Wagner: Overture and Venusberg Music (Bacchanal) from Tannhäuser   

RICHARD WILHELM WAGNER

BORN: May 22, 1813. Leipzig, Saxony (Germany)

DIED: February 13, 1883. Venice, Italy

COMPOSED: July 1843 to April 13, 1845. Wagner completed the Overture on January 11, 1845; the Venusberg Music was expanded in 1861 for a production at the Paris Opéra

WORLD PREMIERE: October 19, 1845. The composer conducted at the Königlich Sächsisches Hoftheater in Dresden. With the expanded Venusberg Music it was first presented at the Paris Opéra on March 13, 1861

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—The Overture was first heard in November 1912, conducted by Henry Hadley. The Venusburg Music was first heard in November 1914, also led by Hadley. MOST RECENT—December 2008. Mark Wigglesworth conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 timpani, triangle, cymbals, tambourine, castanets, bass drum, harp, and strings.

DURATION: About 24 mins

THE BACKSTORY Tannhäuser—or, to use Richard Wagner’s complete title, Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (Tannhäuser and the Singers’ Contest on the Wartburg)—befuddled the audience that attended its world premiere, in 1845 in Dresden. This was partly due to the questionable achievement of the singers to whom the leading roles were entrusted, but it also reflected the new path Wagner was exploring as an opera composer.

When he composed Tannhäuser, he was just arriving at the musical-theatrical breakthroughs that would cement his place in history. The two comic operas of his youth, Die Feen (The Fairies, 1832-33, after a tale by Carlo Gozzi) and Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love, 1834-35, after Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure), were behind him, and the latter had even made it to the stage. He had held a succession of modest positions at far-flung musical establishments: the music directorship of a little theater company in Magdeburg, a conducting debut in Bad Lauschstadt, the music directorship of the town theater in Königsberg (where he began his first marriage), and, as of August 1837, the music directorship of the theater in Riga, where he embarked on composing his grand opera Rienzi. In March 1839, Wagner lost his position in Riga, and he and his wife set out for London and thence to Paris, where they lived from hand to mouth from 1839 until 1842. There he composed his first post-Rienzi opera, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) but failed to get the Paris Opéra to stage it. In 1842, Wagner finally started to break into the world to which he aspired; the Dresden Opera accepted both Rienzi and Der fliegende Holländer for production, and then he was hired as Dresden’s Royal Court Music Director.

Wagner had headed to Paris on the suggestion of the successful composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. Although the Romantic operas of Carl Maria von Weber and Heinrich Marschner played a strong role in Wagner’s development, the dramaturgy of his early operas was particularly rooted in the tradition of French Grand Opera that was epitomized by Meyerbeer. Wagnerians have been known to say that Rienzi is the greatest of the French grand operas—possibly a slight on Meyerbeer’s own Le Prophète and Les Huguenots, but a bon mot worth pondering all the same. Wagner’s early operas share with those works a grandly rhetorical style and adhere to the many of the general dictates of taste then current in Paris; otherwise put, they are operas of very considerable length often based on epic historical plots, with grandiose settings and situations, big casts, and a prominent choruses.

The plot of Tannhäuser derives from medieval German legend filtered through nineteenth-century Romanticism. The title character, unfulfilled by the orgiastic abandon he has experienced on the Venusberg, discovers the possibility of something better—call it redemption, if you will—through the chaste purity of sacred devotion. In Wagner’s opera, the push-and-pull between these moral and spiritual poles is represented by Tannhäuser’s conflicting attraction to the figures of Elisabeth (the sacred) and Venus (the profane).

THE MUSIC The work’s Overture prefigures the opera not only by introducing some of the music that will be heard in the course of the evening, but also by foreshadowing aspects of the plot itself. It became so popular as a standalone concert piece that Wagner prepared a sort of plot summary of the Overture in its own right, which he presented in a very long program note for a concert he conducted in Zurich in May 1873. He begins:

At first the orchestra introduces us to the “Pilgrims’ Chorus” alone. It approaches, swells to a mighty outpouring, and finally passes into the distance.—Twilight: dying echoes of the chorus.—As night falls, magic visions show themselves. A rosy mist swirls upward, sensuously exultant sounds reach our ears, and the blurred motions of a fearsomely voluptuous dance are revealed.

This is the seductive magic of the Venusberg, which appears by night to those whose souls are fired by bold, sensuous longings. Lured by the tempting visions, the slender figure of a man draws near: it is Tannhäuser, the minstrel of love. Proudly he sings his jubilant chant of love, exultantly and challengingly, as if to force the voluptuous magic to come to him. . . .

In performance, the Overture leads directly into the opera’s opening scene, which involves amorous frolics on the Venusberg. Venus reclines in a rocky grotto with Tannhäuser resting his head in her lap, surrounded by naiads, sirens, and nymphs. Bacchants urge everyone to join in an increasingly frenetic dance, which defines the wanton emptiness Tannhäuser will ultimately reject. When a production of Tannhäuser was mounted in Paris in 1861, Wagner expanded this opening Venusberg scene. French Grand Opera traditionally found a place for an extended ballet in the second act of an opera. The well-heeled gentlemen of the Jockey Club had come to depend on it, and many of them would remain in their club room dining and socializing until the balletic expanse rolled around. At that point they would file into their boxes and watch what, for many of them, was the onstage appearance of their girlfriends. Although Wagner could not see his way to comply exactly with the Parisian taste for a second-act ballet, he was at least willing to enlarge the Venusberg bacchanal in Act One, where dancing already played a role. He introduced new characters—cupids and the Three Graces (wearing pink ballet skirts)—and had the revelry go on at greater length until the cupids calmed everyone down by showering them with arrows. He also increased the instrumentation for the Paris version, with the bacchanal now using castanets.

Wagner had harbored considerable hostility toward Paris ever since the early years when he had lived there in penury. The 1861 Tannhäuser production did nothing to change his stance. It was a debacle, caught in the crossfire of political enmity between Princess Pauline Metternich, the French aristocrat who had supported mounting the opera, and the members of the Jockey Club, who interrupted the first three performances by jeering and blowing on whistles. After the third performance, Wagner informed the Opéra’s director that he was withdrawing his piece, “as the members of the Jockey Club will not allow the Paris public to hear my opera, for lack in it of a ballet at the hour when they are accustomed to enter the theatre.”—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

(May 2019)