Tannhäuser : Work information

(Wilhelm) Richard Wagner ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Luxembourg Radio Symphony Orchestra, Louis de Froment (Conductor)

This work

Work name
Work number
1843-01-01 02:00:00

This recording

Ivan Pastor
Recording date

Track listing

  • Overture 14:27 min


Tannhäuser the revolutionary

For a composer, Richard Wagner had an astonishingly extensive knowledge of literature – he must easily have been as well read as a writer like Goethe. In particular he was fond of the Romantics, and on several occasions derived inspiration from the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Ludwig Tieck, Heinrich Heine and Novalis. When he stumbled across a collection of folk tales containing the Venusberg story, he immediately started to conceive the figure of Tannhäuser in his mind. As he wrote in his autobiography Mein Leben, he was already familiar with various elements of the story from reading Tieck’s Phantasus, but the collection of folk tales appealed to him particularly “because in it, Tannhäuser, albeit fleetingly, is associated with the Wartburg minstrels’ contest”. Towards the end of 1841, while the figure of Tannhäuser was beginning to take shape in Wagner’s imagination in Paris, the composer received from the philologist Samuel Lehrs an “annual journal of the Königsberg German Society, in which Lukas dealt critically with the Wartburg contest and reproduced the text in the original language”.

As Wagner was travelling to Dresden in the spring of the following year to take over the post of Hofkapellmeister at the prompting of the widow of Carl Maria von Weber, he wrote: “The sight of Wartburg castle, which we passed during the only sunny moment of our journey, was a revelation. The view of the building high up on the hill – particularly impressive as you approach from Fulda – seized my imagination. I immediately gave the name of Hörselberg to a range of hills far off to one side and imagined, as we continued along the valley, the scene in the third act of a Tannhäuser drama – a scene that I retained in my mind and later described to the Parisian painter Despléchin for implementation with precise details as to my plan.” Wagner’s drama Tannhäuser was thus the result of a combination of personal impressions and the composer’s own reading; given that it was a piece of fiction, the question raised by his contemporaries as to its historical authenticity was irrelevant. Tieck’s Phantasus, Heine’s Tannhäuser poem and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Kampf der Sänger from his Serapionsbrüder were combined with folkloristic material and historical sources to create an original work of fiction in which Tannhäuser replaces Heinrich von Ofterdingen and, as an artist, naturally also stands for Richard Wagner himself.

The first performance on 19th October 1845 was awaited with much excitement, following the success of Rienzi. The opera house was crowded and the audience included all the major critics. A few examples of their reviews demonstrate the difficulty that both public and press had in coming to terms with Wagner’s new opera:

“Poet and composer in one person – the danger of this situation and the unfortunate nature of such an approach comes out clearly in this work.”
(Abend-Zeitung Dresden 23.10.1945)

“... that the dashing of one’s greatest hopes is all the more reason to allocate this new work to the only genre that should not be permitted – the tedious.”
(Wiener Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung, 30.10./1.11.1845)

“Wagner’s Tannhäuser has now been performed five times to a full house. Opinions regarding this opera differ widely, and it has been the subject of heated debate.  However all are agreed that it is a significant and intellectually stimulating work.”
(Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung Leipzig, 16.11.1845)

“The set is magnificent, and the superb visual impact of the entire performance takes one by surprise. But the same cannot be said of the music, which is an intellectual cacophony devoid of melodies from start to finish.”
(Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, 4./9.12.1845)

Only the much-feared Viennese critic Eduard Hanslik, who at that stage had not yet become Wagner’s arch enemy, gave the work a balanced analysis in 1846, concluding:

“Richard Wagner is to my mind the greatest dramatic talent amongst living composers.”

Tannhäuser only received its final form almost 20 years later in Paris. Wagner had already completed Lohengrin and Tristan when, in the summer of 1859, he returned to the French capital to try his luck there again. This time he was able to gain an extremely influential sponsor in the person of Princess Metternich, wife of the Austrian Ambassador, who managed to persuade Napoleon III to instruct the Paris Opera to include Tannhäuser in its repertoire. So Wagner now started to put together the so-called Paris Version, which also included a ballet, which he created as a Bacchanal in the first act rather than, as was customary in Paris at the time, in the second. He also completely rewrote the second scene with Venus and Tannhäuser.  In a letter dated August 1860 to Hans von Bülow he wrote: “I have recognised the weakness of the first scene in choreographic terms, and also the residual stiffness of the role of Venus. I therefore intend to write some new music for the first scene, which will be much more richly developed.... and I will significantly rewrite and expand the part of Venus, while retaining the best motifs. For this purpose I have written some new verses for the end of the scene: I hope this will stimulate greater interest in Venus and motivate Tannhäuser’s final invocation of the Virgin Mary in such a way that the inner torment that prompts him to do so is understood.” The rewrite was finished on 28 January 1861, and rehearsals began.

Much has been written about the scandal of the Paris production. Following performances on the 13th, 18th and 24th of March, Wagner saw himself compelled to withdraw his score. An impression of the events of that month is provided by two eyewitnesses: Wagner himself wrote, in Mein Leben, of the second performance on 18 March 1861: “However, when loud whistling broke out during the second act, Royer, the director, turned to me with an expression of resignation on his face and said ‘those are the jockeys, we have lost’”. An account of the background to the Parisian Tannhäuser scandal by the – no doubt not entirely impartial – French poet Charles Baudelaire also provides an insight into the political and social climate of the French capital under Napoleon III: “The recent decree granting a degree of freedom of the press and of personal expression has opened the floodgates to a natural, long-suppressed force that has pounced like a wild animal on the nearest victim. In this case, it was Tannhäuser, sponsored by the head of state, and openly supported by the wife of a foreign ambassador. What a wonderful opportunity! For several hours an entire French theatre revelled in the embarrassment of this lady, and – though it is not widely known – even Wagner’s wife herself was insulted at one of the performances. A major triumph!”

Nikolaus Lehnhoff has used the French version as the basis for his production, restoring Walther’s contribution to the second act, which Wagner had apparently removed in Paris because the singer concerned did not live up to expectations.  This has restored the character of this scene as a contest between minstrels.

The cleverly designed single set by Raimund Bauer is dominated in the first act by a huge spiral staircase, which mutates in the second act into a show staircase and in the third act, with its crumbling steps, exudes an atmosphere of decline. Lehnhoff deliberately abstains from any illustration of the action, instead letting the full impact of the psychological drama unfold. The near impossibility of producing the Bacchanal scene is demonstrated by the many different attempts made by producers, which have always fluctuated between voyeurism and abstraction.  The music is quite simply too overwhelming. Amir Hosseinpour and Jonathan Lunn have therefore breathed life into the scene with undefined creatures, worms and larvae, which sacrifice a black bull – a symbol of evil or darkness in Tannhäuser – in a ritual reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. The same space then changes into the valley below the Wartburg in which the Landgrave’s hunting party re-finds Tannhäuser.

In the second act, 20,000 tiny lamps transform the scene into a kind of entertainment palace in which the minstrels’ contest takes place. The imaginative lighting makes the walls appear to be panelled. The Wartburg valley in the third act then shows clearly that neither Tannhäuser nor Elisabeth’s plans have been fulfilled, and their world has collapsed. At the end, Elisabeth ascends the spiral staircase, which is reminiscent of a DNA helix. Tannhäuser breathes his last in the arms of his friend Wolfram – with a visual reference to the Pieta – and then follows Elizabeth. Only death can resolve the contradictions and bring redemption to them both.

When Baudelaire writes “Tannhäuser represents the struggle between the two principles that have chosen the human heart as their battlefield, in other words the struggle between flesh and spirit, Heaven and Hell, Satan and God”, he is only describing one aspect of this psychological drama. In our largely hedonistic, secularised world, other aspects come to the fore. Tannhäuser is in fact par excellence a drama about an artist figure. Tannhäuser/Wagner draws on his experience of life. His metier is not the bloodless artifice of poetry but rather the glorification of the female body, love in action, sensuous pleasure. And in this way the artist breaks all the taboos. Whereas in his hymn of praise to Venus, Tannhäuser the minstrel stays within the conventions of strophic song, his contributions to the minstrels’ contest are utterly new. How pale the worthy Wolfram seems by contrast – it is only the pain of final renunciation that enables him to find his own personal voice and become an artist himself with his song to the Evening Star. Tannhäuser is a thoroughly modern individual with all his inner conflict and immoderation, with all his attempts to break through constraints and limitations. When he appeals to the sainted Elisabeth at the end, this is in no way incompatible with his life before. He, too, is concerned to find a balance between sensuality and asceticism – an instinctive search for equilibrium, a wish for serenity – even if he cannot succeed in achieving it during this life. Heinrich Heine summed things up when he wrote in his Tannhäuser poem:

“We have jested and laughed too much
My heart has long yearned for tears
And instead of roses, I would like
My head to be crowned with thorns.”

Tannhauser, like many of Wagner's operas, is based on Medieval legends. In this case, the scenario conflates two legends, that of Tannhauser himself and the Singer's Contest. As always, the libretto was written by Wagner. The music for Tannhauser was composed between 1843-5, though Wagner continued to revise the opera; weeks before he died in 1883 he told his wife he still owed the world Tannhauser.

The first performance of the opera took place in Dresden on 19 October 1845. Like The Flying Dutchman before it, it was not a great success, Wagner maintaining his artistic aims were misunderstood. Nevertheless he embarked on the revising process that still occupied his mind at his death.

The story, paralleling other Wagner operas, is one of redemption through sacrificial death. The relationship between Tannhauser and Elisabeth was entirely invented by Wagner as the means of linking the Medieval scenarios; yet it provides the backbone of the drama, the original material merely contributing the settting.

The Composers

(Wilhelm) Richard Wagner

Wagner wrote operas on a vast scale telling tales of tragic love and epic stories of battles between the gods. With wars, a revolution and a scandalous love affair, his own life saw its fair share of turmoil too, and not necessarily on a smaller scale.

There is some doubt as to exactly who Wagner’s father was. Officially, his father was Friedrich Wagner, a police actuary who died soon after his son’s birth. In August 1814, though, Wagner’s mother married her friend Ludwig Geyer, an actor, poet and painter, and there is speculation that he was actually Richard Wagner’s father.

Regardless of this question over his parentage, the young Wagner went to school in Dresden and then Leipzig. His first creation was not musical, but a play, which he wrote when he was 15. The next year he started to write music. In 1831 he went to Leipzig University, also studying music with the Thomaskantor C. T. Weinlig, and in 1832 he wrote a symphony, which was also performed.

At the age of 20, in 1833, Wagner became the Chorus Master at the Würzburg theatre and wrote his first opera, Die Feen. It wasn’t performed, but his next opera (written in the same year), Das Liebesverbot, was staged in 1836.

Wagner made his début as an opera conductor with a small company which went bankrupt soon after performing his opera. Despite this failure, he married the singer Minna Planer in 1836 and moved with her to Königsberg where he became Musical Director at the theatre. He soon left and took a similar post in Riga where he began his next opera, Rienzi. In Riga, he did a lot of conducting, especially of Beethoven. However,  Wagner’s financial situation was bad, and when creditors demanded their money in 1839, he and his wife escaped by boat to London and then to Paris. Here he worked for publishers and theatres, and continued to write. In 1842, Rienzi was performed in Dresden, and was a great success. Wagner was appointed joint Kapellmeister at the Dresden court, and in 1845 Tannhäuser was performed, and Lohengrin started.

In 1849, Wagner fled revolutionary Paris and went to Weimar, where he was helped by the composer Franz Liszt. He was very anti-Semitic and spent time in France and Switzerland, as he was unable to enter Germany for 11 years. He began sketching the text and music of a series of operas on the Nordic and Germanic sagas - The Nibelung's Ring. Among the friends to whom Wagner showed the operas was a rich patron named Otto Wesendonck. Wesendonck’s wife Mathilde, who loved him, wrote poems that he set, and inspired Tristan und Isolde (written between 1857 and 1859).

In 1855 he conducted in London, and by 1860 was in Paris, where his views made him unpopular. In 1862 he returned to Germany, and separated from his wife Minna, who was ill. Wagner gave concerts all over Europe, and in 1864 King Ludwig II invited him to settle in Bavaria, near Munich. The King settled Wagner’s debts and provided him with an income.

In the later part of his career Wagner enjoyed the support of King Ludwig II. There was some scandal at the court when it became known that Wagner was having an affair with Franz Liszt’s daughter Cosima, who was married to the conductor Hans von Bülow. However, Bülow didn’t seem to mind, and conducted several of Wagner’s operas, including the premiere of Tristan und Isolde in 1865. In 1868, Cosima moved in with Wagner at his home in Tribschen, near Lucerne, and by the time they got married in 1870, they had two children. By 1876, Wagner was finally able to establish his own theatre and festival at the Bavarian town of Bayreuth, and it was there that The Ring was premiered. The performance of this 18-hour epic was an artistic success, but a financial disaster.

In order to try and earn some money, Wagner spent the next few years conducting in London and throughout Italy, as well as writing more operas. In Venice, Wagner experienced a worsening of the heart trouble he had suffered from for some years, and he died there in February 1883. His body was returned to Bayreuth to be buried.

Wagner’s influence on harmony, large scale works, and opera in particular is considerable. He developed the use of the Leitmotiv (leading motif). He was a remarkable innovator both in harmony and in the structure of his work. It can be said that his Prelude to the love tragedy Tristan und Isolde led to a new world of harmony. Wagner was a remarkable innovator both in harmony and in the structure of his work. He created his own version of the Gesamtkunstwerk, a type of dramatic composition in which all the arts (music, poetry, the visual arts, dance etc.) were brought together into a single unity. His political ideas sometimes overshadow his real significance as a composer.

Related Composers: Liszt, Weber, Franck, Humperdinck, Korngold, R Strauss