In a January 1841 essay, Richard Wagner set forth his conception of the opera overture. He described this orchestral curtain-raiser as creating “a musical artwork entire in itself and providing a sense of the opera’s argument through the interweaving of thematic materials drawn from the opera to follow.”
Wagner’s Overture to the opera, Tannhäuser, completed four years later, follows this model. In the story, based on German medieval legend, the knight, Tannhäuser, is pulled between the pleasures of earthly love and lust (represented by the goddess Venus) and the redemptive love of sacred devotion (represented by the princess Elisabeth). In program notes for a concert in May of 1873, Wagner described the way this drama is encapsulated in the Overture:
At first the orchestra introduces us to the ‘Pilgrims’ Chorus’ alone. It approaches, swells to a mighty outpouring, and finally passes into the distance.—Twilight: dying echoes of the chorus.—As night falls, magic visions show themselves. A rosy mist swirls upward, sensuously exultant sounds reach our ears, and the blurred motions of a fearsomely voluptuous dance are revealed.
This is the seductive magic of the Venusberg, which appears by night to those whose souls are fired by bold, sensuous longings. Lured by the tempting visions, the slender figure of a man draws near: it is Tannhäuser, the minstrel of love. Proudly he sings his jubilant chant of love, exultantly and challengingly, as if to force the voluptuous magic to come to him…
The Overture leads directly into the opera’s first scene, where Tannhäuser is surrounded by the naiads, sirens, and nymphs of Venusberg. In the concert version, we are left with a final statement of the majestic “Pilgrims’ Chorus” chorale in the trombones.
This concert recording from April 2022 features the Frankfurt Radio Symphony and conductor Alain Altinoglu:
- Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic
- Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic
- Giuseppe Sinopoli, Philharmonia Orchestra Chorus of the Royal Operahouse, Covent Garden (complete opera)
Featured Image: a set design for Act III of Tannhäuser by Max and Otthold Brückner