A guide to Wagner's Tannhäuser
We tell the story of Wagner's opera Tannhäuser
Premiered: 19 October 1845, Dresden
In 13th-century Germany, Tannhäuser, a minstrel, descends from the magical, sensuous world of the Venusberg to the human realm of the Wartburg, from which he had previously departed in disgrace, and is reunited with his former lover, the pious Elisabeth. In a song contest overseen by the Landgrave, Tannhaüser shocks the assembled company with his unspiritual concept of love. Going on a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution, he is told his cause is lost. However, Elisabeth’s suicide, and Tannhäuser’s reaction to it, offers redemption.
Even before Der fliegende Holländer had hit the stage of the Dresden Court Opera, Wagner was at work on his next opera,Tannhäuser. He was to tackle once again the issue of redemptive love but now more specifically in relation to an artist figure; in other words, an autobiographical component is woven into the conception. The eponymous minstrel knight oscillates between the unalloyed sensual pleasures of the Venusberg and the spiritual realm represented by Elisabeth. The latter’s uncle, the Landgrave, is also associated with the Wartburg, which symbolises the reactionary society from which Tannhäuser (for whom read Wagner) longs to escape.
There is a paradox at the heart of the work, however: on the one hand Tannhäuser rebels against the chivalric love (Wagner has in mind his own time as much as the medieval era) that he asserts knows nothing of the joys of real (ie sexual) love; on the other, he finds those very pleasures stifling and longs for a higher form of love, unknown on earth.
What is called for, therefore, is a better balance of the physical and the spiritual, and a better appreciation of the needs of others, but Tannhäuser is too self-obsessed, too narcissistic to recognise the fact. If we understand redemption as a process of self-enlightenment, then the salvation afforded by Elisabeth’s sacrifice marks the possibility of a turning away from his self-absorption towards a more selfless, empathetic love.
The paradox in Tannhäuser is heightened by the fact that even though unbridled sensuality is condemned in the text, it is celebrated in no uncertain terms in the music. Nothing in any of Wagner’s earlier works approaches the shameless stimulation of the senses – visual and olfactory as well as aural – or the intensity of the voluptuous harmonies in the Act I Bacchanale (composed for the Paris production of the work in 1861).
Tannhäuser marks a further stage in the disintegration of the formal numbers – aria, duet, chorus – that characterised traditional opera. They are still in evidence but even less obviously so than in Der fliegende Holländer. Declamatory recitative is more prevalent, nowhere more so than in Tannhäuser’s ‘Rome Narration’ in Act III. Here too we see Wagner edging towards the kind of musico-poetic synthesis, involving an indissoluble fusion of text and music, that was to distinguish his mature music dramas.
The premiere was a great success, but Wagner continued to worry away at the score, making revisions over the course of his life. Notwithstanding the demands of vocal stamina made on the central singer, though, Tannhäuser has always been one of the most frequently performed of his works and the set-pieces, including the Overture (with its stirring Pilgrims’ Hymn), the Entry of the Guests into the Wartburg and Wolfram’s Hymn to the Evening Star, have remained perennial favourites.