At his death at the age of seventy, Leipzig-born Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was the acknowledged titan of operatic composition, the international monarch of musical innovation, and the most controversial composer ever to have appeared on the musical scene.
Despite a life fraught with severe personal anxieties, a life buffeted by political and social upheavals, a life marked by continuous frustration in his artistic endeavors, Wagner fashioned an art form that advanced to the fore and permanently altered the thinking of creative and intellectual minds the world over (Henderson 14). The totality of design, content, format, structure, and execution in his musico-dramatic works was highly regarded in his own day and has remained an ever-present archetype and template that, in the modern era, continues to shape and flavor much of the creative work produced in the musico-theatrical world.If, however, Wagner realized both national and international fame during his lifetime, that success was hard earned. The professional attacks upon him as an artist and the deep bitterness against him as a man were continuous and formidable. As a theorist on matters of drama and music, as a dramatist, and as a composer, he was vigorously vilified. His ideas on art, and later the works that exemplified his thoughts, were made the brunt of much ridicule and scorn by a significant cadre of critics, scholars, and artists. At the same time, his chaotic personal life, his ego-centered character, and his aggressive, often abrasive personality inspired social rejection, even unbridled hatred, in many with whom he came in contact.
This multitude of detractors included individuals from the artistic, academic, business, political, social, and religious communities and, within each of these sectors, persons of all measures of knowledge, talent, and skill (Henderson, Newman).Despite this hectic and tumultuous life, which often brought Wagner to the last stages of mental and physical desperation, his genius could not be denied. No one of his creative order ever before had made his way into public view. It was inevitable that his stamp was to be felt directly and indirectly throughout Western culture by those of all persuasions, even by those constantly in pursuit of his defeat (Newman 309).One of the greatest contributions that Wagner made to music was the tremendous development and perfection of the use of leading motives, more exactly known as leit motifs (Newman 369). Although he did not invent this technique, for it was known long before; but he did perfect its use almost to the point of exhaustion of its possibilities.
The typical example of this thechnique, which is a large part of Wagner’s style of composition, is the Tannhäuser Overture.Before composing the Tannhäuser, Wagner was seeking the legend as source material for a dramatic poem. He turned to the many tales of his own land, to those of wholly German origin (Williams 43). Within six months of the completion of Hollander, Wagner had begun the prose sketch of the poem in which he would join two popular but unrelated tales into a single story: the medieval legend of Dannheuser (Tannhäuser), the minnesinger who sojourns with Venus in her grotto in the Hörselberg, and the account of the great song tournaments that were held in the thirteenth century, in the castle of the Landgraves of Thuringia that had been built on the Wartburg, a hill that overlooked the city of Eisenach. Wagner first entitled his poem, which he completed in April 1843, Der Venusberg, but after some reflection on that title (literally, Mount Venus or mons veneris, mons pubis) Wagner changed it to that by which the work is known today, Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (Tannhäuser and the Song Contest on the Wartburg). This “grand romantic opera,” whose score was completed in April 1845, concerned Tannhäuser’s life with Venus, his participation in one of the song contests at the Wartburg Castle, and subsequently, his repudiation of his worldly existence, his forgiveness, and his death (Bekker and Bozman 134-136).The Overture to Tannhäuser when heard in the opera house provides an appropriate introduction to the drama.
When heard – as is much more often the case – apart from the opera, it is an exciting symphonic poem built around the inner conflict within the hero of the drama (Williams 43). As with much program music, knowledge of the drama is an aid to the fullest appreciation of the score.The knight Tannhäuser is torn between his love for Elisabeth, who represents all that is best in his nature, and the pagan goddess Venus. Surfeited with the goddess’ sensuous rites and revels, he tears himself away from her and returns to the world of mortals. The second act centers about the “Tournament of Song” in Wartburg, the Thuringian castle of Elisabeth’s uncle, in which each of the knightly minstrels sings in praise of love.
When his turn comes, Tannhäuser, under the spell of the goddess, mocks the spiritual conception of love and sings the Hymn to Venus, a passionate dithyramb on the pleasures of voluptuous love. Finally realizing the depravity of his soul, he undertakes a pilgrimage to Rome to do penance. But the Pope, shocked at the enormity of his sins, tells him there is as much chance for his soul to win salvation as for his withered pilgrim’s staff to sprout leaves. Tannhäuser, returning home in deepest despair, is on the verge of giving himself over to Venus and eternal perdition; but the faith of Elisabeth, who dies with a prayer for him on her lips, recalls him to his better self and saves him.
As he falls dead on her bier, the pilgrims returning from Rome bring news of a miracle: Tannhäuser’s staff has sprouted leaves, and the sinner has won salvation through the steadfast love and sacrifice of Elisabeth (Millington 59-64).As Wagner worked on Tannhäuser, he became even more aware that legend greatly appealed to his artistic and creative instincts. The dramatic and musical liberty he had sensed during the preparation of Der fliegende Holländer and the greater awareness of that independence that came with Tannhäuser aroused in him something more than simple artistic curiosity. His theatrical mind, combined with a natural inclination toward matters of a national flavor, spurred him to learn more of the popular foundations of his culture. His attention turned to Geschichte der poetischen Nationalliteratur der Deutschen (History of German National Poetry) (1835-1842) by Georg Gottfried Gervinus (1805-1871), a work that was to lay before him a necessary literary perspective. At the same time, he began a study of Jakob Grimm’s monumental work on German mythology, Deutsche Mythologie (1835), a work that was to influence him greatly in the choice of subject matter for his subsequent dramas (Williams 45-49).A study of Wagner’s music reveals that during the composition of his early works he was exploring the techniques of musical phrases and themes.
This experimentation can easily be noted by listening carefully to Wagner’s operas in the chronological order of their composition. In his first works Wagner developed musical fragments that essentially were merely leitmotifs of identification, usually that of the principal figures in a drama. He used these themes sparingly, and they were incorporated into the musical text at the appropriate points of the dramas only when their appearance did not detract from an even flow of the main body of the music. By 1845, Wagner completed the Tannhäuser, and begun to envision in the leitmotif something even more than a simple musical tag of “identification” (Dahlhaus 227-34).