The story centers on the struggle between sacred and profane love, and redemption through love, a theme running through most of Wagner's mature work.
Tannhäuser lies sleeping by the couch of Venus. Bacchantes revel, but Tannhäuser wakens with a desire to return to the world, away from the sensual delights of the Venusberg. He is warned, but puts his trust in Mary, the Mother of Christ, at whose name he finds himself by her shrine in a valley near the Wartburg. He hears a shepherd singing a welcome to spring, sees pilgrims setting out for Rome, and falls to his knees in repentance. He is urged by the Landgrave to join his hunting-party and eventually persuaded when he hears that Elisabeth, the Landgrave's niece, is pining for him.
At the Wartburg he meets Elisabeth and they celebrate the power of love. The song contest on the Wartburg brings conflict between Tannhäuser and those who disapprove of the sensuous view of love that he expresses. Elisabeth saves Tannhäuser from the swords of the angry knights, who insist he should join the pilgrims to Rome, in order to seek absolution.
In Rome he finds no pardon, while Elisabeth, accompanied by the knight and Minnesinger Wolfram, anxiously awaits his return, praying to the Blessed Virgin for his salvation. Eventually, after the other pilgrims, Tannhäuser returns.
The Pope has cursed him, telling him that only when the papal crozier bursts into flower will he ever be pardoned. Now Tannhäuser seeks again the Venusberg. Wolfram restrains him by the mention of the name of Elisabeth, whose body is now born towards them in funeral procession. Tannhäuser kneels by the side of the bier, praying for her intercession, at which young pilgrims are seen returning, carrying the Pope's crozier, now miraculously blooming.
"Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg"
"Tannhäuser and the Minnesingers' Contest at Wartburg"
Opera in 3 acts
Sung in German
About 3 hours 10 min + intervals
The Venusberg, (the Hörselberg of "Frau Holda" in Thuringia, in the vicinity of Eisenach), and a valley between the Venusberg and Wartburg.
Wagner's stage directions state: "The stage represents the interior of the Venusberg... In the distant background is a bluish lake; in it one sees the bathing figures of naiads; on its elevated banks are sirens. In the extreme left foreground lies Venus bearing the head of the half kneeling Tannhäuser in her lap. The whole cave is illuminated by rosy light. – A group of dancing nymphs appears, joined gradually by members of loving couples from the cave. – A train of Bacchantes comes from the background in wild dance... – The ever-wilder dance answers as in echo the Chorus of Sirens": "Naht euch dem Strande" (Come to the shore). In the "Paris" version this orgiastic ballet is greatly extended.
Following the orgy of the ballet, Tannhäuser's desires are finally satiated, and he longs for freedom, spring and the sound of church bells. He takes up his harp and pays homage to the goddess in a passionate love song, "Dir töne Lob!" (Let your praises be heard), which he ends with an earnest plea to be allowed to depart, "Aus deinem Reiche, muss ich fliehn! O Königin! Göttin! Lass mich ziehn!" (From your kingdom must I flee! O Queen! O Goddess, set me free). Surprised, Venus offers him further charms, but eventually his repeated pleas arouse her fury and she curses his desire for salvation. (In the "Paris" version Venus's inveighing against Tannhäuser is significantly expanded). Eventually Tannhäuser declares: "Mein Heil ruht in Maria" (My salvation rests in Mary). These words break the unholy spell. Venus and the Venusberg disappear.
According to Wagner's stage directions, "Tannhäuser... finds himself a beautiful valley… To the left one sees the Hörselberg. To the right... a mountain path from the direction of the Wartburg ...; in the foreground, led to by a low promontory, an image of the Virgin Mary – From above left one hears the ringing of herder’s bells; on a high projection sits a young shepherd with pipes facing the valley". It is May. The shepherd sings an ode to the pagan goddess Holda, "Frau Holda kam aus dem Berg hervor" (Lady Holda, come forth from the hill). A hymn "Zu dir wall ich, mein Jesus Christ" (To thee I turn, my Jesus Christ) can be heard, as Pilgrims are seen approaching from the Wartburg, and the shepherd stops playing. The pilgrims pass Tannhäuser as he stands motionless, and then, praising God, ("Allmächt'ger, dir sei Preis!" (Almighty God, to you be praise!)) he sinks to his knees, overcome with gratitude. At that moment the sound of hunting-horns can be heard, drawing ever nearer.
The Landgrave's hunting party appears. The minnesingers (Wolfram, Walther, Biterolf, Reinmar, and Heinrich) recognise Tannhäuser, still deep in prayer, and greet him ("Heinrich! Heinrich! Seh ich recht?" (Heinrich! Heinrich! Do I see right?)) cautiously, recalling past feuds. They question him about his recent whereabouts, to which he gives vague answers. The minnesingers urge Tannhäuser to rejoin them, which he declines until Wolfram mentions Elisabeth, the Landgrave's niece, "Bleib bei Elisabeth!" (Stay, for Elisabeth!). Tannhäuser is visibly moved, "Elisabeth! O Macht des Himmels, rufst du den süsssen Namen mir?" (Elisabeth! O might of heaven, is it you that wakes me with that sweet name?). The minnesingers explain to Tannhäuser how he had enchanted Elisabeth, but when he had left she withdrew from their company and lost interest in music, expressing the hope that his return will also bring her back, "Auf's Neue leuchte uns ihr Stern!" (Let her star once more shine upon us). Tannhäuser begs them to lead him to her, "Zu ihr! Zu ihr!" (To her! To her!). The rest of the hunting party gathers, blowing horns.
The minnesingers' hall in the Wartburg castle.
Introduction - Scene 1
Elisabeth enters, joyfully. She sings, to the hall, of how she has been beset by sadness since Tannhäuser's departure but now lives in hope that his songs will revive both of them, "Dich, teure Halle, grüss ich wieder" (Dear hall, I greet thee once again). Wolfram leads Tannhäuser into the hall.
Tannhäuser flings himself at Elisabeth's feet. He exclaims "O Fürstin!" (O Princess!). At first, seemingly confused, she questions him about where he has been, which he avoids answering. She then greets him joyfully ("Ich preise dieses Wunder aus meines Herzens Tiefe!" (I praise this miracle from my heart's depths!)), and they join in a duet, "Gepriesen sei die Stunde" (Praise be to this hour). Tannhäuser then leaves with Wolfram.
The Landgrave enters, and he and Elisabeth embrace. The Landgrave sings of his joy, "Dich treff ich hier in dieser Halle" (Do I find you in this hall) at her recovery and announces the upcoming song contest, at which she will preside, "dass du des Festes Fürstin seist" (that you will be the Princess of the Festival).
Scene 4 and Sängerkrieg (Song Contest)
Elisabeth and the Landgrave watch the guests arrive. The guests assemble greeting the Landgrave and singing "Freudig begrüssen wir edle Halle" (With joy we greet the noble hall), take their places in a semicircle, with Elisabeth and the Landgrave in the seats of honour in the foreground. The Landgrave announces the contest and the theme, which shall be "Könnt ihr der Liebe Wesen mir ergründen?" (Can you explain the nature of Love?), and that the prize will be whatever the winner asks of Elisabeth. The knights place their names in a cup from which Elisabeth draws the first singer, Wolfram. Wolfram sings a trite song of courtly love and is applauded, but Tannhäuser chides him for his lack of passion. There is consternation, and once again Elisabeth appears confused, torn between rapture and anxiety. Biterolf accuses him of blasphemy and speaks of "Frauenehr und hohe Tugend" (women's virtue and honour). The knights draw their swords as Tannhäuser mocks Biterolf, but the Landgrave intervenes to restore order. However, Tannhäuser, as if in a trance, rises to his feet and sings a song of ecstatic love to Venus, "Dir Göttin der Liebe, soll mein Lied ertönen" (To thee, Goddess of Love, will my song be raised). There is general horror as it is realised he has been in the Venusberg; the women, apart from Elisabeth, flee. She appears pale and shocked, while the knights and the Landgrave gather together and condemn Tannhäuser to death. Only Elisabeth, shielding him with her body, saves him, "Haltet ein!" (Stop!). She states that God's will is that a sinner shall achieve salvation through atonement. Tannhäuser collapses as all hail Elisabeth as an angel, "Ein Engel stieg aus lichtem Äther" (An angel comes to us from the realm of light). He promises to seek atonement, the Landgrave exiles him and orders him to join another younger band of pilgrims then assembling. All depart, crying Nach Rom! (To Rome!).
In the "Paris" version, the song contest is somewhat shortened, possibly because of the lack of suitable soloists for the Paris production.
The valley of the Wartburg, in autumn. Elisabeth is kneeling, praying before the Virgin as Wolfram comes down the path and notices her.
Orchestral music describes the pilgrimage of Tannhäuser. It is evening. Wolfram muses on Elisabeth's sorrow during Tannhäuser's second absence, "Wohl wusst' ich hier sie im Gebet zu finden" (I knew well I might find her here in prayer) and her longing for the return of the pilgrims, and expresses concerns that he may not have been absolved. As he does so he hears a pilgrims' prayer in the distance, "Beglückt darf nun dich, O Heimat, ich schauen" (Joyfully now my homeland I behold). Elisabeth rises and she and Wolfram listen to the hymn, watching the pilgrims approach and pass by. She anxiously searches the procession, but in vain, realising sorrowfully he is not amongst them, "Er kehret nicht züruck!" (He has not returned). She again kneels with a prayer to the Virgin that appears to foretell her death, "Allmächt'ge Jungfrau! Hör mein Flehen" (Almighty Virgin, hear my plea!). On rising she sees Wolfram but motions him not to speak. He offers to escort her back to the Wartburg, but she again motions him to be still, and gestures that she is grateful for his devotion but her path leads to heaven. She slowly makes her way up the path alone.
Wolfram, left alone as darkness draws on and the stars appear, begins to play and sings a hymn to the evening star that also hints at Elisabeth's approaching death, "Wie Todesahnung Dämmrung deckt die Lande... O du mein holder Abendstern" (Like a premonition of death the twilight shrouds the earth... O thou my fair evening star).
It is now night. Tannhäuser appears, ragged, pale and haggard, walking feebly leaning on his staff. Wolfram suddenly recognises Tannhäuser, and startled challenges him, since he is exiled. To Wolfram's horror, Tannhäuser explains he is once again seeking the company of Venus. Wolfram tries to restrain him, at the same time expressing compassion and begging him to tell the story of his pilgrimage. Tannhäuser urges Wolfram to listen to his story, "Nun denn, hör an! Du, Wolfram, du sollst es erfahren" (Now then, listen! You, Wolfram, shall learn all that has passed). Tannhäuser sings of his penitence and suffering, all the time thinking of Elisabeth's gesture and pain, "Inbrunst im Herzen, wie kein Büsser noch" (With a flame in my heart, such as no penitent has known). He explains how he reached Rome, and the "Heiligtumes Schwelle" (Holy shrine), and witnessed thousands of pilgrims being absolved. Finally he approaches "ihn, durch den sich Gott verkündigt'" (he, through whom God speaks) and tells his story. However, rather than finding absolution, he is cursed, "bist nun ewig du verdammt!" (you are forever damned!), and is told by the pope that "Wie dieser Stab in meiner Hand, nie mehr sich schmückt mit frischem Grün, kann aus der Hölle heissem Brand, Erlösung nimmer dir erblühn!" (As this staff in my hand, no more shall bear fresh leaves, from the hot fires of hell, salvation never shall bloom for thee). Whereupon, absolutely crushed, he fled, seeking his former source of bliss.
Having completed his tale, Tannhäuser calls out to Venus to take him back, "Zu dir, Frau Venus, kehr ich wieder" (To you, Lady Venus, I return). The two men struggle as a faint image of dancing becomes apparent. As Tannhäuser repeatedly calls on Venus, she suddenly appears and welcomes him back, "Willkommen, ungetreuer Mann!" (Welcome, faithless man!). As Venus continues to beckon, "Zu mir! Zu mir!" (To me!, To me!), in desperation, Wolfram suddenly remembers there is one word that can change Tannhäuser's heart, and exclaims "Elisabeth!" Tannhäuser, as if frozen in time, repeats the name. As he does so, torches are seen, and a funeral hymn is heard approaching, "Der Seele Heil, die nun entflohn" (Hail, the soul that now is flown). Wolfram realises it must be Elisabeth's body that is being borne, and that in her death lies Tannhäuser's redemption, "Heinrich, du bist erlöst!" (Heinrich, you are saved). Venus cries out, "Weh! Mir verloren" (Alas! Lost to me!) and vanishes with her kingdom. As dawn breaks the procession appears bearing Elisabeth's body on a bier. Wolfram beckons to them to set it down, and as Tannhäuser bends over the body uttering, "Heilige Elisabeth, bitte für mich!" (Holy Elisabeth!, pray for me!) he dies. As the growing light bathes the scene the younger pilgrims arrive bearing the pope's staff sprouting new leaves, and proclaiming a miracle, "Heil! Heil! Der Gnade Wunder Heil!" (Hail!, Hail! To this miracle of grace, Hail!). All then sing "Der Gnade Heil ist dem Büsser beschieden, er geht nun ein in der Seligen Frieden!" (The Holy Grace of God is to the penitent given, who now enters into the joy of Heaven!).
Heinrich Tannhäuser – Tenor (Helden/dramatic)
Princess Elisabeth – Soprano (dramatic)
Venus – Soprano/Mezzo-soprano (dramatic)
Goddess of Love
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Baritone (lyric)
Hermann – Bass
Landgrave of Thuringia
Walther von der Vogelweide – Tenor (Helden/dramatic)
Biterolf – Bass-baritone/Bass (lyric)
Heinrich der Schreiber – Tenor
Reinmar von Zweter - Bass
A young shepherd - Soprano (lyric)
Four noble pages – Soprano, Alto
Place of birth: Leipzig, Germany
Place of death: Venice, Italy
Richard Wagner was a 19th century German composer, theatre director, conductor and librettist. His writing period spans over more than 50 years. He is most known for his operas, what he called, "music dramas". Particularly in his later operas he made use of "Leitmotifs" (leading motifs), musical phrases connected to a role character, a place or an idea. He also describes the music dramas as "Gesamtkunstwerk" (total work of art). This idea revolutionised opera. By combining poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts the story could unfold with the music supporting the drama.
Wagner's hostile writings expressing antisemitic views have been widely commented. Hitler was an admirer of his music and there are continuous debates about the extent to which Wagner's views might have influenced Nazi thinking.
Wagner married Wilhelmine "Minna" Planer in 1836. Their tumultuous marriage would last until Minna's death in 1866, although their relationship ended much earlier. In 1852 Wagner became infatuated with the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck. He would set five of her verses to music, the Wesendonck Lieder. In 1863 Wagner met Cosima von Bülow, the wife of Hans von Bülow and daughter of Franz Liszt. They had an affair that would lead to a marriage that would last until Wagner's death. They married in 1870 and had three children.
Wagner's legacy to the world of opera is of considerable scope, although controversial.
"Imagination creates reality."
Wagner built his own opera house, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, specifically to house his own works during the annual festival, the Bayreuth Festival. Today audiences travel from all over the world to visit the summer festival. The orchestra pit is designed so that it doesn't draw any attention from the stage, with the orchestra members hidden under the stage, invisible to the audience.
Most prominent operas
Der fliegende Holländer 1843
Tristan und Isolde 1865
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg 1868
Das Rheingold 1869
Die Walküre 1870
The libretto is based on two German legends: Tannhäuser, the mythologized medieval German Minnesänger and poet, and the tale of the Wartburg Song Contest.
Wagner wrote the libretto for all of his operas and referred to the texts as "poems".
3d1, 2, 2+1, 2 - 4, 3, 3, 1
timp, perc, harp, strings
On-stage: cor anglais, 4 oboes, 6 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 12 horns, 12 trumpets, 4 trombones, snare drum, cymbals, tambourine
There are three different versions of Tannhäuser, the Dresden version 1845, the Paris version 1861 and the Vienna version 1875. Three weeks before Wagner died, his wife Cosima noted in her diary: "He says he still owes the world Tannhäuser."
The first performance was given in the Königliches Hoftheater (Royal Theater) in Dresden.
Tannhäuser's first performance in Paris was given in 1861 at the Salle Le Peletier of the Paris Opéra. It included a ballet and changes were made to the final scene. This is the version most regularly performed today.
Wagner made even more revisions to the final scene for the 1875 Vienna premiere.
Today Tannhäuser is one of the top 50 most performed operas worldwide.
Aria - Dich, teure Halle (Elisabeth)
Aria – O du mein holder Abendstern (Wolfram)