WAGNER – Overture to Tannhäuser
WHAT TO LISTEN FOR: To realize his conception of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk—as a totally integrated work of art—Wagner wrote his own librettos. These were generally reinterpretations of German medieval history or myth. The holiness of pure love and its transfiguring power are recurring themes in his dramas, and they are the overriding themes in the story of Tannhäuser, which combines an actual figure from German history—a Minnesänger named Tannhäuser—with a virtuous maiden and a goddess who vie for his love against a backdrop of myth, magic, and a singing contest. Much like Wagner (who was destructively promiscuous in his personal life), Tannhäuser is a gifted troubadour but fatally attracted to the profane. The opera limns the progress of his initial downfall and his miraculous redemption.
We hear the entire course of Tannhäuser’s journey in the opera’s overture, which opens with a thrillingly sustained crescendo: a passage representing pilgrims approaching ever louder on their journey of devotion to Rome. But as their majestic chorale fades into the distance, we hear the skittering, orgiastic music of “Venusberg,” the mythic realm where Tannhäuser is lured into temptation. Tannhäuser’s story is one of sin and repentance; at its end, he, too, sings the pilgrims’ hymn, and is redeemed in death.