Monday, February 23, 2015

Myth and Legend in Wagner's Tannhäuser, Part Three

Click here to read Part One and here to read Part Two of the series.

Vintage postcard of the Wartburg

The castle of the Wartburg was a symbolic touchstone for German nationalists of the Romantic era. In 1521, after Martin Luther had been declared an outlaw for defying the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, he hid at the Wartburg under the protection of Saxon elector Frederick the Wise and threw his inkpot at the devil who tried to distract him from his new project – a German translation of the Bible.

On the three hundredth anniversary of Luther’s Reformation, young radicals of the 19th century rebranded the castle from a symbol of the struggle for religious reform to one of their own struggle for political freedom when the Wartburg was the site of the first large-scale, inter-state student political protest. The Wartburg was a well-known symbol of German nationalism as Wagner was finishing his Tannhäuser libretto, six years before his own involvement in the Dresden uprising of 1849.

Wagner makes the political symbolism of the Wartburg in his opera quite clear. When Elisabeth greets the hall, the “beloved place,” in which only the songs of Tannhäuser can awaken her from “gloomy dreams,” Wagner is also saluting the nationalist cause and positing himself as the artist who can write the music of the revolution. This messaging continues with the chorus that subsequently enters, singing “Joyfully we greet the noble hall.” To make his intentions absolutely transparent, Wagner gives a third salute to the hall when the Landgrave sings “A great deal, much of great beauty, has been sung already here in this hall.”

There is nothing particularly subtle about lines such as “Wenn unser Schwert in blutig ernsten Kämpfen stritt für des deutschen Reiches Majestät.” This is exactly the type of Wagnerian rhetoric that gives Woody Allen the urge to conquer Poland.

In addition to being the location of the legendary song contest, Luther’s dealings with the devil, and the student demonstration, the Wartburg was the home of Saint Elisabeth. This Hungarian princess was, while still an infant, betrothed to the son of Landgrave Hermann. After her husband died while crusading for Christ, the twenty-year-old widow left her comfortable life in the Wartburg and became the first of her social class to follow in the footsteps on Saint Francis of Assisi, who had died only the year before. She became a lay member of the Franciscan order and chose to spend the rest of her life in hard poverty, doing charitable works.

Saint Elisabeth of Hungary

She was widely known and was quickly canonized a saint only four years after her death. She is the subject of forty-one chapters in the book by Bechstein that gave Wagner the idea of combining the Tannhäuser legend with the song contest of the Wartburg. In the opera, Wagner includes her saintliness, but fundamentally transforms her story. There is no husband, no crusade, no life of service. Instead, Elisabeth’s journey from princess to saint is centered on her love for Tannhäuser.

Elisabeth was the last of the opera’s central characters to be conceived by Wagner. Her role in the second act is indebted to “Kampf der Sänger,” an 1819 short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann – the author, composer and music critic whose work also inspired Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. From Hoffmann, Wagner borrowed the scene of the hunters’ arrival, Wolfram’s kindness to the prodigal Heinrich, the idea of love as the contest’s subject, the striving between the two for the love of a beautiful young countess of the court, the lady’s protection of Heinrich after his bizarre performance, and the image of the knights of the court drawing their swords on the errant poet.

These cribbed concepts comprise much of the basic action of from the end of Act 1 through the end of Act 2, but a mere human countess could not provide the necessary weight of meaning Wagner needed for the conclusion of the second act and all of the third. The location of the Wartburg in Act 2 provides a counterbalance to the Venusberg in Act 1, but Wagner needed a character in the third act to balance Venus in the first.

Elisabeth & Tannhäuser by Willy Pogany (1911)

In the original ballad, after the pope spurns Tannhäuser’s request for absolution, the knight bids farewell to the Mother of God as he had done to the goddess of love:
He went forth from the city’s gate
in grief and sick at heart.
“Maria, mother, Holy Maid,
from you I now must part.”
Unwilling, perhaps, to bring the Virgin Mary onstage as a singing role, Wagner found a simple solution: he combined Mathilde von Falkenstein – the countess of Hoffman’s story – with the Catholic Saint Elisabeth. While again playing fast and loose with the original sources, this decision solved Wagner’s dramatic problems.

As for the drama of the contest itself, Wagner was determined that the competition be about conflicting ideas, not which opera star could sing the most impressive showstopper. When Wolfram steps to the fore and sings his song, Wagner uses very sparse orchestration in order, as he wrote in his autobiography, “to force the listener, for the first time in the history of opera, to take an interest in a poetical idea, by making him follow all its necessary developments.”

Lithograph of Franz Betz as Wolfram (c1860)

Continuing the association of the hall with German nationalism, Wagner prominently places the word deutsch in Wolfram’s salute to those in the hall on a high note and a downbeat. Although Wagner’s nationalism is willfully obscured by the usual supertitle translation of noble or upright, the original lyric again underscores the Deutschtum or Germanness of the hall.

Tannhäuser now sings a fourth verse of his “Song to Venus.” Where the earlier verses concluded with Tannhäuser’s “let me go” demand, this final verse ends with an exulting call that the others should join him in a return to the Venusberg. He has given himself fully to the enchantments of Venus. He is now her knight, and he sings her praises to the world:
To thee, goddess of love, shall my song ring out!
Now let thy praise be sung aloud by me!
Even through the foggy lens of loose translation, the words sung here by Tannhäuser echo the words of Venus in the medieval ballad:
Tannhäuser, you may take your leave;
though you must lend your tongue
and sing my praises through the land.
To the medieval mind, Tannhäuser’s mortal sin was not breaking the bonds of chastity, which would have been forgivable through penitence. His true transgression is that of apostasy – of defecting from Christianity back to heathenry. Seriously singing the praises of a pagan goddess would indeed have caused consternation in a Christian court.

Mural of the song contest at Neuschwanstein by Joseph Aigner

The idea of Heinrich being saved from the wrath of the knights by the lady and then being given a grace period to make amends occurs in the version of the Wartburg song contest that appears in the Deutsche Sagen of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm of 1818.

Although Wagner cut down Elisabeth’s Act 3 prayer for his niece Johanna, who played Elisabeth in Dresden, he insisted that the song represented the culmination of Elisabeth’s character arc. From her pangs of love for Tannhäuser through the confusion of the contest, all leads – according to Wagner’s essay “On the Performing of Tannhäuser”– to this moment of “the final efflorescence of the death-perfumed bloom” of Elisabeth’s short life.

In “the simple outlines of this tone-piece, completely bare of musical embroidery,” Wagner shows the young woman turning from the world to the “self-offering and death” of a pure, spiritual love. Wagner calls upon the sympathetic acting ability of the soprano – not the mechanical flourishes of grand opera singing technique – to bring out the meaning of the prayer; “only the highest dramatic, and particularly the highest vocal art,” he wrote, “can make it possible to bring this sensibility to outward operation.”

Structurally, the prayer provides a conceptual counterpoint to the words of Venus in the first act. Elisabeth sings: “Let me perish in the dust before thee, oh, take me from this earth! Make me, pure and angel-like, enter into thy blessed realm!” Nothing could more clearly portray the difference between the world-affirmation of the old heathen religion and the world-denial of medieval Christianity.

Vintage postcard of Geraldine Farrar as Elisabeth

Wolfram’s third showcase of the opera, like those in the first and second acts, is a restrained tribute to Elisabeth as an unreachable star. The first section centers on Wolfram’s presentiment of Elisabeth’s death. Wolfram’s melody reaches its high point on the word soars; his heart is breaking as the object of his long-hidden love leaves the world.

Wagner’s source materials sometime shine through rather clearly. In The Ring’s libretto, some passages are quite close in wording to German translations of the Icelandic Poetic Edda that Wagner had been studying. Here, as Tannhäuser tells Wolfram of his pilgrimage to Rome, his opening words echo a corresponding scene in Ludwig Tieck’s The Faithful Eckart and the Tannenhäuser of 1799, reprinted in 1828. Wagner’s Tannhäuser says, “Nun denn! Hör an! Du, Wolfram, du sollst es erfahren.” Tieck’s Tannenhäuser says, “Nun, so mag dein Wille erfüllt werden, du sollst alles erfahren.”

The pope’s condemnation of Tannhäuser and reference to his staff appear in the original medieval ballad:
The pope was leaning on a staff
and it was dry and dead.
“This shall have leaves ere you receive
the grace of God,” he said.
In the opera, after Tannhäuser declares his intention of returning to the realm of the goddess, Elisabeth’s corpse is carried onstage, and Tannhäuser dies before it. A triumphant hymn concludes the work.

Wagner has radically changed the ending of the medieval legend. In the original, Tannhäuser does indeed return to the Venusberg from Rome and is welcomed back by Venus. Messengers from the pope do seek Tannhäuser throughout every land to proclaim the miracle of the budding staff. However, Tannhäuser definitely does not fall down at the feet of a dead maiden and experience salvation.

Pope Urban IV

Rather, the final verse of the poem is as irreverently humorous as the works of the young historical Tannhäuser himself:
But he was in the mountain there
with Venus as before,
and so the pope, Urban the Fourth,
was lost forevermore.
The original ballad shows German disdain for the power of the Vatican two and a half centuries before Martin Luther nailed his theses do the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517. Interestingly, the ballad of oral tradition first appeared in print in a broadside of 1515; the 13th-century tale ridiculing the pope found a new audience in the age of the Reformation. The punchline of the poem damns the pope for failing in his duty as father confessor, for denying the limitlessness of God’s capacity for forgiveness, and for placing himself as a judge of men higher than the Heavenly Father Himself.

German anger at Urban IV in particular grew from the pope’s continuation of Vatican action against the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Urban used his ecclesiastical powers to manipulate German politics, at one point excommunicating the son of Emperor Friedrich II and giving his kingdom to a French count. The poems of the historical Tannhäuser, while not delving too often into politics, make clear his sympathy for the Hohenstaufens – a sympathy which may have influenced his choice as hero of the ballad.

Richard Wagner in Lucerne (1868)

Wagner explains his Wagnerian ending in Wagnerian terms:
When he returns from Rome, he is nothing but embodied wrath against a world that refuses him the right of Being for simple reason of the wholeness of his feelings; and not from any thirst for joy or pleasure, seeks he once more the Venusberg; but despair and hatred of this world he needs must flout now drive him thither, to hide him from his “angel’s” look, whose “tears to sweeten” the wide world could not afford to him the balm. 
Thus does he love Elisabeth; and this love it is that she returns. What the whole moral world could not, that could she when, defying all the world, she clothed her lover in her prayer, and in hallowed knowledge of the puissance of her death she dying set the culprit free. And Tannhäuser's last breath goes up to her, in thanks for this supernal gift of Love. Beside his lifeless body stands no man but must envy him; the whole world, and God Himself – must call him blessed.
Elisabeth’s self-sacrifice on the altar of pure love releases Tannhäuser to become free through his own death. Of course, this idea of freedom through “love-death” continued to fascinate Wagner in his later works. In light of Wagner’s own philosophy, it is interesting that the historical Tannhäuser yearns for a pure death in one of his poems: “Give me, I pray, a happy end, and let my soul in rapture dwell, a gentle death afford me. May I be saved by purity, that hell may be no danger.”

According to Wagner’s autobiography, his radical rewrite of the ballad’s conclusion – from (1) Tannhäuser returning to the pleasures of Venus as the pope goes to hell to (2) Tannhäuser’s salvation through the intercession of Saint Elisabeth – drew the ire of Protestant Germany. A rumor made the rounds that Wagner had been bribed by the Catholics to glorify their side in the latest struggles between Germany and the Church. J.G. Theodor Grasse, head librarian in Dresden while Wagner lived there, wrote about the changed ending in terms that make it sound like a criminal act, calling it “the sanctimonious emendation of the sublime and highly poetic return of Tannhäuser to Frau Venus (as we have it in the German folk-ballad) perpetrated by Wagner in the text of his well-known opera.”

The architect Gottfried Semper attacked Wagner as “the representative of medieval Catholicism” until the composer, who had been baptized a Lutheran, had a chance to explain his position. Wagner writes:
I eventually succeeded in persuading him that my studies and inclinations had always led me to German antiquity, and to the discovery of ideals in the early Teutonic myths. When we came to paganism, and I expressed my enthusiasm for the genuine heathen legends, he became quite a different being, and a deep and growing interest now began to unite us in such a way that it quite isolated us from the rest of the company.
Wagner in London (May 24, 1877)

In A Communication to My Friends, Wagner makes absolutely clear that his opera is no tale of Christian salvation:
How absurd, then, must those critics seem to me, who, drawing all their wit from modern wantonness, insist on reading into my “Tannhäuser” a specifically Christian and impotently pietistic drift! They recognize nothing but the fable of their own incompetence, in the story of a man whom they are utterly unable to comprehend.
Tannhäuser’s motivation for his self-imposed sufferings during his pilgrimage to Rome comes not from worry about his eternal soul, but from his deep love for Elisabeth. In an 1842 letter, Wagner writes:
In the parish church at Aussig I asked to be shown the Madonna of Carlo Dolci: it is a quite extraordinarily affecting picture, and if Tannhäuser had seen it, I could readily understand how it was that he turned away from Venus to Mary without necessarily having been inspired by any great sense of piety.
Lest there be any doubt about the supposedly Christian nature of the work, Wagner explains his use of religious symbols in a remarkable passage from A Communication to My Friends:
[I]t is a fundamental error of our modern superficialism, to consider the specific Christian legends as by any means original creations. Not one of the most affecting, not one of the most distinctive Christian myths belongs by right of generation to the Christian spirit, such as we commonly understand it: it has inherited them all from the purely human intuitions of earlier times, and merely molded them to fit its own peculiar tenets. 
To purge them of this heterogeneous influence, and thus enable us to look straight into the pure humanity of the eternal poem: such was the task of the more recent inquirer, a task which it must necessarily remain for the poet to complete.
In other words, Wagner uses Christian myth like he uses Germanic myth; not for religious meaning, but for his own philosophical ends. He viewed his source materials as just that – materials to be re-forged into new forms as he saw fit. To Wagner, medieval literature was merely a dream of yesterday that led to what he saw as the true reality – his artwork of the future.

Tannhäuser runs through March 6 at Lyric Opera


Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2004.

Newman, Ernest. The Wagner Operas. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Spencer, Stewart and Barry Millington, trans. and ed. Selected Letters of Richard Wagner. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Thomas, J.W. Tannhäuser: Poet and Legend, with Texts and Translations of his Works. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974.

Wagner, Richard. Tannhäuser. London: Overture Publishing, 2011.

_________. A Communication to My Friends. 1851. Available online.

_________. My Life. 1870. Available online.

_________. On the Performing of Tannhäuser. 1852. Available online.

_________. Overture to Tannhäuser. 1853. Available online.

Watson, Derek. Richard Wagner: A Biography. New York: Schirmer Books, 1979.

Weston, Jessie L. The Legends of Wagner Drama: Studies in Mythology and Romance. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903.

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