In the Venusburg (Tannhauser), 1901 (oil on canvas) by John Collier
Text: Peter Franken
Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg premiered on 19 October 1845 in Dresden. The composer had been working on the opera since 1842 and was actually never able to complete it to his own satisfaction. Shortly before his death in 1883 Wagner admitted that he owed the world another Tannhäuser.
In 1875 he had conducted a performance in Vienna himself, which had not entirely been to his liking. That performance included the virtuoso music for the violins composed for Paris, making it in fact a Viennese version of the work.
The fact that Wagner continued to tinker with the score for a large part of his life was mainly caused by performance practices. He was never really satisfied with how the work was played, mainly because singers could not cope with their role but also because of the lack of quality of the performing orchestras. In 1860 a revised edition of the score appeared. A year later the ill-fated performances in Paris took place. Here Wagner had the overture lead directly into a stormy scene in the Venusberg, the bacchanale. The performances in Paris were sung in French. What is now known as the ‘Pariser Fassung’ is a retranslation into German.
Because the singer who was cast as Walther von der Vogelweide proved to have insufficient qualities, his contribution to the singing contest had to be cut. That omission defines the later performance practices of the Paris version and it is a serious loss. A ‘schwärmerisch’ type like Walther, who sings about the pure wells of love that one can only sip from, adds much to the contrast between Tannhäuser and his fellow singers. Now he only has Wolfram as an opponent, Biterolf’s contribution is of a very different nature, which calls for violence.
All in all, there are 36 variants in the score that can be identified, all of which stem from the problems Wagner encountered in making his opera ‘performable.’ Continuing to speak of a Dresden and a Paris version is outdated as there are many more. Nevertheless, in general one sticks to these two main versions because of the recognisability, mainly found in the overture and the subsequent bacchanale. However, it is not unusual to play a hybrid of both versions, for example by having Walther sing his aria in what otherwise is the Paris version.
Tannhäuser’s time in a den of sensual pleasures sends him on a pilgrimage to redeem his soul.
As usual, Wagner wrote the libretto himself. In it he combined the legend of the Minnesänger Tannhaüser with the legendary singing contest at the Wartburg. The work deals with the disruption of a rigid, introverted environment by the arrival of an uninhibited outsider.
In this social environment, people do not know how to deal well with sexuality and eroticism, which has led to the glorification of spiritual love. Minnesänger Tannhaüser, however, has had very different experiences at the well, the Venus cave. Spiritual love is like infertile earth: no flowers grow in it. Love without sensuality is not love.
Joseph Tichatschek (Tannhäuser) and Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (Venus); premiere in 1845
From the story it can be concluded that Heinrich Tannhaüser is a Minnesänger who previously lived at the court of the Landgrave of Thuringia. At some point the straitjacket of this court life must have become too tight and he left, without anyone knowing where.
It is clear that he is very much missed, especially by Elisabeth, the niece of the landgrave. And by his colleagues, who may have lost a competitor but cannot take advantage of it because Elisabeth has decided to no longer attend singing competitions. Competitions, therefore, have largely petered out.
At the start of the opera Tannhaüser has been with the goddess of love Venus and her servants for quite some time. In terms of eroticism and sex, our hero does not lack anything, in fact, he gets overfed with it. And of course too much is not good: ‘all sex and no play makes Heinrich a dull boy.’
Tannhäuser et Vénus, par Otto Knille, 1873 © Nationalgalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin
Venus loses her temper when he tactfully tells her that he wants to go out into the open air again. What on earth does he want there, in that chilly, rigid environment in which people are permanently working as robots to protect the supposed salvation of their souls? He hadn’t fled all this for nothing, had he Heinrich, the free bird? But it doesn’t help, Tannhaüser is not only bored but afraid of his place in the afterlife as well. Venus mocks him for this but she cannot hold on to him.
Once in the open field, the Minnesänger meets his former colleagues, who lead him along to Wartburg with the main argument that Elisabeth is waiting for him there. For them he functions as a kind of job guarantee.
Wolfram von Eschenbach is the singer who is closest to Tannhaüser. Wolfram clearly has his eyes on Elisabeth, but she lives with the idealised memory of Tannhaüser and has no eye for other men. By confronting Elisabeth with his rival and thus making him an average person again, he hopes to increase his own chances with her.
He brings Tannhaüser to Elisabeth when she is swooning in the Great Hall of Song (Dich, teure Halle, grüß’ ich wieder) and remains in the background to keep an eye on their encounter. Although these two almost immediately recognise love in each other’s eyes, Wolfram does not have to worry, Tannhaüser manages to make himself spectacularly impossible before the eyes of the entire court. But contrary to expectations, Elisabeth continues to cherish him and only allows Wolfram in her vicinity as a ‘good friend.’ What remains for him is a ‘Will and Grace relationship.’
Hermann Prey as Wolfram:
Camilla Nylund as Elisabeth in 2011
At court, this seemingly chaste lady is the figurehead of spiritual love, the first prize for him who can best pretend to sincerely believe in it. Wolfram and Walther von der Vogelweide strive to express their claims as well as possible during the singing contest. But she only has eyes for her secret love Heinrich. All she has to do is let him win the contest and he belongs to her. If only he doesn’t do anything stupid…..
It is clear that Elisabeth is not infertile earth under her stiff appearance. She does want flowers to bloom: ‘all song and no sex makes Elisabeth a dull girl.’
But expressing this openly takes her effort, actually she is just a little shy, nothing more.
Inspired by his stay with Venus and challenged by Wolfram and Walther, Tannhaüser gives his all. Everything and everyone falls over him, his life is in danger. And it is Elisabeth who saves him. It is unnecessary to talk about this in such important terms as sacrifice and Erlösung, she just loves him and does not let him fall.
Below ‘Dich, teure Halle,’ sung by Leonie Rysanek:
Scherl: Von den Bayreuther Festspielen 1930. Tannhäuser Schlusszene.
The pilgrim’s chorus is one of the most famous melodies of the opera. These people play an important role in the background. They pass the Wartburg at the time of Heinrich’s discomfiture and he is pressed to go with them to Rome to ask forgiveness for his sins. And these sins are great by church standards: he has had extramarital sex and prides himself on it. That is tantamount to ignoring social codes and his presence is therefore perceived as a threat to society. From a social point of view, he is a wrong-way driver, someone who flouts the rules and thereby endangers others.
When the pilgrims return, Tannhaüser does not appear to be amongst them to Elisabeth’s despair. His absence from the group indicates that he was not absolved by the Pope. And that means that he will remain an outcast at court. The latter is Elisabeth’s final blow, she can no longer take it and dies.
Tannhäuser appears and tells the bewildered Wolfram the story of his failed pilgrimage. He wants to return to Venus since life in this form has nothing more to offer him and there is little point in hoping for a heavenly afterlife. Venus hears of this and sees her prediction confirmed. She had told him so. What should a man do with Mary if he can be with Venus, forever? She seductively sings to him: ‘Willkommen ungetreuer Mann.’
At the very last minute, Wolfram managed to save him for an ecclesiastical life. He points out Elisabeth to him, praying in heaven for the salvation of his soul. In the end, Venus cannot compete with that. Her Dionysian world is defeated by the Apollonian world of medieval Christianity.