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ClassicsOnline Home » WAGNER, R.: Tannhauser (Bayreuth Festival) (1930)
A grosse romantische Oper in three acts to the composers libretto, based on nineteenth-century versions of several mediaeval legends, principally those collated by Ludwig Bechstein and C.T.L.Lucas.
God give me a failure like that! Charles Gounod, writing after the chaotic première of the Paris version of Tannhäuser in 1861.
The history of the composition of Tannhäuser, Wagners fifth opera, is somewhat complex and a brief explanation about the different versions of the score may be helpful.
After a disastrous première in Dresden, Tannhäuser soon gained popularity and within ten years was performed regularly throughout Germany. During this time Wagner made amendments to the score and this revision, published in 1860, is known as the Dresden version. In due course he received an invitation from Napoleon III to produce Tannhäuser in France and, as was customary, Wagner was expected to include a ballet scene for the Parisian audiences. With this in mind, the composer took the opportunity to re-write several further sections, and it is this version, together with yet more alterations made between 1861 and 1875, that is known as the Paris - although it is not exactly what was performed at the première there. The changes for Paris mainly affect the opening scene of Act I and the Song Contest in Act II; there are numerous less significant differences (including a re-worked overture) but the major result of Wagners additions is to enhance the rôle of Venus and extend the bacchanal - providing an ideal opportunity to include the required ballet. For local reasons the Paris production was a calamity, but before long Tannhäuser took its rightful place as one of the great operas of the nineteenth century and these days both Dresden and Paris versions are performed; this historic abridged set is the latter.
In 1927 the Columbia Graphophone Company recorded excerpts from Parsifal in the Festspielhaus, Bayreuth (re-issued, together with other historic passages from the opera, on Naxos 8.110049-50). This marked a turning-point in the story of location recording and, keen to capitalise on the success of their first efforts in Wagners theatre, in 1928 the companys engineers were able to set down sizeable extracts from Tristan und Isolde conducted by Karl Elmendorff. Spurred on by yet more favourable reviews, in 1930 Columbia planned to make an abridged set, on thirty-six 78 rpm sides, of the composers son Siegfried Wagners new production of Tannhäuser, conducted by Arturo Toscanini; but because of his contract with Victor Records, Toscanini was unable to participate in the project and Elmendorff was invited to conduct instead. These are not records of live performances, but were made during August in the empty theatre, and comprise about four fifths of the score. The tricky job of deciding on the cuts was undertaken by the celebrated critic Ernest Newman, whose knowledge and understanding of Wagners music was almost second to none, and by Siegfried Wagner. Siegfrieds death, during the very month of recording, and that of his mother Cosima four months earlier, must have cast a shadow over the whole proceedings but the sessions went ahead nevertheless. Musically the results were magnificent, hardly surprising in view of the fine cast and experienced conductor that were assembled; and by 1930 Columbias technical expertise ensured that, even in the spacious empty theatre, such large orchestral and choral forces would transfer successfully to wax.
Of the five principals, Müller, Jost-Arden, Pilinsky, Janssen and Andrèsen, four were making their Bayreuth dèbuts in this new production of Tannhäuser - only Andrèsen had sung there previously. It was also Toscaninis first season there (he returned the following year, but never subsequently conducted at the Festival) and his influence is naturally seen in the selection of singers. He was keen to establish his mark on the new production, perhaps rejecting some of Bayreuths regular team in order to do so. Although he did not conduct the recording, Toscaninis influence is sensed throughout, though Elmendorff was himself a greatly admired musician and must be given the credit for leading such a fine recorded performance. The orchestra plays magnificently, albeit in a style considered old-fashioned today; but it was the fashion then, and we are fortunate even to be able to make the comparison.
The cuts imposed on the set are not unduly serious, and none of the best known numbers are affected (though the famous Entry of the Guests in Act 2 is abbreviated). One complete, short, scene is omitted (Act 2 Scene 3) and several other sections are excised (the Landgraves introduction to the Song Contest is one). Happily the first act is complete, thus allowing us to hear the most significant of Wagners Paris amendments in full.
Tannhäuser was first performed in Dresden on 19th October 1845; the first performance in Paris took place on 13th March 1861.
Sigismund Pilinsky was born in Budapest in 1891 and died there in 1957. He studied at the Budapest Conservatory and later in Leipzig and Berlin. He made his operatic dèbut in Miskolc in north-eastern Hungary, and from 1913 sang at the National Opera in the capital. In 1928 Pilinsky was John in Meyerbeers Le Prophète in Berlin and in 1930-1 sang Tannhäuser at Bayreuth. He travelled extensively as a guest tenor to Vienna, London, Chicago and San Francisco but returned to Budapest and, in retirement, became a teacher. His rather nasal voice has, however, great resonance and heroic power.
Maria Müller was born in Theresienstadt in 1898 and trained at Prague Conservatory and in Vienna. Her dèbut, as Elsa, was at Linz in 1919 and from 1925 to 1935 she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, singing rôles by Mozart, Wagner, Smetana, Verdi and Strauss among others. Müller sang regularly in Berlin from 1926, at Covent Garden, in Vienna, Milan, Paris and Salzburg. From 1930 she was a frequent visitor to Bayreuth, where her clear lyric soprano was highly regarded, and she retired there after her final performances in Berlin in 1952. She died in Bayreuth in 1958.
Ruth Jost-Arden was born in Berlin in 1899 and died in Bayreuth in 1985. She began her career as a concert soprano in North America, where she was heard by Toscanini and chosen for Bayreuths new production of Tannhäuser in 1930. Rôles that Jost-Arden sang in Cologne from 1931-1940 include Isolde, Brünnhilde, Kundry, Elektra, Salome and Leonore and, in 1933, the lead at the première of Siegfried Wagners opera Der Heidenkönig. Her bright, fresh tone was surely warmly welcomed there in such a dramatic repertory; as guest artist, Jost-Arden appeared in Paris, Milan, Venice, Brussels, New York and Boston.
Herbert Janssen, born in Cologne in 1892, made his dèbut in 1922 at the Berlin Staatsoper. He remained with the company until 1938 when he left Germany and moved to the United States. Janssen sang the lighter Wagnerian baritone rôles at Covent Garden from 1926 to 1939, and from 1930 to 1937 at Bayreuth. He first sang at the Metropolitan Opera in 1939, staying until 1952 and, from 1945 to 1951, appeared in San Francisco and Los Angeles. His warm, sympathetic baritone made him one of the most successful singers of his day. He died in New York in 1965.
Ivar Andrèsen trained in Stockholm and first sang there in Aida in 1919. He was a member of Dresden Staatsoper from 1926 to 1934 and sang at Covent Garden from 1928 to 1931. In ten seasons at Bayreuth he appeared in the major Wagnerian bass rôles and his Metropolitan dèbut, as Daland, was in 1930. Andrèsen was at Glyndebourne in 1935, when he sang Sarastro and Osmin, and he was a popular guest artist in Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona. His repertoire included many non-Wagnerian rôles, oratorio and Lieder. Andrèsen was born in Oslo in 1896 and died in Stockholm in 1940.
The conductor Karl Elmendorff was born in Düsseldorf in 1891 and, after studying linguistics, attended Cologne Conservatory as a music student. He was appointed successively to many important conducting posts throughout Germany, in Mainz, Aachen, Munich, Berlin and Dresden and, after the war, Wiesbaden. He took part in the Bayreuth Festival from 1927 to 1942 and appeared regularly elsewhere throughout Europe and in South America. Best remembered for his Wagnerian interpretations, Elmendorffs musical interests were broadly based and records of broadcast performances show sympathy with composers from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. He died in Hofheim am Taunus in 1962.
 The Overture introduces the themes associated with the Pilgrims Chorus and repentance, leading to the Venusberg music, with the Hymn to Venus and Lure of the Grotto.
Scene 1: The Venusberg
 The scene represents the realm of Venus on the Hörsel Mountain near Eisenach. There is a great cave, curving round into the distance on the right. A waterfall can be seen by the daylight that enters through an opening, brimming down from the height of the cave and leading to a lake, where Naiads can be seen bathing, with Sirens on its banks. There are rocky outcrops on each side. Tannhäuser lies there, asleep, his head resting on the lap of Venus, who reclines on a couch, attended by the Three Graces, with cupids sleeping. The foreground is bathed in red light, through which the emerald green of the waterfall and the white of foam can be seen, while the background seems blue, in the moonlight. As the curtain rises nymphs and young men sport together, spurred on to further play in an orgy inspired by a train of Bacchantes. Satyrs and fauns appear, to join the wild dance. The Three Graces rise, seeking to quell the tumult, rousing the cupids, whose arrows end the dance, as the couples leave, drunk with desire. The Graces are left with Tannhäuser and Venus. The Sirens are heard in the distance and visions appear of Europa on the back of a white steer, escorted by Tritons and Nereids, and of Leda and the swan, as the Graces withdraw.
 Tannhäuser wakes, as from a dream, and Venus smiles lovingly at him. He tells her of his dream and his desire now to return to earth, to see again the sun, the stars, the green of summer, to hear the nightingale. Venus reminds him of what he enjoys and urges him to take up his harp and to sing, as he had when he won the love of the goddess.
 Tannhäuser takes his harp and sings praise of Venus that ends in a plea for her to release him. She reproaches him.
 He answers in her praise, but longing still for the delights of earth. She reproaches him again, breaking off with a cry and covering her face.
 She gently seeks Tannhäusers gaze, with a seductive smile, and at a sign a magic grotto appears, to which she invites him. The Sirens are heard, luring him on, as she continues to urge him to a feast of love.
 Tannhäuser takes up his harp again, urging once more his need for freedom; she must let him leave her.
 Venus dismisses him, granting him his freedom but warning him that he will find no comfort among mortals and will seek her love once more. He tells her that he will not return to her; his salvation lies in Mary. At his words Venus disappears and the scene quickly changes.
 Tannhäuser finds him suddenly in a beautiful valley. The sky is blue and the sun shines. In the background to the right lies the Wartburg, while the Hörsel Mountain can be seen to the left. A road leads to the Wartburg and in the foreground is a statue of the Blessed Virgin. A young shepherd sits on a rock and plays his pipe, singing a welcome to spring.
 The singing of old pilgrims is heard, as they come from the direction of the Wartburg, offering a hymn to Christ, the Virgin and to God. The shepherd calls to them to pray for him and Tannhäuser feels the weight of his sins, weeping in repentance. The voices of the pilgrims recede into the distance. Horns are heard marking the approach of the Landgrave and singers at the hunt.
 The Landgrave asks who the man is, praying there, and is told that the man seems to be a penitent, a knight, then recognising him. With the Landgrave, they invite Tannhäuser to rejoin their circle, but he refuses. Wolfram von Eschenbach, one of the singers accompanying the Landgrave, mentions the name of Elisabeth.
 Wolfram goes on to tell Tannhäuser how his singing had captivated Elisabeth, who had turned away from their song contests once Tannhäuser had left them. He asks to be taken to her, aware once more of the beauty of the world. The whole hunting-party has gathered and the knights and minnesingers in the entourage of the Landgrave welcome Tannhäusers return.
Introduction and Scene 1
 The scene is now the minstrels hall of the Wartburg. Elisabeth sings her greeting to the hall so dear to her, a desert after Tannhäusers departure, but now a place of joy once more.
 Wolfram brings Tannhäuser in and the latter approaches Elisabeth, kneeling at her feet and begging her to stay. She makes him stand, in a hall that is his own kingdom, thanking him for his return. He tells her how he has been far away, his memories of this past now dispelled. She seems in a dream, telling him of the enchantment of his singing and her desolation when he went away. Tannhäuser praises the God of love that has brought them together.
 They join together in praise of the power that has brought them together once more. Tannhäuser parts from Elisabeth and goes to Wolfram, who has waited aside, seeing his own hopes for the love of Elisabeth vanish, embraces him and leaves together with him.
Scene 3 (omitted)
[Elisabeths uncle, the Landgrave, enters through a side door and she runs to him. He resolves that love shall be the theme of the coming Song Contest.]
 Trumpets sound, marking the entry of the guests, the knights and nobility with their wives and followers. The knights greet the hall, the scene of art and peace. Finally the singers enter, escorted to their places by pages. [The Landgrave announces the subject of the contest and lots are drawn].
 Wolfram greets the assembled guests in the first song, praising chaste love.
 Tannhäuser starts up, as if from a dream, his gaze fixed in front of him, rapt, inspired by some strange magic and no longer paying attention to Elisabeth. He sings, rejecting Wolframs view of love and drawing on the very source of his passion.
 Biterolf quickly rises, angrily defending virtuous love, that tempered his sword with courage to fight for the honour of women and for virtue; the view expressed by Tannhäuser he rejects as cheap pursuit of pleasure. [Tannhäuser accuses Biterolf of lacking experience in love and swords are drawn. Wolfram praises again chaste love, seeking the prize, while Tannhäuser sings his hymn to Venus, declaring that those who have never been to the Venusberg know nothing.]
 In the tumult that arises Elisabeth stands in front of Tannhäuser, to protect him, and calls on the men to drop their swords; he is held in the power of a magician and should be given time to repent and receive pardon for his sins. Tannhäuser, in contrition, laments his ill-fortune, while the knights see him as saved by a true angel and he calls out for the mercy of God.
 The Landgrave comes forward and banishes Tannhäuser, who brings pollution on their gathering, yet he can find absolution by joining the pilgrims to Rome.
 The knights urge him to join the band of younger pilgrims, about to set out on their journey; if he dares to return unabsolved, they will kill him. Elisabeth offers her own life for his redemption. The voices of the young pilgrims are heard, calming the company. Tannhäuser, in contrition and inspired by a new hope, kisses the hem of Elisabeths robe and rushes out, with the cry To Rome!
 The scene is the valley by the Wartburg, as at the end of Act I. Evening draws near. Elisabeth is seen praying before the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Wolfram enters, stopping as he sees her. He knows that, wasted with her own suffering, she is waiting for Tannhäuser among the returning pilgrims.
 The song of the pilgrims is heard and Elisabeth and Wolfram comment on their approach. Elisabeth anxiously scans their ranks, seeking Tannhäuser, but, not finding him, sinks again to her knees.
 She prays to the Blessed Virgin, seeking forgiveness and a place in Heaven, where her prayers may help Tannhäuser. She rises and sees Wolfram, but with a gesture asks him not to speak to her. He seeks to accompany her and she, by gesture, thanks him for his true love, as she goes towards the Wartburg.
 Wolfram seems to see the shadow of death over the valley.
 He prays to the evening star to greet her as she leaves the valley of this world to join the angels. He stands looking up to heaven.
 Night has fallen and Tannhäuser enters, wearing the torn garb of a pilgrim, his face pale and supporting himself on his staff. He tells Wolfram his story, how he went, in deep penitence, to Rome, however hard the way, eventually reaching the city, as day broke and the bells rang out. There the Pope gave absolution to thousands but for Tannhäuser, who had delighted in the pleasures of the Venusberg, there could be no forgiveness; only if the staff he held in his hand should put forth leaves could Tannhäuser be saved from Hell. He fell down, fainting, and woke, sickened by the pious song he heard.
 He made his way back, seeking again the delight and pleasure of the Venusberg. He cries out to Lady Venus, while Wolfram tries to stop him; rejected by men, he seeks the goddess again. The night grows darker and a mist falls, then turning to a glowing half-light, as the sounds of the Venusberg are heard and dancing figures appear. Wolfram is aghast at this sorcery, while Tannhäuser welcomes the magic realm of love.
 Venus is seen, reclining, welcoming back her faithless lover from a world where he found no mercy, now to be with her for ever. Tannhäuser has lost salvation and now will choose pleasure. Wolfram calls him back, telling him of an angel that prayed for him on earth, Elisabeth. At her name Tannhäuser stops, rooted to the ground. It grows dark again, the darkness now lit by torches as a group of men approach from the Wartburg. Dawn breaks as they enter, a funeral procession, led by the old pilgrims and followed by the minnesingers, bearing an open casket with the body of Elisabeth. The Landgrave and his knights follow. At a sign from Wolfram they lay down the coffin and Tannhäuser kneels by it, begging Elisabeth to pray for him, as he dies.
 It is daybreak and young pilgrims enter, bearing a pastoral staff on which green leaves have sprouted, a miracle that they hymn, a sign of forgiveness for the sinner and of the divine mercy.
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WAGNER, R.: Tannhauser (Bayreuth Festival) (1930)