Without going into too much detail about the opera per se, let me just point out a couple of things: Tannhäuser is one of Wagner’s greatest successes and one he was unsatisfied with his whole life. His wife Cosima noted in her diary on 23 January 1883 (three weeks before Wagner died):
“He says he still owes
the world Tannhäuser.”
The opera was written in 1845, had a very different version for the Paris debut in 1861, and was revised again for Vienna in 1875.
The Ouverture bears Wagner’s signature in the use of the leitmotiv: those themes or musical motives that along the opera are associated with a certain character or emotion.
As a matter of fact the theme that closes the opera also opens it. We’ve seen something similar in the Overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Mind you, this overture – in the so called Dresden version – lasts an average of 15 minutes. When you add the introduction to the first scene, the Venus mountain, it will take almost 20 minutes before hearing the first human voice.
Richard Wagner in 1871
This may sound unimportant today, but back in 1845, when the average introduction was around 5-7 minutes, it was certainly something audiences were not that accustomed to. And this is only valid for the Dresden version.
The Paris version needed to accomodate a ballet, as it was tradition in French operas. But instead of putting it in the second act – where it normally would be – Wagner put it in the form of a Bacchanal 10 minutes into the overture, bringing the orchestral part to way over 20 minutes. It’s staggering, even today!
Should you need a score you can find one here.
The overture opens with a chorale, in a piano dynamic. A warm sound coming out of clarinets, valve horns, and bassoons introduce the pilgrim’s motive that will close the opera.
If you look next to the tempo marking, you’ll see additional instructions in German: “not dragging, walking movement “. And underneath the single parts he writes “sehr gehalten“, very held.
Wagner places these instructions for the conductor and the players all along his works, something that Mahler will inherit and take to the next level.
Also known as Homecoming, or Merciful Salvation, the Pilgrim’s Hymn is also meant to be thought of as a Christian hymn, representing goodness in opposition to the lust of Venus and the Bacchanal. Tannhäuser will spend the entire opera torn between the attractions of both forces.
What follows the pilgrim’s hymn? The remorse motive, with its uncertain chromaticism. The cellos play it first, followed by the violins. This is Tannhäuser remorseful for having left the world of men (and Elizabeth) for the pleasures of Venus.
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