Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser

When you mention the name of Tannhäuser, people either look blankly at you or assume you refer to the famous opera by Richard Wagner. The opera is correctly called Tannhäuser And The Singers’ Contest on Wartburg, and Tannhäuser is the titular hero in it. Tannhäuser was also a historical knight and singer songwriter.

Tannhäuser: The Opera

The birth of this particular opera was more of a caesarean for Wagner than a natural birth. From the inception of the idea in 1842 and for the following 30 years, he kept changing and rewriting the score of the opera. It was first performed in 1845. This score was the first and original version of WWV70 and it was pure murder on the lead tenor. Wagner reworked it to make the title part of Tannhäuser more manageable for the tenor singing it but it still is one of the most demanding librettos in opera literature. This second score is known as the ‘stage friendly’ Dresden version.

In 1861, Richard Wagner was invited to Paris by Emperor Napoleon III at the instigation of Princess Pauline of Metternich, wife of the Austrian ambassador at the French Imperial court in the French capital. Richard Wagner rewrote parts of it again specifically for the performance at the Paris Opera. It was a resounding flop and was pulled after three performances. This score should be known as the Paris version but isn't.

For the next performances in Munich in 1867 and Vienna in 1875 he made one major change by shortening the overture for Munich and effectively cutting it in half for Vienna. This score should be known as the Vienna version, but perversely is called the Paris version.

Tannhäuser: The Historical Person

There are several families Tannhäuser mentioned in documents written in different parts of the Holy Roman Empire. Historians are fairly certain that our hero Tannhäuser descended from a family of ministerial nobles (think of them as hereditary government employees) in Nördlingen.

Of that family, Siboto III of Tannhäuser lived at the court of Duke Frederick II of Austria and Styria until 1245. That year, he pawned all his lands, left Vienna and never returned there. In the Codex Manesse compiled in Zurich, he is depicted in the garb of the Teutonic Knights; based on this, historians believe he might have taken part in the Fifth Crusade, but this seems a non sequitur to me as there is no proof positive that he did. The grave of Siboto of Tannhäuser can be visited in Würzburg in the church of the Teutonic Knights.

Tannhäuser the bard is vouched for in the Codex Manesse and in a medieval song collection compiled in Jena called Codex J. The songs found in the Codex Manesse are traditional songs of courtly love but show a strong penchant for parody of the genre. Codex J contains only one song. In contrast to the songs in the codex Manesse, it is a spiritual prayer. Historians place all the songs into a time bracket dating from 1245 to 1265.

Tannhäuser: The Legend

It was the legend of Tannhäuser that Wagner built his opera on, and on the legend of the Singers’ Contest on Castle Wartburg (the latter sounds like a medieval version of the Eurovision Song Contest held in a castle). Both legends appear as ballads after 1430 but convey older oral story traditions.

Legend tells us that Tannhäuser entered the realm of the goddess Venus in her mountain of abode and remained there for a year. The mountain of Venus is narrated in the tradition of the Sid. Coming out of the lustful realm he was consumed with remorse and went on pilgrimage to Rome to ask for forgiveness from the Pope. But the Pope sent him packing with the declaration that salvation for Tannhäuser was as impossible as his crosier growing leaves.

Tannhäuser left Rome in despair. Three days after his departure, the crosier sprouted green leaves, and the Pope sent messengers after Tannhäuser to tell him of the good news. But when the messengers arrived, Tannhäuser already had reentered the realm of Venus.

It can be assumed that the legend is older than 1430 and might even date to before Tannhäuser’s lifetime with another protagonist in the title role. The Teutonic Knights entered the pagan kingdom of the Old Prussians in 1230 to convert its population by the sword. The Old Prussians were so happy about the new faith offered to them they chose the sword over conversion. The Teutonic Knights then took possession of the depopulated kingdom and founded an independent state.

Wagner built on this legend and the Singers’ Contest for the story-line of his opera. He not only had the original ballads to inspire him, but more elaborate inventions from the Brothers Grimm and other collectors, transcribers and inventors of folklore.

Tannhäuser: The Dilemma

With Richard Wagner, Tannhäuser becomes the eternally driven man; a divided personality between animal instinct and human convention; a traveler between earthly lust and divine love. This polarity spans the opera and defines the actions of the hero.

Living in the realm of Venus, he is surfeit with lust but excluded from humanity. He wishes for the return to the human realm and to enter a conventional lifestyle. He hungers after the chaste love of Elizabeth (the name is Richard Wagner’s nod towards Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Landgravine of Thuringia, who lived in Castle Wartburg from 1211 to 1227). Sexual freedom becomes a prison he wants to escape from.

Tannhäuser is allowed to leave the realm of Venus and reenters the world of humans. But its conventions and expectations become a prison to him, too. In rebellion and contempt, he sings a fervent song to Venus at the singer’s contest. He draws anger and envy from his colleagues and thus fails to conform to society’s perceived ideals.

Above all, Tannhäuser violates the unwritten rules by being openly committed to sensual passion, open to otherwise secretive and shadowy desires. For this sin he must atone in the eyes of society: Tannhäuser is a doomed soul, lost to humanity, expelled from society. His desperate pilgrimage to Rome should rectify that and reinstate him in society, but the Pope knows everything about righteousness and nothing about forgiveness. Tannhäuser is hit with full rejection. God’s – or rather society’s – forgiveness and absolution are not for the likes of him. He is and remains an outsider.

Despite this ostracism, Tannhäuser’s dilemma remains. Will the rejection by society drive him back into the realm of Venus, or will the pure love for Elizabeth win the day? Pure love, or rather convention, wins the day. Elizabeth is prepared to die for his soul’s redemption. Tannhäuser is redeemed, but dies, too. In life, he failed to find eternal, divine love. But there is the promise of life after death.

Tannhäuser: Did you know?

The first tenor to sing Tannhäuser was a failure. He was completely overwhelmed by the score and couldn't sing for days afterwards due to a sore throat. He was the reason for Richard Wagner to rewrite parts of the opera to make it more manageable.

The 750th anniversary of the death of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary heralded the beginning of the end for Eastern Germany. The mass congregation of citizens in her honor in Erfurt was the start of the protest marches ousting the communist regime.

Tannhäuser was a member of the Teutonic Knights, a cloistered order. As such, he was sporting a tonsure. Ever imagined Prince Charming with a tonsure?

The tonsure was regularly shaved – once a year for Christmas. The more fastidious would also shave it for Easter. Bathing coincided with shaving. Try not to imagine this while watching the opera.

Richard Wagner was obstinate, or maybe pig headed. He refused to move a ballet part from the first to the second act for the Paris performances. Members of the (all male) Jockey Club would boo and hiss throughout the second act in retaliation. Still eating dinner during the first act, they would make their entry for the second act, only to find that their mistresses had already had their moment of glory.

Emperor Napoleon III of France grew up in the German speaking part of Switzerland and was a regular officer in the Swiss army before returning to France and seizing power.

Further reading
Prophet of the Great War
Ambroise Louis Garneray
Irmingard Princess of Bavaria