Wagner: Overture to Tannhäuser

Overture to Tannhäuser

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Saxony, on May 22, 1813, and died in Venice on February 13, 1883. He composed Tannhäuser between July 1843 and January 1845, completed the scoring on April 13, 1845, and conducted the first performance on October 19 that year in Dresden. The first US performance of the Overture was given by the Thomas Orchestra in New York on April 25, 1873. In November 1912, Henry Hadley conducted the first San Francisco Symphony performances; Mark Wigglesworth led the most recent performances in December 2008. The score calls for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two each of oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, tambourine, and strings. Performance time: about fifteen minutes.

Its rich dramatic tapestry is spun from the far-flung threads of medieval chivalry and Teutonic romance, Greek mythology, Christian piety, and an energetic licentiousness decorously cloaked under the mantle of virtuous indignation. Set in thirteenth-century Thuringia, its story revolves around the knightly minstrel Tannhäuser and his battle between the temptations of the flesh--embodied by the goddess Venus--and a spiritual love personified by the saintly Elizabeth. After having spent a year and a day as Venus's lover, he has invoked the name of the Virgin Mary, vowed a life of penance, and set off for the mortal world. Elizabeth rejoices in his return, but their imminent union is destroyed when a comrade taunts Tannhäuser into singing the praises of Venus. His outburst has broken the laws of chivalry and courtly love, and he is now forced to become a pilgrim and seek absolution in Rome. Elizabeth faithfully waits for him, but when he is delayed in his journey she despairs of his return, surrenders to her fate, and dies. Abandoned by his mortal lover, denied the forgiveness of the Pope and the compassion of the church, Tannhäuser contemplates returning to the forgetfulness of Venus's magic kingdom; as the opera draws to a close, however, he sees Elizabeth's funeral cortege, releases his soul to join her in death, and is granted a miraculous redemption.

The work's Overture presents a kind of synopsis of the action by interweaving major elements from the opera itself: the churchly harmonies of the Pilgrims' Chorus, Venus's siren song, Tannhäuser's hymn to the goddess of love, and musical depictions of the Venusberg's revelries.

Howard Hersh

Howard Hersh was the San Francisco Symphony's program annotator from 1970 to 1979.

More About the Music

Recordings: Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Decca)

Reading: Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans, by Joachim Köhler (Yale University Press)  |  The Life of Richard Wagner, in four volumes, by Ernest Newman (Cambridge University Press)  |  The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner’s Life and Music, edited by Barry Millington (Schirmer)  |  Wagner Handbook, edited by Ulrich Müller and Peter Wapnewski (Harvard University Press)