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Wagner Beyond Good and Evil$

John Deathridge

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780520254534

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520254534.001.0001

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Wagner the Progressive: Another Look at Lohengrin

Wagner the Progressive: Another Look at Lohengrin

(p.31) 3. Wagner the Progressive: Another Look at Lohengrin
Wagner Beyond Good and Evil

John Deathridge

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

It is often said that Wagner was uninterested in an analysis of his own music. However, in an open letter to Arigo Boito, Wagner expressed dissatisfaction with performances of Lohengrin he had seen. Lohengrin was his most popular but the least understood of Wagner's works. But his refusal to change hardly a note of it is surely a sign that it is closer to his later music dramas than is generally realized, and in a more profound sense than a superficial comparison of its motifs which the leitmotifs of the Ring can ever possibly demonstrate. Careful listening and an informed view of the revisions in his early works, however, suggest that it is in Lohengrin where the music of the future really begins.

Keywords:   Wagner, Lohengrin, music, music dramas, analysis

The critical star of Lohengrin has dimmed so much over the years that even Wagner's admirers sometimes find it hard to let it shine as brightly as it did at the height of the opera's popularity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The swan, one of the opera's central symbols, has become a kitsch icon, capable of selling anything from kettles to the Queen's favorite matches, but it is no longer quite the beautiful, enigmatic and sexually suggestive image it used to be. Harder to accept now, too, is the gullibility of the heroine Elsa. After falling in love with Lohengrin she is bartered with her consent in a marriage transaction that forbids her even to ask her groom's name and origin. Claude Lévi-Strauss has said that we no longer need to resort to the matrimonial vocabulary of Great Russia to see that in marriages like this the groom is the “merchant” and the bride the “merchandise” in a contract ensuring the continued existence of a male-dominated community.1

Stranger still are the medieval dualisms and theological mysteries of faith and redemption that nourish the plot of Lohengrin. Today they seem like distant relics, at least at first sight, but they probably looked just as odd to some observers in the context of the German idealism of the 1840s, when the opera was composed. Wagner probably sensed this himself, which may be one of the reasons for his occasional metamorphosis—albeit in private—into one of the opera's earliest critics. A few months after the successful premiere in Weimar (which, as a political refugee banned from Germany, he could not attend) he wrote to the literary scholar Adolf Stahr:

There is a whole world between Lohengrin and my present plans. [Wagner had just started work on Siegfried.] What is so terribly embarrassing for us is to see a snake skin shed long ago dangled in front of us willy-nilly, as if one were still in it. If I could have everything my way, (p.32) Lohengrin—the libretto of which I wrote in 1845—would be long forgotten in favor of new works that prove, even to me, that I have made progress.2

Postwar generations have tended to agree. The former popularity of Lohengrin is suspect—it's considered fodder for the sentimental and oldfashioned perhaps, or a salutary reminder of the (supposedly) revisionist feudal ambitions of the old German middle class—while the daring modernity of Wagner's later works is admired and celebrated. During and immediately after the composition of Lohengrin, Wagner became enraptured with Young Hegelian ideas, devoured Feuerbach's critique of Christian belief (which threw a rather different light on the Christian symbolism of the opera), turned into a ferocious orator against the old feudal order in Germany, fought on the barricades in the 1849 Dresden Revolution, more or less gave up composing to write lengthy, socially critical tomes about the future of art, nearly jettisoned his marriage and “domesticity” (as he put it to Stahr), and began to develop a huge work that eventually became the Ring, in which myth and music were to combine in a utopian Artwork of the Future expressing profound insights into the world in ways no existing art form had ever done before. In other words, Wagner was telling Stahr that he had changed practically within the space of two years irreversibly into a modernist in the Young Hegelian mold who believed in correcting the mistakes of the past not by rejuvenating the old order, but by destroying it completely and creating something radically new in its place. That hardly sounded like the author of Lohengrin.

Images of Incest and Superstition

Wagner told Stahr in a suggestive phrase about the “twilight mist” (Dämmerdunst) lifting from him after Lohengrin, as if to say that he had experienced a kind of dawn banishing the dark magic and medieval miracle worship at the center of the opera from his mind for good.

That the situation was not quite as simple as this must have been clear to Wagner, who in his letter was actually taking issue (for diplomatic reasons only implicitly) with a recently published and highly influential article on Lohengrin by Franz Liszt. On Wagner's behalf Liszt had prepared and conducted the opera's first performance in Weimar on the 101st anniversary of Goethe's birth (28 August 1850) and taken great pains to ensure that the place and date would be seen to be highly symbolic. A growing nostalgia in Germany after the failed revolutions of 1848–49 for Weimar's former (p.33) cultural glory, together with Wagner's burgeoning reputation as the new hope of German art, inevitably focused critical attention on the production. Also, the composer's enforced absence, and his status as a political exile with a price on his head, inevitably caught the lavish attention of the liberal intelligentsia and the press. Not surprisingly, the premiere turned out to be a major event that transformed Wagner virtually overnight from a provincial German kapellmeister into an international figure.

Liszt's sense of timing and uncanny knack for publicity did not desert him when he introduced Lohengrin to the world as an administrator and conductor. But Wagner was arguably less pleased with the high-flown language of his friend's essay on the opera (written in French and first published in German translation in April 1851), which at the start conjures up an undialectical, sentimental image of a premodern world unsullied by doubt in Christian belief. That alone could have hardly found favor with a recent convert to Feuerbach and admirer of the Hegelian Left. The constant implication of Liszt's argument is that, like the knight of the Grail, the opera is a marvelous wonder sent into a world that has “rejected miracles” and no longer “believes in divine origin or divine revelation.” The pleasing sounds of the prelude, as if “reflected on a broad and calm stretch of water,” can help us to grasp again the “indescribable power” of the secret of the Holy Grail. The opera shows us that what humanity needs is not yet more scientific endeavor, but an antidote to “the hate and envy that have befallen the men of invention and progress”—a cure for a civilization that is slowly being strangled by reason and lack of faith.3

Not to be outdone, Wagner decided in 1851 to make his view of Lohengrin known publicly as well. In his long autobiographical essay A Communication to My Friends, he dismissed the Christian imagery in the opera as “fortuitous” and argued ingeniously for a more fundamental view of the legend. He pleaded for a critical method that could reveal what is known in modern parlance as the “deep structure” of all myths that relate them to each other. The story of The Flying Dutchman is a reincarnation of the myth of the Odyssey, while the image of Odysseus yearning for an earthly woman, and escaping the clutches of Calypso and the attractiveness of Circe, has found its way in “enhanced” form into Tannhäuser.4 Likewise, the relation of a supernatural being to a mortal in the myth of Zeus and Semele clearly relates it to the story of Lohengrin, though here Wagner was prepared to go even further than a comparison with the Greeks:

A primal feature, repeated in manifold forms, permeates the legends of those nations who dwelt by the sea or by rivers that emptied into the sea: on the billows's azure mirror a stranger was seen to draw near, a (p.34) man of utmost grace and purest virtue who charmed and won each heart by the irresistible spell that he wove; he was the fulfillment of that desire which fills the yearning breast of him who dreamt of happiness beyond the sea in a land he could not discern. The stranger disappeared again, withdrawing over the ocean waves, as soon as he was questioned about his innermost being.5

Passages like this, which reduce a complex web of tales and legends to a key image of great emotional import, amply confirm Wagner's modern reputation, in Lévi-Strauss's words, as the “undeniable originator of the structural analysis of myth.” If this is accepted, Lévi-Strauss continues, “it is a profoundly significant fact that the analysis was made, in the first instance, in music.”6

In an exhaustive study of the Lohengrin legend published in 1911, Otto Rank, a pupil and colleague of Sigmund Freud, came to the conclusion that the truly astonishing prevalence of the same symbols in so many branches of the myth must reflect, as Wagner had already suspected, primal feelings of awesome power. Indeed, Rank opened such a veritable can of psychoanalytical worms in his detailed account of the anxieties and taboos hidden behind the seemingly innocuous fairy-tale surface of Lohengrin, which even in a postFreudian era that has grown rather weary of the unconscious it is hard to ignore.The hero's arrival on “the billows' azure mirror” is not surprisingly—at least in Freudian terms—the birth out of the waters of the mother's womb, and his departure a return into the underworld and the realm of death. The forbidden question is the code of silence imposed on the child asking after the secret of its own or its parents' origin. To pacify the child the right answer is repressed and replaced by the fantasy of the stork, or, in many regions and countries, the white swan, which pulls the newborn child out of the water in a casket, and brings it to its parents, as if by a miracle.7

Rank also came to the conclusion that the forbidden question serves to hide an incestuous relationship that is revealed and therefore proscribed the moment the identity of the hero is known. The inevitable comparison with the Oedipus myth turns Lohengrin in this scenario into a “rescue fantasy” about the hero's “mother” that ends in her death.8 (The strange coincidence that Wagner's mother died when Lohengrin was just on the verge of completion did not go unnoticed by Rank.) Here Rank drew on Freud's theory of the injured third party, which suggests that some men develop a subconscious need to save their mothers from the threat of the rival father, and in order to relive the fantasy are instinctively drawn to women already attached to other men.9 (Rank was also not slow to point out that Wagner's famous adulterous love affairs, and the similar triangular situations in all (p.35) his stage works from The Flying Dutchman to Parsifal, follow a similar behavioral pattern.)

Friedrich von Telramund has formally renounced his claim on Elsa before the opera begins, but Rank had little trouble in showing that the attachment is still strong enough for Telramund to function, psychoanalytically speaking, as the evil father whom Lohengrin has to confront in order to save his surrogate mother, Elsa. Wagner took pains to change the sequence of events in the various versions of the legend in order to allow this traumatic confrontation to recur with increasing intensity, as in certain kinds of dreams that repeat a single theme in different contexts with greater clarity each time. Lohengrin easily wins his battle with Telramund on Elsa's behalf in the first act, but in the second he intervenes only just in time in a far more fraught situation between Elsa and Telramund, as Elsa's doubts about the forbidden question begin to surface. After Elsa decides on her wedding night in the third act to break the code of silence and to ask the question, Lohengrin kills Telramund at last, finally revealing his identity and origin in the concluding tableau over the dead body of his “father,” and hence also revealing the real nature of the “incest” with the woman he set out to rescue.

Dark Visions

Wagner's prescient insight into the nature of myth allowed him to see Lohengrin paradoxically as a thoroughly modern work pointing to a utopian future precisely because it returns to the most fundamental origins of human feeling. Liszt was right nonetheless to stress the opera's culturally more specific traits, such as its obvious Christian symbolism and celebration of the medieval past, which Wagner's modernist posture at the time tended to obscure. (Rank dutifully follows Wagner, incidentally, in practically ignoring them too.) The final scene alone is liberally provided with Christian motifs. The dove that appears above Lohengrin's boat to pull it away when he withdraws over the ocean is an image that has strong associations with the Immaculate Conception. As the power of Lohengrin's prayer returns the swan to its original human form, a pagan symbol of miraculous birth is replaced by a specifically Christian one. Indeed, the very notion of the swan as a human being whose outer shape has been tragically altered touches on the idea central to Christian doctrine that only body and soul together can define an individual, and that rending the two asunder is the most terrible prospect anyone can face. Elsa is not only punished for answering the forbidden question by her parting from Lohengrin, whose true (p.36) identity she has only just discovered, but also by the separation of her soul from her body before she slowly slips lifeless to the ground. (In the stage direction describing the death of Elsa, Wagner uses the poetic expression entseelt, which in the context can be taken to mean literally “deprived of a soul.”)

The Christian symbols in Lohengrin are not a literal transposition of Christian dogma any more than are the liturgically inspired vocabulary and syntax in the poetry of Baudelaire, a famous admirer of the opera and its prelude in particular. Baudelaire was struck by the ethereal sound of the prelude, which gave him the sensation of weightlessness and strange visions of light.10 The aspiration toward radiant light, however, is not fulfilled in the opera; nor is there the slightest sign of blissful release that marks the end of all Wagner's other major works—two reasons to concur with Peter Wapnewski's striking description of the opera as Wagner's “darkest tragedy.”11 Indeed, with the departure of Lohengrin and the death of Elsa, the ending is so equivocal and unusual for Wagner that it is legitimate to ask whether a sequel was planned that would provide the missing redemptive conclusion, and indeed whether that sequel turned out to be—unlikely as it sounds at first—Der Ring des Nibelungen. Lohengrin and the Ring bring several deep-seated traumas to the surface without covering them up, including incest in conflict with the moral imperatives of a crumbling social hierarchy, murderous struggles for power, and, as Morse Peckham pointed out in his book Beyond the Tragic Vision, the failure of leadership and the “impossibility of an adequate society.”12 One major difference, however, is the spectacular redemptive conclusion of Götterdämmerung that Lohengrin conspicuously lacks. It is not a major disparity, but rather a final resolution of tensions already emerging in the earlier work. And it took Wagner practically all of the twenty-five years he worked on the Ring to get it right, as we shall see later in this book.

The Sounding of the New

Even when the critical star of Lohengrin shone at its brightest in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the music of the opera was already suspect to any self-respecting champion of “progress,” including at times, as we have seen, Wagner himself. Among the literati (e.g., Heinrich Mann, author of the novel Man of Straw) it was an easy target for caustic and amusing comment on reactionary middle-class mores that were enshrined in music with a disconcerting sentimental shimmer not out of place in the (p.37) drawing rooms of the most conservative nineteenth-century households. Even Houston Stewart Chamberlain, normally the most stalwart evangelist of the Wagner cause in the völkisch circles of the Second Reich, described Lohengrin as a “moment of feebleness”13 before Cosima Wagner's model production in Bayreuth (1894), conducted by Felix Mottl, made him change his mind. Other observers to this day, immersed in the advanced musical techniques of Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal, have found Lohengrin faintly obnoxious, or at least a puzzle.

The delicate position of Lohengrin in Wagner's musical development and the moral quicksands of its libretto made confusion inevitable from the start. The Dresden Uprising of 1849 had brought the composer fame as a revolutionary. As time passed, the label stuck less to his political than to his artistic beliefs, with the result that his first major theoretical works, published in the early 1850s, soon overshadowed Lohengrin as the more progressive aspect of his musical credo. The reaction to Wagner's London concerts in 1855 was typical. Readers of Opera and Drama, serialized in advance in The Musical World, were genuinely puzzled when Wagner conducted excerpts from Lohengrin. The critic of the Morning Post, William Howard Glover, praised Wagner's writings as “very original,” but remarked that his music revealed “no epoch-making innovations.”14 The Bridal Chorus hardly sounded like the Artwork of the Future. And few could be expected to grasp the irony behind its huge success, especially when it was played at the royal wedding of Princess Victoria and Prince Frederick William of Prussia three years later. In its proper dramatic context an intimate masterpiece of sweet foreboding and a prelude to marital disaster, outside the opera house it gradually became a much-loved set piece at countless humbler weddings—a musical symbol of eternal faith in the institution of marriage.

The checkered history of Lohengrin is no less ambiguous than the work itself. In the first editions of the libretto and the full score Wagner called it a “romantic opera.” Yet its atmosphere and certain aspects of its music suggest that it is closer to his later, more self-consciously modernist music dramas than it seems to be at first hearing. The spirit of the so-called classical period in the history of instrumental music is part of Lohengrin, too: the polyphonic orchestral writing much admired by Richard Strauss,15 the close motivic relationships, and, above all, the neat, often uncomfortably schematic dramatic and musical symmetries are all evidence of Wagner's burgeoning ambition to raise the musical status of opera to the level of the great classical symphonists. The repeat of the Grail music in Lohengrin's narration in the third act in A major and the subsequent recapitulation in the parallel key of F# minor of some of Ortrud's (p.38) music from the second are two good examples. Indeed, both were originally conceived on an even grander scale before Wagner eventually put dramatic sense above abstract formal concerns and cut them down in the finished work.16

Musical details, too, are rarely observed accurately, usually because the composer's so-called progressive innovations are too often thought to consist merely of near-atonal chromaticism and irregular phrase structure. In fact the anti-chromatic moments of Lohengrin are sometimes the most striking and original (the opening of the prelude, for instance), and even the banal regular phrases of the Bridal Chorus can seem daring and ambivalent: as a phantasmagoria of marital bliss about to shatter, they actually presage a breakdown in human relations that is neither banal nor regular, at least in terms of the rigorous Victorian ethic of marriage the young Victoria and Frederick must have thought it reflected at their royal wedding in 1858. In a sense, Lohengrin is a contradiction in terms. Carl Dahlhaus has pointed out that it mixes genres that do not mix (fairy-tale opera and grand historical drama).17 But still more paradoxically, its music can still sound strikingly new precisely where, according to conventional theory, it seems to have no modernist ambitions at all.

Music Analysis and Musical Imagery

It is often said that Wagner was uninterested in an analysis of his own music. Certainly his collected writings contain surprisingly few music examples: the journalist in him knew that most of his readers would find any technical discussion about music too remote from polemical debates about “true” German culture, politics, heroic myth, the demise of opera, and the future of music drama, subjects that were guaranteed to attract attention. But there are notable exceptions. His late essay On the Application of Music to Drama, published in 1879, is a rare attempt to focus on the processes behind his music with printed music examples rarely seen in Wagner's writings as a whole.18 And several passages in his letters show that the question of what makes his music work, an analytical challenge that has since vexed generations of experts, also preoccupied him more than is generally acknowledged. Some of his most interesting remarks relate to the music of Lohengrin and prove that he saw it as a more significant musical landmark than did many of his admirers. In an undated letter (probably December 1851) to his colleague Theodor Uhlig, the arranger of the first vocal score of the opera, he wrote:

(p.39) The business of the vocal score prompted me to take a quick look through the music of Lohengrin again. Since you sometimes write about these things, wouldn't you be interested in saying something about the network of themes [das thematische Formgewebe] and how, in the direction I've chosen to go, it must constantly create new forms? Among other things this occurred to me when I looked at the first scene of the second act. At the start of the second scene—the prelude with wind instruments accompanying Elsa's entrance on to the balcony—I noticed how in the seventh, eighth, and ninth bars accompanying Elsa's nocturnal appearance a motif is heard for the first time, which, fully formed, later undergoes spacious and broad development when Elsa moves in broad daylight and full brilliance toward the church. I clearly saw from this how my themes come into being always in context, and in keeping with the nature of a vivid image.19

Even a faithful follower like Uhlig may have balked at the idea of finding a thematic web in Lohengrin. Although without any knowledge of the music of the Ring, which was only begun in earnest two years later, Uhlig did know Wagner's ideas for the new kind of symphonic drama he was planning and already explaining in detail in writings that Uhlig was helping to prepare for publication. And what was already abundantly clear from these writings—mainly the three-hundred-odd-page treatise Opera and Drama, which finally appeared complete in 1852—was that Wagner was intending to write music on a far larger scale than he had ever attempted before, including large numbers of motifs, many with specific meanings (contrary to legend Wagner himself labeled some of them in his sketches)20 entwined in a symphonic web spread over whole works from beginning to end.

Ever since, posterity has continued to understand Wagner's famous system of leitmotifs in terms of this method alone, without realizing—as Uhlig almost certainly did—that it was invented specifically for the Ring. The truth is that the method is qualitatively very different from the way motifs are used in Lohengrin, and different, too, from the methods he was to develop later in Tristan, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal, not to mention the later parts of the Ring itself. Confusion about this important point was therefore grounded in Wagner's understandable wish to project his ideas about motif backward onto Lohengrin in order to make it seem like a logical precursor to the project he was currently working on—a self-invented myth that has persuaded countless commentators to privilege the issue of themes and motifs in the earlier work over more interesting aspects of the score. (There are only six motifs that recur regularly throughout Lohengrin, fewer than appear in the first scene of the Ring alone.)

(p.40) To be fair, Wagner seems less obsessed by his “network of themes” in his informal letter to Uhlig than he does in his “official” writings. It is well to remember, perhaps, that he had still not heard Lohengrin in its entirety, let alone seen it in the theater, despite the fact that the rest of Europe's musical cognoscenti (who happened not to be revolutionary insurgents in Germany with warrants issued for their arrest) had had the opportunity of seeing the first full production under Liszt's direction in Weimar in the previous year. Astonishingly, he did not experience the entire opera in the theater until May 1861, thirteen years after he had finished it, in Vienna. While it steadily grew in popularity during the 1850s in German-speaking countries, all he could do in his Swiss refuge was to re-create its theatrical effect in his imagination—one explanation, perhaps, for the large number of surviving documents that attest to the extremely detailed personal care he took with its visual production.21 And in his letter to Uhlig this may well be the reason for his acutely analytical approach to the music in terms of the opera's scenic realization. His “network of themes” that constantly creates “new forms” may at first sight be more applicable to the Ring. At the same time, it refers convincingly to the focusing of visual and orchestral images in Lohengrin, involving the vivid combination of immediate scenic impressions and local thematic ideas developed—somewhat paradoxically—on a large, almost quasi-symphonic, scale. It is, without doubt, one of the opera's most important achievements.

The history of opera is rich in examples of the literal musical representation of spectacular images on stage and also the not-so-literal depiction of characters' feelings deliberately hidden by those images, though real enough when translated into the “invisible” language of music. (Both aspects obviously anticipate with uncanny accuracy the power music was to have in the cinema.) Whether in the depiction of natural catastrophes, such as the avalanche in Cherubini's Eliza, or in the representation of telling and contradictory emotions, as in Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, where an unruly viola part betrays the true emotions behind Oreste's words “Le calme rentre dans mon coeur,” composers have been unusually inventive in creating orchestral replicas of what audiences actually see, and also what they do not see but clearly sense behind the appearances presented to them.

A good example of the latter is the moment in the second act of Lohengrin when a seemingly distressed Ortrud, “powerless and pitiful” (machtlos und elend), asks Elsa how she could possibly reward her for her sympathy. The agitated viola part in the accompaniment immediately betrays the skullduggery behind Ortrud's tactics, artfully deployed to gain Elsa's trust in a plot designed in the long term to ensure the downfall of Lohengrin.22 (p.41) In one sense, it is a precise imitation of Gluck's technique. In another, its scenic presence at the very heart of the work after Ortrud's terrifying outburst “You gods profaned” (Entweihte Götter) is a telling and subtly positioned musical moment of great dramatic and structural consequence. The subtle tension between musical sound and visual action here is not, as in Gluck's opera, just a local event: using different musical means and different images, the tension increases almost imperceptibly as the action proceeds, until it breaks spectacularly into the open, first with Ortrud's interruption of the wedding procession leading into the church toward the end of the second act, and again in the third, when Elsa finally asks Lohengrin the forbidden question and destroys her relationship with him for good.

The more literal orchestral underlining of a “vivid image” in Lohengrin, too, was hardly an original innovation. Wagner's adaptation of the convention, however, permanently changed the scale and scope of the idea. The true originality of his so-called musical scene painting is the way it is used over long stretches to create a kaleidoscope of visual and acoustical images. The motif cited by Wagner in his letter to Uhlig in the seventh, eighth, and ninth measures of the second scene of the second act is introduced almost casually. Yet precisely for this reason its “spacious and bright development” more than nine hundred measures later in the second act has enormous suggestive power.23 Wagner has smuggled the motif and its visual association into the listener's subconscious almost surreptitiously, rather like the seemingly insignificant mention in a novel by Proust of a character who turns out to be central to the narrative sixty pages later. Both the timbre and the simple outline of the motif are extended in their new context toward a musical depiction of Elsa's lonely procession in broad daylight toward the church: solo instruments are merged with ensemble textures, and just before the motif is taken up by the first and second violins, the music shifts unexpectedly toward the brighter key of F major. At its first appearance an idea without consequence, the motif becomes part of several delicately floating, chamber music-like textures, which, although they boast no adventurous harmonic or structural background, present an animated timbral landscape to the viewer expressing not just the onlooker's enraptured response to the innocent bride, but also, through notes also enchained by their stubbornly unchanging meter of four beats per measure, a sense that she is relentlessly processing toward her doom.

Soon after beginning the orchestration of Lohengrin, Wagner arranged Palestrina's Stabat mater for a performance he conducted himself in Dresden on 8 March 1848.24 The two events perhaps have more to do with one (p.42) another than is generally realized. Wagner added numerous dynamic markings to Palestrina's masterpiece, and he redistributed the voices into solo, half-choir, and full-choir groups in a way not unlike his treatment of instrumental lines in Lohengrin. At the beginning of the prelude, for instance, the Holy Grail—one of the most striking extramusical images in the opera—is re-created on a single chord of A major colored by the alternating superimposed sounds of, respectively, full violins, a third of the woodwinds, and four solo violins playing in their extreme upper register with harmonics. Not only are the overlapping instrumental “choirs” in the prelude reminiscent of Renaissance polyphony; the web of orchestral color itself is informed by its spirit.

This is especially clear when the prelude is compared with the “sunrise” in Félicien David's symphonic ode Le Désert (1844), to which it bears an uncanny resemblance. While David also chooses A major with high strings and solo woodwind, making effective use, too, of A-major and F#-minor chords in juxtaposition, Wagner combines this essentially static idea with greater differentiation of sound and strong horizontal lines that greatly enhance his highly suggestive acoustical metaphor Again, in the history of opera, the idea—in this case, the borrowing from church music to conjure up an atmosphere of the sacred in decidedly secular surroundings—was already not uncommon. Wagner would not have been Wagner, however, if he had not taken it several steps further. Richard Strauss and Theodor Adorno have already drawn attention to the imitation of the sound of the organ by the woodwinds as a way of allegorizing the poetic idea of the wedding and the archaic image of “an all-embracing cosmos confirmed by God.”25 On the surface it hardly sounds like a modernist idea. But the timbral inflections in the orchestration that result—a merging of entries and timbres into a seamless whole disguising the individual entries and sounds of the instruments involved, a bit like the combination of organ registers to create a composite timbre, in which the sound of each register on its own is no longer recognizable—was to become the rule in the music of Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Moreover, the suggestive instrumentation of the prelude permeates the orchestral style of the entire opera. It may be a metaphor (as Wagner himself described it) for the Holy Grail and its “descent from heaven escorted by a host of angels,”26 which comes perilously close to the worst kind of musical religious kitsch. But on another level its sheer daring in setting up an ambitious architectural design over long periods of time stretching over the whole work set a new precedent for opera and purely instrumental music alike.

(p.43) The Beginning of the Future

Apart from the prelude, which was written last, Lohengrin was the first of Wagner's operas to be composed through from beginning to end without regard for a conventional sequence of operatic “numbers.” (Ernest Newman's statement that the third act was composed first and the second act last is not borne out by Wagner's sketches.)27 The new technique added even more irony to the long-term success of Lohengrin as a series of set pieces performed outside the theater in concerts, weddings, drawing rooms, parks, health spas, and—perhaps least surprisingly—military parades.28 And it certainly explains Wagner's reluctance to accept his publisher's demand for arrangements of “highlights” that could help to sell the opera, though he eventually agreed and personally put together nine of its “most attractive songs” for voice and piano, which quickly became a best seller.29 Above all, the ambition to provide the music of the opera with greater continuity for dramatic reasons meant that Wagner confronted himself with a number of technical hurdles that help to account for its occasionally uneven quality, especially in the handling of the choruses.

Wagner decreed in Opera and Drama that the operatic chorus should vanish and be replaced by the orchestra. It was a Wagnerian law that Wagner himself disobeyed, but doubtless it is why the choruses in Lohengrin are traditionally regarded as the least interesting and most “reactionary” aspect of the work. Some are indeed overextended with conventional melodic lines made to bridge awkward gaps in the musical continuity. Yet Wagner's sketches prove that he took great pains to integrate them into the fabric of the whole work. On the rare occasions when the double male-voice chorus in act 2, “At this early hour, the call bids us assemble” (In Früh'n versammelt uns der Ruf), is performed accurately and without cuts, its reputation as an operatic blockbuster pales before the subtlety of its individual lines. In a sense Wagner's choruses in Lohengrin are his second orchestra. They are alive with unusual sounds, and they are infused with a dramatic vitality easily transcending Wagner's later accusation that in opera the chorus can only play a conventional role as a poor relative of the main action.

Lohengrin is the first of Wagner's major works that he did not extensively revise. Parts of Rienzi were cut and modified even before its first performance; and largely for practical reasons different versions of it were performed with the composer's connivance well into the 1850s.30 Both The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser were revised for a different reason. Cosima Wagner's diaries make it quite plain that Zukunftsmusik (Music of the Future)—a term Wagner hated but unwittingly encouraged through the stylization of (p.44) himself as a musical progressive—played an important role in many attempts to make these operas conform to a later, more “official” style. In his final years Wagner expressed to Cosima his intention of thoroughly reworking the Dutchman,31 and also famously said to her that “he still owes the world Tannhäuser,” even after all the work he had done revising that opera over a period of at least thirty years.32

No such remark about Lohengrin has survived. He may have written a new introduction to the finale of act 1 when he conducted it in a concert in Dresden on 22 September 1848. (According to one witness, the performance was received with lukewarm applause and “lively opposition.”)33 And we know for certain from letters and other sources that he composed new transitions and endings for excerpts he conducted in Zurich and London in the 1850s and on a concert tour of Russia in 1863, most of which are lost. He conducted the opera several times and personally supervised two productions first given on 16 June 1867 in Munich and on 15 December 1875 in Vienna. Apart from minor cuts, he apparently altered nothing except some of the stage directions. The only substantial change he made was a cut in Lohengrin's narration in act 3, which he asked Liszt to carry out for the first performance.34 This was not because he suddenly wanted to bring the opera up to date, however, but rather, as we have already seen, because he seriously miscalculated the dramatic effect of the oldfashioned formal symmetry he wanted to impose on the work.

In an open letter to Arigo Boito (1871), Wagner expressed dissatisfaction with performances of Lohengrin he had seen. Only once—in the 1867 Munich production—did he achieve an ideal performance of the work, “at least as far as its rhythmic-architectonic structure was concerned.”35 Lohengrin was his most popular work and the least understood. But his refusal to change hardly a note of it is surely a sign that it is closer to his later music dramas than is generally realized, and in a more profound sense than a superficial comparison of its motifs with the leitmotifs of the Ring can ever possibly demonstrate. Wagner wrote several times that his new path began with the composition of The Flying Dutchman. Careful listening and an informed view of the revisions in his early works, however, suggest that it is in Lohengrin where the Music of the Future really begins.


(1.) Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, rev. ed., trans. James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 36.

(2.) LohengrinDokumente und Texte zu “Lohengrin,” ed. John Deathridge and Klaus Döge (Mainz: Schott Musik International, 2003)

(3.) Franz Liszt, Sämtliche Schriften 4: Lohengrin et Tannhaüser [sic] de Richard Wagner/Lohengrin und Tannhäuser von Richard Wagner, ed. Rainer Kleinertz, with commentary by Gerhard J. Winkler (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1989), 4–5Illustrierte Zeitung

(4.) SSD 4: 289–90; PW 1: 334–35.

(5.) SSD 4: 291; PW 1: 335–36.

(6.) Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked, trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman, Introduction to a Science of Mythology 1 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), 15

(7.) Otto Rank, Die Lohengrinsage. Ein Beitrag zu ihrer Motivgestaltung und Deutung, Schriften zur angewandten Seelenkunde 13 (Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1970), 19.

(9.) Ibid., 137–51. See Max Graf's interpretation of the same constellation in Der fliegende Holländer in the ninth volume of the same series: Max Graf, Richard Wagner im “fliegenden Holländer.” Ein Beitrag zur Psychologie künstlerischen Schaffens (Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1970; first published Leipzig and Vienna, 1911). The essay by Freud on which Rank and Graf base this insight into Wagner was written in 1910 and can be found in “A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Siegmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, with (p.250) Anna Freud, Alix Strachey, and Alan Tyson (London: Hogarth Press, 1953–74), 11: 163–75.

(10.) Charles Baudelaire, Selected Writings on Art and Artists, trans. Patrick Edward Charvet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 331.

(11.) Peter Wapnewski, “The Operas as Literary Works,” Wagner Handbook, ed. Ulrich Müller and Peter Wapnewski, trans. ed. John Deathridge (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), 35.

(12.) Morse Peckham, Beyond the Tragic Vision: The Quest for Identity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 250.

(13.) Cited in Geoffrey G. Field, Evangelist of Race: The Germanic Vision of Houston Stewart Chamberlain (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 144.LohengrinRevue Wagnérienne

(14.) William Ashton Ellis, Life of Richard Wagner (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co, 1906), 5: 208.

(15.) Hector Berlioz, Treatise on Instrumentation, enlarged and rev. by Richard Strauss, trans. Theodore Front (New York: Edwin F. Kalmus, 1948), ii.

(16.) For a transcription of the original version of Ortrud's narration, see John Deathridge, “Through the Looking Glass: Some Remarks on the First Complete Draft of Lohengrin,” in Analyzing Opera: Verdi and Wagner, ed. Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 82–86. The (cut) second half of Lohengrin's narration is reprinted with critical apparatus in Appendix 1 to SW 7/III, Lohengrin: Romantische Oper in drei Akten, ed. John Deathridge and Klaus Döge (Mainz: Schott Musik International, 2000), 202–12.

(17.) Carl Dahlhaus, Richard Wagner's Music Dramas, trans. Mary Whittall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 35.

(18.) SSD 10: 176–93; PW 6: 173–91.

(19.) SB 4: 241. Wagner is referring to measures 430–32 of the second act. All measure numbers after SW 7/I-III.

(20.) Curt von Westernhagen, The Forging of the “Ring,” trans. Arnold and Mary Whittall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 29.Ring

(21.) Wagner's stage designs for Lohengrin and those into which he had substantial input are reproduced in SW 26: 43–47

(22.) SW 7/2: mm. 718–49.

(23.) SW7/2: mm. 1362 ff.


(24.) Further details in WWV 336–37.

(25.) Theodor Adorno, In Search of Wagner, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: New Left Books, 1981), 73.

(26.) 26 SW 26: 132.

(27.) Deathridge, “Through the Looking Glass,” 66–68.

(28.) Arrangements for military band became very popular during the 1890s, especially in Britain. See, for instance, Jacob Adam Kappey, Grand Selection from Lohengrin arranged for military band (London: Boosey & Co, 1893), and Bridal March from Lohengrin, arr. A. Morelli for Fife and Drum Band (London: J. R. Lafleur & Sons, 1898).

(29.) First published in 1854 as “Lyrical Pieces for Voice and Piano” (Lyrische Stücke für eine Gesangstimme und Klavier) and reprinted many times. For a critical edition of Wagner's arrangement, see SW 7/III: Appendix 3.

(30.) Dokumente und Texte zu “Rienzi ‘der Letzte der Tribunen’,” ed. Reinhard Strohm (Mainz: B. Schott's Söhne, 1976), 111–34.

(31.) The relevant entries in CD are included together in SW 24, Dokumente und Texte zu “Der fliegende Holländer,” ed. Egon Voss (Mainz: Schott Musik International, 2004), 166–68.

(32.) CD, 23 January 1883.

(33.) SW 26: 24.

(34.) Letter of 2 July 1850 to Franz Liszt. SB 3: 343–47 and SW 26: 42–43.

(35.) SSD 9: 288; PW 5: 286.