The works of Richard Wagner: Lohengrin

In continuation of a series exploring the works of Richard Wagner, Lucas Dié next delves into the plot of the three-act Romantic opera Lohengrin.

Richard Wagner found inspiration for his Lohengrin opera and its hero in the epic Parzival poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach – a German medieval romance poem written sometime before 1220. Wagner combined the confrontation of the queens from The Song of the Nibelungs with the story of Zeus and Semele from Greek mythology to compose the opera’s storyline. As a setting, he chose the Duchy of Brabant during a visit of King Henry the Fowler (who reigned in the 9th century); the ‘history’ behind the visit being entirely fictional.

Wagner’s idea materialised in Paris in 1842 and took until 1848 to finish both the libretto and musical score. The opera was first shown in 1850 in Weimar under the direction of Franz Liszt. Formally, Lohengrin is Richard Wagner’s first true opera without a clearly distinguishable series of individual musical numbers. He thereby moved away from the traditional sectional works, which were split into arias, recitative, and choral parts – as championed by Mozart. But while this holistic approach welded the work into a single musical entity, it also made later edits more difficult.

The hero Lohengrin is young, beautiful, pure, impetuous, virtuous, and sent by God: the positive descriptions of the protagonist pile up in the libretto like people queuing for free beer. It was little wonder that King Ludwig II of Bavaria got completely hooked on it. In Lohengrin, he had found the ideal hero. This enthusiasm contributed significantly to the reasons behind why King Ludwig summoned composer Richard Wagner to Munich and became his lifelong patron.

The famous introduction to the opera exudes bright warmth. Though opera-goers have to wait for the very end of the play to learn where this heavenly, spiritual warmth is coming from: Lohengrin is a knight of the Holy Grail, a being of shining light. He heard the cry for help from Elsa’s prayers and left the Castle of the Grail to protect her, developing worldly feelings for her in the process.

Elsa falls in love with him, too. She has dreams of him even before his arrival. The motif she sees first appears in “Elsa’s Dream” and is intended to embody the characteristics of the protagonist. The bantering, staccato closing phrase is youthful, fresh and proud. Richard Wagner used the term “animato” for it. Meanwhile the descending syncopation shows the enthusiastic and fiery streak in the young man.

The fiery young knight arrives by swan in Brabant to save the innocent from evil. Ortrud accuses Elsa of killing her brother Gottfried (though Ortrud, in fact, had turned him into a swan by magic). Lohengrin, as part of a secret society, thereby issues a question ban to Elsa, preventing her from asking him his name or provenance. Ortrud’s pagan witchcraft keeps nagging at Elsa until she asks the question anyhow. Lohengrin boards the next swan leaving for Grail Castle while the female cast dies on stage.

Richard Wagner made use of the tension between archaic pagan beliefs and the progressive Christian conversion which had lasted into the 13th century, showing the dilemma between heavenly light and glory and the vale of tears of human existence. It allowed him to show the difference between the gains of true faith and the price of losing it. In the process, earthly love becomes a mere bystander in Wagner’s work.

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