Friday 17 December 2010

Owing the World a Tannhäuser

Sándor Liezen-Mayer,  Venus and Tannhäuser, c.1875 (Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest)

 (originally published as a programme note for the Royal Opera's 2010 production of Tannhäuser)

‘R. slept well and has decided to have a massage only once a day.’ Thus Cosima Wagner opened her diary entry from Venice for 23 January 1883, but twenty days before Richard’s death. We progress through Cosima’s characteristic desire ‘not to thwart or overburden the cherished workings of his mind,’ a ride to the Piazzetta during which Wagner extols Bach’s fugues, luncheon, visitors, R. yet again reading Gobineau, to: ‘Chat in the evening, brought to an end by R. with the “Shepherd’s Song” and “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Tannhäuser. He says he still owes the world a Tannhäuser.’

This was not grouchy dismissal of an early work from an ailing composer. It was, if anything, quite the opposite: a vote of confidence, a sense of a more ideal instantiation of a Tannhäuser-in-itself, were only he vouchsafed the time. Wagner did not speak of other dramas like this; he did not still owe the world a Tristan, though he worried that the existing drama would drive audiences mad. Nor, with the partial exception of The Flying Dutchman, do we fret about which ‘versions’ of other dramas to perform, though occasionally we administer the odd, unwelcome – welcome, in Rienzi’s case – excision, or, for Lohengrin, reinstate excised material. We talk about the ‘Dresden’ and ‘Paris’ versions of Tannhäuser. That is harmless, if slightly misleading, for what was performed at the 1845 Dresden premiere and the 1861Paris production led to subsequent revisions prior to publication in 1860 and 1875 respectively. Stage directions differed even in Dresden, for what was only portrayed musically in 1845 – the third-act re-appearance of Venus and Elisabeth’s funeral cortège – was staged at the 1847 revival. (Fetishisers of Wagner’s instructions, kindly take note.) Nevertheless, the principal distinctions nevertheless remain those between ‘Dresden’ and ‘Paris’, however construed. To understand what is at stake, let us return to the world in which Wagner conceived his ‘great Romantic opera’.

(Aubrey Beardsley, Frontispiece for Venus and Tannhäuser, 1895)

Ironically, Wagner’s impetus for the ‘Dresden Tannhäuser’ seems to have come to him in Paris in 1841. His autobiography tells us that, having completed The Flying Dutchman and longing to return to Germany, he came, ‘quite by chance’, upon a chapbook about the Venusberg. Stewart Spencer’s detective work identified this Volksbuch as Ludwig Bechstein’s Der Sagenschatz und die Sagenkreise des Thüringerlandes, a collection of Thuringian legends. Wagner drew, consciously or otherwise, upon various contemporary treatments of the twin tales of Tannhäuser and the Wartburg song contest, Romantic (ETA Hoffmann, Ludwig Tieck, the Brothers Grimm) and avowedly post-Romantic (Heine’s ironic treatment). But Bechstein’s collection and subsequently a paper by Christian Theodor Ludwig Lucas, identifying the Wartburg’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen with the minstrel Tannhäuser, were crucial in bringing the two stories together: ‘incorrectly’ for the folklorist, fruitfully for Wagner.

Tannhäuser’s subsequent story, plot and history, encompasses a dramatic tension mirroring and responding to that conflation. The work’s proper title is Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (‘Tannhäuser and the Song Contest on the Wartburg’); in that und – the agglomerative ‘and’, not the subtitle’s alternative ‘or’ – there lies as much trouble as in the fabled und of Tristan und Isolde. Furthering that tension is another conflict, based in the array of sources from which he drew: that between courtly love (the Minne of the Minnesänger) and sensual fulfilment (Venus). Both are empty and hypocritical and both are ultimately shamed by the mirror of honest chastity held up to them by another legendary figure, St Elisabeth of Hungary. There is historical disjuncture in this further addition, since the historical Elisabeth, born in 1207, was a mere babe-in-arms at the time of the Wartburg contest, if it ever happened. Wagner’s way, however, is to make connections, to explore and to contest them – and to pursue issues left unresolved in subsequent works. What is particular about Tannhäuser is that he does this not only within the same work, not only by extension to subsequent works, but in different versions of the same work. A related contest emerges between France and Germany – or Paris and Dresden, a tale of two cities.

Before taking the story forward, we should take another step back, to Wagner’s second opera, Das Liebesverbot (‘The Ban on Love’), which he wrote under the spell of ‘Young Germany’, a literary movement including Heine and Wagner’s friend, Heinrich Laube. To quote Wagner’s Autobiographical Sketch (penned 1842-3, whilst at work on Tannhäuser), his youthful opera pits ‘… in the spirit of [Laube’s novel] Young Europe … openly expressed sensuality … [against] puritan hypocrisy’. Loosely basing his plot on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, albeit transferred from Vienna to Palermo, Wagner savages the king of Sicily’s humourless viceroy, Friedrich: a German, be it noted. Not only does he clamp down upon citizens’ enjoyment, closing taverns, banning carnivals and the exercise of men’s – and women’s – natural sexual urges; he transgresses his own prohibitions and is eventually caught out at his own game. The concluding carnival in which citizens celebrate their victory might justifiably be considered Wagner’s first dramatic treatment of revolution – and a rare example of unalloyed revolutionary success.

Wagner’s miserable spell in Paris, having to endure the success of meretricious grand opéra whilst his own work went unperformed, and only narrowly escaping the debtor’s prison, made him rethink his preference for (Latin) sensualism, if not over German hypocrisy, then over some form of superior, if inchoate, German values. (In this as much else, Wagner would be echoed by Pierre Boulez, who announced in 1966, the year he first conducted at Bayreuth, his going ‘on strike against French musical officialdom,’ Paris having become ‘a capital in which music has become a ludicrous appendage’. It was ‘no secret that I have gone to Germany, having been unable to achieve anything on any decent scale in France.’) From Dresden, where Wagner was appointed Saxon court Kapellmeister, sensualism now appeared as hypocritical as the repression inflicted by Prince Metternich’s German Confederation upon Young Germany, resulting in Laube’s imprisonment. In his 1851 A Communication to My Friends, Wagner wrote that he had felt compelled to seek satisfaction in something nobler, something chaste and yet loving. However, he could only conceive of such love as unworthy of this world and necessary entailing death. In Tannhäuser, Wagner has not crossed to the dark side of Friedrich and Biedermeier hypocrisy; he has transformed its erstwhile foe, sensualism, into his present twin foe. Thus, the Minnesänger and Venus are both rejected by Tannhäuser; both he and Elisabeth express truer love in death.

(Codex Manasse, Der Tannhäuser, Zurich c.1300-c.1340)

Where Heine had ironised the legend, Wagner seemed partially to have re-Romanticised it. This was unlikely to satisfy him for long, if ever, any more than the failure of Tannhäuser’s successor as charismatic hero, Lohengrin, was likely to be accepted with a shrug as just the way things were. The 1849 failure of revolution in Dresden and Wagner’s subsequent Zurich exile further engaged him in wholehearted re-evaluation. Both catalyst to and symptom of Wagner’s rethinking was his immersion in the writings of Ludwig Feuerbach, who became ‘for me the proponent of the ruthlessly radical liberation of the individual from the bondage of conceptions associated with the belief in traditional authority’. Echoing Feuerbach’s Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, Wagner propounded his new aesthetic principles in theoretical works such as The Artwork of the Future, dedicated to Feuerbach. Part of this liberation was re-celebration of ‘sensualism’, the word Sinnlichkeit a constant refrain in Feuerbach’s writing. Another aspect, closely related, was denial of transcendence. Man was impoverished by alienating his most noble qualities to an external deity; true religion would restore them to man. No wonder, then, that Wagner felt compelled to stress, in A Communication to My Friends, that the Christian framework of his earlier works merely reflected their mediæval hue; their message was not Christian. It is difficult, moreover, to find fault with that. Tannhäuser is not saved by the Pope, who has condemned Tannhäuser’s Venusberg sojourn as having placed him beyond redemption. Salvation, through the intercession of a true saint, Elisabeth, is signalled by the miracle of what the Pope had thought impossible, his staff sprouting leaves. No one would have been more surprised, nor, one suspects, annoyed, than the head of the Roman Catholic Church, an institution that consistently provoked inveterate hostility from Wagner, even when he became more conciliatory to his youthful Saxon Lutheranism. Considering Tannhäuser, Wagner must now have regretted a missed opportunity to extol healthy sensuality, which would have vanquished the Minnesänger, the Venusberg, and transference of love to a world beyond.

However, the time for Feuerbach would pass; or rather, Wagner needed to supplement him with abnegation. When Wagner’s friend in Swiss exile, the poet Georg Herwegh, himself an old Young German, fetched him Feuerbach’s Essence of Religion, Wagner claimed that it had ‘scared me off by the monotony of its title alone … I closed the book with a bang before his very eyes.’ Herwegh soon cannily introduced Wagner to the world-denying, though still atheistic, gospel of Arthur Schopenhauer, which might once again seem to give the upper hand to the Dresden Tannhäuser. Yet Schopenhauer would both be celebrated and partially negated in the eroticism of Tristan, to which Wagner soon turned.

And so, when Napoleon III extended his invitation to stage Tannhäuser in Paris, Wagner had rethought his rethinking several times. He might just have left an old work as it was – though he also Tristan-ised The Flying Dutchman a little – but a Parisian opera must include a ballet. Wagner thus extended the Venusberg Music, with a frustrated and frustrating ‘sensualism’ uncannily reminiscent of his own intellectual struggles. The castanet-led straining towards unsuccessful climax certainly does their work in dramatising the dilemma. Disruption from the Jockey Club, accustomed to skipping the first act for dinner and arriving at the beginning of the second to leer at their favourite danseuses, conformed to and confirmed Wagner’s abhorrence of Parisian ways. It also put paid to the production after three attempts. The ‘Paris Tannhäuser’ nevertheless endured, though production history has witnessed Dresden and Paris do continuing battle.

Proponents of Dresden point to its successor’s stylistic incongruities, claiming the new music, written in the aftermath of Tristan, sounds hopelessly out of place in a work of 1840s Wagner. Consider, however, what Wagner added. Walther’s Wartburg solo was removed on practical grounds – the tenor’s inability to sing it – but the most important transformations lie in the opening two scenes. Feuerbach and Tristan have their say. Venus’s sensualism sounds more alluring, more richly upholstered. She becomes a more interesting character, less readily dismissed as merely ‘Parisian’. Her attempt to win back Tannhäuser looks forward to Kundry’s attempted seduction of Parsifal and attests to Wagner’s struggles. There is no resolution, but Venus becomes more of a match than before for the saintly Elisabeth. Wagner’s self-criticism is dramatised and itself criticised.

Moreover, the critique never ends. Listen to the Venusberg music and you will hear not only echoes of Tristan but intimations of Götterdämmerung: Gutrune’s music, the harmonic potion of Siegfried’s amnesia in the brewing. Whence does this come? Boulez has pointed out that the triviality of Siegfried and Gutrune’s pairing, as opposed to the hero’s true destiny with Brünnhilde, is marked by a recollection of opéra comique, in the particular guise of Daniel-François-Esprit Auber, still honoured upon the Palais Garnier’s façade. ‘A heartless fellow, Auber,’ Wagner told Cosima, ‘but a genius,’ quite a compliment when you think what he said about Meyerbeer, although his presence would continue to be felt too. Though Wagner shuns and unmasks Paris, he cannot but return there – similarly with Tannhäuser. Imagine what a ‘Venice version’ might have been – and was not Venice culturally closer to Paris than to Dresden? Would Wagner, had he not already accomplished this in Kundry, have presaged the modern stage director’s fancy of eliding Venus and Elisabeth?

Wagner may, then, have owed the world a Tannhäuser but the work’s very nature conspired against ultimate conclusion. Indeed, its ‘incompletion’ may render it one of Wagner’s most forward-looking statements. What would characterise for many the predicament and also the uncompromising virtue of the modernist artwork, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron its musico-dramatic exemplar, was as present in a sense in this product of Young Germany as another, Georg Büchner’s fragmentary Woyzeck. The chilling, non-concluding halt to which Berg would call his Wozzeck is, however, a related tale for another evening.