceful valley overlooked by the stately towers of the Wartburg. Count-less hours have been spent by the saintly Elisabeth praying before the wayside shrine for Tannhäuser’s salvation and safe return, the devoted Wolfram watching over her from a distance. They are discovered there when the curtain rises. There steals upon their ears the chant of returning pilgrims rejoicing in their home-coming. Elisabeth, in an agony of suspense, scans the procession of devotees for a glimpse of Tannhäuser. He is not among those who have come back from Rome!

As the song dies away and the sun goes down, she turns again to the shrine. With all desire for earth banished by Tannhäuser’s failure to return, she prays to the Virgin for death and, feeling that its wing already has brushed her cheek, she sadly declines the proffered escort of Wolfram, bids him farewell in pathetic silence and walks slowly homeward. Wolfram, having watched until she has disappeared, seats himself at the foot of the hill and, taking his harp, sings of his love to the evening star. The shades of night settle deeper and deeper and Tannhäuser, clad in tattered pilgrim’s garments and leaning dejectedly upon his staff, makes a weary progress up the mountain path. Wolfram recognizes him with difficulty but, when questioned, Tannhäuser tells of a fruitless pilgrimage to Rome. Upheld by the thought of Elisabeth and her faith, he voluntarily bore the severest penance; walked on thorns and stones with bleeding feet; refused to quench his thirst in days of raging heat and stretched his weary limbs in snow and ice; leaving all comforts for those who were less sin-burdened. But when, the journey accomplished, he implored pardon of God’s Viceroy, he was told that there was no more hope of redemption for him than there was that the staff in the Pope’s hand would ever again grow fresh and green. Since earth and heaven hold no promise for him, he thinks of Venus’ parting invitation to return, and resolves to accept it. As he makes this declaration, a rosy mist appears, through which gleam the forms of dancing nymphs and, as they float aside, Venus is disclosed, lying upon her couch. Tannhäuser is about to yield to her allurement when the faithful Wolfram again utters the name of Elisabeth and Venus and her attendants vanish, baffled.

The sound of a funeral bell is heard from the Wart-burg and, as the morning breaks, the bier upon which lies the body of Elisabeth is borne slowly down the hill. Calling upon her soul to plead for him to heaven, Tannhäuser sinks lifeless to the ground. As the rising sun bathes the valley in light, a party of young pilgrims appear bearing the Pope’s staff, budded and leaved in green, a symbol of Tannhäuser’s redemption.

Although ” Tannhäuser ” was not written until many years later, its seed was sown in the mind of Wagner when he was but a lad. At that sentimental period when ambitions and ideals were beginning to take form in his great mind; when the figure of Weber, passing the house, was watched by the boy with ” something akin to religious awe; ” when his musical instruction at the hands of Gottlieb Muller had come to grief and he had begun to doubt his own musical aptitude — then it was that he took refuge in libraries and, browsing therein, met many of the stories and legends which he developed in his maturity. He found in the novels of Hoffmann the story of the Mastersingers of Nuremberg and in the verses of Ludwig Tieck, the legend of Tannhäuser. Of this legend, which is well suited to work, Wagner evinces his tendency to shake conventionality. Among its distinguishing features is the association of a certain instrument or class of instruments with one of the characters, as the wood winds with Elisabeth, a method employed before by Gluck and others. While the music is less strongly individualized than is that of his later works, it is, nevertheless, unmistakably ” Wagnerian.”

The later employment of representative themes (leitmotifs) is indicated and the remarkable ability to characterize clearly in music the different personages in the drama is already finely in evidence. The story is one which can never grow old for it has a deep human interest and in it as ever, Wagner’s active and massive intellect makes it apparently impossible for him to conceive of a story without some underlying significance. Venus is not merely a beautiful woman but represents a power antagonistic to, Christianity, while the ethical idea which imbues dramatic purposes, Wagner made a successful modernization. The sketch was stay in the Bohemian years later.

In this off Italian made a successful modernizatoin. The sketch was drawn up by him in 1842, during a mountains and was completed three ” Tannhäuser,” as it does those other dramas of Wagner’s which are based on mythical tales, is that salvation comes to humanity through the love of woman and through her glory in self-sacrifice.

The reception of ” Tannhäuser ” was, in the main, unenthusiastic. While an occasional hearer found in it something more than promise, the majority called its music ugly and critical shoulders were shrugged even over the song of the ” Evening Star,” which nowadays is regarded as essentially Italian and distinctly ” unWagnerian ” in its outspoken melodiousness. The overture to ” Tannhäuser ” is now one of the most generally known and widely admired numbers in the entire orchestral repertory and is regarded by layman and musician alike as one of Wagner’s master achievements. The so-called ” Parisian Bacchanale,” which was composed for the presentation of the opera in Paris, an event which resulted in a disgraceful exhibition of ill will by certain influential parties in Paris, is an elaboration of the music of the Venusberg scene. It is followed by an impassioned duet for Tannhäuser and Venus. There comes the change to the valley of the Wartburg and the shepherd is heard singing his roundelay to Spring; the pilgrim’s chorus is chanted and there is an elaborate ensemble for men’s voices when the Landgrave and the singers persuade Tannhäuser to rejoin them. Elisabeth’s greeting to the hall of song begins the second act. It is one of the selections beloved by concert sopranos. The duet for Tannhäuser and Elisabeth which follows is of exceptional beauty and the song of Wolfram at the commencement of the tournament, as well as the great finale of the act are among the finest pages in the score. The ” Prayer ” of Elisabeth, the ” Evening Star ” romanza for Wolfram and the long and dramatic ” Recital ” for Tannhäuser form the chief musical incidents of the third act, which is preceded by an orchestral introduction descriptive of the pilgrimage and condemnation of Tannhäuser.