THE overture is cast in the regular form ; it is an epitome of the opera. First comes the Pilgrims’ Chorus, grave and majestic, announced on the wind and reinforced by the strings, and developed with striking rhythmical ornaments on the violins, gradually dying away. The Venusberg abruptly follows, introduced on the viola, fantastic and fiery. Then comes the Hymn to Venus like a trumpet call, in B-major. After various developments of the Venus music, the Pilgrims’ Chorus returns, accompanied by the insistent violin figure, and bold and brilliant chords close the overture.
AcT I. The curtain rises upon the rosy grotto of the Venusberg. Sirens are disporting in the blue lake that extends in the background, and singing their chorus, Naht euch dem Strande; bacchantes and nymphs are dancing; and lovers are grouped about. Venus, queen of this under-world (soprano), reclines in the foreground, and Tannhauser, the Troubadour Knight (tenor), rests his head upon her lap. The Venusberg motiv is constantly heard. The dances and songs become more lively, and mists from the lake gradually gather and hide the sirens and dancing couples. In the great duet between Venus and Taunhàuser ( Geliebter, Sag’ ! ), the knight, passing his hand across his brow, has memories of the earth which he left years ago, memories of the fresh meadows, of the stars, and of the beauties of spring. He fancies he hears bells ; he longs to return. There were sorrows upon the earth, Venus reminds him ; there is nothing but joy here with her. At her command, Tannhâuser takes his harp (harp in orchestra), and sings of the ecstasy of love in his Hymn to Venus (” Dir tone Lob!”), but he ends by begging to leave this abode.
Venus entreats and threatens. Tannhauser repeats his Hymn, a half-tone higher, and a third time still half a tone higher. He beseeches the enchantress to release him. In fury, she consents. She hopes he may regret his wish and long for this abode, which she now closes forever ! Then again, with all her enchanting music, in which the Sirens’ Chorus mingles from the distance, she entreats him to remain.
Tannhauser calls on the Virgin Mary. With a frightful crash, Venus sinks and the grotto disappears. The bewildered knight is in a familiar valley. On the right is the Wartburg, and in the background the Hörselberg, the entrance to the Venus grotto. On the left, a road; to the right, a winding mountain path, with a shrine, half-way up, to the Virgin. Herd-bells are tinkling and a Shepherd (soprano), seated on a rock, plays airs upon his pipe, represented by the cor anglais, and sings in praise of Frau Holda, the goddess of spring, who has brought the lovely May, and that is why he plays upon his pipe. Old Pilgrims, on their way to Rome, coming down the mountain, sing a chorus of praise, Zu dir wall’ ich mein Jesus Christ. As they cross the stage, the Shepherd waves his hat. He would like to be remembered in their prayers !
Tannhauser, falling upon his knees, prays for forgiveness. The Pilgrims’ Chorus grows fainter, the herd-bells again tinkle from the distance, and Tannhauser, weeping, vows to expiate his sins.
A hunting-call introduces the Landgrave Hermann, Prince of Thuringia and Lord of the Wartburg (bass), who enters with his knights. They are returning from the chase. Wolfram (baritone) recognizes Tannhauser, the famous knight who used to take part in the contests at the Wartburg, and who has not been seen for seven years. He is welcomed ; but he will not reply to their questions, and, remembering his vow, refuses to accompany them. (Septet.)
Wolfram mentions the name of Elizabeth, which Tannhauser repeats in ecstasy, Elizabeth, the Landgrave’s lovely niece, who long has loved Tannhäuser, and who, since his mysterious disappearance, has never attended the tournaments of song, as Wolfram explains.
Tannhàuser now will come; he joins his voice to those of the knights ; the Septet is repeated ; the Landgrave winds his horn ; the knights mount their horses ; and all start for the Wartburg.
ACT II. A short entr’acte, and the curtain rises upon the hall of the Wartburg. The court-yard of the castle is seen through the windows and a view of the country. Elizabeth, in a rich toilet, greets the hall she has not entered for so long, Dich theure Halle grüss’ ich wieder.
Tannhauser, accompanied by Wolfram, enters. The latter remains at the entrance, but Tannhäuser throws him-self at the feet of the lady. She is much affected. In reply to her question, he tells her he returns from a distant country. Only by a miracle he made his escape (duet : O Furstin).
Elizabeth is happy by his words and manner, but half embarrassed on account of her love for him. Tannhàuser is delighted that he has returned to this lovely being, and Elizabeth mingles her joy with his. Wolfram, who also loves Elizabeth, sees that his love is doomed to disappointment.
As Tannhauser and Wolfram leave, the Landgrave enters. He is happy to see his niece again in her place and so radiant. He would like to know something about her heart ! Elizabeth half confides, and he respects her modesty. A flourish of trumpets is heard, and repeated with more pomp, and a bold march is played as the knights and ladies, followed by their pages, enter. (Chorus : Freudig begrüssen wir die edle Halle.) They seat themselves, and the Landgrave and Elizabeth mount the dais.
The Minnesingers enter, bow with ceremony, and take their seats. The Landgrave, rising, refers to the many noble tournaments of song that have occurred in this hall. On this occasion he wishes to celebrate the return of the poet-knight who has been so long away from the Wart-burg; his songs may describe his wanderings. The Land-grave proposes Love as the subject of this tournament. He and his niece will be pleased to grant any reward that the victor may ask. The guests approve heartily, and cry,
Hail to the Prince ! ” and four pages bring a golden cup in which to collect the names of the candidates. The names are drawn, and the pages announce Wolfram von Eschenbach. Now the Contest begins. The harp, of course, is conspicuous in the orchestra throughout the entire scene. ‘Wolfram rises ; TannhHuser leans dreamily upon his harp. Wolfram describes love as a spring of crystal purity. He dares not approach it (Song of Wolfram).
The people applaud. Tannhauser rises. The violins, viola, and violoncello tell us what is in his mind. The Venusberg floats quickly from the orchestra. That is not Love ! Tannhauser tells them of the passion as he knows it. The coldness of the audience amazes Elizabeth, who wants to applaud. Walter von der Vogelweide (tenor) enters into the debate, supporting Wolfram. The people approve. This time the viola and clarinet reveal Tannhauser’s thoughts (Venusberg). He tells this Minnesinger that he knows nothing of Love, and his definition this time is even warmer. Now Biterolf (baritone) rises hastily and angrily. The knights and ladies approve of his remarks. The viola and the violoncello sing the Venusberg, and Tannhauser, scorning Biterolf’s feeble conception, tells them the delights of pagan love, and sings his Hymn to Venus (” Die Gottin der Liebe”). The knights draw their swords; the Landgrave tries to restore peace; Wolfram calls upon Heaven ; and Tannhauser, in wild excitement, invites them all to the Venusberg. The people are horrified. The men rush upon Tannhauser, sword in hand ; Elizabeth shields him. She will save him ! She offers herself a victim to heaven, if he may repent and be redeemed.
Tannhauser hears this prayer. He falls at Elizabeth’s feet. The men sheathe their swords. The Landgrave suggests that the sinner joins a band of Young Pilgrims organizing in Thuringia for the journey to Rome. If he obtains absolution from the Pope, they will forget the past. Their chant is heard, fm hohen Fest der Gnad’ und Huld, and Tannhauser rushes out to join the band.
AcT III.After an entr’acte, almost a prelude, composed of memories of the Pilgrims’ Chorus and the Motiv of Pardon, the curtain rises upon the valley of the Wart-burg. It is autumn; the twilight hour is approaching. Elizabeth is praying at the shrine.
Wolfram comes through the woods on the left, and gazes sorrowfully upon his love, whose thoughts are all of Tannhauser and his redemption. It is nearly time for the pilgrims to return. Will Tannhuser be among them? From a distance comes a familiar chant. The Old Pilgrims are now returning. (Chorus : ” Begluckt darf nun.”) Elizabeth prays that Tannhauser may be among them. As these Pilgrims enter, she looks for her lover; but, alas ! he is not in the band. Again she kneels and prays (” Allmacht’ge Jungfrau ! “).
Rising, she walks slowly up the mountain path. Wolfram approaches. He would like to join her; but Elizabeth motions him away, and seems to tell him, by means of her gesture and inspired countenance, that her path leads to another world. The sad glance with which Wolfram follows her retreating figure is accentuated by the bass-clarinet, which murmurs the Song of Wolfram heard in Act II. Seizing his harp, he plays a prelude (harp in orchestra) and sings his apostrophe to the evening star (” O ! du mein holder Abendstern “), now shining through the twilight mists of the valley. The violins imitate its shimmering. May this beautiful star watch over the destiny of the saintly Elizabeth ! The darkness deepens, and the orchestra becomes both sinister and gloomy ; the appalling theme of The Damnation (divided on the horns and strings) is heard, and a tattered pilgrim, supporting his tottering steps by his staff, appears through the blackness of the night. Wolfram recognizes him; it is Tannhäuser, emaciated and weak. He asks the way to the Venusberg (here the clarinet plays the Venusberg) ; he knew it well, but he has forgotten it. ‘Wolfram is terrified; he asks if Tannhäuser has not been to Rome ? As Tannhauser narrates his experiences, the Damnation motiv returns, and the Pardon is also prominent.
His remorse led him to submit to unusual mortifications on the way to Rome. His hopes were exalted when the Pope promised redemption to all who were penitent ; but when he came to confess his sins, he alone of all the multitude was rejected by the Holy Father, who solemnly said that for him hope should again blossom only when his pilgrim’s staff should burst into leaf. In despair, he lost consciousness, and even now he only half lives ! The only thing left for him to do is to return to Venus and her enchantments ! Wolfram tries to dissuade him, but reminiscences of the Venusberg motiv (on the viola) and the Sirens’ Chorus in the orchestra have told how near Venus is to Tannhauser. She now comes at his call, amid perfumes and rosy mists and attendant dances. From her couch she calls to him (” Willkommen ungetreuer ” ), promising him the old delights anew. Wolfram’s dissuasions seem to be ineffective, until he says an angel is already interceding for Tannhàuser at the throne of the Eternal, and pronounces the name of Elizabeth, which Tannhauser repeats as in Act I. Venus is baffled and disappears. The voices of the Pilgrims who are bearing Elizabeth’s bier (chorus : ” Der Seele Heil”) are heard in the distance. The Landgrave and his noble train slowly descend the valley, followed by the bearers intoning the dirge. They set down the bier, and Tannhauser bows himself upon it and dies.
The Young Pilgrims (chorus : ” Heil ! Heil ! Der Gnade Wunder “) now arrive with Tannhuser’s staff, which is miraculously in full leaf, in token of the Divine pardon refused by the Pontiff. A chorus of praise arises, which is finally developed from the religious theme of the overture, and again we hear the striking embellishments upon the strings.