"listening in rapt pleasure to "Tannhauser" and seeing in the prelude to that great work of art a presentation of the tragedy of his own soul.“ The Premier of Richard Wagner's "Tannhäuser" in 1845

19 October 1845, Richard Wagner’s opera “Tannhäuser” premiered at the Royal Theatre in Dresden.

“The fantastic character of these instruments fascinated him, and he felt a curious delight in the thought that art, like Nature, has her monsters, things of bestial shape and with hideous voices. Yet, after some time, he wearied of them, and would sit in his box at the opera, either alone or with Lord Henry, listening in rapt pleasure to "Tannhauser" and seeing in the prelude to that great work of art a presentation of the tragedy of his own soul.“ (Oscar Wilde “The Picture of Dorian Gray”)

John Collier’s (1850 – 1934) imagination of Tannhäuser adoring Frau Venus

Collecting and re-writing legends, myths and fairy tales was in full swing during the first decades of the 19th century, especially in the German-speaking areas. The Brothers Grimm started the trend that became an integral part of the Romantic Movement, elementary, in fact, like few others and Heinrich Heine, with sharp wit and pen, had already put his very own ironic views of these tales to paper. A couple of years later, Wagner subtracted the irony and formulated his own Gesamtkunstwerk out of Heine’s apostilles, in the case of Tannhäuser with a dash of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Tieck and Bechstein. An ensemble usually doesn’t get any more Romantically moved than that. Tannhäuser’s archetypical tale of the artist type who expires to the fairy queen or pagan goddess under the hill is told in variations all across northern Europe from Ireland to Russia. The antagonism of spirit and flesh in “Tannhäuser”, his dilemma during the Singer’s Contest at Wartburg, winning the award by praising Frau Venus under the hill and thereby losing his more mundane love interest, Elizabeth, the local potentate’s niece along with salvation and finally his pilgrimage to seek redemption are genuine and real conflicts of the Middle Ages are resounding in the tale. In Rome, Pope Urban IV declares Tannhäuser beyond redemption for his fooling around with a pagan goddess and rather his pilgrim staff would blossom than the knight’s sins would be forgiven. However, three days later, the thing is in full bloom, belying papal infallibility.

Anselm Feuerbach: "Tannhäuser" (1855)

It was the Paris performance of the opera in 1861 that proved to be rather momentous even though it was damned by the local establishment. Not for its content but for the shifting of the customary ballet scene into Act I. Usually, the influential Parisian Jockey Club arrived at the opera with the beginning of Act II to see their mistresses perform on stage and disappear with them behind the scenes when Act III started. Feeling deceived when they came too late from their dinners they took care that Wagner’s opera was dropped after its third performance. Baudelaire, however, was enraptured, wrote an epoch-making essay that became a beacon for the decadent literature of the second half of the 19th century along with Wagner’s music and the symbolic renunciation of salvation in favour of sexual fulfilment, from Swinburne to Huysmans and Wilde. The latter found the image of forgiveness far more appealing after his trial, though, became a Roman Catholic and used the image of Tannhäuser’s redemption as a symbol of his own in his “Ballad of Reading Gaol”: “ For who can say by what strange way, / Christ brings His will to light, / Since the barren staff the pilgrim bore / Bloomed in the great Pope's sight?“

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