Literary Sources for Richard Wagner's Stage Works

Major source materials by opera:

a. Early works:

  • Die Feen (The Fairies) is based on Gozzi's comedy 'La donna serpente' (1762).
  • Das Liebesverbot (Forbidden Love) is based on Shakespeare's 'Measure for Measure' (1604).
  • Rienzi, or the Last of the Tribunes is based on the play by Mary Russell Mitford (1828) and the novel by Edward Bulwer Lytton (1835).

b. 'Dutchman':

Despite what he said about having heard the tale from Baltic sailors, Wagner's initial inspiration seems to have been Heinrich Heine's story, 'The Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski', 1834.

c. 'Tannhäuser':

It would appear that Wagner's main source was Ludwig Bechstein's 'Der Sagenschatz und die Sagenkreise des Thüringerlandes', 1835. Another source was C.T.L. Lucas' 'Ueber den Krieg von Wartburg', 1838. Neither of these books were historically accurate. Heine's less than respectful ballad about Tannhäuser was probably the cause of Wagner's initial interest in the subject.

d. 'Lohengrin':

Wolfram von Eschenbach, 'Parzival' (ca. 1200). Wagner took the legend of Loherangrin (sic) from the last section of Wolfram's poem. This was supplemented by other medieval poems about the Swan Knight.

e. 'The Nibelung's Ring':

A detailed study of Wagner's sources for the 'Ring' and his background reading can be found in 'Richard Wagner and the Nibelungs', by Elizabeth Magee, Oxford 1990. Deryck Cooke's 'I Saw the World End' is a good, but incomplete, introduction to the subject. Major sources for the 'Ring' appear to have included:

  • Das Nibelungenlied, an early 13th century epic poem in Middle High German. There are several editions available in English. Wagner studied various German editions by Pfizer, Simrock and Vollmer respectively.
  • Volsungasaga, or 'The Saga of the Volsungs', originally in Old Norse. There are several editions available in English. 'Volsungasaga' supplied many elements of the 'Ring' mythus, including the descent of Siegfried from Volsung (Wälse), his horse Grane, his sword, and the magic potion which wipes out his memories of Brünnhilde. Wagner also studied other ON sagas, such as (probably) 'Thidrik (or Dietrich) of Bern's Saga'.
  • Several poems from the Elder Edda, or 'Poetic Edda'. The definitive reference for this collection of Old Icelandic poems is the critical edition by Ursula Dronke, with parallel text in ON and English. Other (cheaper) editions are available; but please note that the W.H. Auden text is a paraphrase, rather than a literal translation. Wagner studied various German editions of the poems (see Appendix C of Elizabeth Magee's book for details of which poems and editions he read and when).
  • The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturleson, also known as 'Snorri's Edda'. There are several editions available in English. Wagner also referred to Snorri's 'Heimskringla'. It is likely that he also consulted the 'Historia Danica' of Saxo Grammaticus (which has been translated into English by Hilda Ellis Davidson, as 'The History of the Danes').
  • Various books on Germanic myth and folklore by the brothers Grimm, including their 'Fairy Tales' (Märchen), 'German Sagas' (Deutsche Sagen), J. Grimm's 'German Mythology' (Deutsche Mythologie) and W. Grimm's 'Heroic Sagas' (Heldensage).
  • As well as the Nibelungenlied and the Sigurd Fafnirsbane poems of the Edda, various later versions of the story of Siegfried, including 'The Song of Horny Siegfried' (it's a reference to his thick skin!) or 'Das Lied vom Hürnen Seyfrid' and (probably) Fouqué's 'Sigurd the Dragon- killer' (Sigurd der Schlangentödter).

f. 'Tristan and Isolde':

It is generally held that Wagner's main source for the story was the 'Tristan' of Gottfried von Strassburg. Other sources of inspiration behind 'Tristan und Isolde' included 'Hymns to Night' (Hymnen an die Nacht) by Novalis, 1799.

g. 'Mastersingers':

Wagner's initial source concerning the Mastersingers was Gervinus's 'History of German National Literature', 1826. He also made extensive use of Wagenseil's book 'Von der Meister-Singer Holdseligen Kunst' of 1691.

h. 'Parsifal':

In addition to Wolfram von Eschenbach's 'Parzival', the following diverse works provided inspiration for characters and events in 'Parsifal':

  • Chrétien de Troyes' Le Roman de Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal (Perceval or the Story of the Grail). Can be found in modern French and English editions; make sure you get one with the Continuations.
  • The anonymous Perlesvaus, or the 'High History of the Grail'. There is an English edition by Nitze, Jenkins and Atkinson, and a more recent one by Nigel Bryant.
  • The story of Peredur, which Wagner found in the Breton collection of de la Villemarque, but which is more readily available to English- speaking readers in translations from the Welsh 'Mabinogion'.
  • Also anonymous, Le Roman d'Alexandre, 12th century poem. One source for Klingsor's flower maidens -- for their Indian sources, see Suneson's monograph.
  • Heinrich Heine's poem, Atta Troll, is one of several sources that appear to have inspired Wagner in developing the character of Kundry. In this case, with his account of the princess Herodias.
  • The tale of Barlaam and Josaphat, attributed to St. John of Damascus and known to Wagner in a German translation made by Rudolf von Ems in about 1325. The attempted seduction of the saintly Josaphat, on the orders of a sorceror, can be seen as the model for the attempted seduction of Parsifal. The return of the hero to his first spiritual teacher, now a hermit in the wilderness, is another feature of this tale that is also found in Wagner's drama.
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