program notes by composition > O > Overture to "Tannhäuser"

Overture to Tannhäuser

Richard Wagner/trans. Mark Hindsley

The opera, written in 1845, is based on the German legends of Tannhäuser and the song contest at Wartburg. It centers on the struggle between sacred and profane love, and redemption through love.

The overture deals with the struggle between earthly love and that born in Heaven.

It opens with the song of the pilgrims, growing louder asit draws near, then receding. Gloaming creeps on; the last of the pilgrims’ chant dies away. Night falls and magic apparitions appear; a rosy mist arises, with jubilant songs; we feel the motion of a mad whirling dance; these are the bewitchments of the Venusberg.

Lured on by the tempting vision, a manly figure approaches; it is Tannhäuser, the minnesinger (troubadour); his proud, exultant love song rings out in challenge. He is answered by wild cries; the rosy cloud enwraps him more closely; intoxicating perfume overwhelms his senses.

And now, in the enchanted twilight, appears to his entranced vision, the figure of a woman, unspeakably lovely. He hears a voice, tremulously sweet, like the call of the sirens; it is Venus herself who rises before him.

A wild bacchanal, the maddest of dances, then with a rushing sound the revelers disperse. Only an awesome murmur like the whirring of wings hovers over the spot where the spell of the unholy enchantment has worked.

Above this murmuring returns the pilgrim song, gathering volume in a song of triumph; in the fierce conflict against the senses, the spirit has won the victory.

Richard Wagner (1813–1883) was a German composer, theatre director, polemicist, and conductor who is primarily known for his operas. He revolutionized opera through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk ("total work of art"), by which he sought to synthesize the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, with music subsidiary to drama. His compositions are notable for their complex textures, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs — musical phrases associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements. His advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centers, greatly influenced the development of classical music.

Until his final years, Wagner's life was characterized by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors. His controversial writings on music, drama and politics have attracted extensive comment in recent decades, especially where they express antisemitic sentiments. The effect of his ideas can be traced in many of the arts throughout the 20th century; their influence spread beyond composition into conducting, philosophy, literature, the visual arts and theatre.

Last updated on November 17, 2017 by Palatine Concert Band