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Medieval Legends

Richard Wagner's 'Tannhäuser' at San Diego Opera,
enjoyed by MARIA NOCKIN


On 26 January 2008, San Diego Opera presented Richard Wagner's monumental Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf der Wartburg. The composer wrote both the text and the music, fashioning the libretto from two medieval legends. The first concerns the historical figure Tannhäuser who lived from approximately 1200 to 1270, and the second deals with the song contest on the Wartburg which may well have been held before the title character was old enough to have taken part in it. Tannhäuser did participate in a crusade and returned with considerable wealth. Unfortunately, he squandered it, according to one of his poems, 'on fair women, good wine, dainty meats and baths twice a week'. Later, when he was poor, he regretted his former life. Wolfram von Eschenbach was also a real life poet and singer who lived from 1170 to 1220. His best known work is Parzival, but other poems exist, including seven lyric poems and a fragment entitled Titurel.

Robert Gambil as Tannhäuser and Petra Lang as Venus in San Diego Opera's 'Tannhäuser'. Photo © 2008 Cory Weaver
Robert Gambil as Tannhäuser and Petra Lang as Venus in San Diego Opera's 'Tannhäuser'. Photo © 2008 Cory Weaver

It's possible that Wagner got some ideas from ETA Hoffmann's story about the singing contest on the Wartburg and from Heinrich Heine's 1837 poem Elementargeiste. The first writer to join the legend of Tannhäuser with the Singing Contest was Ludwig Bechstein in Der Sagenschatz und die Sagenkreise des Thüringerlandes, which he wrote between 1835 and 1838. Wagner's opera was originally premièred on 19 October 1845, in Dresden, where it was not well received. He revised it and the final of the Dresden version was published in 1860. A year later, on 13 March 1861, a new Paris version of the work, which included a ballet, was seen at L'Opéra.

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Copyright © 4 February 2008 Maria Nockin, Arizona USA


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