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The Plot of 'Lohengrin'
An Opera by Richard Wagner


LOHENGRIN, Knight of thre Holy (Tenor)
HENRY THE FOWLER, King of Germany (Bass)
The Royal Herald (Bass)
GOTTFRIED, Elsa’s Brother, mute personage
Four Nobles of Brabant (Tenors and Basses)
ORTRUD (Mezzo-Soprano)
Four Pages (Sopranos and Altos)

Chorus of Saxon and Brabantian Nobles,
Ladies, Pages, &c.

Irish tenor Joseph O'Mara in Wagner's Lohengrin. Photograph taken 1894-5.


The opening scene is in Brabant, with the Scheldt pursuing its course -- that same river which to-day flows by the busy crowded docks of Antwerp. Henry I., surnamed the "Fowler," has come hither to levy a force against the threateningly invading Hungarians. Discord and anarchy are what he finds in his kingdom, these arising chiefly out of the following circumstances: Elsa, daughter of the late Duke of Brabant, and her brother Godfrey, the heir to the throne, were left as orphans in the care of Count Frederic of Telramund. Telramund had aspired to Elsa’s hand, and a promise of marriage had been given. Elsa declines to fulfill the promise, and Telramund falls a victim to the machinations of Ortrud, who is intriguing for the crown. Ortrud does not really love Telramund -- "a brave and up-right soldier, honoured by all, and famous for his deeds of daring until he fell under her influence." But she sees her opportunity in Telramund’s chagrin at being refused by Elsa. She inflames his ambition, and induces him to give up Elsa and marry herself. Next she entices Elsa’s brother, Godfrey, away to the dark forest near her castle, and throwing a golden chain around his neck, changes him, by her witchery, into a swan. Returning to the castle, she tells Telramund, her husband, that she has seen Elsa drown her brother in a pool. Telramund gives ready credence to the story; and under pressure of certain threats he subsequently extorts from Elsa what he regards as an admission of her guilt. It is at this point that the action of the drama opens.

King Henry demands from Telramund the reason for the country being so disturbed. By way of answer Telramund formally declares that Elsa has made away with her brother so that she may herself succeed to the lordship of Brabant. To Henry and to everybody else concerned this seems incredible. Elsa is summoned to the royal presence. She comes, "clad in white, with sad and resigned demeanour, attempting no defence." Instead, she recounts a wonderful dream she has had. She tells how a knight, clad in shining armour, leaning on his sword, with a golden horn suspended from his belt, came to her from heaven, promising help. "That knight I will await," is her answer to Henry; "he shall my champion be."

Elsa’s trust is now to be tried. Henry thrusts his sword into the earth, and suggests testing the judgment of God by the ordeal of battle. To Elsa, the inner vision of the champion, her knight, carries more import than the menace of her enemies. She has no hesitation in accepting the challenge thrown out by the king. Neither has Telramund, relying on Ortrud and his own strength of arm. The challenge is blared forth by the trumpeters. No reply comes. "Another summons," says Elsa, recalling the ancient appeal to Baal; "my champion was too far away to hear the first." Silence follows; Elsa is on her knees, praying. But what is this? Look up the river. There comes a boat drawn by a swan, and in that boat, behold a knight in sparkling silver armour, leaning on his sword, with horn at his belt -- the very knight of Elsa’s vision.

There is great excitement as the champion disembarks under the shadow of the royal oak. Telramund gazes, struck dumb; Ortrud is seized with terror, recognising in the swan, by the chain around its neck, Elsa’s enchanted brother Godfrey. Lohengrin bids farewell to the swan, imploring it to be faithful and bring him joy on its return (the meaning of this is seen at the end of the drama). He salutes Henry, and declares that Elsa is entirely innocent of the charge laid against her. Will Elsa accept him as her champion and lover? In joyful assent she drops at his feet. But there is one essential condition, and upon that condition the entire drama turns: If the knight proves victorious, Elsa will be his for ever, but -- she must never ask his name, to whom he owes his birth, the country from whence he came. If Elsa violates this solemn prohibition, then Lohengrin -- for it is he -- will return immediately to his father’s kingdom. The condition is implicitly accepted. Lohengrin and Telramund prepare for the combat. It begins after the king has given three strokes with his sword. There is enchantment in Lohengrin’s weapon: Telramund is worsted in the duel (though his life is spared), and the Act closes with rejoicing over the approaching nuptials of Lohengrin and Elsa.


When the Second Act opens, night has fallen. We see Telramund and Ortrud on the steps of the Minster, plotting together, scheming revenge. Before them is the Palace, brilliantly lighted; rejoicings proceeding inside over the coming union of Elsa and her knight. Telramund, wrathful at Ortrud’s defeated promises in the matter of the duel, turns upon her with reproaches. Ortrud temporises by suggesting that Lohengrin triumphed in the fight, not by his personal prowess, but by sorcery. Moreover, if Elsa could only be lured into surprising him of his name (one thinks here of Samson and Delilah), he would inevitably lose his sway. For Ortrud knows that none but Elsa has the power to force a reply from her champion, by reason of her spiritual tie with him: as Wagner says, she is "the other half of his being." And then, if this should fail, there was still another resource. Deprive the knight of even a finger-joint, and his power must be lost.

Telramund derives from all this a new confidence in Ortrud’s powers, and more than ever thirsts for vengeance. Suddenly Elsa, robed in white, steps out upon the balcony of the Kemenate (the women’s quarters), and "breathes out the tale of her happiness to the breezes of night." Ortrud thereupon accosts her with assumed humility, and presently admits her to the Kemenate, promising to secure for ever to Elsa, by her magic agency, the love of her champion knight. At first Elsa scornfully rejects the offer, but Ortrud so works on her credulity that the latter pityingly invites Ortrud to share her faith and trust. At break of day, in answer to the royal summons, the nobles gather at the Minster gate, and immediately after, the long bridal procession is seen emerging from the Kemenate. Elsa is just about to set foot on the Minster steps when Ortrud springs forward, barring her way. "What do you know of your bridegroom’s name and rank?" she tauntingly demands. Lohengrin enters with king and nobles. Elsa casts herself into his arms, calling for protection from Ortrud. "What do I see! the accursed woman with thee?" he exclaims, in surprise. Elsa has perforce to admit that she ignored the injunction of her champion to have no dealings with Ortrud. "Blame me if I disobeyed thee!" she says. Lohengrin soothes her fears, and the procession starts again, the knight sternly exclaiming to Ortrud, "Away! thou awful woman! here shall victory never be thine!" But once more the procession is stopped, this time by Telramund, who, on the very threshold of the Minster, accuses Lohengrin of having achieved his victory by sorcery. The king, however, retains his belief in Lohengrin. Telramund is pushed aside; having meanwhile sown the seeds of mistrust in Elsa’s mind. Give me leave, he says, but to "wrench the smallest part, a finger-tip, and, I swear to thee, clearly shalt thou see thyself what from thee he hides; then bound to thee, never shall he leave thee. This night I shall be near to thee -- call’st thou, without harm quickly it is accomplished." Elsa, it is clear, is going to break her vow to Lohengrin. The procession starts once more and files slowly into the Cathedral; then the curtain is lowered.

In this connection, though it is rather out of keeping with the formal unfolding of the story, I cannot resist quoting the following from Wagner himself. Writing to Liszt in 1850, he says:

When I conceived and wrote the Second Act, it had not escaped me how important it would be for the proper mood of the spectators to show that Elsa’s contentment at the last words of Lohengrin is not really complete and genuine; the public should feel that Elsa violently forces herself to conquer her doubt, and we should in reality fear that, having once indulged in brooding over Lohengrin, she will finally succumb and ask the prohibited question. In the production of this general feeling of fear lies the only necessity for a Third Act in which that fear is realised; without it the opera should end here, for the chief problem would not only have been mooted, but satisfactorily solved. In order to produce this feeling very distinctly and tangibly, I invented the following dramatic point: Elsa is led by Lohengrin up the steps of the Minster; on the topmost step she looks downwards with timid apprehension; her eye involuntarily seeks Frederic, of whom she is still thinking; at that moment her glance falls on Ortrud, who stands below, and raises her hand in a threatening manner… Elsa then turns away in terror, and only when the king, after this interruption, once more proceeds towards the entrance of the Minster with the bridal pair, does the curtain drop.


A solemn musical prelude, the well-known Bridal March, opens this Act, Elsa and Lohengrin being meanwhile conducted -- the one by the ladies, the other by the kings and nobles -- to the bridal chamber. After invoking blessings upon them, the procession retires, leaving the newly-wedded pair alone, for the first time. Now comes the crisis of the drama. Elsa’s doubts will not be stifled. "How am I to know," she cries, "that the swan will not come some day as mysteriously as before and take my beloved from my arms?" Lohengrin vainly tries to calm her. Elsa becomes more and more insistent. May she not just whisper her husband’s name to herself? Lohengrin tries by every conceivable means to avert the impending danger. He even goes so far as to hint of his origin: he "speaks of the realms of bliss he has left for her sake." But this only adds to Elsa’s misgivings, to that terrible fear of losing her lord in which, as Wagner said, "lies the only necessity for a Third Act." If Lohengrin came, as he averred, from a world of splendour, he would probably want to return, and Elsa would be unable to prevent him. And so, in her frenzied excitement she puts the fatal question: "Speak! who then art thou? Tell me what is thy name? Whence, then, hast thou come? What is thy rank?"

Elsa has broken her vow; the spell has vanished; the evil is irreparable. Just then a secret door is burst open, and in marches Telramund, followed by a quartet of disaffected nobles, with swords drawn. Lohengrin lifts his sacred weapon and the false knight falls dead at his feet. The body is borne away, and Lohengrin orders Elsa’s maidens to lead her into the royal presence, where he will proclaim her rank. Day dawns and the scene closes. Then we are on the banks of the Scheldt once more. Telramund’s body is brought thither. Elsa, too, appears, with head bent, her anguished expression enlisting the compassion of even the attendants. Then her champion, her armoured knight, her husband, is seen advancing.

The army is assembled: enthusiasm greets the knight, and he is given to understand that they look to him to lead the forces to war. Alas! that he is not free to do. He tells why he killed Telramund, and how Elsa had been tempted to violate her vow. "To treacherous advice her heart she gave away! In reward of her mistrust’s wild request, let now the answer no longer be kept back; I durst refuse it to the foe’s insistence; my name and being must I now declare. Mark well if I must shun the light! Before the world, before the king and realm, my mystery I faithfully unveil." In a word, Lohengrin answers Elsa’s question. He tells of the Sanctuary of Montsalvat and its Brotherhood of Knights; how on their missions the power of the Grail is with them, but should their names be revealed they must either lose that power or return to the Temple. "Now hear how I reward forbidden question," are Lohengrin’s words. "The Grail it was that sent me here to you. My father Parsifal wears its crown. Its Knight am I, and Lohengrin my name."

The secret is out, and Lohengrin’s mystic power vanishes. Elsa has erred, and Lohengrin must leave her. The swan appears once more with the boat. "So soon to see thee ne’er I thought," says Lohengrin. "After a year slowly had passed -- the period of thy slavery -- then by the Grail released at last, I hoped my swan again to see." Lohengrin must depart. He breathes a last farewell to Elsa, giving her his conquering sword and his horse to aid Godfrey should he be permitted to return. He moves towards the boat, an Ortrud appears, the moment of her triumph having come. The chain by which the swan draws the boat was, she says, attached by herself. "That chain, which at a glance I knew, changed to a swan this dukedom’s heir. Hence by the swan thy knight is carried. Thanks! Thou hast served me well, indeed. The knight, if longer he had tarried, thy brother from the spell had freed. The swan, in a word, is none other than Elsa’s brother, Godfrey, transformed to that shape by her magic arts. But Lohengrin has still some resource left. He sinks on his knees in silent prayer, and in answer to his petition the white dove of the grail descends from the sky and detaches the chain from the swan. The swan disappears and the missing heir of Brabant takes its place. Ortrud’s witchcraft is undone. Elsa clasps her restored brother to her breast and sinks lifeless into his arms. The dove (symbol of the Divine Spirit) attached to the boat, bears Lohengrin rapidly away over the waters of the Scheldt, and the youthful Godfrey is proclaimed Protector of Brabant. So ends the story of Lohengrin as set out by Richard Wagner.

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