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Overture and Bacchanale from Tannhäuser

Tannhäuser was the first Wagner opera to be staged in the United States, on April 4, 1859.

N.B. This program note pertains both to the Overture and Bacchanale from Tannhäuser and to Tannhäuser Act III.

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Saxony, on May 22, 1813, and died in Venice, Italy, on February 13, 1883. His initial plans and musical sketches for Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (“Tannhäuser and the Singers’ Contest on the Wartburg”) stem from summer 1842. He completed the poem by April 7, 1843; composed the music, beginning with the Venusberg scene and finishing with the overture, between July 1843 and January 1845; and completed the orchestration on April 13, 1845. Wagner himself conducted the first performance on October 19, 1845, at the Königliches Hoftheater in Dresden. The conflated Overture and Bacchanale dates from some thirty years later (see “Tannhäuser—versions and revisions” below).

At the Dresden premiere, the role of Tannhäuser was sung by Joseph Tichatschek, Elisabeth by the composer’s 19-year-old niece Johanna Wagner, Venus by Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, and Wolfram by Anton Mitterwurzer. In the 1861 Paris production, Tannhäuser was sung by Albert Niemann, Elisabeth by Marie Saxe, Venus by Fortunata Tedesco, and Wolfram by Signor Morelli. Tannhäuser was the first Wagner opera to be staged in the United States, on April 4, 1859, at the German-language Stadttheater in what was then called the “kleindeutschland” (“little Germany”) neighborhood of the Bowery in New York City.

In addition to the solo vocal parts, chorus, and a complement of on- and offstage instruments, the score of Tannhäuser calls for an orchestra of piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 valved horns, 2 natural horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, castanets (added for Paris), harp (4 harps being specified for Paris), and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). In the 1875 Vienna version (which the BSO plays in February 2023), the offstage instruments in Act III—heard just prior to Venus’s appearance late in the act—are divided into two antiphonal bands of wind instruments, each including piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, and 2 horns, plus cymbals and triangle on the right and tambourine on the left.

The conflated Overture and Bacchanale takes about 25 minutes; Act III runs about an hour.


Following the triumphant success of Rienzi in October 1842, the less well received premiere of The Flying Dutchman in January 1843, and his appointment as Conductor of the Royal Saxon Court in Dresden that February—on which occasion he characteristically complained about the expense of having a court uniform made—Wagner gave full attention to his next venture, which was already taking shape in his mind. Here he found a subject that, in his own words, allowed him to express the two tendencies of his nature: the “sacred earnest” on the one hand and the “inclination to unbridled sensuality” on the other. At the same time, he seized upon a theme that would remain one of his overriding concerns: the redemption of man by woman. From strands of German folklore with which he had become acquainted through various sources—the tale of the minstrel Tannhäuser, the legend of the Venusberg, the story of the song contest on the Wartburg at the 13th-century court of Thuringia—Wagner fashioned his libretto, wherein the title character is torn between pure, idealized love as represented by Elisabeth, niece of the Landgrave Hermann, and sensual, physical lust as represented by the goddess Venus in the subterranean domain of the Venusberg.

In Act I of the opera, the minstrel Tannhäuser rejects the revelries of Venus’s domain and heads back with his Minnesinger comrades to the Landgrave’s court, where Elisabeth has been pining for Tannhäuser’s return. In Act II, during a song contest on the theme of love—the prize to be awarded by Elisabeth herself—Tannhäuser, finding himself again in Venus’s sway despite his joyous reunion with Elisabeth, and to the horror of those present, extols the virtues of physical love and sings the praises of the Venusberg. Only Elisabeth’s intervention saves him from death at the hands of his outraged comrades, and he joins a band of pilgrims to seek Papal absolution in Rome. In Act III, though the Pope has refused to absolve him, Elisabeth’s prayers and self-willed death win his salvation. Tannhäuser, following a last, brief struggle with the forces of Venus, dies on Elisabeth’s bier.

Wagner constructed the overture—a crowd-pleaser from the start—according to principles he himself set out in his January 1841 essay “On the Overture,” creating “a musical artwork entire in itself and providing a sense of the opera’s argument through the interweaving of thematic materials drawn from the opera to follow.” The solemnly intoned Pilgrims’ March gives way to the music of the Venusberg, which is followed by Tannhäuser’s hymn to Venus in praise of love. A central, seductive Venusberg episode with solo clarinet and violins in eight parts leads to another stanza of Tannhäuser’s hymn and the reiteration of the frenzied Venusberg music, which in the overture’s original Dresden version yields to a triumphant, overwhelming return of the Pilgrims’ March.

More than a decade later, during what proved to be a twelve-year interruption from work on his massive Der Ring des Nibelungen—during which time he completed both Tristan und Isolde and his other “song contest opera,” Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg—Wagner came to Paris in September 1859 hoping for stagings of Lohengrin, which he had yet to see, and of his recently completed Tristan. Though these did not materialize, the Austrian princess Pauline Metternich convinced Napoleon III to order performances of Tannhäuser at the Paris Opéra. For this staging, in addition to several minor changes, Wagner rewrote Venus’s part in the opening scene between the goddess and Tannhäuser and also created a new, expanded Bacchanale depicting the revelries of Venus’s court at the rise of the curtain, immediately following the overture. (As noted, it was only later that Wagner actually conflated the Overture and Bacchanale, doing so by eliminating the overture's concluding statement of the Pilgrims' March, and by joining the recurrence of the original Venusberg music in the overture to the opera's next scene.) The wildly ecstatic music that Wagner wrote for Paris builds to a climax on an ascending, chromatic, Tristanesque motif and makes prominent use along the way of newly added castanets to provide a touch of exoticism.


In the 1861 Paris production, the first-act Bacchanale provided the opportunity for the ballet that was a traditional part of French opera. What Wagner had been expected to do, however, was write a ballet not for the first act, but for the second act, in accordance with Parisian custom, thus catering to the fashionably late-arriving members of the Jockey Club, “the rich, frivolous gentlemen who have their mistresses in the ballet, nearly all employed without any salary, with whom they amuse themselves after the ballet, behind the scenes, and this in the most indecent manner” (thus Wagner’s wife Minna writing from Paris). Besides being unwilling to accommodate such a request, Wagner was in any event set on replacing the original 1845 Bacchanale, which he considered the weakest section of the work: “It is only now that I have written Isolde’s final transfiguration,” he wrote to his close confidante Mathilde Wesendonck (who inspired him to compose his Tristan und Isolde), “that I have become capable…of finding the right solution to…the horror of the Venusberg.”

The whistles and catcalls of the infuriated Jockey Club were not the only source of disruption at the premiere: political opponents of the sponsoring Metternichs and representatives of the anti-German press also made their presence felt. As a result, following an unprecedented sequence of 164 rehearsals, the Paris Tannhäuser was withdrawn after just three performances. Having anticipated the inevitable, Wagner was left to console himself with the knowledge that those in the audience who had been willing to listen had, in fact, appreciated his work.

Actually, and as reflected by the extent to which he made alterations, Wagner himself was seemingly never satisfied that he had achieved with Tannhäuser what he had originally intended. In a diary entry dated January 23, 1883, just weeks before the composer’s death, his second wife, Cosima (daughter of Franz Liszt), commenting on a conversation she had had with Wagner that evening, wrote that “He says he still owes the world Tannhäuser.” And even before his post-Tristan emendations for Act I in Paris created a musical-stylistic clash (which both Wagner and Cosima acknowledged to be problematic) between the opening Tannhäuser-Venus scene and the rest of the opera, Wagner had codified his concerns about the work in a 40-page 1852 pamphlet entitled “On the Performing of Tannhäuser.” In this essay he questioned, from a variety of perspectives, whether audiences could be properly relied upon to understand his conception and intent, and provided detailed instructions and admonitions to performers, conductors, directors, and even backstage personnel regarding vocal style, characterization, and stagecraft. Discussing his reactions to the Dresden premiere, he even specified what he recognized as three problems in Act III, and the steps he took to correct them.

The first of these was the shortening of the third act’s orchestral Prelude, which he titled “Tannhäusers Pilgerfahrt” (“Tannhäuser’s Pilgrimage”). In its original version—a sort of Lisztian tone-poem some thirteen minutes in length—this ran nearly twice as long as the shortened third-act Prelude that Wagner insisted replace it, having recognized that, unlike himself, the audience would simply be unable to follow the “plot” he had composed into the music. (Arturo Toscanini, who led Tannhäuser at Bayreuth in 1930, conducted the original version of the third-act Prelude in a 1931 concert with the New York Philharmonic and on several later occasions in NBC Symphony broadcasts. The only Boston Symphony performances of the original version were given by William Steinberg in an all-Wagner program in January 1974.)

The second and third changes were to the opera’s final scene, and specifically relevant to the audience’s comprehension of the plot as it unfolded onstage. At the first performance, besides the offstage choral dirge, Elisabeth’s death was represented only by the tolling of bells, and by light emanating from the windows of the distant castle—the intended effect being compromised by the fact that some of the third-act scenery failed to arrive in time for the performance. In order to ensure the immediacy and impact upon the audience of Elisabeth’s death, Wagner decided to have her funeral bier carried onto the stage. (Whether Elisabeth’s body was actually to be visible on stage or not was, in and of itself, a decision that caused considerable wavering on the composer’s part.) Also in the initial performances, Venus did not physically reappear to tempt Tannhäuser in Act III: her presence, and that of the Venusberg, were suggested only by a red glow in the background of the scene. Here, too, Wagner felt the audience could not be counted upon to make the necessary connection; and by reintroducing the character of Venus at this point, he of course further upped the emotional ante of the moment as the opera draws toward its close.


The Prelude to Act III suggests via the orchestra—through use of phrases from the Pilgrims’ music and Elisabeth’s second-act plea on Tannhäuser’s behalf; a sinuously dark, brooding motif anticipating Tannhäuser’s so-called “Rome Narrative”; and the so-called “Dresden Amen”—what Tannhäuser’s own words will later tell us of his pilgrimage to Rome. As the act continues, the solo numbers for Elisabeth and Wolfram embody operatic tradition, Wolfram’s particularly so in its recitative-and-aria structure. In Elisabeth’s Prayer, having failed to find Tannhäuser among the returning Elder Pilgrims (the chorus here making its first of three crucial appearances in Act III that significantly motivate the ensuing action), Elisabeth offers her own life in return for Tannhäuser’s salvation. Employing only wind instruments, the orchestral scoring is strongly suggestive of a church organ, particularly at moments of supplication.

Wolfram’s harp-accompanied Song to the Evening Star (one of the very few Wagner arias to have established itself in the concert repertoire) makes telling use, in its instrumental postlude, of the orchestra’s cellos to amplify the baritone’s mellifluous vocal line. During the second-act song contest, Wolfram, himself in love with Elisabeth, had previously sung of a heavenly star representing the highest form of love. Now he directs his attention to the manifestation of that love in the night sky, entreating the evening star to greet Elisabeth’s soul as it ascends to heaven.

In contrast to those traditionally conceived numbers, Tannhäuser’s increasingly fevered Rome Narrative (“Inbrunst im Herzen”/“With fervor in my heart”) exemplifies the forward-looking Wagner whose use of storytelling as a basis for extended narrative structures proves ever more sophisticated and crucial in supporting key aspects of Tristan und Isolde, the Ring cycle, and Parsifal. Here, Tannhäuser relates how, during his journey to Rome, he eschewed all possible means of relief, hoping thereby to strengthen his appeal for absolution. But no: after witnessing the Pope pardon thousands of pilgrims, he met only scathing denial, his sojourn at the Venusberg being deemed by the Pope too great a sin: “As the staff in my hand will nevermore put forth a living leaf, so from the burning brand of hell salvation will never bloom for you!” His hopes destroyed, Tannhäuser, simultaneously desperate and newly enraptured, now has but one goal—returning to the Venusberg.

Wolfram’s attempts to dissuade Tannhäuser are countered by Venus herself, who appears seductively in the background, but is then herself undone when Wolfram regains Tannhäuser’s attention by invoking Elisabeth’s name (just as he had at the end of Act I, when he convinced Tannhäuser to return to the court of Thuringia). A male chorus, from offstage, imparts word of Elisabeth’s death. The funeral procession (Elder Pilgrims, minstrels, Landgrave, knights, and nobles) appears onstage, carrying Elisabeth’s open casket; with a final cry—“Holy Elisabeth, pray for me!”—Tannhäuser dies. Per Wagner’s stage directions, the night sky has thus far progressed from dusk (for Elisabeth’s Prayer and Wolfram’s Song to the Evening Star), to darkness (for Tannhäuser’s Rome Narrative), to eerily rose-tinted and cloud-covered (for Venus’s appearance), to hints of dawn (for the torch-illumined funeral procession). As Tannhäuser dies, the torches are lowered and extinguished. A procession of Young Pilgrims appears, announcing a miracle: the Pope’s staff has sprouted leaves; “salvation has been granted to the world.” All are ecstatic. Morning light floods the scene.

Marc Mandel

Marc Mandel, former Director of Program Publications for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, joined the staff of the BSO in November 1978 and managed the orchestra’s program book from 1979 until his retirement in July 2020.

The first production in the U.S. of Tannhäuser—also the first production of any Wagner opera in the U.S.—took place at the German-language Stadttheater in New York City on April 4, 1859. The first performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera was on November 17, 1884, with Leopold Damrosch conducting and a cast including Anton Schott in the title role, Auguste Seidl-Kraus as Elisabeth, Anna Slach as Venus, and Adolf Robinson as Wolfram. This was the first Metropolitan Opera production of any German opera in the original language.

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of any music from Tannhäuser was of the Overture, under Georg Henschel’s direction in December 1882, during the BSO’s second season. The BSO’s first performance of the conflated Overture and Bacchanale was given by Arthur Nikisch as part of a special “Wagner Matinee” on December 31, 1890.

Tannhäuser—versions and revisions (this is complicated!)

Wagner’s original title for the opera was “Der Venusberg” (“The Mountain of Venus”), which, because of its sexual overtones, his publisher asked him to change. He made various alterations during the initial Dresden run of the opera and for subsequent productions between 1847 and 1852. These—including three significant changes to Act III—were incorporated into the score known today as the “Dresden version,” which was published in 1860 (and which therefore does not represent the version originally performed in Dresden). He made further revisions for a French-language production the following year at the Paris Opéra, revising and extending the first-act Bacchanale and the opening scene between Tannhäuser and Venus. This version was premiered on March 13, 1861, with Pierre Dietsch conducting (by Parisian tradition, no composer could lead the Opéra premiere of his own work). At Paris the overture was played through, applauded, and then followed by the newly written Bacchanale. The conflated “Overture and Bacchanale” seems to have been first performed at a concert given by Wagner in Vienna on May 12, 1872. The conflated Overture and Bacchanale was first heard in the context of an operatic production (which included further alterations by the composer) on November 22, 1875, in a Vienna staging also led by Wagner. Prior to this, the French-language text created for the expanded first scene of the Paris version had been translated into German for a Munich performance conducted by Hans von Bülow on August 1, 1867. The published score known as the “Paris version” (vocal score, 1876; full score, 1888) does not represent the original Paris staging because it also includes revisions that Wagner made after 1861. The further sorting and publication of variant editions was a product of 20th-century scholarship. The BSO's February 2023 performances employ the 1875 Vienna version as published by Schott Musik International.

Marc Mandel