The Prelude to “Lohengrin” (composed in 1848′ and produced in 185o) is musically symbolic of the descent of the Holy Grail, its presentation to those who supplicate and adore, and the return of the sacred vessel to its home in the heavens. Wagner’s somewhat turgid and involved phraseology is best conveyed to English readers in Mr. Newman’s concise translation:
“Out of the clear blue ether of the sky there seems to condense a wonderful, yet at first hardly perceptible vision; and out of this there gradually emerges, ever more and more clearly, an angel host bearing in its midst the sacred Grail. As it approaches earth it pours out exquisite odors, like streams of gold, ravishing the senses of the beholder. The glory of the vision grows and grows, until it seems as if the rapture must be shattered and dispersed by the very vehemence of its own expansion. The vision draws nearer, and the climax is revealed in all its glorious reality, radiating fiery beams and shaking the soul with emotion. The beholder sinks on his knees in adoring self-annihilation. The Grail pours out its light on him like a benediction, and consecrates him to its service; then the flames gradually die away, and the angel host soars up again to the ethereal heights in tender joy, having made pure once more the hearts of men by the sacred blessings of the Grail.”
This “Lohengrin” Prelude is a miracle of inspiration and atmosphere. Only the Prelude to “Tristan and Isolde” is more subtly contrived, and the accents of “Tristan” are dark and sultry with passion, whereas this strain is radiant as the skies. It is wholly mysterious, a miraculous birth. There is a life without beginning or end, once the ethereal harmonics of two violin desks have been sounded, to the musical phrases which are elements of a single thought. The parts of this strangely integrated conception weave together as the vision of the Grail descends. What was at first but mystical radiance becomes a glowing harmony that permeates the whole atmosphere, until, with a glory and flash of color which are almost visual, the trombones proclaim the unveiling of the sacred vessel to the eyes of man. Thereafter the instruments are gradually withdrawn as the Grail ascends and disappears in the sky whence it came. This score reverses the customary order of musical climax. Usually music rises in pitch as it rises in intensity. Here the lowest pitch is the moment for a climax of supreme majesty. Notice, also, how Wagner, as one might say, protects and encases his musical Grail in tone of its own stuff, diffused all about it. As the vessel never touches the earth, so this music seems to be suspended, without contacts, in the atmosphere. Wagner never surpassed the originality and delicacy of these pages of orchestration. If he had only this flash of consummate genius to (his credit he would be one of the greatest composers.