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The History of 'Tannhäuser'
An Opera by Richard Wagner

Wagner accepted the theory of the Greeks that the myths of a people provide the subjects fittest for dramatic treatment. He held that the basis of drama should be the development of national legend, the outcome of national feeling. When, on the completion of "The Flying Dutchman," he was looking for a new subject and happened to light on a popular version of the Tannhäuser legend, he at once recognised a suitable theme. Being already familiar with Hoffmann’s "Contest of the Minnessanger at the Wartburg," he combined the two romances with various traits from different versions of the same stories into an artistic whole, and thus provided himself with the requisite libretto.

The book of "Tannhäuser" was begun at Teplitz in 1842, while the final arrangements were being made for producing "Rienzi." Throughout 1844 Wagner was busy scoring and revising the work. By the beginning of 1845 "Tannhäuser" was ready for rehearsal, and in the following October it was produced at Dresden.

The result was not an unqualified success. It provoked a storm of newspaper criticism, and the attitude of the public generally showed that Wagner’s aims as an artist were entirely misunderstood. Tichatschek in the title-role and Joanna Wagner as Elisabeth were excellent, but Mdme. Schroder-Devrient, great artist though she was, could make nothing of the Venus music. The whole first scene with its introductory ballet bewildered the audience. The scene of Tannhäuser’s pilgrimage, one of the finest in the work, was found tedious, while, on the other hand, the march in the Second Act, one of the most commonplace numbers, was applauded to the echo. Some of the critics discovered that "Wagner had no melody, no form." The subject was said to be "distressing, harassing," whereas "art ought to be cheerful and consoling." It was even asked, "Why should not Tannhäuser marry Elisabeth and all end happily?" Men who ought to have known better, among them Berlioz, spoke and wrote of it slightingly. Mendelssohn expressed himself as pleased with a "canonic" entrance (only that!) in the Adagio of the second finale. Prosper Mérimée said he could compose something as good after hearing his cat walk up and down over the keys of the piano! Rossini, who never went to the opera, made an exception in the case of "Tannhäuser," but when asked what he thought of it, replied: "It is too important and too elaborate a work to be judged after a single hearing; as far as I am concerned, I shall not give it a second."

It was warmly received, however, by a few ardent friends and admirers. One of those who first recognised its genius was Schumann. In a letter to Dorn he wrote: "I wish you could see ‘Tannhäuser’; it contains deeper, more original and altogether an hundred-fold better things than his previous operas -- at the same time a good deal that is musically trivial. On the whole Wagner may become of great importance and significance to the stage, and I am sure he is possessed of the needful courage. Technical matters, instrumentation, I find altogether remarkable, beyond comparison better than formerly."

Four years later "Tannhäuser" was produced by Liszt at Weimar, where it was received with greater sympathy and appreciation. In 1852 a considerable number of theatres applied for the performing rights, and performances were given with an increasing measure of success. When it was produced in Paris in 1861, through the influence of Princess Metternich, very little of the music was heard. The only attraction for the Jockey Club was the ballet (a sine qua non of French grand opera in those days), and as that occurred at the beginning of the opera, instead of in its usual place in the Second Act, it would be over before they had finished dinner. They therefore determined that no part of the work should be heard by any one, and organized a claque to whistle and howl throughout the performance. In a communication to Jules Noriac, then editor of Figaro, and referring to this fiasco, Wagner wrote: "Never have I heard such an infernal noise"; while in a letter to Victor Cochinat, contributor to La Causerie and other papers, he declared: "I am for ever excluded from French theatres. For what happened at this production will be repeated always and everywhere in France." The master forgot for the moment that "the whirligig of time brings in his revenges." In recent years the growth of Wagner-lovers in Paris has brought the number of performances of the Bayreuth master’s works level with those given of Meyerbeer’s operas.

The Overture to "Tannhäuser" was first performed in England by the Phiharmonic Society in May 1855, when Wagner was conducting the Society’s concerts for the season. Here is the Times criticism, sufficiently staggering to read nowadays: "A more inflated display of extravagance and noise has rarely been submitted to an audience; and it was a pity to hear so magnificent an orchestra engaged in almost fruitless attempts at accomplishing things which, even if really practicable, would lead to nothing."

Regarding this visit to London, Wagner wrote to Liszt:

You have probably heard how charmingly Queen Victoria behaved to me. She attended the seventh concert (June 11th) with Prince Albert, and as they wanted to hear something of mine, I had the "Tannhäuser" Overture repeated, which helped me to a little external amende. I really seemed to have pleased the Queen. In a conversation I had with her, by desire, after the first part of the concert, she was so kind that I was really quite touched. These two were the first people in England who dared to speak in my favour openly and undisguisedly, and if you consider that they has to deal with a political outlaw, charged with high treason and "wanted" by the police, you will think it natural that I am sincerely grateful to both.

The opera was produced in Italian at Covent Garden on May 6, 1876, but in spite of the excellence of the principal artists the general spirit of the rendering was the opposite of what the composer had intended. During Wagner’s second visit to London (in 1877) the work was given again. While praising individual singers, the master considered this performance the worst he had ever seen for ensemble.

"Tannhäuser" has grown gradually in public favour, and at the present time it is without doubt one of the greatest draws in the operatic repertoire.


Tannhauser poster

Stage Model For the Opera Tannhauser by Richard Wagner
Size: 24 in x 16 in.
Giclee Print.

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

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