In three acts by RICHARD WAGNER.
With this opera begins a new era in the history of the German theatre.
Tannhaeuser is more a drama than an opera, every expression in it is
highly dramatic; the management of the orchestra too is quite different
from anything hitherto experienced, it dominates everywhere, the voice
of the performer being often only an accompaniment to it. Tannhaeuser
is the first opera, or as Wagner himself called it, drama of this
kind, and written after this one, all Wagner's works bear the same
Wagner took his subject from an old legend, which tells of a minstrel,
called Tannhaeuser (probably identical with Heinrich von Ofterdingen),
who won all prizes by his beautiful songs and all hearts by his noble
bearing. So the palm is allotted to him at the yearly "Tournament of
Minstrels" on the Wartburg, and his reward is to be the hand of
Elizabeth, niece of the Landgrave of Thuringia, whom he loves. But
instead of behaving sensibly, this erring knight suddenly disappears
nobody knows where, leaving his bride in sorrow and anguish. He falls
into the hands of Venus, who holds court in the Hoerselberg near
Eisenach, and Tannhaeuser, at the opening of the first scene, has
already passed a whole year with her. At length he has grown tired of
sensual love and pleasure, and notwithstanding Venus' allurements he
leaves her, vowing never to return to the goddess, but to expiate his
sins by a holy life. He returns to the charming vale behind the
Wartburg, he hears again the singing of the birds, the shepherds
playing on the flute, the pious songs of the pilgrims on their way to
Rome. Full of repentance he kneels down and prays, when suddenly the
Landgrave appears with some minstrels, amongst them Wolfram von
Eschinbach, Tannhaeuser's best friend. They greet their long-lost
companion, who however cannot tell where he has been all the
time, and as Wolfram reminds him of Elizabeth, Tannhaeuser returns with
the party to the Wartburg.
It is just the anniversary of the Tournament of Minstrels, and in the
second act we find Elizabeth with Tannhaeuser, who craves her pardon and
is warmly welcomed by her. The high prize for the best song is again
to be Elizabeth's hand, and Tannhaeuser resolves to win her once more.
The Landgrave chooses "love" as the subject, whose nature is to be
explained by the minstrels. Everyone is called by name, and Wolfram
von Eschinbach begins, praising love as a well, deep and pure, a source
of the highest and most sacred feeling. Others follow; Walther von der
Vogelweide praises the virtue of love, every minstrel celebrates
spiritual love alone.
But Tannhaeuser, who has been in Venus' fetters, sings of another love,
warmer and more passionate, but sensual. And when the others
remonstrate, he loudly praises Venus, the goddess of heathen love. All
stand aghast, they recognize now, where he has been so long, he is
about to be put to death, when Elizabeth prays for him. She loves him
dearly and hopes to save his soul from eternal perdition. Tannhaeuser
is to join a party of pilgrims on their way to Rome, there to crave for
the Pope's pardon.
In the third act we see the pilgrims return from their journey.
Elizabeth anxiously expects her lover, but he is not among
them.--Fervently she prays to the Holy Virgin: but not that a
faithful lover may be given back to her, no, rather that he may be
pardoned and his immortal soul saved. Wolfram is beside her, he loves
the maiden, but he has no thought for himself, he only feels for her,
whose life he sees ebbing swiftly away, and for his unhappy friend.
Presently when Elizabeth is gone, Tannhaeuser comes up in pilgrim's
garb. He has passed a hard journey, full of sacrifices and
castigation, and all for nought, for the Pope has rejected him. He has
been told in hard words, that he is for ever damned, and will as little
get deliverance from his grievous sin, as the stick in his hand will
ever bear green leaves afresh.
Full of despair Tannhaeuser is returning to seek Venus, whose Siren
songs already fall alluringly on his ear. Wolfram entreats him to fly,
and when Tannhaeuser fails to listen, he utters Elizabeth's name. At
this moment a procession descends from the Wartburg, chanting a funeral
song over an open bier. Elizabeth lies on it dead, and Tannhaeuser
sinks on his knee beside her, crying: "Holy Elizabeth, pray for me".
Then Venus disappears, and all at once the withered stick begins to bud
and blossom, and Tannhaeuser, pardoned, expires at the side of his
Tannhaeuser was represented on the Dresden Theatre in June 1890
according to Wagner's changes of arrangement, done by him in Paris 1861
for the Grand Opera by order of Napoleon III., this arrangement
the composer acknowledges as the only correct one.
These alterations are limited to the first scene in the mysterious
abode of Venus and his motives for the changes become clearly apparent,
when it is remembered, that the simple form of Tannhaeuser was composed
in the years 1843 and 45 in and near Dresden, at a time, when there
were neither means nor taste in Germany for such scenes, as those,
which excited Wagner's brain. Afterwards success has rendered Wagner
bolder and more pretentious and so he endowed the person of Frau Venus
with more dramatic power, and thereby threw a vivid light on the great
attraction, she exercises on Tannhaeuser. The decorations are by far
richer and a ballet of Sirens and Fauns was added, a concession, which
Wagner had to make to the Parisian taste. Venus's part, now sung by
the first primadonnas, has considerably gained by the alterations, and
the first scene is far more interesting than before, but it is to be
regretted that the Tournament of Minstrels has been shortened and
particularly the fine song of Walter von der Vogelweide omitted by
Wagner. All else is as of old, as indeed Elizabeth's part needed
nothing to add to her purity and loveliness, which stands out now in
even bolder relief against the beautiful but sensual part of Venus.
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