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Tannhäuser: An opera for those that have felt outlawed because of their sex?

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday 27 May 2011 | 9:07:00 am

Tim Ashley, examines Tannhäuser and finds it to be not only  a favorite to such a diverse group of individuals as Freud, Oscar Wild and Queen Victory, but also  that it became a totem to the "counterculture" and  especially to those  outlawed because of their "sex"

Tannhäuser in the kingdom of the goddess Venus, by Henri Fantin-Latour. Photograph: akg-images

In chapter 11 of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's hero goes to the opera. As transgression and excess begin to rot that famous portrait, the piece to which he becomes obsessively drawn is Wagner'sTannhäuser, the only named musical work in a passage widely viewed as a catalogue of the trappings of decadence. Wilde describes the "rapt pleasure" Dorian takes in "seeing in the prelude to that great work of art a presentation of the tragedy of his own soul".

Dorian was by no means alone, for it was in Tannhäuser, more than any of Wagner's other operas, that many in the late 19th century found a reflection of their moral and sexual concerns. Its admirers included Queen Victoria, Baudelaire and Freud. It inspired major works both of literature and pornography, and was interpreted as everything from a justification of normative values to a fierce celebration of counterculture extremes. It appealed above all to those who were – or felt – outlawed by their sexuality.

The opera's starting point is the dichotomy between flesh and spirit, as refracted through a variation on the medieval legend of the troubadour Tannhäuser, who strayed into the Venusberg, or kingdom of the goddess Venus, whose lover he became. Sexual satiety provoked his return to the world of men, where shame impelled him to seek salvation by undertaking a self-mortifying journey to Rome to beg absolution from the Pope. The latter, however, rejected his request: damnation awaits those who have enjoyed the pleasures of Venus; Tannhäuser has no more chance of achieving salvation than the Pope's staff has of beginning to flower. Yet after the troubadour left, the Pope's staff did, indeed, miraculously, begin to flower. But too late for Tannhäuser's soul: he had returned to Venus with whom he will remain until he is damned on judgment day.

Wagner, the self-styled musical redeemer par excellence, made drastic changes to this tale in order to affect his hero's salvation. On entering the Venusberg, Wagner's Tannhäuser abandons his relationship with the virginal Elisabeth, niece of the Landgrave of Thuringia, who loves both him and his music. Back in the world of mortals, he is asked at a singing contest to improvise a song on the nature of love. But he breaks into an explicit hymn to Venus, which exposes both his erotic secrets and a world of extreme sexual experience beyond the comprehension of prudish Thuringian society.

Elisabeth, refusing to accept his social ostracism, demands he be offered the potential for salvation, and in his absence also begs the Virgin Mary to take her from this earth to intercede directly with God on his behalf should he fail. Her prayer is granted. Tannhäuser, once more seeking Venus, is held back from the Venusberg by mention of Elisabeth's name, and dies as news of the miracle in Rome reaches mourners at her funeral.

Wagner was never satisfied with the score of Tannhäuser, which has the most complex editorial history of all his operas. There are two major versions: the first more or less gives us the piece as it was heard at its Dresden premiere in 1845; the second, the so-called Paris version, presents us with the revision that Wagner prepared for the first performance in France, which was planned as part of his attempt to conquer the French capital in 1860/61.

Both scores follow the same narrative outline and derive their dramatic power and unity from an underlying vision of sexuality and spirituality as antithetical yet mutually dependent. In the opera's world, the idea of spirit cannot exist without the idea of flesh, and the lofty moral implications of the redemption of Tannhäuser's soul are balanced by one of the most extreme depictions of sex attempted in music.

Within these polarities, Elisabeth is neither naïve or girlish, as some have supposed. Virginity endows her with powers of self-determination strong enough to take on a gang of armed men on Tannhäuser's behalf. Sainthood embodies tremendous fixity of will, in contrast to the promiscuous desires of the Venusberg, which bring in their wake the allure of the profane, linguistically as well as musically. Decorum dictates that the word "Venusberg" is left in its original German in English-language discussions of the opera. But it translates out of the Latin mons veneris and into English as "mountain" or "hill of Venus". Wagner reportedly became embarrassed when anyone pointed out the opera's erotic nomenclature. But he knew what he was doing, and the libretto is full of puns about being "in" or "penetrating" the hill of Venus that were not lost on its first admirers.

Both versions of the score bring the sacred and the profane into disturbing proximity, however, by allowing flesh and spirit to speak the same thematic language. The strings' first entry consists of a rhythmic octave leap followed by four descending chromatic notes. The phrase is later associated with pilgrims singing of "the burden of sin", but in the Venusberg its component parts, now sundered, are also identified with the limitless expression of desire. The leap, prefaced by bounding woodwind, juts impertinently upwards, while the chromatic descent, thanks to the addition of an extra note, has mutated into a yielding moan.

Yet the two versions also have notable differences. For the revision Wagner shortened the second act, set entirely in Thuringia, but lengthened the opening scene between Venus and Tannhäuser, prefacing it with an extended orchestral sequence, originally intended for dance, and now commonly known as the Venusberg Music. In the interim, Wagner had completed the score of Tristan und Isolde. The Venusberg Music, more explicit than anything in Tristan, was composed using the latter's revolutionary and often overwhelming chromatic language. Savage and libidinal, it is the most extreme passage in Wagner's output.

The Paris premiere, in March 1861, was a debacle, the exact reason for which remains the subject of debate. It is probable that the demonstration that broke out during the first performance was organised against Pauline Metternich, Wagner's patron and the unpopular wife of the Austrian ambassador to Napoleon III's court, though Wagner's decision to place the obligatory ballet in the opening scene also offended the influential Jockey Club, whose members were in the habit of arriving at the interval to see their mistresses dance before going backstage for sex. By the third night, dog whistles could be bought in the streets outside the Opéra for the express purpose of interrupting the performance. Wagner withdrew the score, and wanted nothing to do with Paris again.

Yet there were some in the audience who were prepared to listen, and chief among them was Baudelaire. Given his understanding of the erratic intensity of male sexuality and his belief that antithetical impulses towards salvation and damnation were integral to the human psyche, it was inevitable that he would view Tannhäuser as a work of archetypal imaginative importance. When he first heard the overture in concert in 1860, he was "ravished and flooded" by it, as he told the composer in an appreciatory letter. Appalled by the response to this premiere, he went into print, partway through the opening run, with the epoch-making essay "Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris".

It is with Baudelaire that Tannhäuser begins its process of decadent assimilation. Decadence depends on a self-conscious blurring of conventional moral absolutes. Though Baudelaire does not unbalance the opera's metaphysical polarities, his astonishing descriptions of the music reveal a transgressive inclination towards Venus rather than God. The Venusberg Music depicts "frenzied love, immense, chaotic, elevated to the level of a counter-religion". As in his poetry, desire is heightened by thoughts of criminality, "as if barbarity always has to have its place in the drama of love, and sensual enjoyment has to lead, by a satanic logic, to the delights of crime".

Algernon Charles Swinburne, Baudelaire's British admirer, took this imagery one step further. Tannhäuser had to wait until 1876 for its London premiere, though the Dresden version of the Overture was already a familiar concert item: Queen Victoria, who heard it in 1855, thought it "quite overpowering, so grand and in parts wild, striking and descriptive". Swinburne, however, was thinking of Baudelaire's essay rather than Wagner's music when he wrote "Laus Veneris" in 1863. His Tannhäuser is willing to accept damnation as the price of sexual fulfilment.

The impact of transgression on the soul is the principal theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde knew his Swinburne as well as the French decadents who followed in Baudelaire's wake. Among them was Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose novel A Rebours is almost invariably identified as the "poisonous" book that sets Dorian's quest for heightened experience in motion. A Rebours makes no mention of Wagner's opera, though Huysmans also wrote a florid prose-poem entitled "Ouverture de Tannhäuser", which is weary with images of "rearing haunches and swelling breasts, throbbing and distended".

Yet for all the work's associations with decadence, Wilde's views onTannhäuser were often expressed in terms of personal sadness. The opera spoke, he wrote in 1890, "of myself it may be, and my own life, or the lives of others whom one has loved and grown weary of loving". "Like the Dorian music of the Greeks," he adds, glancing at his hero's name, "it may perform the office of a physician and give us an anodyne against pain and heal the spirit that is wounded." After his trial, the idea of redemption, as well as desire, was on his mind. In "The Ballad of Reading Gaol", the image of the flowering staff resurfaces, in the hope that, as a sign of salvation, it will bring "Christ's will to light". As in the opera, thoughts of salvation balanced those of sex.

More: Wagner's Tannhäuser