Wagner: Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in Leip­zig, Saxony, on May 22, 1813, and died in Venice on February 13, 1883. He composed Lohengrin between 1846 and 1848; the Prelude was the first music written and the last orchestrated. The Prelude was heard for the first time as part of the first complete performance of the opera, given under the direction of the composer’s future father-in-law, Franz Liszt, at Weimar on August 28, 1850. Hans Balatka conducted the first North American performance of the Prelude to Act I on December 21, 1858, in Milwaukee. The San Francisco Symphony first played the Prelude on December 12, 1913, with Henry Hadley conducting; the most recent performances here, in October 1995, were conducted by Marek Janowski. The Prelude is scored for three flutes, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, cymbals, and strings (violins are divided into four solos and four equal sections). Performance time: about nine minutes.

The earliest operas of Richard Wagner grew out of the traditions of German Romantic opera and French grand opera. As his career progressed, Wagner moved increasingly toward realizing his ideal of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a work synthesized from many artistic disciplines, including music, literature, the visual arts, ballet, and architecture. Wagner’s mature operas are so distinct in this way that they are often referred to not as operas at all, but rather as “music dramas,” in an attempt to underscore the singularity of his esthetic goals. Nonetheless, Wagner himself was not averse to extracting sections from these closely woven works to present apart from their operatic context. During his lifetime he conducted orchestral extracts from his operas as stand-alone concert works, including the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin.

Wagner was in exile in Switzerland while composing Lohengrin. He had fled Germany in 1848 to escape the wrath of the Dresden police after he had gotten involved with a radical political fringe inspired by the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. To this day, if you visit the Hotel Schwanen in Lucerne, someone is bound to point out the corner of the drawing room where, on August 28, 1850, Wagner sat with watch in hand silently imagining his opera Lohengrin, which at that very moment Franz Liszt was conducting for real at its world premiere in Weimar. When the score to Lohengrin was published, in 1852, it included a long and glowing dedication to “My dear Liszt!” “It was you who awakened the mute lines of this score to bright sounding life,” wrote Wagner. “Without your rare love for me, my work would still be lying in total silence—perhaps forgotten even by me—in some desk drawer at home.”

Lohengrin signals the demarcation between the early phase of Wagner’s career and the ultimate realization of his ideals of the Gesamtkunstwerk in his operas that followed the century’s midpoint. It tells the tale of a mysterious knight who appears in a swan-drawn boat and defends the honor of Elsa, who has been wrongly accused of murdering her brother. He pledges to marry her so long as she promises never to try to divine his identity. Eventually she does ask the forbidden question. He reveals that he is Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, Keeper of the Holy Grail. We learn too that the swan, which has returned to take Lohengrin away, is in fact Elsa’s supposedly dead brother, transformed through a magic spell. Lohengrin prays, the swan vanishes, Gott­fried appears in its place, Lohengrin departs, and Elsa dies in Gottfried’s arms.

This may be the most sheerly gorgeous of Wagner’s operas, and its tone is set in the Prelude to Act I. This introductory music begins and ends with violins shimmering high in their register, framing a movement of almost unbearably delicate beauty. Wagner’s orchestration is meticulous. Only treble instruments are heard at the outset: mostly violins, with a touch of reinforcement from flutes and oboes. The violins, in fact, are divided with painstaking specificity: four solo players, plus the rest of the violinists also divided into four parts, yielding eight separate lines all playing in the luminous key of A major. The Prelude unrolls with a slow, steady pace, and the brass section adds its power and brilliance to a stunning climax before the music again recedes to a hovering shimmer.

In a lengthy program note he prepared for concerts he conducted in 1853 in Zurich, Wagner related that the Holy Grail was once “brought back from heavenly heights by a band of angels and entrusted to a band of fervent, solitary men.” He continued (in the third person): “This miraculous descent of the Holy Grail…was selected by the composer of Lohengrin . . . as the subject for musical portrayal in the prelude to his drama . . . . To the ecstatic seeker of divine love, a barely perceptible yet magically attractive vision seems to condense out of the pure blue ether of the sky.” The apparition, Wagner continues, “grows more distinctly visible to those on earth . . . . Now the Grail pours out its blessing on him who is swallowed up in the ecstasy of love, consecrating him a Knight of the Grail. The fiery brilliance subsides to a milder glow, spreading over the earth in a breath of unspeakable joy and tenderness, filling the supplicant’s breast with unsuspected bliss.”

James M. Keller

This note originally appeared in the programs of the Juilliard Orchestra and is used with permission.

More About the Music
Recordings: Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI Great Recordings of the Century)  |  Klaus Tennstedt conducting the  Berlin Philharmonic (EMI Classics)  |  Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (London/Decca Opera Gala)

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)