My brother Paul, of blessed memory, hated Tannhäuser. He said there was “too much Jesus in it.” I haven’t seen it since th 2012 Bayreuth production (since mercifully withdrawn) and I was happy to have another look during the recent Met revival of the boring and pretty Otto Schenck production.
Tannhäuser is the second of the three “middle period” Wagner operas (the others are Dutchman and Lohengrin) before he burst forth with the great creativity of the Ring and Tristan that changed the course of music and theatre. But there are seeds of his genius here, especially in the use of chromatic harmonies to support chromatic melodic lines (that is, melodies based on notes that are strictly sequential, using both the white and black keys, like C-C#-D-Eb-E-F-F#-G).
The second theme in the opening overture is an example. The first melody is traditional and the harmony sounds like a straightforward protestant hymn. The second melody is an octave skip up and then two chromatic notes downwards, and the harmony is the kind of thing Mahler and Strauss would write a half century later.
Even more obvious, and a testament to how much chromaticism went mainstream, is one of the “hits” of the opera — the Prayer to the Evening Star in Act III. After an opening recitative, like the old school of opera writing, the baritone sings a song whose main theme is an interval of a perfect fifth, followed by seven sequential chromatic notes downwards to the first tone. The harmony that fits these seven notes is to die for. It was an evolutionary step, and very soon was recognized as a show piece and part of mainstream classical music.
The story of Tannhäuser is a microcosm of Wagner’s own life — head in the clouds and loins in a woman, feeling guilty while seeking pleasure. The action starts off in Venusburg, a Kingdom where all everyone does all day is pleasure each other. Knowing what sells, Wagner starts the show off with 15 minutes or so of ballet depicting such antics, before a single word is spoken. Modern audiences have grown tired of flesh, and the Met production’s depiction of this orgy is neutral, anachronistic and fake, like too many of the pre-Gelb productions. Tannhäuser says he’s grown tired of flesh, too, and wants to return to the earth. “My redemption lies with the Virgin Mary,” he says.
Trouble is, on earth Tannhäuser can’t handle people’s hypocrisy about sex, and during a song contest about love, everyone is noble and chivalrous until Tannhäuser sings about stuff you only learn from Venus. Chastened by his virginal and unapproachable love-object Elizabeth, he undertakes to seek forgiveness from the Pope, of all people. “To Rome,” he says.
His is disappointed here, too, when the umpty-ump year old virginal pontiff refuses redemption. What’s Tannhäuser to do? He finds redemptive agency in the Platonic love of the virginal love-object Elizabeth, now unfortunately deceased. The moral of the story is that salvation is to be found neither in sex nor in religion, but in the experience of loving another human being, and being loved in return.
Now, Nat King Cole would be the first to point out that there’s nothing wrong with any of this. Takes a while for Wagner to say it, but as I say there’s much to admire in the music, and the music that’s not so admirable is nevertheless loud (i.e. the onstage trumpets in Act II). But my sister, who took upon herself the duties of my Wagner companion since Paul’s death, summed up her reaction: “I’m with Paul on this.”)
(For those in New York City, don’t miss the Wagner Society’s seminar on Tannhauser, Sunday October 25. See details here.)