A guide to Wagner's Lohengrin
We tell the story of Wagner's great Romantic opera Lohengrin
When did Wagner produce Lohengrin?
Lohengrin was composed by Wagner between 1845-8 and premiered on 28 August, 1850, in Weimar
What is the story behind Lohengrin?
When the Belgian duchy of Brabant is under threat from attack, help comes from a knight in shining armour, who arrives in a boat pulled by a swan. Elsa, daughter of the deceased Duke of Brabant, falls in love with him… but Telramund and Ortrud plan his downfall. On the night of their wedding, Elsa is tricked into asking Lohengrin about the one thing he has forbidden: his identity. This leads to the knight returning to the land from where he came, but only after his swan has been transformed into Gottfried, Elsa’s long-lost brother.
Wagner’s shimmering invocation of the Swan Knight and the ethereal realm from which he comes marks a crucial stage in his development as a composer. On the one hand, it is rooted in the genres of French and Italian grand opera that still dominated. But on the other it already bears the seeds of the radically ambitious new genre, the music drama, with which Wagner was about to change the course of operatic history.
Still evident are the vestiges of recitative, aria, duet and chorus, not to mention the processions, calls-to-arms and spectacular tableaux in which grand opera excelled. But we find too that Wagner is beginning to abandon the old number form and regular phrase structure of opera as it was then known in favour of through-composed paragraphs that fused verse and music in an entirely new way.
Wagner was still Kapellmeister at the Court of Dresden when he composed the work. The initial inspiration came while he was taking the waters at Marienbad in the summer of 1845 and he tells in his autobiography how the figure of Lohengrin ‘stood suddenly revealed before me in full armour’.
He was supposed to be freeing his mind of the project at the time, but he tells an amusing story of how he was seized with such a desire to set down Lohengrin that he was incapable of remaining in his bath for the prescribed hour. One pictures him half-naked, dripping with water as he ran down the corridor of the hydropathic establishment, desperate to put pen to paper.
By the time the work was ready for performance, however, Wagner was embroiled in the revolutionary activities in Dresden. For some time, he had been mixing in left-wing circles and, when an uprising broke out in May 1849, he took an active role. With a warrant for his arrest issued, he fled. It was from Zurich, therefore, that he supervised, as best he could, the premiere of Lohengrin, which took place in Weimar under the direction of his friend Franz Liszt.
One of the most important aspects of the score to which Liszt drew attention was its division into three groups – strings, wind and brass – according to the imperatives of character or plot. Within that division, Wagner deployed further ternary groupings, as opposed to the essentially double wind of Der fliegende Holländerand Tannhäuser.
The work was also notable for its striking anticipation of the leitmotif principle later to be developed in the Ring: the motif of the ‘Forbidden Question’ recurs ubiquitously in the opera. The most ‘advanced’ writing, however, occurs in the first scene of Act II, where Telramund and Ortrud plot the downfall of Lohengrin. Here, more than ever, foursquare phrase structure gives way to expressively heightened arioso inflected by motifs identified with a particular character or idea. On a less elevated level, meanwhile, the opera also contains what has arguably become Wagner’s most familiar tune: the famous ‘Bridal Chorus’ in Act III.