MYTH & LEGEND IN WAGNER'S TANNHÄUSER

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 6 March 2015 | 9:21:00 pm

It is more difficult than one might first suspect to find good, or indeed
interesting, analysis of Tannhäuser. With that in mind, we were more than pleased to find the following three part series of articles dedicated to this very work. Written by the  Karl E. H. Seigfried from a presentation he gave recently on  Tannhäuser at the Lyric Opera of Chicago  and the Wagner Society of America. We present just a brief snippet form part one below. However, the entire three part article can be read in its entirety over at the author website by following thee links below.

"Wagnerians know Frigg as Fricka, the consort of Wotan. However, the attributes of Venus line up more clearly with the goddess Freya than they do with Frigg. Since at least the early 1900s, scholars have argued for an original identity for Frigg and Freya that – at some unknown point – split a complex female goddess into a mother figure and a maiden figure, into a goddess whose domain includes marriage and another associated with sexual love."


"To the medieval mind, Tannhäuser’s mortal sin was not breaking the bonds of chastity, which would have been forgivable through penitence. His true transgression is that of apostasy – of defecting from Christianity back to heathenry"

"When Wagner gives Venus the words “Fly hence to frigid men, before whose timid, cheerless fancy we gods of delight have escaped deep into the warm womb of earth,” he is tapping into the folk traditions mentioned earlier. Venus – like the other holdovers from the heathen age – has fled from the encroachment of Christianity and sought refuge in the hidden places of the world"

The Lyric Opera of Chicago is currently presenting a production of the opera that runs February 9 through March 15. If you can’t make it to Chicago but would like to hear the music, I recommend the 1971 recording by Georg Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic. The final installment of this series at The Norse Mythology Blog will include a bibliography of sources used – a list which can also serve as a guide for further reading.

In order to understand the nature of Wagner’s magic mountain, we must turn to the scholarship of his time. Wagner writes in his autobiography that, in 1843 – the year he finished the poem then titled Der Venusberg – he was inseparable from his copy of Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology. First published in 1835, Grimm’s attempt to bring the scattered bits of Germanic heathen lore together into a coherent system had an outsized impact on Wagner, who wrote:


"Formed from the scanty fragments of a perished world, of which scarcely any monuments remained recognizable and intact, I here found a heterogeneous building, which at first glance seemed but a rugged rock clothed in straggling brambles. Nothing was finished, only here and there could the slightest resemblance to an architectonic line be traced, so that I often felt tempted to relinquish the thankless task of trying to build from such materials. And yet I was enchained by a wondrous magic. 


The baldest legend spoke to me of its ancient home, and soon my whole imagination thrilled with images; long-lost forms for which I had sought so eagerly shaped themselves ever more and more clearly into realities that lived again. There rose up soon before my mind a whole world of figures, which revealed themselves as so strangely plastic and primitive, that, when I saw them clearly before me and heard their voices in my heart, I could not account for the almost tangible familiarity and assurance of their demeanor.


The effect they produced upon the inner state of my soul I can only describe as an entire rebirth. Just as we feel a tender joy over a child's first bright smile of recognition, so now my own eyes flashed with rapture as I saw a world, revealed, as it were, by miracle, in which I had hitherto moved blindly as the babe in its mother's womb."


Wagner relied heavily on Grimm while writing The Ring of the Nibelung, and Grimm’s idiosyncratic combination of philology, folklore, literature and legend can help to explain the mythological elements of Tannhäuser, as well.

Grimm writes that the Hörselberg of Thuringia was still considered in the 10th through 14th centuries to be the residence of the German goddess Holda and her host. He cites legends of “night-women in the service of dame Holda” who “rove through the air on appointed nights, mounted on beasts,” and asserts that they “were originally dæmonic elvish beings, who appeared in woman’ shape and did men kindnesses.”

During the orgiastic Bacchanale that follows the overture, Wagner presents us with naiads, nymphs, satyrs, fauns and other creatures of Greco-Roman mythology. Why would a composer as nationalistic as Wagner have replaced the native figures of German legend with their southern counterparts? The answer lies in the two characters portrayed in the opera’s first scene.


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