Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser Overture


Tannhäuser is an 1845 opera with music and text by German composer Richard Wagner. The story centres around three German legends, Tannhäuser, Minnesänger and the tale of the Wartburg Song Contest. Full of fantastical characters like nymphs, sirens and goddesses, Tannhäuser’s story reflects themes that are seen throughout many of Wagner’s mature works. Themes of redemption, love and religion dominate this story and run through this intricate story. The premiere took place at Dresden’s Royal Saxon Court Theatre in October of 1845, with Wagner conducting.


The Music

The overture to Tannhäuser is a popular orchestral work in its own right and is more often than not performed as a stand-alone work. Using the theme from the ‘Pilgrims Chorus’ from Act 3, the slow and solemn opening highlights themes that will be prevalent throughout the opera. The rich and sonorous opening shows masterful orchestration as the woodwind gently layer on top of the rich strings. As Wagner introduces the brass in there is a much grander feel within the music. As the orchestra build towards the climax of this theme, different sections of the orchestra take on a new part of the melody. 

The opening lyrical section is then juxtaposed by a faster section, which shows the different temperaments of the two main German legends. The flickering motifs add the sparkle of the mythical side of this story. Themes from Venusberg are heard, which represents the mountain where the goddess Venus has hidden. The violins lead this tune, which also becomes a pinnacle aspect later on in the opera. Wagner’s rich textures carry through and the bright melody pings across the top of these tick orchestrations.

As the music slows down once more, a solo clarinet plays the ‘Venus Call’, which is based on material heard in the previous section. This tranquil section soon leads back to a reprise of Tannhäuser’s opening hymn. As the climactic finale is being prepared you hear distant themes already heard in the overture. Now fully-realised, the music gradually builds in texture, harmony and dynamic to create a big effect during the last few pages of music. The bold brass add to the drama with their sharper sound piercing the cascading violin motif. The brass lead the way through as the frantic strings reach new heights in shimmering effects. The brass unite for the final few chords as the orchestra end back in the home key in an epic conclusion to this popular overture.


Final Thoughts

Now often played as an effective concert opener, Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture stands firmly in orchestral repertoire today. From shimmering strings to powerful brass, this overture offers snippets of the story to come through Wagner’s descriptive way of writing. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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