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Ricahrd Wagner - Overture And Bacchanale From Tannhauser

( Originally Published 1935 )

The overture and Bacchanale from "Tannhauser" combine characteristics of Wagner's earlier period with those of his mature years. "Tannhauser" was composed in 1845. In 1861 it was revised. The overture and opening scene of the opera were joined together and the Bacchanale and scene with Venus greatly extended for the Paris premiere of the work; that premiere which became a historical scandal through the opposition of the Jockey Club. The story is now well known: how a group of snobs and idlers demanded a ballet in the second act of the opera, where there was dramatically no occasion for one; how Wagner refused utterly to spoil his score for the sake of such cattle, but attempted a compromise by putting the ballet in the first act; how the precious jeunesse doree of the boulevards and their petted favorites of the ballet, unsatisfied by this arrangement, plotted and succeeded in catcalling the opera off the stage. But even such catastrophes have their value. The upshot of the Paris premiere was for the great gain of posterity, since Wagner rewrote and extended many pages of his score with the knowledge he had gained in later operas up to "Tristan and Isolde," and the result is a combination 'of the early faith and fervors of the overture with the inspiration and authority of Wagner at the height of his powers. (Incidentally, when the Germans marched into Paris after the French debacle of 187o, its military bands played the march from "Tannhauser!")

Although the end of the overture is altered to merge it with the Bacchanale, this occasion may be taken to consider the two scores by themselves, as well as the form in which they are combined. Let us first take the overture. It is in three great parts. The first is the proclamation of the celebrated hymn, the "Pilgrims' Chorus," announced by wind instruments and horns, then by the trombones against brilliant and dramatic ornamentation of the strings, ornamentation which proves later to have a special significance. The second part is the music of the Venusberg, announced by a leaping figure for the violas, flutes and oboes; a bacchanalian theme, called by some industrious German commentators "drunkenness of the Horselberg"—the Venus-mountain. It includes the music of Tannhduser's hymn to Venus, played by the strings, and a song of the solo clarinet—the voice of Venus herself; this whole passage with its several themes being mighty and blazing tonal evocation of what Baudelaire, an arrant Wagnerian, called "the true, the terrible, the universal Venus." "Venus"—Wagner is now speaking—bears Tannhäuser "where no step dare tread, to the realm of Being-no-moreweaving forgetfulness, loss of self in the sensual ecstasy." The third part is redemption. There is a remarkable transformation by means of which the swirling figure of the Venusberg revels becomes, gradually, the brilliant ornamentation of the violins heard as corollary of the trombones' chant of the "Pilgrims' Chorus," and that chorus, hymned by the whole orchestra—token of Tannhduser's deliverance and salvation—brings the overture to an end. Here are Wagner's words descriptive of the imaginary situation, as also of the conclusion of his drama: "Dawn begins to break. From afar is heard again the Pilgrims' chant. As the chant draws near, closer yet and closer, as the day drives farther back the night, that whir and soughing of the air—which had erstwhile sounded like the eerie cries of souls condemned—now rises to ever gladder waves; so that when the sun ascends at last in splendor, and the Pilgrims' chant proclaiming in ecstasy to the world that to all that lives and moves thereon salvation is won, this wave itself swells out the tidings of sublimest joy. 'Tis the carol of the Venusberg redeemed from the curse of impiousness, this cry we hear amid the hymn of God. So wells and leaps each pulse of life in chorus of Redemption; and both dissevered elements, both soul and senses, God and nature, unite in the atoning kiss of hallowed love."

So much for the overture, which, by itself, figures so often and. effectively on concert programs. The concert arrangement of overture and Bacchanale alters and greatly extends this material. Wagner takes the Venusberg music as his point of departure, treating it with a wealth of color and intensity of which he had not earlier been capable. The rising curtain (as the composer conceived the spectacle) discovers the re-treats of the Horselberg—bacchantic revelry, dances of nymphs, fauns and satyrs, allegorical groups representing the abduction of Europa and Leda and the swan, and, to the last faint and exquisite sounds, the bosky retreats of the sirens of Venus. In this music there is much new material, and a style wholly superior in flexibility, color and dramatic incisiveness to anything that has preceded. It is a particularly illuminating example of the growth of a genius. Wagner wrote "Tannhauser," says Ernest Newman, "in a state of burning exaltation," and fear that. he would die before his task was completed. The opera was an "autobiographical revelation of his own secret sorrow and despair," his disgust with the sensual and material world, his craving for the Ideal. "Thus the music juxtaposes the religious song and the voluptuous song" and "at last, in overture and opera, these songs become one, a hymn of redemption, of homage to God and nature."

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