Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner: Overture to Tannhäuser

The German opera composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883) was a dominant figure in the transition from late Romanticism to 20th century music. The rich harmonic chromaticism he used in Tristan und Isolde pushed tonality to its limits, profoundly influencing composers like Debussy, Franck, Chausson, and d’Indy. Wagner viewed opera as a culmination of the arts rather than simply a collection of set pieces; he wrote his own librettos, created musical signatures (leitmotifs) for characters, objects, places, and ideas, and extensively expanded the forces of the orchestra. His earliest operas, Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot, reflect the classical style of Weber, while Rienzi took on the grand opera style of Meyerbeer. The more imposing Der fliegende Holländer marked the beginning of his maturity, though it retained some old style set pieces.

Tannhäuser (full title: Tannhäuser and the Singers’ Contest on the Wartburg) is broader and fuller than Holländer, and is Wagner’s first opera based on German legends. The first tale tells of the minnesinger Heinrich von Ofterdingen and his participation in a singing contest at Wartburg. The second is of another minnesinger, Tannhäuser, and his mythical worshipping of the goddess Venus at Venusburg. Wagner combined the two stories by having Tannhäuser spend time in Venusburg and sing at Wartburg. In a concession to the legends, he titled the opera Tannhäuser but named his main character Heinrich.

The opera portrays the powerful struggle between sensual desires and deep spiritual longings. It begins with Heinrich languishing in the court of Venus in Venusberg. He sings to her of his devotion, but begs to return to the world and finds himself transported to Eisenach. Pilgrims pass, singing a hymn. Several old minnesinger colleagues discover him and welcome him back. Informed that the landgrave’s niece, Elisabeth, loves him, Heinrich returns to Wartburg and enters a contest about love songs where Elisabeth’s hand is the prize. Foolishly, he sings the profane song he sang to Venus. Pious knights threaten him, but Elisabeth intercedes. Heinrich journeys to Rome for absolution, but the Pope will forgive him only when the papal staff sprouts leaves. Heinrich returns to Eisenach and finds that Elisabeth, despairing of his return, has died and is in Heaven praying for his soul. Heinrich sobs on her coffin. A pilgrim returns: the papal staff sprouted leaves! Heinrich dies redeemed.

With Tannhäuser, Wagner explored the themes of spiritual redemption and Germanness. An indifferent performance and reception at the 1845 Dresden premiere compelled him to continue revising it until 1860, producing what is now known as the “Dresden Version.” He made some major changes for a production in Paris in 1861. The most significant was the insertion of a long ballet after the overture. For a production in Vienna in 1875, he took the Paris score, cut the last part of the overture, and connected the rest to the ballet. The result is the “Paris Version.” Both the Dresden and Paris versions are performed today. According to his wife Cosima, Wagner was never satisfied with this opera and died believing “he never gave the world Tannháuser.”

The original Tannhäuser Overture is heard in the concert hall and in most performances of the Dresden Version. It opens with the Pilgrims’ Chorus in the winds in triple meter. The strings respond, and the trombones intone the chorus accompanied by broken triplets that Wagner called the “pulse of life.” A faster tempo launches parts of the Venusberg music. Heinrich’s song to Venus rises out of the strings followed by more merrymaking. After Venus’ response in the clarinet, we hear Heinrich’s song again, this time at Wartburg, followed by motifs of bacchanalia and the anger of the knights. The pilgrims’ hymn returns, now more broadly in duple meter, triumphantly drowning out all revelry and anger.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is also the Operations/Personnel Manager), and is a local freelancer. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener's Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony.

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