Richard Wagner: Lohengrin Prelude to Act I
Richard Wagner’s Romantic opera Lohengrin was first performed in 1850. During the 1840s, Wagner had spent much time researching and reading into medieval German legends, epics and stories that he could use for one of his own works. By 1845, Wagner had found the story of Lohengrin, and from there he drafted a story which remained very similar to the original. Lohengrin the opera is often difficult to put into one genre box. Wagner called it a ‘fairy-tale opera’, however it relies heavily on historical stories, plus it ends as a tragedy work.
The plot centres around a dispute over regal succession in the Brabant region of the 10th century German Empire. Elsa is accused of murdering her brother, who was the rightful heir, and thus must find a champion to defend her innocence. Nobody comes to her aid, so later she dreams of a knight in a boat drawn by a swan. The knight agrees to defend Elsa’s innocence as long as she never asks his name. Elsa, too curious for her own good, asks for his name and the knight reveals himself as Lohengrin, a Knight of the Holy Grail who must live amongst men in secret.Before he departs to the castle of the Holy Grail, Lohengrin restores Elsa’s brother, who was the swan in the dream, back into human form. Stricken with grief after all that has happened, Elsa drops to the ground dead.
There are three segments of music in the opera that are now often played as stand-alone pieces: Act I & III Preludes and The Bridal Chorus. Unlike some of Wagner’s other music, most of the music in Lohengrin is quiet, sustainable music that symbolises the Grail making its way down to earth in the story.
The Prelude to Act I is a clever musical depiction of the Holy Grail as it descends to the Earth in the care of an Angelic host. This, what is essentially an extended orchestral crescendo, builds throughout to create one of the most moving preludes to an opera ever composed. There is only one theme in the prelude, however this is used throughout the opera, mainly for Lohengrin’s actions, and is perhaps one of the origins of Wagner’s use of a leitmotif in his music.
Opening with four solo violins in harmonics, this quartet soars above the rest of the string section. The effect is a shimmering effect, which brings with it all sorts of colourful harmonics that weaves its way through the ever-developing textures. As the music begins to move forward, more instruments enter the mix. Eventually after the lower strings have entered, the winds also make an appearance, bolstering the texture to make it richer.
As the sonority between the instruments becomes richer, the texture and timbre of the prelude becomes deeper and multifaceted. As the more instruments come in, the dynamic of the prelude begins to creep up too. Starting very quietly, by the climax the orchestra is playing fortissimo. This climax is marked by a cymbal crash. The brass also enter boldly here, which marks the one time when the whole orchestra play together in the prelude.
The way that Wagner layers the strings in the prelude is also very interesting. He noted he wanted to depict the movement of the Holy Grail, and he does this by creating a trickling movement between the parts as the theme gets passed down the line. As the four solo violins appear again near the end of the prelude, one can assume they are there to carry the Holy Grail back to its heavenly realm. The Prelude to Act I ends like it began, in shimmering quiet.
Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of his opera Lohengrin is full of sonorous string writing that is full of divine imagery. The rich textures and slow build of the sound creates a truly heavenly prelude to the opera.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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