Music With Ease

Music with Ease > Operas of Richard Wagner > Lohengrin (Wagner) - Synopsis

Lohengrin - Synopsis
An Opera by Richard Wagner

Opera in three acts, by Richard Wagner. Produced, Weimar, Germany, August 28, 1850, under the direction of Franz Liszt; London, Covent Garden, May 8, 1875; New York, Stadt Thater, in German, April 3, 1871; Academy of Music, in Italian, March 23, 1874, with Nilsson, Cary, Campanini, and Del Puente; Metropolitan Opera House, in German, November 23, 1885, with Seidl-Kraus, Brandt, Stritt, Robinson, and Fischer, American début of Anton Seidl as conductor.


HENRY THE FOWLER, King of Germany………………… Bass
LOHENGRIN……………………………………………….. Tenor
ELSA OF BRABANT………………………………………. Soprano
DUKE GODFREY, her brother…………………………… Mute
FREDERICK OF TELRAMUND, Count of Brabant……… Baritone
ORTRUD, his wife…………………………………………. Mezzo-Soprano
THE KING’S HERALD…………………………………… Bass
Saxon, Thuringian, and Brabantian Counts and Nobles, Ladies of Honour,
Pages, Attendants.

Time: First half of the Tenth Century.
Place: Antwerp.

Wagner's Lohengrin - London premiere, 1875 (image)

Scene from Wagner's opera, Lohengrin, as performed at its London première on 15 May 1875.
Source: Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. Artist: Arthur Thiele (1841-1916).

The circumstances attending the creation and first production of "Lohengrin" are most interesting.

Prior to and for more than a decade after he wrote and composed the work Wagner suffered many vicissitudes. In Paris, where he lived from hand to mouth before "Rienzi" was accepted by the Royal Opera House at Dresden, he was absolutely poverty-stricken and often at a loss how to procure the next meal.

"Rienzi" was produced at the Dresden Opera in 1842. It was brilliantly successful. "The Flying Dutchman," which followed, was less so, and "Tannhäuser" seemed even less attractive to its early audiences. Therefore it is no wonder that, although Wagner was royal conductor in Dresden, he could not succeed in having "Lohengrin" accepted there for performance. Today "Rienzi" hardly can be said to hold its own in the repertoire outside of its composer’s native country. The sombre beauty of "The Flying Dutchman" though recognized by musicians and serious music lovers, has prevented its becoming popular. But "Tannhäuser," looked at so askance at first, and "Lohengrin" absolutely rejected, are standard operas and, when well given, among the most popular works of the lyric stage. Especially is this true of "Lohengrin."

This opera, at the time of its composition so novel and so strange, yet filled with beauties of orchestration and harmony that are now quoted as leading examples in books on these subjects, was composed in less than a year. The acts were finished almost, if not quite, in reversed order. For Wagner wrote the third act first, beginning it in September, 1846, and completing it March 5, 1847. The first act occupied him from May 12th to June 8th, less than a month; the second act from June 18th to August 2nd. Fresh and beautiful as "Lohengrin" still sounds today, it is, in fact, a classic.

Wagner’s music, however, was so little understood at the time, that even before "Lohengrin" was produced and not a note of it had been heard, people made fun of it. A lithographer named Meser had issued Wagner’s previous three scores, but the enterprise had not been a success. People said that before publishing "Rienzi" Meser had lived on the first floor. "Rienzi" had driven him to the second; "The Flying Dutchman" and "Tannhäuser" to the third; and now "Lohengrin" would drive him to the garret -- a prophecy that didn’t come true, because he refused to publish it.

In 1849, "Lohegrin" still not having been accepted by the Dresden Opera, Wagner, as already has been stated, took part in the May revolution, which, apparently successful for a very short time, was quickly suppressed by the military. The composer of "Lohengrin" and the future composer of the "Ring of the Nibelung," "Tristan und Isolde," "Meistersinger, and "Parsifal," is said to have made his escape from Dresden in the disguise of a coachman. Occasionally there turns up in sales as a great rarity a copy of the warrant for Wagner’s arrest issued by the Dresden police. As it gives a description of him at the time when he had but recently composed "Lohengrin," I will quote it:

"Wagner is thirty-seven to thirty-eight years of age, of medium stature, has brown hair, an open forehead; eyebrows, brown eyes, grayish blue; nose and mouth, proportioned; chin, round, and wears spectacles. Special characteristics: rapid in movements and speech. Dress: coat of dark green buckskin, trousers of black cloth, velvet vest, silk neckerchief, ordinary felt hat and boots."

Much fun has been made of the expression "chin, round, and wears spectacles." Wagner got out of Dresden on the pass of a Dr. Widman,, whom he resembled. It has been suggested that he made the resemblance still closer by discontinuing the habit of wearing spectacles on his chin.

I saw Wagner several times in Baryreuth in the summer of 1882, when I attended the first performance of "Parsifal," as correspondent by cable and letter for one of the large New York dailies. Except that his hair was grey (and that he no longer wore his spectacles on his chin) the description in the warrant still held good, especially as regards his rapidity of movement and speech, to which I may add a marked vivacity of gesture. There, too, I saw the friend, who had helped him over so many rough places in his early career, Franz Liszt, his hair white with age, but framing a face as strong and keen as a eagle’s. I saw them seated at a banquet, and with them Cosima, Liszt’s daughter, who was Wagner’s second wife, and their son, Siegfried Wagner; Cosima the image of her father, and Siegfried a miniature replica of the composer to whom we owe "Lohengrin" and the music-dramas that followed it. The following summer one of the four was missing. I have the "Parsifal" program with mourning border signifying that the performances of the work were in memory of its creator.

In April, 1850, Wagner, then an exile in Zurich, wrote to Liszt: "Bring out my ‘Lohengrin!’ You are the only one to whom I would put this request; to no one but you would I entrust the production of this opera; but to you I surrender it with the fullest, most joyous confidence."

Wagner himself describes the appeal and the result, by saying that at a time when he was ill, unhappy, and in despair, his eye fell on the score of "Lohengrin" which he had almost forgotten. "A pitiful feeling overcame me that these tones would never resound from the deathly-pale paper; two words I wrote to Liszt, the answer to which was nothing else than the information that, as far as the resources of the Weimar Opera permitted, the most elaborate preparations were being made for the production of ‘Lohengrin’."

Liszt’s reply to which Wagner refers, and which gives some details regarding "the elaborate preparations," while testifying to his full comprehension of Wagner’s genius and the importance of his new score as a work of art, may well cause us to smile today at the small scale on which things were done in 1850.

"Your ‘Lohegrin,’" he wrote, "will be given under conditions that are most unusual and most favourable for its success. The direction will spend on this occasion almost 2000 thalers (about $1500) -- a sum unprecedented at Weimar within memory of man…. The bass clarinet has been bought," etc. Ten times fifteen hundred dollars might well be required today for a properly elaborate production of "Lohengrin," and the opera orchestra that had to send out and buy a bass clarinet would be a curiosity. But Weimar had what no other opera house could boast of -- Franz Liszt as conductor.

Under his brilliant direction "Lohengrin" had at Weimar its first performance on any stage, August 28, 1850. This was the anniversary of Goethe’s birth, the date of the dedication of the Weimar monument to the poet, Herder, and, by a coincidence that does not appear to have struck either Wagner or Liszt, the first anniversary of the completion of "Lohengrin." The work was performed without cuts and before an audience which included some of the leading musical and literary men of Germany. The performance made a deep impression. The circumstance that Liszt added the charm of his personality to it and that the weight of his influence had been thrown in its favour alone gave vast importance to the event. Indeed, through Liszt’s production of Wagner’s early operas Weimar became, as Henry T. Finck has said in Wagner and His Works, a sort of preliminary Bayreuth. Occasionally special opera trains were put on for the accommodation of visitors to the Wagner performances. In January, 1853, Liszt writes to Wagner that "the public interest in ‘Lohengrin’ is rapidly increasing. You are already very popular at the various Weimar hotels, where it is not easy to get a room on the days when your operas are given." The Liszt production of "Lohengrin" was a turning-point in his career, the determining influence that led him to throw himself heart and soul into the composition of the "Ring of the Nibelung."

On May 15, 1861, when, through the intervention of Princess Metternich, he had been permitted to return to Germany, fourteen years after he had finished "Lohengrin" and eleven years after its production at Weimar, he himself heard it for the first time at Vienna. A tragedy of fourteen years -- to create a masterpiece of the lyric stage, and be forced to wait that long to hear it!

Before proceeding to a complete descriptive account of the "Lohengrin" story and music I will give a brief summary of the plot and a similar characterization of the score.

Wagner appears to have become so saturated with the subject of his dramas that he transported himself in mind and temperament to the very time in which his scenes are laid. So vividly does he portray the mythological occurrences told in "Lohengrin" that one can almost imagine he had been an eye-witness of them. This capacity of artistic reproduction of a remote period would alone entitle him to rank as a great dramatist. But he has done much more; he has taken unpromising material, which in the original is strung out over a period of years, and, by condensing the action to two days, has converted it into a swiftly moving drama.

The story of "Lohengrin" is briefly as follows: The Hungarians have invaded Germany, and King Henry I visits Antwerp for the purpose of raising a force to combat them. He finds the country in a condition of anarchy . The dukedom is claimed by Frederick, who has married Ortrud, a daughter of the Prince of Friesland. The legitimate heir Godfrey, has mysteriously disappeared, and his sister, Elsa, is charged by Frederick and Ortrud with having done away with him in order that she might obtain the sovereignty. The King summons her before him so that the cause may be tried by the ordeal of single combat between Frederick and a champion who may be willing to appear for Elsa. None of the knights will defend her cause. She then describes a champion whose form has appeared to her in a vision, and she proclaims that he shall be her champion. Her pretence is derided by Frederick and his followers, who think that she is out of her mind; but after a triple summons by the Herald, there is seen in the distance on the river, a boat drawn by a swan, and in it a knight clad in silver armour. He comes to champion Elsa’s cause, and before the combat betroths himself to her, but makes a strict condition that she shall never question him as to his name or birthplace, for should she, he would be obliged to depart. She assents to the conditions, and the combat which ensues results in Frederick’s ignominious defeat. Judgment of exile is pronounced on him.

Instead, however, of leaving the country he lingers in the neighborhood of Brabant, plotting with Ortrud how they may compass the ruin of Lohengrin and Elsa. Ortrud by her entreaties moves Elsa to pity, and persuades her to seek a reprieve for Frederick, at the same time, however, using every opportunity to instill doubts in Elsa’s mind regarding her champion, and rousing her to such a pitch of nervous curiosity that she is on the point of asking him the forbidden question. After the bridal ceremonies, and in the bridal chamber, the distrust which Ortrud and Frederick have engenered in Elsa’s mind so overcomes her faith that she vehemently puts the forbidden question to her champion. Almost at the same moment Frederick and four of his followers force their way into the apartment, intending to take the knight’s life. A single blow of his sword, however, stretches Frederick lifeless, and his followers bear his corpse away. Placing Elsa in the charge of her ladies-in-wating, and ordering them to take her to the presence of the King, he repairs thither himself.

The Brabantian hosts are gathering, and he is expected to lead them to battle, but owing to Elsa’s question he is now obliged to disclose who he is and to take his depature. He proclaims that he is Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, Knight of the Holy Grail, and that he can linger no longer in Brabant, but must return to the place of his coming. The swan has once more appeared, drawing the boat down the river, and bidding Elsa farewell he steps into the little shell-like craft. Then Ortrud, with malicious glee, declares that the swan is none other than Elsa’s brother, whom she (Ortrud) bewitched into his form, and that he would have been changed back again to his human shape had it not been for Elsa’s rashness. But Lohengrin, through his supernatural powers, is able to undo Ortrud’s work, and at a word from him the swan disappears and Godfrey stands in its place. A dove now descends, and, hovering in front of the boat, draws it away with Lohengrin, while Elsa expires in her brother’s arms.

Owing to the lyric character of the story upon which "Lohengrin" is based, the opera, while not at all lacking in strong dramatic situations is characterized by a subtler and more subdued melodiousness than "Tannhäuser," is more exquisitely lyrical in fact than any Wagnerian work except "Parsifal."

There are typical themes in the score, but they are hardly handled with the varied effect that entitled them to be called leading motives. On the other hand there are fascinating details of orchestration. These are important because the composer has given significant clang-tints to the music that is heard in connection with the different characters in the story. He uses the brass chiefly to accompany the King, and, of course, the martial choruses; the plaintive, yet spiritual high wood-wind for Elsa; the English horn and somber bass clarinet -- the instrument that had to be bought -- for Ortrud; the violins, especially in high harmonic positions, to indicate the Grail and its representative, for Lohengrin is a Knight of the Holy Grail. Even the keys employed are distinctive. The Herald’s trumpeters blow in C and greet the King’s arrival in that bright key. F sharp minor is the dark, threatful key that indicates Ortrud’s appearance. The key of A, which is the purest for strings and the most ethereal in effect, on account of the greater ease of using "harmonics," announces the approach of Lohengrin and the subtle influence of the Grail.

Moreover Wagner was the first composer to discover that celestial effects of tone-colour are produced by the prolonged notes of the combined violins and wood-wind in the highest positions more truly than by the harp. It is the association of ideas with the Scriptures, wherein the harp frequently is mentioned, because it was the most perfected instrument of the period, that has led other composers to employ it for celestial tone painting. But while no one appreciated the beauty of the harp more than Wagner, or has employed it with finer effect than he, his celestial tone-pictures with high-violins and wood-wind are distinctly more ecstatic than those of other composers.

The music clothes the drama most admirably. The Vorspiel or Prelude immediately places the listener in the proper mood for the story which is to unfold itself, and for the score, vocal and instrumental, whose strains are to fall upon his ear.

The Prelude is based entirely upon one theme, a beautiful one and expressive of the sanctity of the Grail, of which Lohengrin is one of the knights. Violins and flutes with long-drawn-out, ethereal chords open the Prelude. Then is heard on the violins, so divided as to heighten the delicacy of the effect, the Motive of the Grail, the cup in which the Saviour’s blood is supposed to have been caught as it flowed from the wound in His side, while he was on the Cross. No modern book on orchestration is considered complete unless it quotes this passage from the score, which is at once the earliest and, after many years, still the most perfect example of the effect of celestial harmony produced on the high notes of the divided violin choir. This interesting passage in the score is as follows:

Although this is the only motive that occurs in the Prelude, the ear never wearies of it. Its effectiveness is due to the wonderful skill with which Wagner handles the theme, working it up through a superb crescendo to a magnificent climax, with all the splendours of Wagnerian orchestration, after which it dies away again to the ethereal harmonies with which it first greeted the listener.

Act I. The curtain, on rising, discloses a scene of unwonted life on the plain near the River Scheldt, where the stream winds toward Antwerp. On an elevated seat under a huge oak sits King Henry I. On either side are his Saxon and Thuringian nobles. Facing him with the knights of Brabant are Count Frederick of Telramund and his wife, Ortrud, daughter of the Prince of Friesland, of dark, almost forbidding beauty, and with a treacherous mingling of haughtiness and humility in her carriage.

It is a strange tale the King has just heard fall from Frederick of Telramund’s lips. Henry has assembled the Branantians on the plain by the Scheldt in order to summon them to join his army and aid in checking the threatened invasion of Germany by the Hungarians. But he has found the Brabantians themselves torn by factional strife, some supporting, others opposing Frederick in his claim to the ducal succession of Brabant.

"Sire," says Frederick, when called upon by the King to explain the cause of the discord that has come upon the land, "the late Duke of Brabant upon his death-bed confided to me, his kinsman, the care of his two children, Elsa and her young brother Godfrey, with the right to claim the maid as my wife. But one day Elsa led the boy into the forest and returned alone. From her pale face and faltering lips I judged only too well of what had happened, and I now publicly accuse Elsa of having made away with her brother that she might be sole heir to Brabant and reject my right to her hand. Her hand! Horrified, I shrank from her and took a wife whom I could truly love. Now as nearest kinsman of the duke I claim this land as my own, my wife, too, being of the race that once gave a line of princes to Brabant."

So saying, he leads Ortrud forward, and she, lowering her dark visage, makes a deep obeisance to the King. To the latter but one course is open. A terrible accusation has been uttered, and an appeal must be made to the immediate judgment of God in trial by combat between Frederick and whoever may appear as champion for Elsa. Solemnly the King hangs his shield on the oak, the Saxons and Thuringians thrust the points of their swords into the ground, while the Brabantians lay theirs before them. The royal Herald steps forward. "Elsa, without delay appear!" he calls in a loud voice.

A sudden hush falls upon the scene, as a slender figure robed in white slowly advances toward the King. It is Elsa. With her fair brow, gentle mien, and timid footsteps it seems impossible that she can be the object of Frederick’s dire charge. But there are dark forces conspiring against her, of which none knows save her accuser and the wife he has chosen from the remoter North. In Friesland the weird rites of Odin and the ancient gods still had many secret adherents, Ortrud among them, and it is the hope of this heathenish woman, through the undoing of Elsa, and the accession of Frederick whom she has completely under her influence, to check the spread of the Christian faith toward the North and restore the rites of Odin in Brabant. To this end she is ready to bring all the black magic of which she secretly is mistress into play. What wonder that Elsa, as she encounters her malevolent gaze, lowers her eyes with a shudder!

Up to the moment of Elsa’s entrance, the music is harsh and vigorous, reflecting Frederick’s excitement as, incited by Ortrud, he brings forward his charge against Elsa. With her appearance a change immediately comes over the music. It is soft, gentle, and plaintive; not, however, entirely hopeless, as if the maiden, being conscious of her innocence, does not despair of her fate.

"Elsa," gently asks the King, "whom name you as your champion?" She answers as if in a trance; and it is at this point that the music of "Elsa’s Dream" is heard. In the course of this, violins whisper the Grail Motive and in dreamy rapture Elsa sings, "I see, in splendour shining, a knight of glorious mien. His eyes rest upon me with tranquil gaze. He stands amid clouds beside a house of gold, and resting on his sword. Heaven has sent him to save me. He shall my champion be!"

The men regard each other in wonder. But a sneer curls around Ortrud’s lips, and Frederick again proclaims his readiness to prove his accusation in trial by combat for life and death.

"Elsa," the King asks once more, "whom have you chosen as your champion?"

"Him whom Heaven shall send me; and to him, whatever he shall ask of me, I freely will give, e’en though it be myself as bride!" Again there is heard the lovely, broad and flowing melody of which I have already spoken and which may be designated as the ELSA MOTIVE.

The Herald now stations his trumpeters at the corners of the plain and bids them blow a blast toward the four points of the compass. When the last echo has died away he calls aloud:

"He who in right of Heaven comes here to fight for Elsa of Brabant, let him step forth!"

The deep silence that follows is broken by Frederick’s voice. "No one appears to repel my charge. ‘Tis proven."

"My King," implores Elsa, whose growing agitation is watched by Ortrud with a malevolent smile, "my champion bides afar. He has not yet heard the summons. I pray you let it go forth once more."

Again the trumpeters blow toward the four points of the compass, again the Herald cries his call, again there is the fateful silence. "The Heavens are silent. She is doomed," murmured the men. Then Elsa throws herself upon her knees and raises her eyes in prayer. Suddenly there is a commotion among the men nearest the river bank.

"A wonder!" they cry. "A swan! A swan -- drawing a boat by a golden chain! In the boat stands a knight! See, it approaches! His armour is so bright it blinds our eyes! A wonder! A wonder!"

There is a rush toward the bank and a great shout of acclaim, as the swan with a graceful sweep rounds a bend in the river and brings the shell-like boat, in which stands a knight in dazzling armour and of noble mien, up to the shore. Not daring to trust her senses and turn to behold the wondrous spectacle, Elsa gazes in rapture heavenward, while Ortrud and Telramund, their fell intrigue suddenly halted by a marvel that surpasses their comprehension, regard each other with mingled amazement and alarm.

A strange feeling of awe overcomes the assembly, and the tumult with which the advent of the knight has been hailed dies away to breathless silence, as he extends his hand and in tender accents bids farewell to the swan, which gently inclines its head and then glides away with the boat, vanishing as it had come. There is a chorus, in which, in half-hushed voices, the crowd gives expression to the mystery of the scene. Then the men fall back and the Knight of the Swan, for a silver swan surmounts his helmet and is blazoned upon his shield, having made due obeisance to the King, advances to where Elsa stands and, resting his eyes upon her pure and radiant beauty, questions her.

"Elsa, if I become your champion and right the foul wrong that is sought to be put upon you, will you confide your future to me; will you become my bride?"

"My guardian, my defender!" she exclaims ecstatically. "All that I have, all that I am, is yours!"

"Elsa," he says slowly, as if wishing her to weigh every word, "If I champion your cause and take you to wife, there is one promise I must exact: Never must you ask me whence I come or what my name."

"I promise," she answers, serenely meeting his warning look. He repeats the warning and again she promises to observe it.

"Elsa, I love you!" he exclaims, as he clasps her in his arms. Then addressing the King he proclaims his readiness to defend her innocence in trial by combat.

In this scene occurs one of the significant themes of the opera, the MOTIVE OF WARNING -- for it is Elsa’s disregard of it and the breaking of her promise that brings her happiness to an end.

Three Saxons for the Knight and three Brabantians for Frederick solemnly pace off the circle within which the combatants are to fight. The King, drawing his sword, strikes three resounding blows with it upon his shield. At the first stroke the Knight and Frederick take their positions. At the second they draw their swords. At the third they advance to the encounter. Frederick is no coward. His willingness to meet the Knight whose coming had been so strange proves that. But his blows are skillfully warded off until the Swan Knight, finding an opening, fells him with a powerful stroke. Frederick’s life is forfeited, but his conqueror, perchance knowing that he has been naught but a tool in the hands of a woman leagued with the powers of evil, spares it and bids his fallen foe rise. The King leads Elsa to the victor, while all hail him as her deliverer and betrothed.

The scenes here described are most stirring. Before the combat begins, the King intones a prayer, in which first the principals and then the chorus join with noble effect, while the music of rejoicing over the Knight’s victory has an irresistible onsweep.

Act II. That night in the fortress of Antwerp, the palace where abide the knights is brilliantly illuminated and sounds of revelry issue from it, and lights shine from the kemenate, where Elsa’s maids-in-waiting are preparing her for the bridal on the morrow. But in the shadow of the walls sit two figures, a man and a woman; the man, his head bowed in despair, the woman looking vindictively toward the palace. They are Frederick and Ortrud, who have been condemned to banishment, he utterly dejected, she still trusting in the power of her heathenish gods. To her the Swan Knight’s chivalrous forbearance in sparing Frederick’s life has seemed weak instead of noble, and Elsa she regards as an insipid dreamer and easy victim. Not knowing that Ortrud still darkly schemes to ruin Elsa and restore him to power, Frederick denounces her in an outburst of rage and despair.

As another burst of revelry, another flash of light, causes Frederick to bow his head in deeper gloom, Ortrud begins to unfold her plot to him. How long will a woman like Elsa -- as sweet as she is beautiful, but also as weak -- be able to restrain herself from asking the forbidden question? Once her suspicion aroused that the Knight is concealing from her something in his past life, growing jealousy will impel her first to seek to coax from him, then to demand of him his name and lineage. Let Frederick conceal himself within the minster, and when the bridal procession reaches the steps, come forth and, accusing the Knight of treachery and deceit, demand that he be compelled to disclore his name and origin. He will refuse, and thus, even before Elsa enters the minster, she will begin to be beset by doubts. She herself meanwhile will seek to enter the kemenate and play upon her credulousness. "She is for me; her champion is for you. Soon the daughter of Odin will teach you all the joys of vengeance!" is Ortrud’s sinister exclamation as she finishes.

Indeed it seems as if Fate were playing into her hand. For at that very moment Elsa, all clad in white, comes out upon the balcony of the kemenate and, sighing with happiness, breathes out upon the night air her rapture at the thought of what bliss the coming day has in store for her. As she lets her gaze rest on the calm night she hears a piteous voice calling her name, and looking down sees Ortrud, her hands raised in supplication to her. Moved by the spectacle of one but a short time before so proud and now apparently in such utter dejection, the guileless maid descends and, herself opening the door of the kemenate, hastens to Ortrud, raises her to her feet, and gently leads her in, while, hidden in the shadows, Frederick of Telramund bides his time for action. Thus within and without, mischief is plotting for the unsuspecting Elsa.

These episodes, following the appearance of Elsa upon the balcony, are known as the "Balcony Scene." It opens with the exquisite melody which Elsa breathes upon the zephyrs of the night in gratitude to heaven for the champion sent to her defence. Then, when in pity she has hastened down to Ortrud, the latter pours doubts regarding her champion into Elsa’s mind. Who is he? Whence came he? May he not as unexpectedly depart? The whole closes with a beautiful duet, which is repeated by the orchestra, as Ortrud is conducted by Elsa into the apartment.

It is early morn. People begin to gather in the open place before the minster and, by the time the sun is high, the space is crowded with folk eager to view the bridal procession. They sing a fine and spirited chorus.

At the appointed hour four pages come out upon the balcony of the kemenate and cry out:

"Make way, our Lady Elsa comes!" Descending, they clear a path through the crowd to the steps of the minster. A long train of richly clad women emerges upon the balcony, slowly comes down the steps and, proceeding past the palace, winds toward the minster. At that moment a great shout, "Hail! Elsa of Brabant!" goes up, as the bride herself appears followed by her ladies-in-waiting. For the moment Ortrud’s presence in the train is unnoticed, but as Elsa approaches the minster, Frederick’s wife suddenly throws herself in her path.

"Back, Elsa!" she cries. "I am not a menial, born to follow you! Although your Knight has overthrown my husband, you cannot boast of who he is -- his very name, the place whence he came, are unknown. Strong must be his motives to forbid you to question him. To what foul disgrace would he be brought were he compelled to answer!"

Fortunately the King, the bridegroom, and the nobles approaching from the palace, Elsa shrinks from Ortrud to her champion’s side an hides her face against his breast. At that moment Frederick of Telramund, taking his cue from Ortrud, comes out upon the minster steps and repeats his wife’s accusation. Then, profiting by the confusion, he slips away in the crowd. The insidious poison, however, has already begun to take effect. For even as the King taking the Knight on his right and Elsa on his left conducts them up the minster steps, the trembling bride catches sight of Ortrud whose hand is raised in threat and warning; and it is clinging to her champion, in love indeed but love mingled with doubt and fear, that she passes through the portal, and into the edifice.

These are crucial scenes. The procession to the minster, often known as the bridal procession, must not be confused with the "Bridal Chorus." It is familiar music, however, because at wedding it often is played softly as a musical background to the ceremony.

Act III. The wedding festivities are described in the brilliant "Introduction to Act III." This is followed in the opera by the "Bridal Chorus," which, wherever heard-on stage or in church-falls with renewed freshness and significance upon the ear. In this scene the Knight and Elsa are conducted to the bridal chamber in the castle. From the right enter Elsa’s ladies-in-waiting leading the bride; from the left the King and nobles leading the Knight. Preceding both trains are pages bearing lights; and voices chant the bridal chorus. The King ceremoniously embraces the couple and then the procession makes it way out, until, as the last strains of the chorus die away, Elsa and her champion are for the first time alone.

It should be a moment of supreme happiness for both, and indeed, Elsa exclaims as her bridegroom takes her to his arms, that words cannot give expression to all its hidden sweetness. Yet, when he tenderly breathes her name, it serves only to remind her that she cannot respond by uttering his. "How sweetly sounds my name when spoken by you, while I, alas, cannot reply with yours. Surely, some day, you will tell me, all in secret, and I shall be able to whisper it when none but you is near!"

In her words the Knight perceives but too clearly the seeds of the fatal mistrust sown by Ortrud and Frederick. Gently he leaves her side and throwing open the casement, points to the moonlit landscape where the river winds its course along the plain. The same subtle magic that can conjure up this scene from the night has brought him to her, made him love her, and give unshrinking credence to her vow never to question his name or origin. Will she now wantonly destroy the wondrous spell of moonlight and love?

But still Elsa urges him. "Let me be flattered by your trust and confidence. Your secret will be safe in my heart. No threats, not even of death, shall tear it from my lips. Tell me who you are and whence you come!"

"Elsa!" he cries, "come to my heart. Let me feel that happiness is mine at last. Let your love and confidence compensate me for what I have left behind me. Cast dark suspicion aside. For know, I came not hither from night and grieving but from the abode of light and noble pleasures."

But his words have the very opposite effect of what he had hoped for. "Heaven help me!" exclaims Elsa. "What must I hear! Already you are beginning to look back with longing to the joys you have given up for me. Some day you will leave me to sorrow and regret. I have no magic spells wherewith to hold you. Ah!" -- and now she cries out like one distracted and with eyes straining at distance -- "See! -- the swan! -- I see him floating on the waters yonder! You summon him, embark! -- Love -- madness -- whatever it may be -- your name declare, your lineage and your home!"

Hardly have these mad words been spoken by her when, as she stands before her husband of a few hours, she sees something that with a sudden shock brings her to her senses. Rushing to the divan where the pages laid the Knight’s sword, she seizes it and thrusts it into his hand, and he, turning to discover what peril threatens, sees Frederick, followed by four Brabantian nobles, burst into the room. With one stroke he lays the leader lifeless, and the others, seeing him fall, go down on their knees in token of submission. At a sign from the Knight they arise and, lifting Frederick’s body, bear it away. Then the Knight summons Elsa’s ladies-in-waiting and bids them prepare her in her richest garments to meet him before the King. "There I will make fitting answer to her questions, tell her my name, my rank, and whence I come."

Sadly he watches her being led away, while she, no longer the happy bride, but the picture of utter dejection, turns and raises her hands to him in supplication as though she would still in implore him to undo the ruin her lack of faith in him has wrought.

Some of the most beautiful as well as some of the most dramatic music of the score occurs in these scenes.

The love duet is exquisite -- one of the sweetest and tenderest passages of which the lyric stage can boast. A very beautiful musical episode is that in which the Knight, pointing through the open casement to the flowery close below, softly illuminated by the moon, sings to an accompaniment of what might be called musical moonbeams, "Say, dost thou breathe the incense sweet of flowers?" but when, in spite of the tender warning which he conveys to her, she begins questioning him, he turns toward her and in a passionate musical phrase begs her to trust him and abide with him in loving faith. Her dread that the memory of the delightful place from which he has come will wean him from her; the wild vision in which she imagines she sees the swan approaching to bear him away from her, and when she puts to him the forbidden questions, are details expressed with wonderful vividness in the music.

After the attack by Frederick and his death, there is a dramatic silence during which Elsa sinks on her husband’s breast and faints. When I say silence I do not mean that there is a total cessation of sound, for silence can be more impressively expressed in music than by actual silence itself. It is done by Wagner in this case by long drawn-out chords followed by faint taps on the tympani. When the Knight bends down to Elsa, raises her, and gently places her on a couch, echoes of the love duet add to the mournfulness of the music. The scene closes with the Motive of Warning, which resounds with dread meaning.

A quick change of scene should be made at this point in the performance of the opera, but as a rule the change takes so long that the third act is virtually given in two acts.

It is on the banks of the Scheldt, the very spot where he had disembarked, that the Knight elects to make reply to Elsa’s questions. There the King, the nobles, and the Brabantians, whom he was to lead, are awaiting him to take command, and as their leader they hail him when he appears. This scene, "Promise of Victory," is in the form of a brilliant march and chorus, during which the Counts of Brabant, followed by their vassals, enter on horseback from various directions. In the average performance of the opera, however, much of it is sacrificed in order to shorten the representation.

The Knight answers their hail by telling them that he has come to bid them farewell, that Elsa has been lured to break her vow and ask the forbidden questions which he now is there to answer. From distant lands he came, from Montsalvat, where stands the temple of the Holy Grail, his father, Percival, its King, and he, Lohengrin, its Knight. And now, his name and lineage known, he must return, for the Grail gives strength to its knights to right wrong and protect the innocent only so long as the secret of their power remains unrevealed.

Even while he speaks the swan is seen floating down the river. Sadly Lohengrin bids Elsa farewell. Sadly all. save one, look on. For Ortrud, who now pushes her way through the spectators, it is a moment of triumph.

"Depart in all your glory," she calls out. "The swan that draws you away is none other than Elsa’s brother Godfrey, changed by my magic into his present form. Had she kept her vow, had you been allowed to tarry, you would have freed him from my spell. The ancient gods, whom faithfully I serve, thus punish human faithlessness!"

By the river bank Lohengrin falls upon his knees and prays in silence. Suddenly a white dove descends over the boat. Rising, Lohengrin loosens the golden chain by which the swan is attached to the boat; the swan vanishes; in its place Godfrey stands upon the bank, and Lohengrin, entering the boat, is drawn away by the dove. At sight of the young Duke, Ortrud falls with a shriek, while the Brabantian nobles kneel before him as he advances and makes obeisance to the King. Elsa gazes on him in rapture until, mindful of her own sorrow, as the boat in which Lohengrin stands vanishes around the upper bend of the river, she cries out, "My husband! My husband!" and falls back in death in her brother’s arms.

Lohengrin’s narrative of his origin is beautifully set to music familiar from the Prelude; but when he proclaims his name we hear the same measures which Elsa sang in the second part of her dream in the first act. Very beautiful and tender is the music which he sings when he hands Elsa his horn, his sword, and his ring to give to her brother, should he return, and also his greeting to the swan when it comes to bear him back. The work is brought to a close with a repetition of the music of the second portion of Elsa’s dream followed by a superb climax with the Motive of the Grail.

Search this Site




See also:
Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

Music With Ease | About Us | Contact Us | Privacy | Sitemap | Copyright | Terms of Use

© 2005-23 All Rights Reserved.