Recorded on 04/06/2005, uploaded on 03/21/2009
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
Like Der fliegende Holländer, Wagner’s operatic setting of the legend of Tannhäuser was largely based on Heinrich Heine’s telling of the story in the poem Elementargeister. Alongside Heine’s mocking poem, Wagner also drew material from E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Singer’s Contest and Ludwig Tieck’s Faithful Eckhart and Tannhäuser. The prose draft of the opera was written during the summer of 1842 and by the following summer, Wagner had completed the libretto. Composition of the music began in 1843 and was completed by 1845.
Unlike Wagner’s other operas, Tannhäuser exists in two versions. The opera first premiered in Dresden in October 1845. The performance was hardly a resounding success and Wagner immediately set to revising the score, which was later published in 1860. In 1861, with the help of Pauline von Metternich, wife of the Austrian ambassador to Paris, Wagner attempted to stage the opera in Paris, which at the time was the center of operatic activity in Europe, in order to reestablish is career following his political exile from Germany. Several changes were made to the opera to prepare it for its Parisian premiere, including the libretto being translated into French. However, one revision was made as a precondition for its performance at the Paris Opéra, namely, the introduction of a ballet. However, true to his form, Wagner bucked tradition by inserting the ballet, titled as a bacchanale, in Act I where it would better fit the story, instead of its conventional place in Act II. Despite these efforts of the composer, the Paris premiere of Tannhäuser was effectively sabotaged. A group of wealthy members of society, known as the Jockey Club, who, on the first account, disliked Pauline von Metternich and furthermore, of all things, objected to the placing of the ballet in Act I, successfully disrupted performances of the opera with several disruptions lasting up to fifteen minutes. Wagner, inevitably, pulled the opera after only the third performance. This setback ended his attempts to conquer Europe’s operatic capital.
The aria “O, du mein holder Abendstern” is sung by the character Wolfram at the opening of the second scene in Act III. Elisabeth, who loves Tannhäuser, pleads with passing pilgrims for news of him. Unable to learn anything, she returns dejected to the Wartburg. Wolfram, on the other hand, loves her faithfully from afar. He senses her impending death and sings to the evening star (Abendstern) to protect her. Wolfram’s aria begins in G minor with the words “Wie Todesahnung Dämm’rung decht die Lande” (“Like death’s dark shadow night her gloom extended”). Underneath, Wolfram’s foreboding words is a harp accompaniment, enriched with the sonorous tones of the trombones and tuba. When he looks on the star in the evening sky, the key shifts to B-flat major and the accompaniment to shimmering tremolos in the violins. At the words from which the aria takes its title, the key of G major is finally attained. However, the abundant use of borrowed harmonies from the prior G minor replaces the warmth and consolation that would normally accompany the key with a sense of impending doom. Later in Act III, the death of Elisabeth and her faithful love for Tannhäuser secure his forgiveness. Joseph DuBose
Like foreboding of death,
dusk veils the land;
it covers the valley
with swarthy raiment.
The soul, which aspires to lofty heights,
is made uneasy in the face of its flight
through darkness and horror.
There you shine,
oh loveliest of stars;
you send forth your gentle light from afar.
You, dear ray, part the gloomy dusk;
you point the way out of the valley.
Oh you, my lovely evening star,
I have always greeted you so gladly.
From the heart which she never betrayed
greet her, when she passes by you--
when she hovers over the valley of earth,
to become, yonder, a blessed angel.
Courtesy of International Music Foundation.
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