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by Richard Wagner
Wagner, ca. 1840
GenreOpera in 3 acts
Native titleTannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg
TranslationTannhäuser and the Singers' Contest at Wartburg
LibrettistRichard Wagner
PremiereDresden Royal Opera,
Dresden, Germany
15 October 1845

Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (En: Tannhäuser and the Singers' Contest at Wartburg) is a three-act opera with words and music by Richard Wagner. It was Wagner's fifth opera. He worked on it between 1842 and 1845. It was first performed at the Dresden Royal Opera on 19 October 1845 with Wagner conducting. The opera was a success. It became hugely popular in Germany.

In 1859, Tannhäuser was the first Wagner opera to be performed in the United States of America. By 1861, the opera had been performed many times in Germany when Wagner was asked to revise the work for the Paris Opéra. Despite his best efforts, Wagner failed. He was not popular. Anti-Wagner riots broke out. He withdrew the work. It was not staged again in France until 1895. Meanwhile, the opera opened the second season of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in November 1884.

Background[change | change source]

Premiere of Richard Wagner's opera, Tannhäuser on 19th October 1845, with Joseph Tichatschek as Tannhäuser and Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient as Venus. Drawing by F. Tischbein (1845).

Wagner was in Paris completing The Flying Dutchman when he began thinking about writing another opera. A friend suggested Tannhäuser as a subject. Wagner did not like the tale. Back in Germany however, he gathered materials by Tieck, Heine, and others about Tannhäuser. Vacationing in Bohemia, he had a change of heart. He began preparing an outline for Tannhäuser. Returning home to Dresden, he immersed himself in the tale. He completed the opera in October 1845. He conducted the first performance that month at the Royal Opera House.

His Venus said, "You are a genius, but you write such eccentric stuff that it is impossible to sing." His Tannhäuser was completely baffled. The audience was puzzled. The reception was lukewarm. Wagner began revisions at once. The second performance played to a near empty house. In 1859, Wagner offered Tannhäuser to the Paris Opéra. They wanted it sung in French. They also wanted a ballet in the second act. This so the Jockey Club had time to finish dinner and arrive at the Opéra just in time to ogle the dancers. Wagner refused to move the ballet from the first act to the second act. There were complaints. Jockey Club members interrupted the performance whenever possible. It was a disaster.

The opera disappeared from the French stage for 34 years. A few years after the Jockey Club incident, Wagner began revising the Paris version. He produced a sophisticated sound version that was superior to the first draft. Though there are several set pieces in the opera, the opera is closer to Wagner's vision of complete independence from such set pieces. Tannhäuser is on the threshold of the leitmotif, and the diminishing of the sound power of the orchestra in favor of the sung word.

Sources[change | change source]

Wagner's sources for the opera are spread over 600 year time span. In 1391, and again at the beginning of the 15th century, tales were in circulation about a paradise within a German mountain and a traveler who idles with a Sybil before heading to Rome for the Pope's forgiveness. The "Song of Tannhäuser" of 1515 combines moralizing with the adventures of an historical Minnesinger named Danhuser, Tanhuser, or Tannenhauser. This Minnesinger's songs told of erotic love and its opposite, holy love.

Wagner was an insatiable reader, always on the alert for material that could be adapted to an opera. For Tannhäuser, he combined elements not only from traditional tales but material from C. J. L. Lukas's Essay (1838) on the character of Tannhäuser and Ludwig Tieck's Faithful Eckart (1799). Ludwig Bechstein's Thuringian Legends (1835) included the story of the song contest. Wagner was familiar with the song contest through E. T. A. Hoffmann's Serapion Brothers, Friedrich de la Motte-Fouque's drama The Singers Dispute in the Wartburg (1828), and Wagensil's Nuremberg Chronicle.

Roles[change | change source]

Last scene, Bayreuth Festspielehaus, 1930
  • Tannhäuser, a knight and Minnesinger - tenor
  • Venus - soprano
  • Elisabeth, niece of the Landgrave - soprano
  • Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia - bass
  • Wolfram von Eschenbach, a knight and Minnesinger - baritone
  • Walther von der Vogelweide, a knight and Minnesinger - tenor
  • Biterolf, a knight and Minnesinger - bass
  • Heinrich der Schreiber, a knight and Minnesinger - tenor
  • Reinmar von Zweter, a knight and Minnesinger - bass
  • Young shepherd - soprano
  • Four noble pages - trebles

Story of the opera[change | change source]

The historical Tannhäuser in the 15th century Codex Manesse

The story is about the struggle between sacred love and profane love, and redemption (salvation) through love. The story is based on the historical character of Tannhäuser, about whom very little is known except the myths about him. It is also about the myth of Venus, but it also deals with the medieval Minnesinger (minstrel). Half of the opera takes place in a historical setting, and half takes place in the mythological Venusberg.

Act 1. With the coming of Christianity, the old gods and goddesses of the ancient world were dispersed. Venus has been living in the Venusberg in Germany. Tannhäuser, a minstrel, has been passing his time with her. He has grown tired of his indulgent and jaded life. He longs to return to the world above. Venus releases him but predicts that he will someday return to her. The minstrel finds himself in the valley of the Wartburg, the home of his former love Elisabeth. He is discovered in prayer by the Landgrave and his knights. They welcome him. He returns to the castle with them.
Act 2. Elisabeth joyfully enters the castle's Hall of Song. She is thrilled Tannhäuser has returned. She renews her vows of love with him. Wolfram, Tannhäuser's friend, looks on sorrowfully. He loves Elisabeth, too. The Landgrave announces a song contest. Guests fill the Hall. The singers are to sing about the true nature of love. While the others sing of chaste and pure love, Tannhäuser sings of profane love. The guests are shocked. Elisabeth defends Tannhäuser. The Landgrave orders Tannhäuser to go to Rome and beg forgiveness of the Pope. The minstrel joins a band of pilgrims and leaves.
Act 3. Months have passed. Tannhäuser has not returned with the pilgrims. Elisabeth is heartbroken. Wolfram sings to the evening star. Wolfram finds Tannhäuser on a path to the castle. The Pope has not forgiven him because of his time with Venus. Tannhäuser despairs. Venus appears in a vision, ordering Tannhäuser to return to his old life. Wolfram whispers the name of Elisabeth. The vision disappears. A procession appears bearing the dead Elisabeth. Tannhäuser throws himself over her corpse and dies. Pilgrims appear announcing a miracle. The Pope's wooden staff has burst into bloom. Tannhäuser has been forgiven.

Criticism[change | change source]

Lotte Lehmann as Elisabeth

The critics took Wagner to task for his historical inaccuracies. First, the real Tannhauser was only a boy at the supposed time of the song contest. Secondly, they regarded Wagner's Elisabeth with scorn: Wagner had made the character an amalgamation of several historical women.

Production[change | change source]

Cuts to the original were made almost immediately because the singers were not capable of understanding and thus acting their roles. The Prelude to Act 3 was cut from 155 bars to 92. In the original final scene, neither Elisabeth or Venus appeared on stage. The audience was puzzled.

The original final scene was retained until the 13th performance in 1847. Wagner then recast the final pages to make Venus visible on stage. The Venusberg did not appear however. This new ending disturbed the audience because they were used to the older version. Wagner had also cut the pilgrim's chorus, further antagonizing the audience. Another version was made restoring the chorus.

Early productions[change | change source]


The first performance outside Dresden occurred at Weimar. This production showed that small theaters could also stage the opera. Other productions took place in Schwerin, Breslau, Prague, Wiesbaden, and other small houses. The opera played in New York in 1859. It played in London (in Italian) in 1876. In Vienna, Johann Strauss performed excerpts in 1853. The first Austrian staging occurred at Graz in 1854. Vienna mounted the opera in 1857. The opera was performed at the Vienna court opera in 1875. In 1860, the Paris Opera wanted the work in a revised version in French. Wagner made extensive revisions for Paris.

Popular numbers in the early years[change | change source]

  • Tannhäuser's song in praise of Venus
  • Pilgrims' Chorus
  • Wolfram's plea to Tannhäuser to return to the Minnesingers
  • Entrance of the Guests
  • Wolfram's song to the Evening Star

References[change | change source]

  • Sutcliffe, James Helme (1985), "Tannhäuser" ... my own death sentence, EMI Angel / EMI Records Limited, pp. 5–6
  • Boyden, Matthew (2002), The Rough Guide to Opera, Rough Guides Ltd/Penguin, pp. 260–261, ISBN 1-85828-749-9