The Problem with Tannhäuser

The basic problem and what caused it

You might not have noticed it, but there is a basic problem with Wagner's Tannhäuser. The problem with Tannhäuser is that the opera is broken and even Wagner himself could not mend it. The opera is broken for three reasons:

1. Haste. Wagner was in too much of a hurry to get a new opera ready for performance in Dresden, where he was working as (assistant) Kapellmeister. The surviving copies of the first (Stage 1) score reveal a raw and unfinished opera, in words and music. The first performance met a cool reception and the press were dismissive. The Dresden audience could not make any sense of the new opera, neither musically or dramatically. Wagner had many good ideas but he had not thought them through. There were issues to be resolved: Wagner repeatedly returned to his score and tried to resolve these issues (see the Postscript below, for a summary of the Dresden changes).

Problems with the singers forced him, from one of the earliest performances on, to make cuts that he later regretted. It was not until 1851, six years after the first performance, that he had a score that the composer regarded as completed. He tried and failed, for almost a decade, to get the "Stage 2" score (of what we now call the "Dresden version") published. Meanwhile, opera houses were performing the opera, to Wagner's increasing annoyance, using the original libretto and score, that the composer now disowned. In my view, there is nothing wrong with the "Dresden version", except perhaps the ending (see below), but it has been eclipsed by the "Paris version".

2. The rewrite. Some of Wagner's politically influential supporters secured him a performance of the opera in Paris, by imperial command. Now, at last, he could get the score published (in 1860). But as soon as it reached the printers, Wagner wanted to rewrite the first half of act one, and to make further changes to other scenes. He could see weaknesses in the original "Venusberg scene", partly the result of his having written the role of Venus for a soprano of limited abilities, although a great actress, Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient. With the original tenor, Tichatschek, he had the opposite case: a tenor with a good voice but no acting ability. So for the Paris Opéra, Wagner rewrote the Venusberg scene in his Tristan style and he changed the end of the overture and the ballet that leads into the first scene. The result, in the "Stage 3" score, was a glaring inconsistency of style. At the end of scene 2, when Tannhäuser is magically transported from the underground realm of Venus, the music changes from something that might have been part of Tristan und Isolde to something more like Weber's Der Freischütz. When the Venusberg is recalled by the orchestra in the later acts, it is the music of the Dresden Venusberg that returns. This stylistic inconsistency could only be resolved by Wagner rewriting the entire opera, which he was not willing to do. So he spent the next 14 years tinkering with the score. Many people accept the inconsistency of style, with the argument that the music of the Venusberg should be different from that of the Wartburg.

3. The ending. For several of Wagner's canonical operas, the composer himself had issues with their conclusion. With Der fliegende Holländer, after completing the work he rewrote the ending. In the case of Götterdämmerung, he rewrote the final scene several times and ended up in discarding the concluding lines, saying that their meaning would be clear from what the orchestra played. Where Tannhäuser is concerned, at the earliest performances the audience were confused by the ending. What happens to Elisabeth? Why does she have to die? How exactly has he been saved? The sight of a distant Venusberg on the painted scenery obviously did not make anything clear; and the tolling of a bell as the only indication that anything had happened to Elisabeth was not good enough. Was Tannhäuser trying to get back with Venus? Was he heading for the Venusberg where, as a penance, he would pray for forgiveness and salvation? After much reflection, in 1847 Wagner brought Venus back onstage, perhaps intended as a vision that was only visible to Tannhäuser; initially she had been heard from offstage. To emphasise that Elisabeth was dead, Wagner had her open coffin brought onstage, and the opera ended with the knight breaking down at the sight.

The Redemption of Tannhauser: ending of the opera Left: The ending of the opera. Tannhäuser is redeemed.

The sources and structure of the opera

Wagner's opera Tannhäuser is an amalgam of two stories from the middle ages. The two sets of sources were developed during the late middle ages and then taken up to be refashioned by the Romantics, including Tieck, Hoffmann and Novalis. This material concerns the 13th century troubadours known as the Minnesingers; because they sang of hohe Minne, or Courtly Love. The essence of this amalgam is the equating of Tannhäuser, a legendary Minnesinger, with the quasi-mythical Heinrich von Ofterdingen. Here Wagner was most likely developing the suggestion by Ludwig Bechstein that these two characters were identical. The same idea had been proposed by C.T.L. Lucas around the same time; it is thought that Wagner was able to borrow a copy of this article through his friend Samuel Lehrs. Wagner, who was often less than honest about the origins of his operas (and many other things), does not given them any credit. Neither does he credit Heinrich Heine, and his Elementärgeister, and this is not the only instance of Wagner concealing his debt to Heine. Just as Wagner had claimed that some tale told by sailors had inspired his Holländer, so we are to believe that he discovered the story of his Tannhäuser in a 16th century "Volksbuch". It is more likely, however, that Heine's satirical story about a Herr von Schnabelewopski getting bored by a play (he catches the eye of a pretty girl and they take a break for some heavy romantic action, before he returns to the theatre and catches the end of the play) was the spark that ignited Wagner's interest in the Dutchman. Just as Wagner took up a satirical version of the Dutchman story and made it into something more serious, he read Heine's parody of the Danheüser Ballad and made it into a serious opera. His first Prose Sketch, or outline, is dated 8 July 1842, and the libretto was completed in April 1843.

The story of Tannhäuser (or Danheüser) was probably told in poems and songs long before any version of it appeared in print; a corrupted text of the Danheüser Ballad has been dated to 1450. The Ballad was first printed in 1515. You can find it in the ENO/ROH Guide to the opera. Wagner follows the first half of the Ballad, more or less, in the first two scenes of his opera. Then he switches to the story of Heinrich von Ofterdingen, who is identified with Tannhäuser; which is entirely a literary fiction, even as proposed by Bechstein or Lucas.

The story of the Song Contest is told in various medieval poems, notably one of 24 stanzas about the Sängerkrieg. Which by tradition took place on the Wartburg, in Thuringia, in 1207. Assuming that the Song Contest happened in or around that year — if it took place at all — makes it unlikely that Tannhäuser was involved. He is not mentioned in the Sängerkrieg poem and his own poems have been dated to the middle of the century. Tannhäuser was probably not even born at the time of the Song Contest. St. Elisabeth was born in 1207, in Hungary, and only arrived in Thuringia a few years later as the betrothed of the Landgrave's son. Therefore neither Tannhäuser nor St. Elisabeth could have attended a Song Contest in 1207. Heinrich von Ofterdingen did, according to the Sängerkrieg poem, and he was the one who caused the scandal. Heinrich was lucky to get out alive, although he did not run off to the Pope but into the protection of his teacher, the sorcerer Klingsor (that fellow again). Several other Minnesänger who appear in the opera are mentioned in the Sängerkrieg poem, which is obviously an indirect source of Wagner's libretto (filtered through the treatment of the subject by Romantic writers). Some commentators are sceptical about the involvement of Reinmar von Zweter, whose earliest known work has been dated to 1227: it is thought that he was born around 1200. He may have been confused with a different Reinmar.

The opera has what might be called a dialectical structure. Much of the first act is based on the Danheüser Ballad. Up to the point at which the knight, repentant and resolved to seek absolution from the Pope, is transported to the natural world. In Wagner's opera it is clear that his decision to make a pilgrimage to Rome, for the purpose of making his confession to the Pope, is prompted by the arrival of pilgrims (and this is the only reason for a pilgrims' chorus to be heard in the first act). Then the story makes a detour with the arrival of the Minnesänger, who escort Tannhäuser (whom they call Heinrich) to the Wartburg. In the second act, as Carolyn Abbate has shown, on being asked why he has returned, Heinrich tells Elisabeth that it was a miracle, to the same music in which he praised the Almighty at the point of his twofold decision in Act 1 scene 3. Although it is not made explicit (but audiences are allowed to think), at this moment the knight decided to seek absolution in Rome and, simultaneously, to return first to the Wartburg for the purpose of attempting a reconciliation with Elisabeth. It is worth noting that, during the first act, Heinrich/Tannhäuser knows nothing about plans for a Song Contest and therefore he is not intending to take part in such a contest. Two important points that might not be obvious on your first visit to this opera:

  • Heinrich has decided to make the pilgrimage to Rome during Act 1 scene 3
  • He returns to the Wartburg not for a Song Contest but to meet Elisabeth

If the first act is a kind of thesis (Tannhäuser and Venus) and the second act an antithesis (Heinrich and Elisabeth), then in the third and final act we can expect a synthesis. But Wagner fails to tie up the loose threads. Elisabeth prays for Tannhäuser/Heinrich who has not yet returned from Rome. Wolfram, who seems to be a stalker, lurks behind the scenery and watches her. She rejects his advances (except in the latest Bayreuth production) and returns to the castle to die, of unexplained causes. Tannhäuser/Heinrich belatedly returns and we pick up the Danheüser Ballad again where Wagner had left it: Tannhäuser went to Rome where the Pope (Urban IV) refused him absolution, saying that he could no more be redeemed than a dry stick could sprout green leaves. (This seems harsh, even unchristian: perhaps the story was different in older versions, and the author of the Danheüser Ballad did not get the entire story.)

Both in the Ballad and in the opera, Tannhäuser returns to the Wartburg on his way back to his real destination, the Venusberg. In the Ballad, he returns to Venus and her world of pleasure; in the opera, he breaks down at the sight of Elisabeth's body. The pious stalker tells him that she has died so that she can intercede for Tannhäuser/Heinrich at the throne of God (perhaps a hint of Gretchen here?) More pilgrims return bearing the Pope's stick, which has sprouted green leaves. Now that everything is resolved (?) Tannhäuser/Heinrich drops dead. This ending is very moving but makes no sense at all. One might prefer Nestroy's version, in which Venus restores the couple to life and blesses their union. But in Wagner's opera they are dead and so, we assume, in death they have both found their salvation.

Open issues

As noted above, Wagner realised, soon after the first performance (19 October 1845), that the opera did not work dramatically. Audiences were confused then and, despite the composer's efforts to improve the drama and in particular to clarify the ending, they remain confused to this day. It does not help, of course, that today this opera often is staged by directors who do not attempt to make sense of Wagner's text (or perhaps try and give up): even Stefan Herheim, in his clever production for the Norwegian Opera, introduced more confusion into the third act by making Elisabeth into an imitation of the Virgin Mary and the Pope's stick into a Christmas tree. As with Tristan und Isolde, the average audience member is left with only a vague idea of what happens in this opera. If pressed, they will say something about "star-crossed lovers" and about sacred versus profane love. It is certainly true that Tannhäuser/Heinrich is conflicted, at the same time desiring to be a good Christian and to be a wanton pagan. Part of him wants to be with Elisabeth, drinking tea and reading the scriptures, and part of him wants to be getting hot and sweaty in the service of Venus. Partly because of Wagner's obscure text and convoluted story, and partly because of how the opera has been staged, there are many misunderstandings. Some people will tell you that Heinrich goes on a pilgrimage to Rome because he was told to go by the Landgrave. This is nonsense: as explained above, the knight decided to seek absolution from the Pope already in the first act. The Song Contest is for him nothing more than a distraction; if he wants the approval of the Landgrave, then he has a strange way of going about it. As Tannhäuser had promised Venus, he sings her praises on the Wartburg, and this explains why Tannhäuser/Heinrich caused a scandal. Some people will tell you, as they have read it somewhere, that Elisabeth dies to save him. So did she commit suicide in some way? But suicide is a sin and Elisabeth is a saint, not a sinner. Did she die of grief, or of impatience, after waiting a few months for Heinrich to return again? It is all very confusing.

Lise Davidsen as Elisabeth. ROH Covent Garden 2023. Left: Lise Davidsen as Elisabeth. ROH Covent Garden 2023.

Performances and audio recordings

Following the first performance, Wagner tried again and again to resolve the issues with this opera. As explained above, he made matters worse by rewriting half of the first act in a different style. And he had to deal with practical difficulties, not least with singers, and with opposition he met in Paris. As he relates in his essay On the Performing of Tannhäuser (1852), written for the benefit of theatre managers and directors, he had to cut an important section in the last scene of the second act (Zum Heil den Sündigen zu führen ...) because his tenor, Josef Tichatschek, just could not act. This section had to be restored later. Then in Paris he cut the solo for Walther, because the singer was not up to it, and this cut was not reopened.

All of this revision, with cuts made and reopened, notes changed to fit the French text and then changed again to fit the German text, has resulted in multiple versions of the score, appearing variously in vocal scores and orchestral scores, and in almost every production using a different version. In Bayreuth there was long used Wieland's "Bayreuth Version": which was basically the "Dresden version" (Stage 2) but with an extended ballet, after Gertrude Wagner had asked to do more choreography. The "Bayreuth Version" can be heard on the Sawallisch/Bayreuth recording (1962). It changes from the "Dresden" score at the climax of the the overture's E major middle section, as the curtain should be opened, and there follows the entire ballet music in the "Paris" version. The Dresden score returns at the entry of the solo voices.

Haitink's 1985 recording follows the "Dresden version" of the score. Some audio recordings employ other variants of this version or they "mix and match" — for example, the Barenboim/Berlin recording follows Dresden except for Act one Scene two — whilst only Solti's 1971 VPO recording and Sinopoli in 1989 with the Philharmonia provide the full "Vienna Version" of the score. Other recordings, like most productions, use something between Dresden and Vienna. But we need to explain these terms.

The main stages of the score

The so-called Dresden Version was never performed in Dresden. The so-called Paris Version was never performed in Paris. At least, not during Wagner's lifetime.

The Wagner Werk Verzeichnis (WWV) defines four stages in the development of the score. When people speak of the "Dresden Version" they mean what the WWV calls Stage 2. This version was never performed in Dresden because it was finished in Zürich after Wagner had left Dresden behind him. When they speak of the "Paris Version" they mean what the WWV calls Stage 4. This version was never performed in Paris: not even the complete Stage 3 was given in Paris because, in the two performances before the third one was abandoned, different cuts were made, for various reasons, on each night. The revised score, with the libretto translated (by Wagner himself, I believe) from French into German, was first performed in Munich (1 August 1867). There were further changes made to the music before the "Paris Version" was given in Vienna.

Stage 1 - text completed April 1843, music not quite completed 19 October 1845. This "Urfassung" is the rough and ready "original version" that Wagner hastily sent to the printers and into rehearsal in 1845.
From stage 1 to stage 2 -For a summary of the changes he made over the first 18 performances, see the Postscript below. There were incremental changes made from performance to performance, both in the music and in the staging. The score was stable and more or less complete by August 1847.
Stage 2 - with revisions made after the first performance and before August 1847. After Wagner had fled Dresden into Swiss exile, he tidied up the score, ready for publication, during 1851 and into 1852. This resulted in the "Dresden Version" that finally was published in 1860.
Stage 3 - text and music of a new version were completed in March 1861. As noted above, no sooner had a publisher accepted the "Dresden Version" for publication than Wagner started to rewrite the Venusberg. Now in Paris he would have a soprano with greater range and more vocal skill than Schröder-Devrient, who was more of a singing actress than a singer, and he would have a tenor with more acting ability than had Tichatschek. For the production at the Paris Opéra the libretto had to be rewritten into French. This was done by Charles Truinet under his pen-name of C. Nuitter, assisted by E. Roche and R. Lindau. The result was not quite a French Grand Opera, since the ballet (to the outrage of the Jockey Club) was between the overture and the first act, not in the second act as standard in Paris; and it is still in three acts and not the customary five.
Stage 4 - August/September 1861, Vienna; Spring 1865, Munich. After Paris, Wagner revised his words and music for productions in Munich and Vienna. His final revision of the score was made for the Vienna production in 1875 (performed on 22 and 25 November). Therefore this version of the score is known both as the "Paris Version" and as the "Vienna Version".

Wagner never entirely resolved the stylistic inconsistencies in his score. Shortly before he died, famously he told Cosima (CT 23.1.1883) that he still owed the world a Tannhäuser. The Stage 4 version of the score was edited for the Sämtliche Werke and it can be regarded as "definitive" ("Fassung letze Hand"). It has been published (2007) as a study score by Eulenberg. It is to be hoped that musicians will use this score rather than any of the corrupt versions of the music that still abound.

Postscript: the Dresden performances 1845-1848

Through diligent research by many scholars it has been possible to track down more surviving copies (42) of the first version of Tannhäuser, printed as a lithograph in a print run of 100, than I had earlier thought possible. It was printed with the cheapest available process, a kind of facsimile, that destroyed the original plates. Many of these copies contain handwritten changes that document the revisions made by Wagner during the performances in Dresden. For example there are three versions of the shawm solo for the shepherd boy in Act I scene 3, and there are five versions of the ending of the opera, developed over three seasons of performances. The most important changes to the ending — with Venus now appearing onstage and the arrival onstage of Elisabeth's coffin — were not made until the summer of 1847, before the next performance on 1 August. There are six cuts, all made in 1845, some of them discussed in Wagner's On the Performing of Tannhäuser.

Selected References and Further Reading

1. Secondary Material and General References

  • Carolyn Abbate: "Orpheus and the Underworld: The Music of Wagner's Tannhäuser", in the ENO/ROH Opera Guide no.39, pp.33-50, London and NY 1988.
    The quality of the ENO/ROH Opera Guide series is variable: this slim volume is among the best and it's well worth reading from cover to cover. Although not mentioned in the table of contents, it includes the 1515 Ballad, on pp.58-59.
  • Dieter Borchmeyer: "Richard Wagner: Ahasvers Wandlungen", Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig 2002. English tr. Daphne Ellis as "Drama and the World of Richard Wagner", Princeton Univ. Press 2003.
  • Dieter Borchmeyer: "Venus in Exile", originally a programme note, reprinted in "Das Theater Richard Wagners". English tr. Stewart Spencer as "Richard Wagner: Theory and Theatre", pp.216-249.
  • Volker Mertens: "Venusberg, Sängerstreit, Büßerlegende: Die mittelalterlichen und romantische Quellen zu Wagners Tannhäuser"; in Wagner Spectrum, 1-2018, pp.13-49.
  • Egon Voss: "Im Gewirr der Fassungen"; in Wagner Spectrum, 1-2018, pp.51-84.
  • Peter Wapnewski: "The Operas as Literary Works", in "Wagner Handbook", especially pp.19-30.
  • Wagner Werk Verzeichnis (WWV): "Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke Richard Wagners und ihrer Quellen". General editors: John Deathridge, Martin Geck and Egon Voss. Assistant editor: Isolde Vetter. Schott, Mainz 1986. The chapter about "Tannhäuser" is on pages 257-295.

2. Primary Sources

  • Ludwig Bechstein: "Die Sagen von Eisenach und der Wartburg, dem Hörseelberg und Reinhardsbrunn", Hildburghausen 1835.
  • C.T.L. Lucas: "Ueber den Krieg von Wartburg", Königsberg 1838.
  • Richard Wagner: "Ueber die Aufführung des Tannhäuser"; "On the Performing of Tannhäuser", 1852, pamphlet. English tr. by Ellis PW3 pp.167-205.
  • Richard Wagner: "Sämtliche Werke", the critical edition of Wagner's musical works and their documentation. A project founded by Carl Dahlhaus. Editorial board: Gabriele Meyer, Egon Voss. There are three volumes of Tannhäuser:
  • Vol.5 is the stage 2 or "Dresden" score, editors Reinhard Strohm and Egon Voss. Vol.6 is the stage 4 or "Vienna" score, editor Peter Jost. The related documentation is in Vol.25, editor Peter Jost.