Friday, October 21, 2011

Sunday Classics preview: Wagner sends amazing sounds reverberating around that valley in Thuringia


With the Wartburg, setting for the Song Contest of Act II of Wagner's Tannhäuser and the Song Contest at the Wartburg, seen on the mountaintop in the distance, this is something like the setting for Scene 2 of Act I -- but note Wagner's stage direction below. It's important for appreciating the intersection of the elements he brings together in this scene.

TRANSFORMATIONS NOS. 1 AND 2: From the Venusberg to the Thuringian valley, from the Shepherd's song to the Pilgrims' chorus
After an extended scene in which the goddess of love tries to persuade TANNHÄUSER to remain with her in the Venusberg, or Mount of Venus, and losing her grip finally tells him he can return to her for his salvation, he breaks free, declaring that his salvation lies elsewhere.

TANNHÄUSER: My salvation lies in Mary!

TANNHÄUSER, who has not left his position, suddenly finds himself transported to a beautiful valley. Blue sky, bright sunshine. To the right, in the background, the Wartburg. Through an opening in the valley on the left can be seen the Hörselberg. To the right, from halfway up the valley a mountain path leads from the direction of the Wartburg toward the foreground, where it then diverges to the side. In the same foreground is a shrine to the Virgin Mary, led up to by a slight rocky ledge. From the heights on the left is heard the sound of sheep bells. On a high rock sits a young shepherd with his pipe, looking toward the valley.

THE SHEPHERD: Dame Holda came forth from the mountain
to roam through field and meadow;
my ear caught a sound there so sweet,
my eye longed to behold.
[He plays.]
There I dreamt many a sweet dream,
and my eyes had scarcely opened when
there the sun shone warm.
May, May had come!
Now I gaily play my pipe.
May is here, the lovely May!

[From the direction of the Wartburg, a band of pilgrims approaches, singing. THE SHEPHERD plays his pipe.]
OLDER PILGRIMS: To Thee do I journey, Lord Jesus Christ,
for Thou art the pilgrims' hope!
Praise be to thee, Virgin sweet and pure.
Grant that our pilgrimage may prove propitious!
[THE SHEPHERD, hearing the song, stops playing his pipe and listens thoughtfully.]
Alas, the burden of my sins weighs me down.
I can endure it no longer;
I will know neither sleep nor rest therefore
and gladly choose toil and vexation.
At the sublime feast of clemency and grace
I will atone for my sins in humility;
blessed is he who truly belives:
he shall be saved through penitence and repentance.
THE SHEPHERD [as the pilgrims have reached the heights opposite him, calls out to them, waving his cap, loudly]: Good luck! Good luck for Rome!
Pray for my poor soul!
Wolfgang Windgassen (t), Tannhäuser; Else-Margrete Gardelli (s), the Shepherd; Bayreuth Festival (1962) Chorus and Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond. Philips, recorded live, 1962 [audio link]
Klaus König (t), Tannhäuser; Gabriele Sima (s), the Shepherd; Bavarian Radio Chorus, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, cond. EMI, recorded January 1985 [audio link]

by Ken

For once there may be some advantage in our only being able to hear, rather than see and hear, because somuch of this transformation, or rather series of transformations, between the scenes of Act I of Wagner's Tannhäuser and the Song Contest at the Wartburg is imagined in sound. Oh, Wagner cared a great deal about the stage transformations too, but the aural ones may be easier to get right.

To back up for a moment, two weeks ago we had the first part (preview here and main post here) of what I explained would be a three-part series in which we're taking a selective listen to the piece from the vantage point of Thuringia's No. 2 Minnesinger (i.e., singer of love), Wolfram von Eschenbach. In those posts we plunged right into Act II for the Song Contest itself, focusing on Wolfram's contest song. This week we back up to Act I and hear how the No. 1 Singer, Tannhäuser himself, made his dramatic return just in time for the contest.
If works of art aren't meant to be taken personally, I can't imagine what the point of them might be. And for each of Wagner's ten mature operas I've spent my share of time reflecting Why I Especially Love This Piece.

At the moment we're preparing for the second of three installments devoted to listening to the third of those ten operas, Tannhäuser and the Song Contest at the Wartburg, from the somewhat unorthodox vantage point of the the second-most-esteemed of the Minnesänger (singers of love), Wolfram von Eschenbach. We plunged right into Act II and the Song Contest itself, focusing specifically on Wolfram's contest song. This week we back up to Act I and hear how the No. 1 Singer, Heinrich Tannhäuser came to be reunited with his fellow Singers after his long and mysterious absence from Thuringia.

And for once there is some real advantage to being forced to just listen, because in Act I of Tannhäuser Wagner performs a series of the most astonishing landscape paintings -- in fact, transformations -- ever done in music. And in the transformation from the Venusberg to the Thuringian valleyscape Wagner accomplished one of the supreme transformations in music, which he proceeded to refine with a series of further soundscapes he sent ricocheting around that valley.

Before we proceed, you might want to take another listen to the sequence above: the transformation from the Venusberg to the piping Shepherd's song, and then the introduction of the pilgrim's chorus advancing from the Wartburg at the rear of the stage to the mountaintop shrine to the Virgin in the foreground.



Part 1: What if Wagner had called it Wolfram von Eschenbach and the Song Contest at the Wartburg?
Act II and the Song Contest
"Sneak" preview and main post

Part 2: Continuing our look at Tannhäuser from the vantage point of Wolfram von Eschenbach --
Circling back to Act I
Preview and main post

Part 3: Finally we reach Act III --
Wolfram's vigil over Elisabeth
Preview and main post

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