The works of Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser

In a new series exploring the works of Richard Wagner, Lucas Dié first delves into the plot of the three-act opera Tannhäuser.

When someone mentions Tannhäuser, people either look blank or assume you are referring to the opera by Richard Wagner. Tannhäuser was a historical figure, formed part of a medieval legend, and is but the titular hero of the opera. The opera is correctly called Tannhäuser And The Singers’ Contest on Wartburg. In it, Richard Wagner combined two medieval legends into one libretto.

The historical Siboto III of Tannhäuser lived at the court of Duke Frederick II of Austria and Styria until 1245. He pawned all his lands and left never to return. In the Codex Manesse, he is depicted in the garb of the Teutonic Knights. The grave of Siboto of Tannhäuser can be found in Würzburg, Bavaria, in the church of the Teutonic Knights.

Tannhäuser was a singer songwriter. Some of his works have survived in the Codex Manesse and in a medieval song collection called Codex J. The songs in the Manesse are traditional songs of courtly love but show a strong penchant for parody of the genre. Codex J contains only one song. In contrast to the Manesse songs it takes the form of a spiritual prayer. The songs are placed into a time bracket dating from 1245 to 1265 by historians.

Richard Wagner built his libretto on the two unrelated legends of Tannhäuser and of the Singers’ Contest at Wartburg (a Eurovision Song Contest held in a castle). Both legends appear as ballads after 1430 but are probably older. There was no connection between the two and Wagner simply replaced the hero in the Singers’ Contest with Tannhäuser.

In Richard Wagner, Tannhäuser becomes the eternally driven man; a divided personality between animalistic instinct and bourgeois convention; a traveller between lust and pure love. This polarity spans the opera and defines the actions of the hero.

Living in the realm of Venus, he is surfeit with lust and sex but excluded from human love. He wishes for the return to humanity and a conventional lifestyle. His longing is expressed in his yearning after the chaste love of Elizabeth. Total sexual freedom has become a prison he wants to escape from.

Tannhäuser is allowed to leave the realm of Venus. Humanity, and with it society, have him back. But all too soon, society’s conventions become a prison to him, too, when he perceives them as nothing more than a facade. In rebellion and contempt, he sings a fervent song to Venus at the singer’s contest. He draws anger and envy from his colleagues and spectators. He fails to conform to society and is expelled.

Tannhäuser violates unwritten rules by being openly committed to sensual passion, open to otherwise secretive and shadowy desires. For this sin he must atone: Tannhäuser is doomed, lost to humanity, expelled from society. He attempts to conform with a pilgrimage to Rome. But the pope knows everything about righteousness and nothing about forgiveness. Tannhäuser meets with full rejection. God’s – or rather society’s – forgiveness and absolution are not available to him. He remains an outsider.

Despite this ostracism, Tannhäuser’s dilemma remains. Will his rejection by society drive him back into the realm of Venus, or will his love for Elizabeth bring him back into the flock? Pure love, or rather convention, wins the day. Elizabeth is prepared to die for his redemption. Tannhäuser is redeemed, but dies, too. In life, he failed to find eternal love. But there is the promise of life after death.

Tannhäuser is a rebel, he contravenes against conventional rules seemingly set in stone. He makes his opposition public as an artist by flouting the rules of the Singer’s Contest. Richard Wagner continued an 800-year-old tradition by combining the two rebellions. Artists of all kinds have been fascinated over time by this combination exhibited in the Tannhäuser tradition. There is also a certain amount of irony that the combination of rebellion against traditional art and society has become a traditional artistic convention.

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