|Tannhaäuser runs through March 6 at Lyric Opera of Chicago|
The Lyric Opera of Chicago is currently presenting a production of the opera that runs February 9 through March 15. If you can’t make it to Chicago but would like to hear the music, I recommend the 1971 recording by Georg Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic. The final installment of this series at The Norse Mythology Blog will include a bibliography of sources used – a list which can also serve as a guide for further reading.
|1844 daguerreotype of Richard Wagner|
Formed from the scanty fragments of a perished world, of which scarcely any monuments remained recognizable and intact, I here found a heterogeneous building, which at first glance seemed but a rugged rock clothed in straggling brambles. Nothing was finished, only here and there could the slightest resemblance to an architectonic line be traced, so that I often felt tempted to relinquish the thankless task of trying to build from such materials. And yet I was enchained by a wondrous magic.
The baldest legend spoke to me of its ancient home, and soon my whole imagination thrilled with images; long-lost forms for which I had sought so eagerly shaped themselves ever more and more clearly into realities that lived again. There rose up soon before my mind a whole world of figures, which revealed themselves as so strangely plastic and primitive, that, when I saw them clearly before me and heard their voices in my heart, I could not account for the almost tangible familiarity and assurance of their demeanor.
The effect they produced upon the inner state of my soul I can only describe as an entire rebirth. Just as we feel a tender joy over a child's first bright smile of recognition, so now my own eyes flashed with rapture as I saw a world, revealed, as it were, by miracle, in which I had hitherto moved blindly as the babe in its mother's womb.Wagner relied heavily on Grimm while writing The Ring of the Nibelung, and Grimm’s idiosyncratic combination of philology, folklore, literature and legend can help to explain the mythological elements of Tannhäuser, as well.
|The Hörselberg in Germany|
During the orgiastic Bacchanale that follows the overture, Wagner presents us with naiads, nymphs, satyrs, fauns and other creatures of Greco-Roman mythology. Why would a composer as nationalistic as Wagner have replaced the native figures of German legend with their southern counterparts? The answer lies in the two characters portrayed in the opera’s first scene.
|"Der Tanhuser" from the Codex Manesse|
Early 14th century
Seventeen poems survive. In four of them, the poet calls himself “tanhusere.” The name may mean “the one from Tannhausen,” and there are several places with this name. It may also mean “the backwoodsman” or “forest-dweller,” an apt nickname for a poet whose works are marked by ironic humor that pokes fun at the conventions of courtly society. The language used in the poems suggests that Tannhäuser was originally from Austria or Southern Germany, but attempts to place him more specifically are mostly speculative. He probably died sometime shortly after 1266.
What makes the poems by Tannhäuser so interesting is their irreverence for the accepted mores of Minnesong. Everything expected is set on its head. Other Minnesingers compose odes to unattainable courtly ladies; Tannhäuser writes celebrations of successfully bedding rustic women. Not bedding, exactly, since his conquests take place out-of-doors. Where other poets sing of the delicate features of their beloved and steer well clear of impropriety, Tannhäuser famously sings the praises of every part of his beloved-of-the-moment – including the bits under her skirt. His work is not pornographic or leering; everything is done with a knowing wink and an obvious delight in subverting the expectations of his listeners. It is this “joyous challenge” that Wagner portrays in his overture.
|Nadja Michael as Venus|
Deutsche Oper Berlin's Tannhäuser (2008)
The northern tribes made their own interpretatio germanica – relating the foreign gods of the invading Romans to their own deities. The most famous example of this – and one that survives in modern English – is the Germanization of the Roman weekday names. Mars’ day became Tyr’s day (Tuesday), Mercury’s day became Woden’s day (Wednesday), Jupiter’s day became Thor’s day (Thursday), and Venus’s day became Frigg’s day (Friday).
Wagnerians know Frigg as Fricka, the consort of Wotan. However, the attributes of Venus line up more clearly with the goddess Freya than they do with Frigg. Since at least the early 1900s, scholars have argued for an original identity for Frigg and Freya that – at some unknown point – split a complex female goddess into a mother figure and a maiden figure, into a goddess whose domain includes marriage and another associated with sexual love.
It is Freya’s characteristics that most closely conform to Wagner’s Venus. The Icelander Snorri Sturluson tells us in his 13th-century Edda that Freya “was very fond of love songs. It is good to pray to her concerning love affairs.” Indeed, it is Tannhäuser’s song in the overture that summons her. In the second scene, her first attempt at holding onto Tannhäuser is to tell him: “Come, my minstrel, up and grasp your lyre! Celebrate love, which you extol so marvelously in song, that you won the goddess of love herself for yours! Celebrate love, for its highest prize has become yours!”
|Wagner's Freia by Arthur Rackham|
If you are familiar with Norse mythology and are unhappy with the portrayal of Freya as a weepy teenager in The Ring – a characterization that owes more to Wagner’s impression of the fifteen-year-old Marie von Sayn-Wittgenstein than it does to the myths – here in Tannhäuser you can have a more powerful Wagnerian image of the northern goddess.
The direct lineal ancestor of the Venusberg legend is most likely the Italian folk legend, recorded by the French Antoine de la Sale around 1440, of an anonymous German knight who enters the Monte della Sibina (the Mountain of the Sibyl) in the Apennines and finds a sensual paradise within. After three hundred and thirty days of debauchery with the Sibyl and her retinue, he departs for Rome to confess his sins. The pope is sympathetic but publicly admonishes him and casts him out as an example to others. When the pontiff regrets his actions and sends for the knight, he finds that the German has decided to go back into the mountain.
For a story like this to have moved up from Italy to Germany, there were necessarily elements in the legend that struck a sympathetic chord for the new audience. The papal issue will be addressed later; the identification by the Germans of Venus with their own native goddesses should already be clear.
In his essay on the overture, Wagner describes the “drunken glee” of the Bacchantes: “a scurry, like the sound of the Wild Hunt, and speedily the storm is laid.” He thus links the orgy inspired by the Roman Bacchus to the tradition of spirits following Holda or Wotan’s flight through winter skies – a legend he returns to in The Ring of the Nibelungen.
|The Bacchanale by Willy Pogany|
In A Communication to My Friends (1851), Wagner explains that behind his writing of Tannhäuser was his personal experience of “a conflict peculiar to our modern evolution.” The financial security and relative comfort of his appointment as Royal Kapellmeister in Dresden had led him away from his artistic ideals and goals. He writes:
Through the happy change in the aspect of my outward lot; through the hopes I cherished, of its even still more favorable development in the future; and finally through my personal and, in a sense, intoxicating contact with a new and well-inclined surrounding, a passion for enjoyment had sprung up within me, that led my inner nature, formed amid the struggles and impressions of a painful past, astray from its own peculiar path.
A general instinct that urges every man to take life as he finds it, now pointed me, in my particular relations as Artist, to a path which, on the other hand, must soon and bitterly disgust me. This instinct could only have been appeased in Life on condition of my seeking, as artist, to wrest myself renown and pleasure by a complete subordination of my true nature to the demands of the public taste in Art.
|Vintage postcard of Wagner's Wahnfried at Bayreuth|
Watching the opera, we witness a dream within a dream. Wagner’s philosophical ideas are presented to us in the guise of history and legend. In his Communication, he writes of the power of folk poetry and myth to present truths that history cannot. He asserts that the folk poem
ever seizes on the kernel of the matter, and brings it again to show in simple plastic outlines; whilst there, in the history – i.e. the event not such as it was, but such alone as it comes within our ken – this matter shows itself in endless trickery of outer facings, and never attains that fine plasticity of form until the eye of the Folk has plunged into its inner soul, and given it the artistic mold of Myth.Wagner’s interweaving of mythologies with his own philosophies can be found throughout the opera. Tannhäuser, wakened (or not) from his dream of the Venusberg, says: “In dreams, it was as if I heard – a sound long stranger to my ears – as if I heard the joyful peal of bells!” Tannhäuser’s determination to leave the Venusberg begins with this dream-sound, leading Ernest Newman to write of the disastrous Paris performances: “The average Parisian could not understand how the mere sound of a bell could tear Tannhäuser out of the arms of Venus.”
Wagner again hints at the illusory nature of what we – through the mediation of Tannhäuser himself – are seeing and hearing. In the Bacchanale music, there is a striking passage for tambourine, triangle and cymbals. Was this what Tannhäuser heard in his dream-state and mistook for the sound of church bells? Throughout the opera, we watch Tannhäuser vacillate between desires for physical pleasure and spiritual love. The idea that the mishearing of heathen percussion as Christian bell would be the impetus for the drama fits well within Wagner’s schemata.
Given Tannhäuser’s confusion, it is noteworthy that most of what he longs for in this first dialogue is not overtly Christian. Between the imagined bells at the beginning of the scene and the naming of the Virgin Mary at the end, Tannhäuser yearns for sun, stars, grass, birds, spring, summer, woodlands, skies, meadows, pain and death. Everything he lists is part of the natural world, not Christian civilization.
|Robert Gambill & Petra Lang as Tannhäuser & Venus|
San Diego Opera's 2008 production
Here, instead of addressing a courtly audience and extolling the pleasures of country girls, he addresses God in the form of the “penitent song” and begs forgiveness for the sins of his youth: “I’ve spent my life in sinfulness and never been repentant, as I should. Thy suffering and divinity will surely give me aid that I may break my bonds and leave this life of sin, and make amends for all at last.”
Other late poems suggest that Tannhäuser experienced financial hardship after his jubilant youth due to his inability to secure a wealthy patron after the death of his original sponsor. It is most likely the contrast between the celebration of pleasure in Tannhäuser’s earlier works and the solemn penitence in this later poem that inspired the medieval legend of Tannhäuser in the Venusberg.
|"Das Lied von dem Daneüser"|
Title page of 1850 edition
Tannhäuser was a knight who soughtThe next thirteen stanzas comprise a dialogue between Tannhäuser and Venus in which the goddess makes varied attempts to convince the hero not to leave. The ballad is not unique in its placement of a historical Minnesinger in a fantastic situation; similar medieval compositions were written of other popular poets.
he entered Venusberg to see
the lovely women there.
There are a myriad of theories regarding the connection between the historical poet and the subject of the ballad. For Wagnerians, the most enjoyable (if intellectually unsustainable) theory is surely the one proposed by Adalbert Rudolf in 1882. According to Herr Rudolf, Tannhäuser was originally Wotanhäuser, a knight who abandoned Christianity, returned to heathenry, and was named for the Holy Mountain of Wotan – in which the god lived with his wife Freya, of course.
A less fantastic theory suggests that Tannhäuser was attached to the legend because of the nature of his poetic work. J.W. Thomas writes that the poems “portray a man who demands a joyous affirmation of life, who describes merry dances, who tells of his enjoyment of love’s delights, and all in all reveals a livelier sensuousness than do his contemporaries – who, however, in later songs, laments his fate and blames himself for his grievous situation.” The character of the historical Tannhäuser – at least as presented in his poems, which are all we truly have – made him a prime candidate to be slotted into a medieval Christian version of the traditional “into the mountain” narrative.
|Barbarossa with beard & ravens inside the mountain|
The German writer Heinrich Heine addresses these issues in Elementargeister (“Elemental Spirits”). This 1837 essay deals with the Tannhäuser legend and focuses on folklore ideas of pagan gods retreating from the onslaught of Christianity to resist medieval mores of guilt and self-denial from their underground fastnesses. This was clearly a concept that appealed to Wagner, whether he would admit to being influenced by the ideas of a Jewish author or not.
To be continued in Part Two.