Friday, February 20, 2015

Myth and Legend in Wagner's Tannhäuser, Part Two

Click here to read Part One of the series.

Tannhäuser & Venus by Willy Pogany (1911)

The concept of a man being seduced by a supernatural creature – whether goddess, elf or fairy – and spending time in her mystic realm before (in some cases) returning in a somehow transformed state to the everyday world is one that seems to be have been quite widespread. Thomas the Rhymer of Scotland has his Queen of Elfland, Lord Nann of Celtic Brittany has his Corrigan, and Oisin of Ireland has his Niamh. Sigurd’s visit to the mountain of Brynhild can also be seen as a variation on this theme.

Likewise, the Tannhäuser ballad is but one version of the ancient idea that a man who stays with a beautiful woman of the Other World is taken out of the normal flow of time’s passing. Either nine years in Elfland takes place in then space of one of our nights, or a single night in Elfland lasts through one of our decades. The Tannhäuser of the opera laments, “The time I have sojourned here, I cannot measure. Days, moons mean nothing to me any more.”

Throughout the Venusberg scene, the words of Wagner’s Venus seem directly inspired by the goddess of the Tannhäuser ballad. In the opera, her invitation to Tannhäuser to join her for some lovemaking in a comfortable grotto echoes a verse from the medieval ballad:
Tannhäuser, do not babble so,
what are you thinking of?
Let’s go into my chamber now
and play the game of love.
Venus’s cry “Begone, madman, begone!” signals the beginning of the new material Wagner wrote for the Paris performance in order to strengthen his characterization of the spurned goddess. As she angrily mocks Tannhäuser’s dream of the world above, the music shows her anarchic nature.

Wagner in Paris for the 1861 Tannhäuser performances

When Wagner gives Venus the words “Fly hence to frigid men, before whose timid, cheerless fancy we gods of delight have escaped deep into the warm womb of earth,” he is tapping into the folk traditions mentioned earlier. Venus – like the other holdovers from the heathen age – has fled from the encroachment of Christianity and sought refuge in the hidden places of the world.

Tannhäuser escapes Venus – physically, at least – by calling upon the Virgin Mary. This idea goes back to the historical Minnesinger, who calls upon the Mother of God in verses two, three and four of his “penitent song.” In the old Tannhäuser ballad, it is exactly this naming of the Virgin that finally convinces Venus to release the knight:
Dame Venus, that I shall not do;
I’ll never stay in here.
Maria, mother, Holy Maid,
In my distress be near!
With Tannhäuser’s naming of the Virgin in the opera, the orchestra evaporates into the upper musical range as the magical world of the Venusberg fades. In the absence of the ensemble, all we hear is the sound coming from the stage itself: sheep bells and the medieval shawm played by the young shepherd (or at least the backstage English horn representing it). Maybe it was the sound of these tinkly bells that drifted into Tannhäuser’s dream in the Venusberg. The simple and folkish instrumental tune leads to the starkly unaccompanied song of the shepherd, which includes the words “der Mai” (the month of May) echoing back from the sides of the valley.

It is significant that the first sound Tannhäuser hears after leaving the Venusberg is the Shepherd Boy’s song to Lady Holda. The song of the shepherd outside the mountain parallels the songs of Tannhäuser within, as the boy sings of longing, of the mixture of dream and reality, and of the coming of the warmer season

"The Northland Goddess of the Earth"
by Willy Pogany (1911)

Jacob Grimm directly connects Holda to springtime celebrations in Christian times:
To Christian zealots all dancing appeared as sinful and heathenish, and sure enough it often was derived from pagan rites, like other harmless pleasures and customs of the common people, who would not easily part with their diversion at great festivals. Hence the old dancings at Shrovetide, at the Easter fire and May fire, at the solstices, at harvest and Christmas.
Grimm also directly addresses the connection of shepherd boys and Holda:
But as Holda is spell-bound in the mountain, so it is preeminently to white women, white-robed maidens, that this notion of mountain banishment becomes applicable: divine or semi-divine beings of heathenism, who still at appointed times grow visible to mortal sight; they love best to appear in warm sunlight to poor shepherds and herd-boys. German legend everywhere is full of graceful stories on the subject, which are all substantially alike, and betray great depth of root.
After this innocent outpouring of folk belief, Wagner gives us the entrance of the Elder Pilgrims. The orchestra remains silent as the pilgrims slowly enter, singing in church-like four-part harmony. The shepherd answers the earnest seriousness of their phrases with his jaunty piping. When the pilgrims sing “Alas, the burden of my sins weigh me down,” their melody is that of “remorse and penitence” from the opera's overture. Even the shepherd boy feels the weightiness of this music, and he ceases his interjected tootling.

Robert Gambill as Tannhäuser – San Diego Opera 2008

After the departure of the Pilgrims, Tannhäuser is discovered by the Landgrave and his Minnesingers. Following many exclamations, declarations and interrogations from the assembled men, Tannhäuser begs that they let him travel on: “My way bids me only… hasten onward.” He is firm in his resolution to keep away from the Wartburg, from the courtly world he left to enter the Venusberg – until the Minnesinger Wolfram calls out, “Stay by Elisabeth!” As Venus’s will to hold Tannhäuser was broken by naming the Virgin Mary, his own will to travel on is broken by naming Elisabeth.

To convince Tannhäuser to stay, Wolfram explains that Tannhäuser’s songs, performed before he left the court, have wrought great changes upon the maiden. This performance by Wolfram foreshadows his later songs – his entry in the Wartburg contest and his ode to the “Evening Star.” All three focus on the Minnesinger ideal of the unattainable maiden of virtue, all use the same star-metaphor for Elisabeth, and all exhibit restrained melodies that stand in stark relief to the intense passion of Tannhäuser.

With Tannhäuser’s decision to return to the Wartburg, we reach a decisive moment in his tragic downfall. Here in the valley between the Venusberg and the Wartburg is the only place where Tannhäuser may be able to find something approaching happiness. The valley is a place of balance. On one side is the Venusberg – a feminine and heathen place. On the other side is the Wartburg – a masculine and Christian place.

Gazing at the Wartburg by Willy Pogany (1911)

Venus – the pagan goddess of love – rules in a cave beneath a mountain. More than half a century before the publication of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, Wagner was well aware of the sexual connotations of the setting. In 1845, his agent – the music publisher appointed to the court of Dresden – warned Wagner about against using his original title for the opera. Wagner writes:
The only thing that Meser was absolutely opposed to was the title of my new opera, which I had just named Der Venusberg; he maintained that, as I did not mix with the public, I had no idea what horrible jokes were made about this title. 
He said the students and professors of the medical school in Dresden would be the first to make fun of it, as they had a predilection for that kind of obscene joke. I was sufficiently disgusted by these details to consent to the change.
On the other side of the valley from the mons veneris is the Wartburg – the castle with its prominent tower – from which Hermann the Landgrave, ruler of the land, issues forth with his knights to hunt. Venus sings of “the downiest of cushions” in the “abode of sweetest delight”; the Landgrave sings of swords raised in “battles grim and bloody… for the majesty of the German realm.” Wagner isn’t exactly subtle in his presentation of the gendered duality.

Between the grotto and the tower is the valley, a place where neither side rules supreme. Everyone passes through on their way to another location – to the Venusberg, to the Wartburg or to Rome. Only one character inhabits the valley – the Shepherd Boy, who is neither wholly pagan nor fully Christian. After singing his song to the goddess Holda, he calls out to the Pilgrims, “Pray for my poor soul!” This blending of heathen and Christian belief among the country folk of northern Europe was a historical reality, one documented by Grimm and many others.

Elisabeth Schumann as the Shepherd Boy (1909)

Wagner places the shrine to the Virgin in the valley, reflecting the common Christian reassignment to Mary of heathen sites sacred to goddesses. In addition, the Shepherd Boy is neither completely female nor solely male. In both the Dresden and Paris premieres, the young boy was played by a young woman. This is a liminal character in every way, one who fully partakes of neither of the opposing worlds that border the valley.

Here, too, is the natural place for Tannhäuser, the “forest-dweller” who cannot be fully himself in either the Venusberg or the Wartburg. In protesting to the men of the castle that he can never look backward, but must press ever onward, he is rejecting the extremes of both worlds. When the name of Elisabeth is invoked, however, he is pulled back to the Christian world with its ruler, its knights, and its moral codes.

In A Communication to My Friends, Wagner explains the personal meaning that he invested into the character of Elisabeth, in terms of his struggle to turn from the pleasures of worldly life:
If at last I turned impatiently away, and owed the strength of my repugnance to the independence already developed in my nature, both as artist and as man: so did that double revolt, of man and artist, inevitably take on the form of a yearning for appeasement in a higher, nobler element; an element which, in its contrast to the only pleasures that the material Present spreads in modern Life and modern Art, could but appear to me in the guise of a pure, chaste, virginal, unseizable and unapproachable ideal of Love. 
What, in fine, could this love-yearning, the noblest thing my heart could feel – what other could it be than a longing for release from the Present, for absorption into an element of endless Love, a love denied to earth and reachable through the gates of Death alone?
Wagner would explore this concept further in his later operas, yet he here creates a woman with a soul as divided as that of the Minnesinger she loves. For much of the second act, she is torn between her desire to be with Tannhäuser and her concern for his immortal soul.

Nadja Michael as Elisabeth – Deutsche Oper Berlin (2008)

In her first appearance, Wagner portrays the first half of Elisabeth’s divided character. Not yet a suffering saint, “Dich , teure Halle” shows her as a young woman feeling the first joyful pangs of innocent love. As with the first words we heard from both Tannhäuser in the Venusberg and the Shepherd Boy in the valley, Elisabeth in the Wartburg first sings of being awakened from a dream – reminding us yet again that Wagner intends us to understand this as more than a simple love story.

The climax of Elisabeth’s duet with Tannhäuser is the most conventional theatrical moment in the opera; Wagner later denounced its excessively “operatic” character. Wolfram joins in to lament his lot as the third wheel. Even for those coming to the opera for the first time, it’s fairly obvious that the man who was unsatisfied with the attention of the goddess of love herself will not be content with this kind of chaste lovemaking.

Later in the Hall of Song, after the knights, nobles, pages and ladies have been assembled, Wagner presents his major philosophical themes in one neat package. The Landgrave sings of the power of the theater, militant nationalism, the importance of the creative artist, and love as the highest goal. The musical high point occurs when the Landgrave – channeling Wagner’s own beliefs – sings of the great value and indispensable social role the artist.

None of what has transpired in the opera since Tannhäuser left the Venusberg has any root in the poetry or legend of the historical Minnesinger. In the ballad, Tannhäuser goes straight from the Venusberg to Rome. So what is this contest of song, why are we in the Wartburg, who is Elisabeth and why does everyone keep calling Tannhäuser by the name Heinrich?

The song contest at the Wartburg – Codex Manesse (early 14th century)

The origin of the song contest is in the early-13th-century collection of poetic fragments known as the Wartburgkrieg, which places actual and imaginary Minnesingers in a competition at the court of the historical Landgrave Hermann of Thuringia at the Wartburg in 1207. The real Minnesingers Walther von der Vogelweide and Wolfram von Eschenbach vie with the fictional Heinrich von Ofterdingen. Hermann was greatly respected as a patron of the literary arts, and it was this reputation that no doubt led to the tale being set at his court.

To be absolutely clear, there is nothing in the poems of the song contest that connects Heinrich von Ofterdingen to either the historical Tannhäuser or the legendary Tannhäuser. In any case, the timeline simply doesn’t work; the historical Tannhäuser belongs to a later generation of Minnesingers.

The subject of the contest has nothing to do with the nature of love, as it does in the opera. In the original, each poet must defend his choice of prince as the ruler superior to all others. Walther von der Vogelweide and his companions champion Hermann; Heinrich von Ofterdingen, the outsider, sings of the Duke of Austria. Biterolf, Reinmar von Zweter and Heinrich der Schreiber also take part in the contest. Wolfram von Eschenbach – the author of Parzival and one of the earliest to write on the Lohengrin legend– serves as umpire.

Wolfram von Eschenbach from the Codex Manesse

As in Wotan’s contest of wits with Mime, Heinrich von Ofterdingen stakes his head on the issue; such a bet was placed in Germanic wisdom-contests as far back as the Old Norse myths of Odin. Also following the tropes of mythic contests, Heinrich is defeated by trickery. He then calls upon the magician Klingsor for help – you may know him from Wagner’s Parsifal. The wizard engages in a riddle contest with Wolfram and – interesting in light of Wagner’s own mash-up of separate legends – announces the birth of Saint Elisabeth.

Ultimately, the heroic Minnesinger’s Christian faith overcomes the dark arts of the Hungarian magician. Heinrich von Ofterdingen disappears from the narrative as the fragments of the poem move on to other subjects.

Although Wagner’s autobiography mentions that the first inspiration for his Tannhäuser opera was a 16th-century “Volksbuch” he stumbled across in Paris, the book seems to have actually been Ludwig Bechstein’s Die Sagen von Eisenach und der Wartburg, dem Hörseelberg und Reinhardsbrunn of 1835.

Bechstein appears to have been quite a bold fellow who freely filled in details as fit his fancy. He conflated the Venusberg of the Tannhäuser legend with the Hörselberg – according to folklore, the home of Frau Holle (Lady Holda of Wagner’s Shepherd Boy song) – and suggested that Tannhäuser basically bumped into Venus on his way to the Wartburg competition. The fact that the setting of the song contest was a half-century before the historical Tannhäuser’s heyday as a Minnesinger did not seem to bother Bechstein a bit.

Tannhäuser illustration by Willy Pogany (1911)

Wagner’s wholehearted adoption of this hamfisted admixture of two unrelated legends is made clear by the opera’s unwieldy final title: Tannhäuser and the Contest of Song on the Wartburg. His manipulation of mismatched myth drew down the wrath of scholarly celebrities including the noted German mythologist Karl Simrock.

The idea of focusing on an outsider entering a song contest was clearly something that appealed to Wagner. In addition to this opera on a 13th-century contest, you may also be familiar with a piece he wrote based on a 16th-century contest of Mastersingers in Nuremberg. What made the Wartburg contest especially attractive to him was its location.

To be concluded in Part Three.

1 comment:

jsutton said...

I think we should consider some ancient Greek sources for these myths - looking at Willy Pogany's depiction of Venusberg I am reminded that Odysseus was imprisoned in another erotic paradise - the Island of Calypso. That goddess loved him and offered him immortality if he would only stay in that place separated from time.

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