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Tannhauser: The Problem Opera

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday 1 September 2013 | 8:50:00 pm

Author of the highly recommended Wagner blog "Sacrifice" casts his always highly acute - and sometimes controversial - gaze at Wagner's Tannhauser. 

The Contradictions of Tannhauser 

Tannhauser: The Problem Opera

Whenever anyone writes about Wagner, he or she realizes that the result will be controversy, argument, and probably vituperative responses. That is the nature of Wagner, a complex composer and personality, around whom contradictions abound. Therefore, I realize that not everyone will agree with me nor do I expect them to. Yet, the contradictions require exploration.

While problems are not always contradictions, contradictions always lead to problems. Consider Wagner’s fifth opera: Tannhauser….

And consider this contradiction. Wagner had no reason to write Tannhauser—he had just done so a few years earlier. Imagine an opera in which someone has committed a mortal sin for which he or she is doomed to roam the world friendless and helpless—doomed, that is unless someone else of infinite mercy sacrifices him or herself out of love for the sinner. Is this not the plot of The Flying Dutchman? Wagner had already written this story with some success and acclaim; why rewrite it as Tannhauser? He must have had some motive, but that motive is not immediately apparent. True, Wagner, just as most creative minds of the nineteenth century, was obsessed with the concept of sacrifice of the ego for the salvation of humanity—the idea takes root in Kant and blooms in Schopenhauer. It was so endemic that Engels criticized Fueurbach, a follower of Hegel and debunker of Christianity, for constantly citing it as a way to social change. In his chapter entitled “Wagner, Feuerbach and the Future” Bryan Magee paraphrases Feuerbach’s ideas, “When we say something like ‘God came down to earth, and took on himself the sufferings of mankind, and died for us all,’ what we are really saying is that to suffer and die for others is the highest (i.e. the most godlike) activity of which human beings are capable.” (The Tristan Chord, p53). Byron approaches the idea, but cannot make the leap; however, we find it permeating the literature of the century (Emerson, Dickens, Dostoevsky). As we know, the theme would become essential to almost all of Wagner’s works; of course, he incorporates it with more facile skill into his later works. Consider the sophistication with which he handles it in Die Meistersingers in the portrait of Hans Sachs. Sachs sacrifices the happiness of his later life (happiness offered to him by Eva) in order to assure her happiness with Walther. It is a grand gesture.

Perhaps in the late 1840s, Wagner felt so comfortable with this theme that he could safely immerse himself in it while developing other parts of his compositional repertoire—i.e. use a safety net while practicing the dangerous and daunting. However, this supposition leads to another contradiction—two in fact: if this opera were a compositional exercise and a means of increasing his skills, then first, why expend so much effort marrying two disparate sources into a fragile, good versus evil story, which from a realistic point of view has an incredibly weak ending—an ending in which Wagner saw more than the audience seems to see or have seen. Remember, Wagner was so disappointed with the original audiences that he changed the staging of the ending to make his vision clearer. (In the original staging Venus does not appear on stage in Act III, nor does Elizabeth’s bier.) For those interested in tracing the sources that Wagner used for the story (and seeing how unconnected they were from each other) I recommend two sources: Ernest Newman’s The Wagner Operas, which was first published in 1949 and reprinted just a few years ago, and Claude Simpson’s 1948 article Wagner and the Tannhäuser Tradition. PMLA Vol. 63, No. 1 (Mar., 1948), pp. 244-261. For the opera, the first source is The Singers’ Contest whose main character is Heinrich von Ofterdinger. This is the story of a singing contest in Wartburg, in which a discredited singer has accepted the secrets of music as recorded in a black book by the “wizard” Klingsor, which he uses to win the contest, but things turn out badly for him and he disappears. The other source is the story of Tannhauser and Venus—no singing contest here. In neither story is there a character named Elizabeth, although Heinrich Ofterdinger is protected in one version by a Matilda and in another by a Sophie. In Wagner’s amalgamation, Tannhauser is an egotist consumed with selfish pleasure who realizes too late his error and so becomes a sinner seeking a path to salvation. What we have here are all of the elements of an allegory without using the medieval device of metonymically naming the characters with their role (Patience, Charity, Hope, etc.). The answer to the first problem then is that Wagner forced these two stories together in order to create, as we will see, a nineteenth-century allegory (or is it a melodrama) based on medieval folk tales—a corrupted Everyman seeking the path from sin to salvation. This seems to be the justifying point of the opera.

The second problem at this point is why, if he used this safety net to explore new musical frontiers and hone his craft, was he so uncommitted to the results that he almost whimsically, later, made wholesale alterations but never attempted to smoothly consolidate them into the whole. Tannhauser existed for over ten years after its original completion receiving performances in many places including, of course, Dresden where it premiered in 1845. In 1859 Wagner returned to Paris and in 1860 Emperor Napoleon ordered the opera’s performance at the Paris Opera. All of us are acquainted with the disaster that resulted for which the conventions of French Opera at the time and the Jockey Club get blamed. But Wagner attempted to meet those conventions and placate the Jockey Club. Rather than rewriting, he added to the score—especially to the Venusberg parts of Act I. Here is an additional contradiction. In the fifteen years since the score’s original completion, Wagner had composed three operas that had yet to be performed: Rheingold, Walkure, and Tristan und Isolde. The composer who made the additions to Tannhauser in 1859 was a very different composer from the one who finished the original score in 1845. Whether his chronic poverty during these years drove him to force the new style onto the old to make a big “score” and payday in Paris or whether he was too overwhelmed by the moment and the pressure to make the necessary revisions to accommodate the new ideas into the old score, Wagner made a pastiche of it. No wonder the event went off miserably. Newman’s analysis of the compositional problems resulting from this conglomeration of styles is mesmerizing—I recommend reading it near a piano so that one can attempt to play the illustrations. Here is a link to the Paris Version of the opening:

And here is a link to the Dresden Version: Whatever the cause, here is another problem presented by the opera: As Wagner’s fame spread through the last two centuries, we now face a constant struggle—do we prefer the Dresden version or the Paris version—which one should be performed? Since Wagner was a very different composer after Tristan than before, the two versions of Tannhauser seem almost to have been written by two different composers. That is hyperbole of course, but it does suggest the conundrums one faces with this opera. Do we want the unified whole or do we want the pyrotechnics of the mature Wagner?

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