Richard Wagner’s 1850 opera, Lohengrin, is based on medieval German legend. The fairy tale story involves the distressed Elsa (unfairly accused of murdering her brother, the rightful heir to the kingdom) and Lohengrin, a disguised Knight of the Holy Grail who comes to her aid on a boat drawn by a swan.
Wagner’s Prelude to the first act of Lohengrin is a dreamlike kaleidoscope of orchestral color. It begins in the highest register of the orchestra with a shimmering A major chord. This single, floating chord is a blur of shifting color and light, created by the alternating and overlapping sonorities of the strings and winds. In this magical music, the familiar instruments of the orchestra seem to dissolve into new, unidentifiable celestial sounds.
The Prelude unfolds as a gradual cosmic crescendo. As new instrumental voices enter, the theme takes on increasing nobility. In the context of the opera, this process symbolizes the angelic descent of the Holy Grail to Earth. Endless sonic waves crest and fall, altering our perception of time. A transfiguring harmonic shift opens the door to the Prelude’s majestic dramatic peak. Its afterglow fades into a passage filled with quiet tension and mystery (7:28) in which the violins in the upper register descend as the bass rises. The Prelude closes as it began with a kaleidoscopic A major chord.
Here is Karl Böhm’s 1981 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic:
- Wagner: Lohengrin, WWV 75 – Prelude To Act I, Karl Böhm, Vienna Philharmonic Amazon
Featured Image: Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria