History of Literature






Liezen-Mayer Sándor
Tannhäuser and Venus


Richard Wagner




The attempt has been made in the following to give an idea of the charm and interest of the original text of the Wagner operas, of Wagner's extraordinary power and fertility as a dramatist. It is not critique or commentary, it is presentation, picture, narrative; it offers nothing that is not derived directly and exclusively from the Wagner libretti and scores.

The stories of the operas are widely known already, of course. As literature, however, one may almost say they are not known at all, unless by students of German. The translators had before them a task so tremendous, in the necessity to fit their verse-rendering of the master's poetry to extremely difficult music, that we respect them for achieving it at all. None the less must the translations included in our libretti be pronounced painfully inadequate. To give a better, more complete knowledge of the original poems is the object of these essays. The poems form, even apart from the music, a whole beautiful, luminous, romantic world. One would not lose more by dropping out of literature the Idylls of the King than the Wagnerian romances.


Parsifal  (libretto by Richard Wagner)
Illustrated by Franz Stassen

The Ring of the Nibelung
The Rhine-Gold
The Valkyrie
The Twilight of the Gods
The Master-Singers of Nuremberg

Tristan and Isolde (libretto by Richard Wagner)

Lohengrin  (libretto by Richard Wagner)

 (libretto by Richard Wagner)
The Flying Dutchman






We are shown in the Ouverture of Tannhäuser the power which contended for the young knight and minstrel's soul: the appeal of good is symbolised by the solemn chant of the pilgrims; of evil, by the voice of Venus, the song of the Sirens, the Bacchic dance.

We are not informed how he came into the Hill of Venus, but when we see him at the Landgrave's court, which we are told he forsook of yore in offended pride, we think we divine. He is more greatly gifted than any of his associates. By his sense of superiority he is made—young and hot-blooded as he is,—haughty, quick, impatient. They cannot suffer his overbearing way. We can imagine how upon an occasion he left them, after a round quarrel, in a fury of vexation, sick with disgust at the whole world of such slow, limited creatures, the whole world of petty passions and narrow circumstances, in a mood to sell himself to the Devil for something in life which should seem to him worth while, of satisfactory size, peer to himself. And so his feet had come in the familiar valley suddenly upon a new path, and been led to the interior of the mountain where Venus, driven from the surface of the earth by the usurping Cross, had taken refuge with all her pagan train. There the Queen of Love herself had contented him, and his thirsty youth had thought this no doubt a sufficient crown  of life; this had met all his vast desires, appeased all his boundless pride. He had lived in the rosy atmosphere there he knew not how long, existence one feast, at which everything in man was satisfied, heart, imagination, senses—everything but his soul.

We first have sight of him lying at the feet of Venus, his head pillowed on her lap. There are dances and revels for their delight, but he has fallen asleep,—and in his dream he hears, through the song of stupefying sweetness in which the Sirens hold forth enkindling promises, a fragment of anthem, the long-forgotten music of church-bells. He starts awake. The tender queen draws down-his head again with a caress. "Beloved, where are your thoughts?" But his neglected soul has in dream made its claim. The sweetness of all this other is found by sudden revulsion cloying to the point of despair. "Too much!" he cries wildly, "Too much! Oh, that I might awaken!" At just that touch, that sound in sleep of bells, his whole poor humanity has flooded back upon him, and at the goddess's indulgent "Tell me what troubles you?" his weak infinite homesickness breaks bounds. "It seemed to me, in my dream, that I heard—what so long has been foreign to my ear!—the pleasant pealing of bells. Oh, tell me, how long is it that I hear them no more? I cannot measure the length of my sojourn here. There are no longer for me days or months, since I no longer see the sun or the sky's friendly constellations. The grass-blade I see no more, which, clothing itself with fresh green, brings in the new summer. The nightingale I hear no more announcing the return of Spring. Am I never to hear them, never to see them more?"

Venus, mildly amazed at folly so prodigious, reproaches him for this complaining, these regrets. What, is he so soon weary of the marvels with which her love surrounds him? Discontented  so soon with being a god? Has he so soon forgotten the old unhappiness? "My minstrel, up! Take your harp! Sing the praise of love, which you celebrate so gloriously that you won the Goddess of Love herself." Tannhäuser, thus bidden, seizes the harp and warmly entones a hymn of praise to her, which from its climax of ardour, suddenly—as if his lips were tripped by the word "mortal" occurring in the song,—turns into a prayer to her to release him. "But mortal, alas, I have remained, and your love is over-great for me. A god has the capacity to enjoy perpetually, but I am the creature of change. Not joy alone can satisfy my heart, after pleasure I yearn for sorrow. Forth from your kingdom I must fare. Oh, Queen, Goddess, let me depart!"

Reproachful questions succeed on her part: Of what neglect has her love been guilty, of what can he accuse her? In reply, grasping his harp again, he adds fiery praise to praise of her greatness, the wonders of her kingdom,—to drop again into his prayer for release: "But I, amid these rosy perfumes, I yearn for the odour of the forest, yearn for the pure blue of our skies, the fresh green of our sward, the sweet song of our birds, the dear sound of our bells! Forth from your kingdom I must fare. O Queen, Goddess, let me depart!"

The beautiful queen's surprise is turning to anger, without ceasing to be surprise. "You sing the praise of my love, and wish at the same time to flee from it? My beauty, is it possible, has brought surfeit?" He tells her, disarmingly as he may, what must fall incomprehensibly on her pagan ears, that it is that over-great beauty of hers he must shun, that never was his love greater, never sincerer, than in this moment when he must flee from her forever.

She drops chiding then, truly alarmed, and tempts. She paints to him with glowing art the delights awaiting them; to  these she bids him with the persuasive voice of love. When the goddess of beauty thus invites a mortal, she feels secure in counting upon his forgetting all else. But this Tannhäuser, with the dreamy echo in his earth-born ears of the church-bells of home, he catches, instead of her beautiful form to his breast, his harp again. He grants that her beauty is the source of all beauty, that every lovely marvel has its origin in her: against the whole world, he promises, he will thereafter be her champion, but—back to the world of earth go he must, for here he can but become a slave. Freedom, for freedom he thirsts! Battle and struggle he must have, though he should meet through them defeat and death. Forth from her kingdom he must fare! Queen, Goddess, let him depart!

"Go, then, madman, go!" she bids him in lovely wrath. "Traitor, see, I do not hold you back! I leave you free, go your way, go your way! Let your doom be to have that which you yearn for! Go back to cold mankind, before whose gross dismal delusion we Gods of Joy fled deep into the warm bosom of the earth. Go back to them, infatuated! Seek your soul's welfare and find it never! Not long before your proud heart will surrender. I shall see you humbly draw near. Broken, trampled, you will come seeking me, will invoke the wonders of my power!" Unheedful of the remainder, he seizes avidly upon his dismissal. "Ah, lovely goddess, farewell! Never will I return!" What—never return? She threatens with her curse, if he shall not return, him and the whole human race: in vain let them go seeking for her miracles, let the world become a wilderness and have for its hero a slave! But yet—he cannot have meant what he said, he will come back, let him say that he will come back! "Nevermore!" cries the captive of this suffocating prison-house of love, as he pants upon the threshold of freedom, "nevermore let joy of love delight  me!"—"Come back" she desperately entreats, "when your heart impels you!"—"Forever your beloved flees!"—"Come back when the whole world rejects you!"—"Through penance I shall be absolved from sin!"—"Never shall you gain forgiveness! Come back if the gates of salvation close to you!"—"Salvation!... My hope of salvation lies in the Blessed Mary!"

At that name, Venus uttering a cry vanishes, and with her the dim-lit subterranean kingdom....

Tannhäuser finds himself standing in a sunny well-known valley, near to a road-side shrine of the Blessed Mary at whose hem he had caught. The Wartburg is in sight, where he was used in former days to take part in song-tournaments. In dim distance looms the Hörselberg, concerning which a sinister rumour ran: that in the heart of it the pagan goddess Venus still lived and held her court. All the landscape smiles, the trees are in blossom, nature is altogether at her loveliest. Oh, so sweeter to the ears of the resuscitated knight than the song of sirens, comes the homely tinkle of sheepbells. A little shepherd pipes and sings in joy over the return of May.

Tannhäuser stands statue-still, as if he feared by the slightest movement to wake himself, to dispel the vision.

A band of penitents, starting on a pilgrimage to far-off Rome, defile past the Virgin's shrine, saluting her and asking her grace upon their pilgrimage. Their pious chant stirs in Tannhäuser deep, long-untouched chords. At the same moment that the aroused sense of pollution would overwhelm him, the reminder shines forth to him in the pilgrims' words of the possibility of forgiveness and regeneration through repentance and penitential practices. A very miracle of God's grace it seems to him, by which he sees the door of hope open to him anew. The weight of his emotion forces him to his knees; he makes his own  the words of the pilgrims wending their way out of sight: "Ah, heavily oppresses me the burden of sin, no longer can I carry it. No more will I therefore of ease and rest, but choose for my portion pain and effort." The pilgrims' voices come drifting more and more dyingly, the breeze wafts sounds of church-bells. With tears Tannhäuser bows his head and sinks into prayer.

Cheerful hunting-horns breaking upon the air do not rouse him, nor the approach of the hunters. They are the Landgrave and a group of his favorite minstrel-knights. Catching sight of the kneeling figure, they stop to observe it. The minstrel Wolfram recognises their old companion, Heinrich, who had left them, time gone, to disappear utterly. The circumstances of their parting are suggested by the first words uttered when Tannhäuser starts to his feet and faces them. "Is it truly yourself?" asks the Landgrave; "Have you come back to the community which you forsook in impatient arrogance?"—"Tell us what is implied by your return?" says the minstrel Biterolf; "Reconciliation? Or renewed battle?"—"Do you come as friend or foe?" asks the minstrel Walther. So much the more probable thing does it seem that he comes as foe that there is a challenging note in the address of all—save Wolfram. The latter, the gentlest soul among them, has taken account of the old companion's countenance; his sympathy is quick to interpret it, by a word he changes the mood toward him of all the others. "As a foe? How can you ask? Is that the bearing of arrogance? Oh, welcome back among us, you singer bold, who too long have been absent from our midst!"—"Welcome if you come peaceably-minded!" say the others; "Welcome if you approach as a friend! Welcome among us!"

The Landgrave, after adding his gracious greeting to the greetings of the others asks where he has been this long time.  "Far, far from here I wandered," Tannhäuser replies, with a vagueness mysteriously pregnant, "where I found neither peace nor rest. Inquire not! I have not come to contend with you. Forgive the past and let me go my way!"

Marvellously softened by this novel gentleness in the formerly so testy and proud companion, all now with a single mind desire him to stay, nay, refuse to let him go. He turns from them resolutely: "Detain me not! It would ill profit me to tarry! Never more for me repose! Onward and ever onward lies my way, to look backward were undoing!" He is hastening away, despite their entreaties, when Wolfram pronounces the name which brings him to an instantaneous standstill. "Remain beside Elizabeth!"—"Elizabeth!" Tannhäuser repeats after him, reverently as if the name were consecrated bread upon his lips; "Oh, power of Heaven, is it you calling that sweet name to me?" At the spectacle of his emotion, Wolfram turns to the Landgrave: "Have I your leave, my lord, to be the herald to him of his good fortune?" The Landgrave consents. "Inform him of the magic spell he has wrought, and may God lend him virtue to loose it worthily!" Wolfram imparts to Henry then that when in the days before his disappearance the minstrels were wont to contend with him in song, whatever the event of the contest, one prize there had been won by him alone, his song alone had had power to enthrall the interest of that most virtuous maid, Elizabeth. And when he had proudly withdrawn from their midst, her heart had closed to the singing of the remaining minstrels; her cheek had lost bloom, she had shunned their song-tourneys. "Return to us, O daring minstrel," Wolfram concludes, "let your song resound alongside of ours, that she may no longer be absent from our festivals, that her star once more may shed brightness upon us!" The fellow-minstrels join their voices to Wolfram's,  to press the recovered companion to remain among them. "Let discord and quarrel be laid aside! Let our songs form one harmony! As brothers regard us henceforward!"

Great gladness has fallen upon the knight, crushed to earth a moment past by a sense of sin; a swift rebound lifts up the heart that had asked of this fair and over-fair world just restored to him only opportunity to expiate and be made clean. Can this be true, this which seems like the most madly impossible of beautiful dreams? Elizabeth! the Landgrave's niece, the fair and faultless, the saint!... No doubt in the old days he had worshipped her, not daring to lift his eyes above her footprints, had loved as a moth may a star. That lily had shone in his dreams, cool and pure and unattainable, by the mysterious attraction of opposites compelling homage and desire more than might any being less removed in nature from his hot, pleasure-thirsty, sense-ridden, undisciplined self. An element in his discontent with the earth had been perhaps his sense of life-wide separation from her, of unsurpassable barriers between them, the vanity of aspiration. And now the Landgrave permits her name to be used to keep him from departing! And with his long-dead soul come back to intenser life than ever, that lily more than ever calls forth the worshipping devotion of his reawakened highest self. In total self-abandonment of joy, he breaks forth: "To her! To her! Oh, conduct me to her! Ah, I recognise it now, the lovely world from which I was cut off! The sky it is, looking down upon me, it is the greensward flaunting rich multitude of flowers. Spring with its thousand voices of joy has entered into my soul, and my heart in sweet ungovernable tumult cries out aloud: To her! To her!"

"Praise be to the power," say Landgrave and minstrels, "which has dispelled his arrogance!" What the remembrance is in this circle of Tannhäuser's arrogance appears from the  frequency of reference to it. The remainder of the hunting-retinue has now joined the Landgrave; the scene is brilliant with swarming figures of hunters, hounds, and horses. With bright horn-calls the train starts homeward, on its rejoicing way "to her!"

Tannhäuser, from the Codex Manesse


The Hall of Minstrels in the Wartburg, where the famous song-tournaments were held. Such a tournament is directly to take place, and Elizabeth for the first time after many days will preside over it. She enters the hall while it is still empty of guests, and looks around with glad affectionate eyes, like one returning home after long exile. She is sincere as she is innocent, the white princess, "une âme sans détours," and speaks the truth of her heart with wonderfully little circumlocution, as to herself now in her salutation of the hall, so to others later. "Once more I greet you, beloved hall,—oh, joyously greet you, place ever dear! In you reawaken echoes of his singing, and draw me from my melancholy dream. When he departed from you, how desolate did you appear to me! Peace deserted me, joy deserted you! But now that my breast rides high with gladness you appear to me proud again and splendid as of yore. The one who gives new life both to you and to me no longer tarries afar. All hail to you, beloved hall, all hail!"

Wolfram, who loves Elizabeth, but in such unworldly, elevated, self-abjuring wise that he can for the sake of happiness to her set wholly aside hopes, desires, and jealousies of his own, finds for Tannhäuser this opportunity of seeing the Princess alone. He leads him into her presence and effaces himself, while their interview lasts, among the arches at the back of the hall.

 Tannhäuser, flushed and radiant, magnificent in his festival robes of a noble minstrel-knight, casts himself impetuously at her feet. His sudden appearance startles her painfully. Her manner speaks a confusion almost tremulous: "Father in Heaven!... Do not kneel!... It is not meet that I should see you here!"—"What else so meet? Oh, do not leave," he cries ardently, "and suffer me to remain thus at your feet!" Her timidity wears away like dew in sunshine; we fancy the play of faint gracious smiles upon her next words. "Stand up, then! Not in this place must you kneel, for this hall is your rightful kingdom. Oh, rise to your feet! Take my thanks for having come back to us. Where did you tarry so long?" Tannhäuser rises slowly. As when the Landgrave asked him the same question, a shadow falls across his countenance, his answer is vague and mysterious. "Far from here, in distant, distant lands. Heavy oblivion has dropped between to-day and yesterday. All memory of the past has quickly faded from me, and one thing only I know: that I had not hoped ever again to bow before you, or ever again to lift my eyes to you."—"What was it then that brought you back?"—"A miracle it was, an inconceivable, highest miracle!"—"Oh, from the depths of my heart I give thanks to God for that miracle!" she exclaims, and confused at her own fervour catches herself back, only to proceed further, with the candour of an angel: "Your pardon, if I hardly know what I am about! I move as if in a dream, and am feather-brained as a child, given over, hand-bound, in thrall to a miraculous power! Hardly do I recognise myself; oh, do you help me to solve the enigma of my heart!" Not only with the candour of an angel, but the simplicity of very high rank, accepting the prerogative of her station to step forward a little way to meet the favoured lover, she lays before him the puzzle over the small difficulty of which  her purity and greatness make one unable to smile. "To the wise songs of the minstrels I was wont to listen often and with delight. Their singing and their descanting appeared to me a charming pastime. But what strange new life did your song awake in my breast! Now it pierced me through like pain, now roused me to mad joy. Emotions I had never felt! Desires I had never known! Things that until then had seemed to me lovely lost their charm by comparison with delights I had not even a name for! Then, when you went from among us, peace and happiness were gone too. The minstrels' songs seemed to me an uninspired affair, dim of meaning, languid of execution. My dreams were full of dull pain, my waking hours a dejected dream. All capacity for joy forsook my heart. Heinrich, Heinrich, what had you done to me?" The "singer bold," the "daring minstrel," is of a candour matching her own. "Oh, give praise to the god of Love!" he cries; "He it was who touched my strings! He spoke to you through my songs, and it is he who has brought me back to you!" They unite in joyful praise of the hour which has revealed this miracle-working of Love's.

Wolfram watching them from his distance sighs gently: "Thus fades from all my life the light of hope!" Tannhäuser, encountering him as he hastens away, lets a wave of his joy overflow in an impetuous embrace of the friend.

Elizabeth stands on the terrace overlooking the castle-court and the valley to watch the lover out of sight, moved and simply happy as a woman who is not a saint. Her whiteness loves that colour; her paleness warms itself at that glow; her gentleness glories in that force. She makes no question but that he is worthy of her love. Her high spirituality has intuition no doubt of the vast potentialities of good in that superabundant life, which of itself seems a virtue as well as a charm.

 When the Landgrave enters she cannot bear his searching eyes upon her transparent face, and hides it against his breast. "Do I find you in this hall which for so long time you have avoided? You are lured at last by the song-festival we are preparing?" he questions her. She cannot answer, she falters: "My uncle!... Oh, my kind father!"—"Are you moved at last," he asks kindly, "to open your heart to me?" She lifts her face and bravely raises her eyes. "Look into my eyes, for speak I cannot!" He reads, and does not press her. "Let then for a brief space longer your sweet secret remain unspoken. Let the spell remain unbroken until yourself you have power to loose it. Be it as you please! Song, which has awakened and set working such wonders, shall to-day unfold the same and crown them with consummation. Let the Lovely Art now take the work in hand. The nobles of my lands already are assembling, bidden by me to a singular feast. In greater numbers they flock than ever before, having heard that you are to be Princess of the gathering."

The Hall of Minstrels gradually fills with these same nobles and their ladies. They salute the Landgrave and the Princess, and take their places to the well-known, long-loved march. The minstrels have seats apart from the rest, facing their audience. The Landgrave addresses them nobly, with gracious compliment for the skill shown theretofore by them in singing as in fighting, for their victorious championship of virtue and the true faith, high tradition and all things lovely. Let them offer the guests to-day a banquet of song, upon the occasion of the return among them of the "daring singer" whose absence they so long had deplored, whom a wonderful mystery has brought back into their neighbourhood. He sets to the song-contestants as their task to define the nature of love. He who shall most worthily besing it shall receive the prize from  Elizabeth's hand. Let his demand be bold as he will, the Landgrave's care it shall be to see his wish granted.

Lots are drawn. Fortune appoints Wolfram to open the song-feast. He preludes pensively, and sets forth in an improvisation of slow and stately gait his delicate dreamer's sentiments: Glancing around this noble assemblage, his heart kindles at sight of so many heroes, valiant, German, and wise,—a proud oak-forest, verily, splendid, fresh and green. And among them fair and virtuous ladies, fragrant garland of beauteous flowers. The eye swoons, drunken with gazing, the poet's song grows mute before such splendour of loveliness. He fixes his eyes, then, upon one only of the stars in that dazzling firmament. His spirit is forced to worship and bow in prayer. And, behold, the vision he has of a miraculous fount, from which his spirit may draw sacred joys, his heart receive ineffable refreshment. And never would he wish to trouble that fountain, never with criminal presumption stir those waters,—but offer himself up to it in self-sacrificing adoration, and shed for its sake the last of his blood. From these words the company may apprehend what he conceives to be the nature of love at its purest.

There is warm applause from the noble knights and ladies, whether because they understand the star to be Elizabeth, and the fountain the pure love she inspires, or because it was the ideal of that period of song-contests and Courts of Love and chivalry to love with a reverence that precluded any near approach to the lady elected for adoration. A poet might marry and have seven children, while regarding with exalted passion and celebrating in enraptured song,—making into his star, his sacred fountain, his Muse, some dazzling remote princess, held to be too fair and good by far for human nature's daily food. The audience, when Wolfram resumes his seat, cry: "So it is! So it is!" and loudly praise his song.

 Tannhäuser has lent ear somewhat listlessly. This hall has been called his rightful kingdom; he sits among the other minstrels consciously like a young monarch. At the closing figure of Wolfram's rhapsodical rhetoric, the image of the fount, a shadowy smile of superiority has dawned upon his face. As the applause dies, he grasps his harp and rises to take exception to Wolfram's definition. Such a song-feast was in fact a song-debate. His words come warm and ready: "I too, Wolfram, may call myself so fortunate as to behold what you have beheld. Who is there unacquainted with that fountain? Hear me loudly exalt its virtue! But yet can I not approach those waters without sense of warm longing. That burning thirst I must cool. Comforted I set lips to the spring. In full draughts I drink joy, unmixed with doubt or fear, for inexhaustible is the fountain, even as inextinguishable is my desire. That my longing therefore may be prolonged eternally, eternally I drink refreshment at the well. Know Wolfram, thus do I conceive of love's truest essence!"

There is deep silence when he has ended. One person only in the large assemblage has given a sign of approval, made a little gesture of assent, and that is Elizabeth, at bottom a very simple normal woman, who does not recognise herself as a star or a sacred well unapproachable to the one she loves. But as all refrain, she timidly checks herself, and waits to hear the rest.

Walther has taken his harp, has risen; in growing excitement, touched with indignation, he sweeps the strings: "The fountain spoken of by Wolfram, by the light of the soul I too have looked into its depths! But you, who thirst to drink at it, you, Heinrich, know it verily not! Permit me to tell you, accept the lesson: That fountain is true virtue. Devoutly you shall worship it and sacrifice to its limpid purity. Should you lay  lip to it, to cool your unhallowed passion, nay, should you but sip at the outermost brim, forever gone were its miraculous power! If you shall gain life from that fountain, through the heart, not the palate, must you seek refreshment!" Again there is lively applause. Tannhäuser springs to his feet, the old contemptuousness toward these companions,—compends of density, conventionality, and hypocrisy!—curving his lip. "Oh, Walther, singing as you have done, how direly have you misrepresented love! Through such languors and timidities as you describe, the world would unmistakably go dry! To the glory of God in his exalted distance, gaze at the heavens, gaze at its stars. Pay tribute of worship to such marvels, because they pass your comprehension. But that which lends itself to human touches, which lies near to your heart and senses, that which, formed of the same clay as yourselves, in a softer shape nestles against your side, the tribute called for by that is hearty pleasure of love. Enjoyment, I say, is the essence of love!"

At this, which falls upon all ears present with the effect of rank blasphemy, Biterolf rises in wrath. "Out, out, to fight against us all. Who could be silent hearing you? If your arrogance will vouchsafe to listen, hear, slanderer, me too! When high love inspires me, it steels my weapons with courage; to save it from indignity proudly would I pour forth my last blood. For the honour of women and of lofty virtue I unsheathe my knightly sword,—but that which your youth is pleased to call pleasure is cheap enough and worth no single blow!" The audience cheer him enthusiastically: "Hail, Biterolf, our good blade!" Tannhäuser can no longer contain himself. It is now again quite as it used to be, when never could he live at peace with these purblind tortoises, dull of wit to the point of amazement, and yet pretending to pronounce  upon things, pass judgment upon others. What can there be but warfare forever between him and them? But that Biterolf, this war-worn, middle-aged, rugged minstrel should take it upon himself to instruct Heinrich Tannhäuser, pupil of Venus, in matters of love! His retort comes quick, from the shoulder, so to speak, though the form is not dropped of fitting his words to chords of the peaceful harp: "Ha, fond braggart, Biterolf! Is it you, singing about love, grim wolf? But you can hardly have meant that which I hold worthy to be enjoyed. What, you poverty-stricken wight—what pleasure of love may have fallen to your share? Not rich in love your life has been! And such joys as may have sprouted along your path, indeed, were hardly worthy of a blow!"—"Let him not be allowed to finish! Forbid his insolence!" cry the incensed nobles, who had suffered Biterolf's personal attack, but find insufferable this of the over-splendid, over-bearing, over-confident youth. Biterolf's sword has leaped from its scabbard. The Landgrave orders it back. "Preserve peace, you singers!"

A hush falls as Wolfram takes the floor again. He had sacrificed every selfish hope to serve both Elizabeth and Tannhäuser, had employed himself to further their union. What now is happening is plainly terrible to him. His opinion of the friend has undergone in the last moments a grievous subversion. He has been wounded to the soul by the bold and profane tone of Tannhäuser's argument. His sensibility detects an atmosphere of sin about this novel love's advocate, and as a good and pious knight he is forced to array himself against the friend, to uphold Ideal Love in antagonism to the Carnal Love he has just heard exalted. "Oh, Heaven, hear my prayer and consecrate my song!" he sings, a pale flame informing his song, as, imaginably, his cheek and eye; "Let me see evil banished  from this pure and noble circle! To you, Highest Love, let my song resound, inspired, to you that in angelic beauty have penetrated deep into my soul. As a messenger from Heaven do you appear to us; I follow from afar. You guide us toward the regions where immortally shines your star!"

Tannhäuser, exasperated, reckless, frenzied with that temperamental need of his to dominate, that impatience of being lessoned, losing sight of all but one thing, that it shall be proved to them they can teach nothing about love to him, the lover of the very Goddess of Love, seizes his harp, his sword in this duel, and breaks forth in his impassioned Praise of Venus,—the song we heard in the heart of her Hill, when he celebrated her at her own bidding, in conclusion begging so lamely for his dismissal. "To you, Goddess of Love, shall my song resound! Loud shall your praises now be sung by me! Your sweet beauty is the source of all that is beautiful, and every lovely miracle has its origin in you! He who aglow has enfolded you in his arms, he knows, and he alone, what love is! Oh, you poor-spirited, who have never tasted love, go,—to the Hill of Venus repair!"

The last words have the effect of a thunder-clap, in the consternation they produce. Tannhäuser in the drunkenness of his pride had forgotten what this revelation would mean in the ears he trumpeted it to; in his long sojourn in the pagan underworld, where his moral judgment had become dulled and perverted, had forgotten, apparently, how the Christian world regarded such commerce with it as his words betrayed. That mysterious Hörselberg looming in the distance was in popular thinking the very ante-chamber of Hell; its pleasures, paid in the world to come with eternal damnation, were rewarded in this world with excommunication and death. One who had frequented it was sin-polluted, sin-drenched, he poisoned the  air with sin. All shrink back at his announcement as from a leper. The women flee precipitately from the contamination of his neighbourhood. It is like a flight of gorgeous birds. The men's instant and only thought is to immolate him, cleanse the earth of the inexpressible blot upon it that he is. "He has luxuriated in the pleasures of Hell! He has dwelled in the Hill of Venus! Abominable! Accursed! Bathe your swords in his blood! Hurl him back into the fiery lake!"

Tannhäuser stands with drawn sword facing their multitude. They are advancing toward him, his doom seems sealed,—when Elizabeth's body is found interposed shield-wise between him and their swords. Their hands are necessarily stayed. "What do we see?" their wondering question runs, "What? Elizabeth? The chaste virgin protecting the sinner?"—"Back!" the meek maiden commands with vigour enough at this pass, "or I shall not regard death! What are wounds from your swords beside the death-stroke I have received from him?" Tannhäuser starts like one awakening. He had not thought of this aspect of his action; the pride relaxes suddenly that had stiffened him. "Elizabeth!" her uncle argues with her, and the others add their voices to his, "What must I hear? How has your heart allowed itself to be stultified, that you should attempt to save from punishment the man who, added to all else, has so dreadfully betrayed you?"—"What does it matter about me?" she cries; "But he—his soul's salvation! Would you rob him of his soul's eternal salvation?" He has cast away all chance of that, they affirm; never can he gain salvation. The curse of Heaven is upon him, let him die in his sins! At their threatening approach, she spreads her arms resolutely before him. She towers tall and white, she speaks with strange authority. "Back from him! Not you are his judges! Cruel ones, cast from you the barbarous sword, and  give heed to the word of the stainless virgin! Learn through me what is the will of God. The unhappy man whom a potent dreadful enchantment holds bound, what, shall he never come to Heaven through repentance and expiation in this world? You who are so strong in the pure faith, do you apprehend so ill the mind of the Most High? Would you take away the hope of the sinner? State then what wrong he has done to you. Behold me, the maiden, whose blossom he shattered with a swift blow, me, who loved him to the depths of being, and whose heart he pierced with a jubilant laugh... I plead for him, I plead for his life! Let his feet be turned into the path of penitence. Let the courage be restored to him of the faith that for him too the Saviour died!" In a spasm of realisation and self-horror the unhappy Tannhäuser hides his face and sinks to the earth. The angry lords have calmed under the Princess's exhortation. They see in her an angel descended from Heaven to announce the holy will of God. Who could persist in violence after hearing the supplications of an angel?

Tannhäuser has come at last completely to himself, to a clear vision, by light of that heavenly goodness, of what he has been, what he has done. Sapped of its pride, his spirit grovels helplessly in the lowest depths of abasement. "To lead the sinner to salvation, the God-sent came to me, but I, alas, to touch her impiously, I lifted upon her eyes of vice. Oh, Thou, far above the vale of earth, who didst send to me this angel of salvation, have mercy upon me who, ah! so deeply steeped in sin, did such ignoble wrong to the mediatrix of Heaven!"

The Landgrave decides upon the course to be taken. An abominable crime has been committed; in hypocritical disguise the accursed son of sin has slipped into their midst. Among them he may not remain, the displeasure of Heaven already lowers upon this roof which too long has covered him.  One road is open to the sinner, which, while rejecting him, the Landgrave points out—let him take advantage of it to his welfare! Numerous bands of penitents are starting from this region on pilgrimage to Rome for the great Pardon. The older have left already; the younger are still gathering in the valley. Let Tannhäuser join them, go with them to the Holy City, fall upon his knees and do penance for his sin. Let him cast himself before him who speaks the decrees of God upon earth, entreat his blessing, and never return if he fail to obtain it. For if their vengeance stay its hand at the prayer of an angel, their swords will not fail to reach him if he continue in his sin. The chant comes wafted from the distance of those younger pilgrims gathering for departure: "At the great feast of peace and pardon, humbly confess your sins. Blessed is the firm in faith, he may be absolved through contrition and penance."

A ray of hope illumines Tannhäuser's face. He starts up from his knees, and with a wild cry, "To Rome!" rushes forth from the Hall.




The story is taken up again when the valley all green and blossoming at our first sight of it has assumed melancholy autumn colours. Wolfram walking at sunset comes upon Elizabeth prostrate in prayer at the foot of the road-side shrine. He watches her with eyes of profoundest compassion. "Full well did I know that I should find her here, as so often I find her, when in lonely wandering I descend from the wooded heights to the valley. With death in her heart from the blow dealt to her by him, outstretched in burning anguish, night and day she prays—Oh, eternal strength of a holy love!—for his  redemption. She awaits the return of the pilgrims from Rome. Already the leaves are falling, their home-coming is at hand. Is he among the pardoned? That is her question, that her continual prayer. Oh, if her wound is such as cannot be healed, yet let alleviation be vouchsafed to it!"

The chant dawns upon the distance of the returning pilgrims. Elizabeth rises to her feet, wan and worn and frail. "It is their song,—they are coming home!" To steady her poor, agitated, failing heart, she calls upon the saints and prays them to instruct her in her part, that she may fulfil it worthily.

The band of pilgrims comes in sight; they pass, as earlier, in front of the image of Mary, lifting their voices in an anthem of solemn joy. Elizabeth looks into the face of every one of them as they pass. They have defiled before her to the last. He is not among them.

They wind their way out of sight, their last Halleluyah dies. Elizabeth falls at the Virgin's feet, and, with the fervour of one who is praying for very life, prays for death. "All-powerful Virgin, hear my prayer! To thee, favoured among women, I appeal! I bow in the dust before thee, oh, take me from this earth! Make me pure and like to an angel, fit to enter thy blessed kingdom. If ever, possessed by a fond insanity, my heart was turned from thee; if ever a sinful desire, a worldly longing, took root in me,—with a thousand pains I have striven to kill it in my heart. But if I cannot wholly atone for that fault, do thou mercifully condescend to me, that I may with humble salutation approach thee, made worthy to become thy servant,—only to implore thine intercession rich in grace for his sin, only to implore thine intercession for his sin!" She is very woman to her last breath, the saint. She has failed on earth to gain the coveted sign of pardon for him,—his not returning with the others can only mean that he is not among the  pardoned; it means perhaps even that he did not accomplish the pilgrimage at all.... She renounces him before Heaven, as if by that sacrifice to propitiate the powers above, and desires to be given entrance through death to that higher court where she still may intercede for him,—perhaps, when she is an angel, with better effect. She rises from prayer with the appearance of one upon whom already the hand of death is laid. Wolfram, who notes her feeble step and bloodless cheek, whose faithful heart understands all, solicitous for her, asks if be may not escort her home. Without speaking, by gentle gesture and shake of the head she declines, and he watches her solitary figure slowly ascending the path toward the castle, until it has disappeared from sight.

A mortal sadness is upon him, but a sadness mild as his nature. This poet can at the darkest pass still turn his sorrows into song. With song he now tries to administer to his oppressed heart consolation. He feels softly along the strings of his harp. His thoughts are full of Elizabeth, his soul apprehends what journey her soul is preparing for. The terror of it, as well as the hope illumining the dark way, he sees symbolised in the surrounding darkening scene, over which now breaks the light of the evening star. "Like the premonition of death twilight envelops the land, enfolds the valley in a dusky garment. The soul, yearning for yonder heights, shrinks from the journey through night and terrors. Then do you appear, O loveliest among the stars! You shed your light afar. Your beloved beams cleave the nocturnal twilight, and benignly you show us the way out of the valley.... Oh, you, my sweetly-beaming evening star, whom I have ever greeted so gladly,—do you greet, when she rises past you, on her way from the vale of earth to become a blessed angel beyond the stars, do you greet her from the heart that has never failed in its truth to her!"  A long time he continues sitting in the twilight valley, gazing at the setting star, making his harp express the emotions he has not the heart any more to formulate with his lips. It grows night, the evening star goes out.

A shape in ragged pilgrim's-garb, supporting itself upon a pilgrim's-staff, as if walking were scarcely possible without, from terrible weariness, approaches the minstrel. "I heard harp-chords," the tottering wayfarer speaks to himself; "How mournful they sounded! Hardly might such music come from her!"—"Who are you, pilgrim, wandering thus alone?" Wolfram addresses the shadowy figure. "Who I am?" comes the reply, "And yet I know you well enough. You are Wolfram, that highly-accomplished minstrel!"—"Heinrich!" cries Wolfram, not to be mistaken in that mocking voice,—with the scorn of which is mingled so much wild bitterness that the hearer is made certain this pilgrim is returned under different conditions from all the rest. "Heinrich, you?... What brings you in this neighbourhood? Speak! Are you so bold as, unabsolved, to have let your feet take the road to this region?"—"Be without fear, my good minstrel, I am not come looking for you nor any of your tribe. But I am looking for one who shall show me the road... the road which of old I found so easily!"—"What road do you mean?"—"The road to the Hill of Venus!" Wolfram recoils. "Do you know that road?" persists Heinrich. "Madman! Horror seizes me to hear you!" the pious knight shudders; "Where have you been? Tell me, did you not go to Rome?"—"Speak not to me of Rome!"—"Were you not present at the holy festival?"—"Speak not of it to me!"—"Then you have not been?... Tell me, I conjure you!" The answer comes, after a dark pause, with an effect of boundless bitterness: "Aye, I too was in Rome!"—"Then speak! Tell me of it, unhappy man! I feel a vast compassion for you  surging within my breast!" Tannhäuser in the nigh darkness regards him for a moment with astonishment; he speaks more gently, moved in spite of himself by such gentleness. "What is that you say, Wolfram? Are you not my enemy?"—"Never was I such—while I believed you pure of purpose! But speak, you went on the pilgrimage to Rome?"—"Well, then,—listen! You, Wolfram, shall hear all." Exhausted he drops on a projection of rock, but when Wolfram would seat himself beside him he waives him violently off. "Do not come near me! The place where I rest is accursed!... Hear, then, Wolfram, hear!" He had started, he relates, on his pilgrimage to Rome with such passion of repentance in his heart as never penitent felt before. An angel had shattered in him the pride of sin. For that angel's sake he would do penance with the last humility, seek the salvation he had forfeited,—that the tears might be sweetened which angelic eyes had shed for him, sinner. The devotions, austerities, self-castigations of the other pilgrims had seemed to him all too light. When they trod the greensward, he chose flints and thorns; when they refreshed themselves at roadside springs, he absorbed instead the thirst-breeding heat of the sun; when they but prayed, he shed his blood to the praise of the Most High; when they turned into the shelter of Alpine sanctuaries, he made ice and snow his bed; with closed eyes—climax of self-denial!—with closed eyes, that he might not behold the wonder of them, he passed unseeing through the lovely plains of Italy! All this because he wished to atone to the point of self-annihilation, that the tears might be sweetened of his angel. He had reached Rome, he had bowed praying upon the threshold of the holy place. Day had dawned, bells were pealing, heavenly anthems resounding. Then he through whom God manifests Himself to man had passed through the kneeling crowd. He had given absolution,  had promised grace, to thousands; thousands he had sent away rejoicing. Tannhäuser had approached him, had knelt in the dust, had confessed the evil joys he had known, the terrible craving which no self-mortification had availed yet to quiet; he had cried to him, in agony, for deliverance from these burning fetters. And the one thus appealed to had pronounced: "If you have shared in such evil pleasure, inflamed yourself at the fire of Hell, if you have sojourned in the Hill of Venus, to all eternity you are damned! Even as the staff in my hand can never more clothe itself with fresh green, even so can never out of the conflagration of Hell redemption blossom for you!" The pilgrim thus addressed had sunk to the earth, annihilated. Consciousness had forsaken him. When he awoke, it was night in the deserted square. Sounds came from the distance of happy hymns of thanksgiving. A passion of disgust had seized him for the pious songs; an icy horror of their lying promises of redemption. With wild steps he had fled,—drawn back to the place where such great joys, such ineffable delight, he had found of old upon her warm breast. "To you, Venus, Lady,"—he cries out in a frenzy of loathing for what lies behind, and of longing to escape, "to you I am come back!—come back to your lovely night of enchantment! Descend will I to your court, where your beauty shall shine upon me forevermore!" Wolfram tries vainly to stop him. He will not be stopped,—all the more ardently he calls: "Oh, let me not seek in vain! How easily once did I find my way to you! You have heard that men curse me; now, sweetest goddess, guide me to yourself!... Ha!" he cries, in a moment, to Wolfram wrestling all unheeded to turn him from his deadly purpose, "Ha, do you not feel soft gusts of air?... Do you not smell exquisite odours?... Do you not hear jubilant music?" Rosy vapours are rolling near; dancing forms define themselves in the  soft increasing glow. Tannhäuser madly calls them to him, while struggling to release himself from Wolfram's obstinate hold. "It is the dancing rout of the nymphs! Come hither! Come hither, to pleasure and delight! Oh, enchantment pervades all my senses, at beholding once more that rosy light of dawn! It is the magic realm of love, we are entering into the Hill of Venus!"—"Woe!" shudders Wolfram; "It is evil sorcery unfolding its insidious snares! It is Hell approaching at mad career!"

The radiant form of Venus appears in the midst of the rosy atmosphere, Venus holding out to the recreant knight her perfect arms. "Welcome, faithless man! Has the world condemned and rejected you? And do you, finding no mercy anywhere, come seeking love now in my arms?" Wolfram speaks exorcisms rapid and vigorous as he can, while Tannhäuser stretches his hands toward the soft vision: "Oh, Venus, Lady, rich in forbearance! To you, to you I come!" With tenderest smiles she holds forth forgiveness. "Since you are returned to my threshold, your revolt shall be condoned. The well of joy shall gush for you forever, never shall you go from me again!" With the desperate cry: "All hope of Heaven is lost to me, I choose therefore the pleasures of Hell!" Tannhäuser tears himself free from Wolfram. Wolfram seizes him again, calling upon the help of the Almighty, not to be thrown off. The battle over Tannhäuser is hot between Wolfram and Venus, this one calling him to her, that one physically holding him back, while the insensate man orders him off, tries to loose himself and rush to her. "Heinrich, one word—" Wolfram makes the last appeal; "One word and you are free! Oh, sinner though you be, you shall yet be saved. An angel prayed for you on earth; ere long, shedding benedictions, she will hover above you... Elizabeth!"

Tannhäuser had violently wrested himself from Wolfram, but  the name roots him to the spot. "Elizabeth!" It is as if to reach Venus now he must first thrust her aside. The spell of that name changes in an instant the current of his being; fills his eyes with a memory that blots out the riot of rose-faces and golden hair toward which all his desire had pitched him.

Moving torches spot the darkness of the road winding down from the Wartburg; voices are heard approaching, chanting a dirge. "Peace to the soul" the words come floating, "just escaped from the clay of the saintly sufferer!" Wolfram understands but to well. "Your angel pleads for you now before the throne of God. Her prayer is heard. Heinrich, you are saved!" With a cry of "Woe! Lost to me!" the apparition vanishes of Venus and her train; the hill-side mysteriously engulfs them.

The torches flicker nearer, the singing becomes louder. "Do you hear it?" Wolfram asks of Tannhäuser, who stands transfixed, corpse-like still and pale and staring. "I hear it!" he murmurs in a dying voice.

The funeral train, pilgrims, nobles, minstrels, Landgrave, descend into the valley chanting their requiem. At a motion of Wolfram's they set down the uncovered bier at the foot of the Virgin's shrine. In the torch-light they recognise the unhappy Tannhäuser. Seized with pity at sight of his ravaged countenance, "Holy," they sing, "the pure one who now united to the host of Heaven stands before the Eternal. Blessed the sinner over whom she wept, for whom she now implores the salvation of Heaven!"

She lies outstretched, still and serene, all white beneath her white pall. She has saved him, after all,—by dying. Her dead body has barred his way back to Venus. The infinitely-tired and worn pilgrim, destroyed by the violence of his passions good and bad, with faltering steps,—helped, in the faintness of death upon him, by Wolfram,—approaches the white  bier. He sinks down beside it, giving up his proud soul in the so humble prayer: "Sainted Elizabeth, pray for me!"

And behold, a second band of pilgrims arriving from the Holy City announce a miracle: The dry staff in the Pope's hand, which he had declared should sooner return to bloom than so black a sinner be forgiven, had in the night burst into leaf and blossom; and order had gone forth to proclaim the sign through all lands, that the forgiven sinner should learn of it. The company lift their voices in awe and exaltation: "Salvation and grace have been granted to the sinner! He has entered into the peace of the blessed!"

The warfare between soul and sense is presented by Wagner with singular fairness. The pilgrims' song is very beautiful, and beautiful is all the music of good in the opera of Tannhäuser. The Venus-music is certainly equally beautiful; perhaps, to the superficial ear, is a little more beautiful still: the goddess's own Call, penetrating, wonderful; the well-nigh irresistible song of the Sirens. The Bacchic dance, which stands we suppose for the animal element in love, the Satyr part in man, is hardly beautiful; yet the love-music as a whole, we can concede without difficulty, carries it over the sacred music in beauty of a sort, even as the goddess would have carried off the palm of beauty over the saint. The power of the music of good, as Wagner lets us see, lies just in the fact that it is good; the final victory of the saint in the fact that she is a saint, and that from a mysterious eternal bias of human nature man finally must prefer good. He has a soul, he cannot help himself; that, as we have seen, is the secret reason why Venus cannot forever completely content him, why the pale hand of the saint, beckoning him at the end of a penitential pilgrimage diversified with every sort of suffering, draws him still on and upward.



In the Venusberg by John Collier


Grand romantic opera in three acts


Richard Wagner


19 October 1845, Dresden (Royal Saxon Court Theatre)

ELIZABETH, his niece (Soprano)

Minstrel Knights (Minnesingers):
TANNHÄUSER (Heinrich von Ofterdingen) (Tenor)

VENUS, goddess of love (Soprano)
FOUR PAGES (Soprano / Alto)

Thuringian knights, counts and nobles, noblewomen, older and younger pilgrims,
sirens, naiads, nymphs, maenads,

Thuringia, near Eisenach

13th century






The Venusberg

The stage represents the interior of the Venusberg.
Sirens, Venus, Tannhäuser, Nymphs, Bacchantes, Amorous couples

Come to this shore!
Come to the land
where in glowing Love's
fond embrace
blessed balm
shall soothe your longings!

Venus, Tannhäuser

Beloved, say, where dwell your thoughts?

Too long! Too long!
O that I might wake now!

Say, what troubles you?

In a dream it was as if I heard
what long has been unfamiliar to my ear,
as if I heard the joyous peal of bells!
Ah say, how long is it since I heard it?

Where strays your mind? What possesses you?

I cannot measure
the time that I have tarried here.
Days, months, exist no more for me,
for no more do I see the sunlight,
no more the friendly stars of heaven;
I see no more the fields which, freshly green,
herald a new summer; no more
I hear the nightingale, harbinger of spring.
Shall I never hear or see them again?

Ah, what do I hear? What foolish complaints!
Are you so soon weary of the sweet wonders
which my love has lavished on you?
Or can it be you so regret being a god?
Have you so soon forgotten how once you suffered,
while now you live here lapped in delights?
My singer, rise! Take up your harp!
Extol love, which you lauded with such rapture
that you won for yourself the goddess of love!
Extol love, for its highest prize is yours!

Let your praises resound! Glorified be
the wonders your might has wrought for my bliss!
Let my song in loud and joyful tones
extol the sweet delights flowing from your bounty!
My heart yearned, my soul thirsted
for joy, ah! for divine pleasure:
what once you showed only to gods
your favour has bestowed upon a mortal.
But alas! I have remained mortal,
and your love overwhelms me.
Though a god can savour joy for ever,
I am subject to change;
I have at heart not pleasure alone,
and in my joy long for suffering.
From your kingdom I must flee;
O queen, o goddess, set me free!

Must I listen to this? What a song!
What mournful mood clouds your lay?
Where has that rapture flown
which inspired you only to songs of delight?
What is it? In what has my love been lacking?
Beloved, with what do you reproach me?

Gratitude for your favour and praise for your love!
Forever blessed is he who has dwelt here!
Forever envied is he who, hot with desire,
has in your arms shared the divine glow!
The wonders of your realm cast a spell,
here I breathe the magic of unalloyed bliss;
no land in the wide world offers the like;
all it holds seems in comparison of little worth.
Yet from these rosy scents I long
for the woodland breezes,
for the clear blue of out sky,
for the fresh green of out meadows,
for the sweet song of out birds,
for the dear sound of out bells.
From your kingdom I must flee;
O queen, o goddess, set me free!

Faithless one! Alas, what is this I hear?
You dare to spurn my love?
You praise it but seek from it to fly?
Has my allure grown wearisome?

Ah fair goddess! Do not be angry with me!
It is your unbounded allure from which I fly!

Shame on you! Traitor, dissembler, ingrate!
O will not let you go! You shall not leave me!

Never was my love greater, never more true
than now, when I must leave you for ever!

Beloved, come! See yonder grotto,
permeated with the soft perfume of roses,
the abode of sweetest joys
which might enchant even a god!
Resting on the softest pillow,
all pain shall quit your limbs,
cool airs shall play about your burning brow,
a rapturous glow shall course through your veins.
From afar sweet sounds softly whisper
for my arms to enfold you in a fond embrace:
from my lips you shall sip the nectar of the gods,
from my eyes will glow love's gratitude!
A feast of joy shall spring from our union;
let us gladly celebrate the rite of love!
No timid offering shall you dedicate to it,
no! revel in union with love's own goddess!

Come to this shore!
Come to this land!

My cavalier! My beloved! Will you fly me?

To you, to you alone shall my song ever be raised!
Your praise alone will I sing aloud!
Your soft charms are the fount of all beauty,
and every fair wonder springs from you.
The fire you kindled in my heart
shall in flame brightly burn to you alone!
Yes, against the whole world henceforth
will I be your bold and tireless champion.
But I must hence to the earthly world,
with you I can only be a slave:
for freedom I am consumed with longing,
for freedom I thirst;
to strife and struggle will I go,
even though it be to downfall and death!
So from your kingdom I must flee;
O queen, o goddess, set me free!

Then go, madman, go!
Traitor, see, I am not holding you!
I set you free! Away!
What you desire shall be your doom!
Fly to the cold world of men,
from whose feeble, cheerless fancies
we gods of joy fled
into the warming depths of the earth's womb.
Go then, poor fool! Seek there
the happiness you never shall find!
Soon the arrogance in your heart will weaken,
and I shall see you return humbled,
remorseful, crestfallen, to seek me out,
pleading for the magic of my might!

Ah, goddess of beauty, farewell!
Never will I return to you!

Ha! Never will you return to me!
lf you do not return, then the entire
race of men shall be accursed!
For my marvels shall it then seek in vain!
The world shall be desolate, and its champion a menial!
Return, o return to me!

Nevermore will the pleasures of love delight me!

Return, if your heart bids you.

Your beloved flies for ever.

If all the world repulses you?

Repentance will free me from your spell.

Forgiveness never will be granted you!
Return, if you wish for happiness!

My happiness? My happiness lies in Mary!

The valley before the Wartburg: the Hörselberg in the far distance.
A Shepherd, Pilgrims, Tannhäuser

Dame Holda came forth from the hill
to roam through fields arid meadows:
surpassing sweet sounds reached my ear,
my eyes craved to see her.
There I dreamed many a fair dream,
and scarcely had I opened my eyes
than the sun was shining warm,
and May had come.
Now I merrily play my pipe,
for May is here, lovely May!

To thee I turn my steps, Lord Jesus Christ,
for the pilgrim's hope art thou!
Praise to thee, O Virgin sweet and pure,
and deign to smile upon this pilgrimage!
Ah, the burden of sin weighs heavy upon me
and I can no longer bear it:
therefore I seek neither rest nor repose
and choose for myself pain and toil.
At the high celebration of God's grace
I will expiate my guilt;
blessed is he who is steadfast in his faith:
through repentance shall he be redeemed.

God speed! God speed to Rome!
Pray for my poor soul!

Almighty God be praised!
Great are the marvels of thy mercy.

To thee I turn my steps, Lord Jesus Christ,
for the pilgrim's hope art thou!
Praise to thee, O Virgin sweet and pure,
and deign to smile upon this pilgrimage!

Ah, the burden of sin weighs heavy upon me
and I can no longer bear it:
therefore I seek neither rest nor repose
and choose for myself pain and toil.

At the high celebration of God's grace
I will expiate my guilt;
blessed is he who is steadfast in his faith!

Landgrave, Minstrels, Tannhäuser

Who is that yonder, deep in prayer?

Surely a penitent.

A knight, by bis garb.

lt is he!

Heinrich! Heinrich! Do I see aright?

Is it really you? Are you returning to us,
whom in your haughty pride you abandoned?

Say, what means your return to us?

Tell us!

Reconciliation, or renewed strife?

Do you come to us as friend or foe?

As foe?

Do not ask! Is this the demeanour of pride?
We welcome you, valiant minstrel, that has
ah! so long been absent from our midst!

Welcome, if you come in peace!

Greetings, if you treat us as friends!

Greetings! We welcome you!

Then let me too welcome vou!
But say, where have you been so long?

I wandered in far, far distant lands,
where repose or rest I never found.
Do not ask! I came not here to contend with you.
Let us make peace, and let me go my way!

Not yet! You are one of us again.

You must not go.

We will not let you go.

Stay with us!

Let me go! To linger is of no avail,
and never can I rest in peace.
My way urges me to hasten only onwards,
and never may I look back.

O stay! You must remain with us;
we will not let you go again.
Having sought us out, why hurry away
after so brief a reunion?

I must away from here!

Stay, o stay with us!

Stay for Elisabeth!

Elisabeth! O might of heaven,
is it you that recalls to me that sweet name?

Abuse me not as foe
when I speak that name to you!
to Landgrave
My lord, will you permit me
to tell him of his fortune?

Tell him of the magic that he wrought,
and God grant him virtue that he may use it worthily.

When you contended with us for the palm in singing,
sometimes you were victorious over our songs,
sometimes you suffered defeat through our art:
one prize there was which you alone won.
Was it magic, was it a divine power,
by which you wrought such a miracle,
enchanting that maid of matchless virtue
by your song of joy and sorrow?
But ah! when in your pride you left us,
she closed her heart against our song;
we saw her cheeks grow pale,
and she henceforth avoided our company.
O come back, valiant minstrel,
and do not deprive us of your song.
Let her no longer be absent from our festivals,
and may her star shine on us once more!

Be one of us, Heinrich! Come back to us!
Let discord and strife be laid aside!
United let our songs arise
and henceforth let us be brothers!

O come back, valiant minstrel, return to us!
Let discord and strife be laid aside!

To her! To her! O lead me to her!
Ah, now I recognise again
the beautiful world from which I fled!
The heavens shine down upon me,
the fields are resplendent in rich array.
Spring with a thousand charming sounds
has filled my heart with joy:
in sweet, urgent eagerness
my heart cries aloud,
"To her! To her! Lead me to her!"

He who was lost has returned!
A miracle has brought him back.
Praised be the gentle power
which has banished his pride!
Now let the maid we prize
once again hearken to our noblest lays!
In joyful tones let a song
resound from every throat!

Beardsley, Aubrey
Frontispiece for Venus and Tannhauser


The Minstrels' Hall in the Wartburg


Dear hall, I greet thee again!
Gladly I greet thee, beloved place!
In thee his songs will waken
and rouse me from my gloomy dreams.
When he from here departed,
how bleak thou didst seem to me!
All peace forsook me,
all pleasure in thee vanished.
But now my heart is exalted
and thou dost seem proud and stately once again,
for he who revives both thee and me
no longer tarries far away.
Greetings, greetings!
Dear hall, I greet thee!

Wolfram, Tannhäuser, Elisabeth

There she is: approach her undisturbed!

O princess!

Heavens! Do not kneel! Leave me!
I may not see you here!

You may! O stay
and let me remain at your feet!

Rise, I beg you!
You must not kneel here, for this hall
is your kingdom. Arise!
Accept my thanks for your return!
Where have you tarried so long?

Far from here,
in very distant lands. Dark oblivion
has fallen between yesterday and today.
All memory has suddenly deserted me
and one thing only must I remember,
that I never dared hope to greet you again
nor raise my eyes to you.

What was it then that led you back?

It was a miracle,
a mysterious, mighty miracle! 

This miracle I praise
from the depths of my heart!
Forgive me if I know not what I say!
I am in a dream, and more foolish than a child.
helpless before the might of this marvel.
I scarcely know myself any longer: o help me
solve the riddle in my heart!
To minstrels' beguiling music I formerly
lent a willing and a constant car;
their singing and their paeans
seemed a delightful recreation.
But what a strange new life
your song aroused in my breast!
Now I was as if wracked with pain,
now as if pierced with sudden joy.
Emotions I had never felt!
Longings I had never known!
What once had delighted me had vanished
before these yet unnamed raptures!
And then when you left us,
my peace and joy were gone;
the melodies the minstrels sang
seemed stale to me, and cheerless their ideas.
In dreams I felt dull pain;
waking, I was filled with troubled fancies;
joy had fled from my heart -
Heinrich! What did you do to me?

The god of love be praised:
he touched my harpstrings,
spoke to you in my melodies,
and has led me here to you!

Blessed be this hour,
blessed be the power
that brought me the wondrous tidings
that you were near.
Encircled by the glow of bliss,
on me the sun now smiles;
awakened to new life,
I can call joy mine!

Blessed be this hour,
blessed be the power
that brought me the wondrous tidings
from your lips.
To this new-found life
may I now wholly devote myself;
trembling with joy,
I name its fairest wonder mine!

So am I bereft
of all light of hope in this life!

Landgrave, Elisabeth

Do I find you in this hall,
which you have avoided for so long?
Does the festival of song that we prepare
at last attract you?

O uncle, who are a father to me!

Would you then at last
unlock your heart to me?

Look in my eyes! I cannot speak.

Then for a little while
let your sweet secret remain undisclosed,
the spell remain unbroken
until you are able to reveal it.
So be it! The wonder
that by song was awakened and aroused
today by song shall be revealed
and crowned with fulfilment.
Our gracious art shall do the deed!
Already the nobles of my land are approaching,
whom I have bidden to this solemn tournament;
more numerous than ever they come, for they have heard
that you will be the princess of the festival.

Counts, Knights, Pages, Landgrave, Wolfram, Tannhäuser, Minstrels, Elisabeth

Joyfully we greet this noble hall
where only art and peace shall ever dwell,
where long the glad cry shall resound,
"Hail to Thuringia's prince, the Landgrave Hermann!"

Full often, dear minstrels, in this hall
have your fine songs resounded;
with wise allegories and merry lays alike
you have gladdened our heart.
If our sword in stern bloody battles
fought for the supremacy of the German State,
if we withstood the savage Guelphs
and held disastrous discord in check,
you won no less a prize.
For charm and gracious ways,
for virtue and unsullied faith,
you achieved with your art
a great and mighty victory.
Prepare then for us today another festival,
now that the valiant singer, whom we for long
so sadly missed, has returned to us.
What brought him back among us
remains to me a mysterious secret:
you shall reveal it to us through the art of song,
therefore I now propose this theme to you:
Can you fathom the nature of love?
He who most worthily succeeds
shall from Elisabeth receive the prize;
let his claim be as bold and lofty as he please,
I undertake that she shall grant it.
Up, dear minstrels! Strike your strings!
The theme is set, strive for the prize,
and let all accept our thanks in advance!

Hail! Hail to Thuringia's prince!
Hail to the protector of the gracious art!

Wolfram von Eschenbach, begin!

As I look around on this noble assembly,
what a glorious sight makes my heart glow!
So many heroes, valiant, upright and wise,
like a proud oakwood, splendid, fresh and green;
and I see ladies lovely and virtuous,
a fair garland of most fragrant flowers.
My gaze is dazzled by this display,
my song is silenced before such beauteous lustre.
Then I raise my eyes to one single star
up in the heavens which shines on me:
my spirit is comforted by that distant radiance
and my soul devoutly sinks in prayer.
And lo! I behold a fountain of delights
on which my spirit gazes, filled with wonder:
from it there flows blissful joy
by which my heart is inexpressibly refreshed.
O never may I sully that fountain
or cloud its limpid waters with impure thoughts!
In devotion I would sacrifice myself
and gladly shed the last drop of my heart's blood.
You nobles may gather from these words
how I regard the purest essence of love.

'Tis so! 'Tis so! Praised be your song!

I too may count myself lucky enough
to see what you, Wolfram, saw!
Who should not know that fountain?
Hearken, its virtues I will cry aloud!
But I cannot approach its source
without feeling ardent longing:
my burning thirst I must assuage
by confidently pressing my lips to it:
I drink down bliss in full draughts,
unhindered by any hesitation;
for the fountain is inexhaustible,
as my longing is insatiable.
Thus I constantly refresh myself at the spring
so that my craving may burn for ever:
know then, Wolfram, how I regard
the true nature of love!

The fountain of which Wolfram told us
is known to the light of my spirit too;
but you, Heinrich, who were afire
with thirst for it, truly know it not.
Let me then declare it and teach you
that the fountain is true virtue.
Ardently you must revere it
and worship its sweet limpiditv.
If you lay your lips to its waters
to cool impure passions,
yes, if you will but sip at the brink,
its magic power will vanish for ever!
If you wish for refreshment from this source,
it must be through your heart, not your lips.

Hail WalterI Praises to your song!

O Walter, if thus you sing,
you badly belie love!
If so timid is your longing,
your world will truly run dry.
Look up to heaven, behold its stars,
in praise of God in the supreme heights!
Give humble worship to such wonders,
for you shall never know them!
But that which deigns to human contact,
which lies near to heart and thought,
that which, created for like matter,
inclines to us in soft flesh,
that is for enjoyment in happy desire,
and in enjoyment alone do I recognise love!

Come forth to combat with us all!
Who could hear you in silence?
If your pride will allow you,
now listen to me, blasphemer!
When great love inspires me,
it steels my sword and my spirit;
to preserve it in its purity for ever
I would proudly shed my lifeblood.
Woman's virtue and high honour will I,
as a knight, defend with my sword;
but those delights that captured your immaturity
are shoddy, not worth a blow.

Hail, Biterolf!

Here are our swords!

Ha, you foolish braggart, Biterolf!
Do you sing of love, you fierce wolf?
Assuredly you have never known
that which I find pleasurable.
What, poor wretch, have you known of pleasure?
Your life was lacking in love,
and what paltry joys befell you
were indeed not worth a blow!

We'll hear no more! End this audacity!

to Biterolf
Put up your sword! Minstreis, keep the peace!

O heaven, let me now implore thee,
grant my song divine approval!
Let me see sin banished
from this noble, pure assembly!
Let my song resound
inspired by thee, sacred love,
that pierced my very soul
in angelic beauty!
Thou didst come from heaven,
I follow from afar;
so guide me to that land
where thy star shines for ever.

To you, goddess of love, shall my song be raised!
Loudly let me now sing your praise!
Your sweet charms are the source of all beauty,
and every fair wonder springs from you.
Only he who has known
your ardent embrace knows what love is;
poor wretches who have never tasted love,
away! hasten to the hill of Venus!

Oh, he is wicked! Fly from him!
Hark, he was in the Venusberg!

Away! Away from his presence!

You heard it!

You heard it! His sinful lips
have confessed his fearful crime.
He has shared the joys of Hell,
he has dwelt within the Venusberg!
Abominable! Monstrous! Damnable!
Steep your swords in his blood!
Let him be condemned and banished
and sent back to the bottomless pit of Hell!

Stay your hands!

What do I hear?

What? What do I see? Elisabeth!
The chaste maiden shielding the sinner?

Stand back! For death I care nothing!
What are the wounds your swords could cause
against the deadly blow he has dealt me?

Elisabeth! Can we believe it?
How can your heart so delude you
as to stave off punishment from him
who so vilely has deceived you?

What do I matter? But he must be saved!
Would you rob him of eternal salvation?

He has forfeited all hope,
never will he earn salvation!
The curse of heaven has fallen on him:
let him go hence with his sins upon his head!

Stand back from him! 'Tis not for you to judge him!
Shame on you! Cast aside your cruel swords,
and give ear to a spotless virgin's words'.
Through me learn what is God's will!
This hapless man, that a fearful,
mighty spell holds captive -
what, may he never find salvation
through repentance and atonement in this world?
You who are so strong in purity of faith,
is this how you understand the will of heaven?
If you would deny hope to the sinner,
then say, what harm did he do you?
Behold me, a maiden whose blossoming
he has cut short with one sudden blow;
exultantly he has broken my heart,
I who loved him with all my being.'
I plead for him, I plead for his life,
let him contritely turn his steps to atonement!
Let him regain the strength of the belief
that the Saviour once suffered for him too!

Alas! Wretch that I am!

An angel has descended from the realms of light
to bring us God's holy message.
Look up, vile traitor,
and realise your sin!
You gave her death, she begs for vour life;
who could hear an angel's plea unmoved?
Though I may not forgive the sinner,
I cannot oppose Heaven's word.

To lead the sinner to salvation
an angel was sent down to me from heaven!
But ah, profaning her by my presence,
I turned on her a lascivious gaze!
O thou, high above this mortal earth,
who sent me my guardian angel,
have mercy on me, so deep in sin, alas,
that to my shame I did not recognise heaven's messenger!
Have mercy, o have mercy on me!

I plead for him, I plead for his life,
let him contritely turn his steps to atonement!
Let him regain the strength of the belief
that the Saviour once suffered for him too!

What? What do I see? Elisabeth!
The chaste maiden shielding the sinner?

A fearful misdeed has been committed.
Into our midst in treacherous guise
there stole sin's curse-laden son.
We cast you out - you shall not dwell among us;
through you our hearth is defiled,
and heaven itself looks menacingly on this roof
which sheltered you too long.
But one way lies open to save you
from eternal perdition; though I banish you,
I point it out. Take it and save your soul!
From my lands a throng of pilgrims
has assembled, intent on penance.
The elders have already set forth,
the younger are still halted in the valley.
Their hearts will give them no peace
even for more venial sins,
and to still the pious promptings of repentance
they go to the shrine of grace in Rome.

With them you shall travel
to the city of gracious mercy,
there prostrate yourself in the dust
and atone for your sin!
Humble yourself before him
who pronounces God's judgement;
and never return
until you have gained his pardon!
Our vengeance we were forced to temper
because an angel interceded for you,
but this sword will smite you
if you remain in sin and shame!

O God of grace and mercy,
let him seek and find thee!
Though he has fallen so low,
forgive his debt of sin!
For him alone will I plead,
and spend my life in prayer;
let him see thy radiance
before eternal night claims him!
O receive a sacrifice
made with fearful joy!
Take, o take my life:
I count it no longer my own!

How shall I find pardon,
how atone for my sin?
I have seen salvation vanish,
heaven's mercy withdrawn from me.
But I will go forth as a penitent,
to beat my breast
and kneel in the dust,
contrition be my willing lot.
O could she but forgive me,
my guardian angel,
who, so rudely betrayed,
yet offers herself as sacrifice for me!

At the high celebration of God's grace
I will humbly expiate my guilt;
blessed is he who is steadfast in his faith:
through repentance shall he be redeemed,

To Rome!

To Rome!

Henri Fantin-Latour.
Scene from Tannhäuser




The Valley in Front of the Wartburg,
the Hörselberg

Wolfram, Pilgrims, Elisabeth

I well knew that I would find her here in praver,
as I have so often seen her when I’ve wandered
alone from the wooded heights into the valley,
With the deathblow he dealt her in her heart,
racked with burning sorrow,
day and night she prays for his salvation:
O blessed love, how great thy power!
She awaits the pilgrims' return from Rome.
The leaves are already falling, soon they will be home.
Will he return with them, pardoned?
That is her question, that is her prayer;
ye holy ones, let it be fulfilled!
But if her wound remains unhealed,
O grant her some solace!

With joy, my home, I now behold thee,
and gladly greet thy smiling meadows;
now I lay down my pilgrim's staff,
for, submissive to God, I have made my pilgrimage.
By atonement and repentance I have made my peace
with the Lord, to whom my heart bows down,
who has crowned my remorse with blessing,
the Lord to whom I raise my song.
The grace of salvation is granted to the penitent,
who shall enter into the peace of heaven!
Hell and death cannot affright him,
therefore will I praise God all the days of my life.
Halleluja for evermore!

That is their song -'tis they, they have returned!
Ye holy ones, show me now my task,
that I may worthily fulfil it!

It is the pilgrims - it is the pious hymn
telling of grace and mercy received.
O heaven, now strengthen her heart
for this crucial moment of her life!

He has not returned!

With joy, my home, I now behold thee,
and gladly greet thy smiling meadows;
now I lay down my pilgrim's staff …

Almightv Virgin, hear my plea!
Queen of glory, to thee I call!
Let me turn to dust before thee,
O take me from this earth!
Let me enter, pure and spotless,
into thy blessed kingdom!

If ever, engrossed in vain fancies,
my heart turned away from thee,
if ever a sinful desire
or earthly longing rose within me,
I strove with untold anguish
to stifle it in my heart!

Then, though of every fault I am not shriven,
turn thy gracious face to me,
that I may, a worthy maid,
approach thee with humble devotion
to implore the rich bounty
of thy mercy for his offence!

Elisabeth, may I not escort you home?


Like a portent of death, twilight shrouds the earth
and envelops the valley in its sable robe;
the soul, that yearns for those heights,
dreads to take its dark and awful flight.
There you shine, o fairest of the stars,
and shed your gentle light from afar;
your friendly beam penetrates the twilight gloom
and points the way out from the valley.

O my fair evening star,
I always gladly greeted thee:
from a heart that never betrayed its faith
greet her when she passes,
when she soars above this mortal vale
to become a blessed angel in heaven!

Tannhäuser, Wolfram, Venus, Landgrave, Minstrels, Knights, Pilgrims

I heard a harp - how sad a sound!
It could not be from her.

Who are you, pilgrim,
who wander so alone?

Who am I?
But I know you full well;
you are Wolfram, the skilled minstrel.

Heinrich! You!
What brings you back here? Speak!
Do you dare, still unabsolved,
to set foot in this region?

Have no fear, worthy minstrel!
I seek not you nor any of your company.
I seek for one who can show me the way,
that way which once I found with such ease.

Which way is that?

The way to the Venusberg!

Monster! Do not profane my ear!
Is that your goal?

Do you know the way?

Madman! To hear you fills me with horror!
Where have you been? Did you not go to Rome?

Do not speak of Rome!

Were you not at the holy service?

Speak not of that!

Were you not there?
Speak, I implore you!

I was indeed in Rome.

Then speak! Tell me all, unhappy man!
I am seized with deep compassion for you.

What say you, Wolfram? Are you not, then, my foe?

I was never that, while I thought you honourable!
But speak! You made your pilgrimage to Rome?

Well then, listen!
Wolfram, you shall learn what happened.
Wolfram is about to sit by his side
Away from me! Wherever I rest
is accursed.
Now listen, Wolfram, listen well!
With a fervour in my heart such as no penitent
had ever felt, I sought the way to Rome.
An angel had banished
my overweening sin of pride:
for her sake 1 wished humbly to atone,
to beg for the grace once denied me,
to lighten for her those tears
which she once shed for me, a sinner.
When at my side the heaviest laden pilgrim
took the road, his burden seemed for me too light:
when his foot trod the soft ground of the meadow,
my naked sole sought thorns and stones;
when he refreshed his lips at some fountain,
I drank in the sun's scorching heat;
when he offered up his pious prayers to heaven,
I shed my blood in praise of God;
when in the hospice he eased his weariness,
I laid my limbs in snow and ice.
With eyes closed, not to see its beauties,
I blindly passed through Italy's fair fields.
All this I did, wishing to atone in remorse,
so as to lighten my angel's tears!
Thus I reached Rome and the holy places
and lay in prayer at the threshold of the shrine.
Daylight broke, bells pealed,
heavenly strains rang out from on high;
an ardent cry of joy burst forth
that grace and healing were promised to the throng.
Then I saw him through whom God speaks;
before him all abased themselves in the dust;
to thousands he gave his blessing,
thousands, pardoned, he bade joyfully arise.
Then I too drew near; my head bowed to the ground
and beating my breast in sorrow, I confessed my sins,
the evil desires that had filled my mind,
the longing that no penance yet had stilled;
and for deliverance from these burning fetters
I cried, pierced with bitter anguish.
And he to whom I prayed replied:
"If you have felt such sinful desires
and warmed yourself at Hell's fires,
if you have dwelt within the Venusberg,
you are forever accursed!
As this staff in my hand
will nevermore put forth a living leaf,
so from the burning brand of Hell
salvation never will bloom for you!
Then I sank down, crushed and in despair,
my senses left me. When I awoke,
night had fallen on the empty square,
but from afar sounded joyful hymns of praise.
The sweet songs sickened me:
from the lying sounds of promise
which pierced my soul with icy chill,
horror drove me forth in wild flight.
It drove me here, where once I so enjoyed
bliss and pleasure on her warm breast!
To you, fair Venus, I return,
to the sweet darkness of your spell;
I will come down to your court,
where your charms now shall ever smile on me!

Stop, stop, unhappy man!

Ah, let me not seek in vain;
how easily I once did find you!
You hear that by men I am accursed;
now, sweet goddess, lead me to you!

Madman, whom are you calling?

Ha! Do you not feel gentle breezes?

Stay with me, or you are lost!

And do you not breathe sweet fragrance?
Do you not hear rapturous voices?

My heart trembles with wild dread.

That is the dancing host of nymphs!
Come on! Come on to bliss and joy!

Alas! Black magic is abroad!
Hell's wild course draws near.

Rapture surges through my senses
as this roseate glow I see;
this is the magic realm of love.
Let us away to the Venusberg!

Welcome, fickle man!
Did earth reject and banish you?
And do you nowhere find compassion,
and seek for love in my arms?

O Venus, generous of mercy!
To you, to you I am driven!

Enchantments of Hell, away, away!
Do not ensnare the hearts of the righteous!

If you again approach my realm,
your pride shall be forgiven;
the fount of pleasure will flow for you forever
and never shall you fly from me!

All hope of salvation is lost to me;
now let me choose the delights of Hell!

Almighty Lord, help thy servant!
Heinrich, one word will set you free:
your salvation!

O come!

to Wolfram
Away from me!

O come! Be mine now for ever!

You can still gain pardon for your sins!

Never, Wolfram, never! I must away!

An angel prayed for you on earth,
soon she will send her blessing down to you.

Come to me!



Hail to the soul that now has flown
from the body of this virtuous sufferer!

Your angel pleads for you at God's throne,
and her prayer is heard! Heinrich, you are saved!

Alas! Lost to me!

From the Wartburg a funeral procession bears an open coffin

Hers be the angels' blessed reward,
the rich crown of heavenly joys.

Do you hear the chant?

I hear it!

Blessed be the pure one, who now stands
among the heaveniv host before the Eternal!
Blessed be the sinner for whom she wept,
for whom she implored heaven's mercy!

Wolfram leads Tannhäuser to the coffin, on which he sinks

Holy Elisabeth, pray for me!

He dies.

carrying in their midst a priest's staff covered in fresh, green leaves
Hail! Hail! Hail to this miracle of grace!
Salvation to the world is given.
In this holy hour of night the Lord
hath manifested himself through a miracle.
The barren staff in the priest's hand
he has decked with fresh green:
so to the sinner in Hell's flames
shall redemption bloom anew!
Proclaim it through every land
that through this miracle he found grace!
God reigns high above the whole world,
and his compassion is never sought in vain!
Halleluja! Halleluja

The grace of God is granted to the penitent;
now he enters into the bliss of heaven!








In 1829, when Wagner was only sixteen years of age, he first became acquainted, through Hoffmann's novels, with the story of the mastersingers of Nürnberg, and with the mediæval legend of Tannhäuser, as versified by Ludwig Tieck. The ‘mystical coquetry and frivolous catholicism’ of this modern poem repelled him, and it was not until twelve years later, when he chanced upon a popular version of the same story, that he was struck by its dramatic possibilities. A chance mention of the Sängerkrieg of the Wartburg in this version made him trace the legend as far back as possible, and in doing so he came across an old poem of Lohengrin, and read Eschenbach's ‘Titurel’ and ‘Parzival,’ which were to serve as basis for two other great operas. The sketch of the opera of ‘Tannhäuser’ was completed in 1842, at Teplitz, during an excursion in the Bohemian mountains; but the whole score was not finished until three years later. Wagner had gone over it all so carefully that it was printed without much revision, and he had even written the piano score, which was sent to Berlin in 1845 and appeared in the same year that the opera was produced at Dresden.

Madame Schröder-Devrient, whom Wagner had in his mind in writing the part of Venus, sang that rôle, but, in spite of all her talent, the first performance was not a success. She wrote to Wagner concerning it, and said, ‘You are a man of genius, but you write such eccentric stuff it is hardly possible to sing it.’ The public in general, accustomed to light operas with happy endings, was dismayed at the sad and tragical termination, and, while some of the best musical authorities of the day applauded, others criticised the work unsparingly. Schumann alone seems to have realised the force of the author's new style, for he wrote, ‘On the whole, Wagner may become of great importance and significance to the stage,’—a doubtful prediction which was only triumphantly verified many years afterward. Like many of the mediæval legends, the story of Tannhäuser is connected with the ancient Teutonic religion, which declared that Holda, the Northern Venus, had set up her enchanted abode in the hollow mountain known as the Hörselberg, where she entertained her devotees with all the pleasures of love. When the missionaries came preaching Christianity, they diligently taught the people that all these heathen divinities were demons, and although Holda and her court were not forgotten, she became a type of sensual love. Tannhäuser, a minstrel of note, who has won many prizes for his songs, hearing of the wondrous underground palace and of its manifold charm, voluntarily enters the mountain, and abandons himself to the fair goddess's wiles. Here he spends a whole year in her company, surrounded by her train of loves and nymphs, yielding to all her enchantments, which at first intoxicate his poetic and beauty loving soul.

But at last the sensual pleasures in which he has been steeped begin to pall upon his jaded senses. He longs to tear himself away from the enchantress, and to return to the mingled pleasure and pain of earth.

The first scene of the opera represents the charmed grotto where Venus gently seeks to beguile the discontented knight, while nymphs, loves, bacchantes, and lovers whirl about in the graceful mazes of the dance, or pose in charming attitudes. Seeing Tannhäuser's abstraction and evident sadness, Venus artfully questions him, and when he confesses his homesickness, and his intense longing to revisit the earth, she again tries to dazzle him, and cast a glamour over all his senses, so as to make him utterly oblivious of all but her.

Temporarily intoxicated by her charms, Tannhäuser, when called upon to tune his lyre, bursts forth into a song extolling her beauty and fascination; but even before the lay is ended the longing to depart again seizes him, and he passionately entreats her to release him from her thrall:—

‘'Tis freedom I must win or die,—
For freedom I can all defy;
To strife or glory forth I go,
Come life or death, come joy or woe,
No more in bondage will I sigh!
O queen, beloved goddess, let me fly!’

Thus adjured, and seeing her power is temporarily ended, Venus haughtily dismisses her slave, warning him that he returns to earth in vain, as he has forfeited all chance of salvation by lingering with her, and bidding him return without fear when the intolerance of man has made him weary of life upon earth.

A sudden change of scene occurs. At a sign from Venus, the grotto and its voluptuous figures disappear; the roseate light makes way for the glaring sunshine, and Tannhäuser, who has not moved, suddenly finds himself upon the hillside, near the highroad and the shrine of the Virgin, and within sight of the Wartburg castle, where he formerly dwelt and won many a prize for his beautiful songs. The summer silence is at first broken only by the soft notes of a shepherd singing a popular ballad about Holda, the Northern Venus, who issues yearly from the mountain to herald the spring, but as he ceases a band of pilgrims slowly comes into view. These holy wanderers are all clad in penitential robes, and, as they slowly wend their way down the hill and past the shrine, they chant a psalm praying for the forgiveness of their sins. The shepherd calls to them asking them to pray for him in Rome, and, as they pass out of sight, still singing, Tannhäuser, overcome with remorse for his misspent years, sinks down on his knees before the Virgin's shrine, humbly imploring forgiveness for his sins:—

‘Oh, see my heart by grief oppressed!
I faint, I sink beneath the burden!
Nor will I cease, nor will I rest,
Till heavenly mercy grants me pardon.’

While he is still kneeling there, absorbed in prayer, the Landgrave and his minstrel knights appear in hunting costume. Their attention is attracted by the bowed figure of the knight, and when he raises his head they recognise him as their former companion. Some of the minstrels, jealous of his past triumphs, would fain regard him as their foe, but, influenced by one of their number, Wolfram von Eschenbach, they welcome him kindly and ask him where he has been. Tannhäuser, only partly roused from his half lethargic state, dreamily answers that he has long been tarrying in a land where he found neither peace nor rest, and in answer to their invitation to join them in the Wartburg declares he cannot stay, but must wander on forever. Wolfram, seeing him about to depart once more, then reminds him of Elizabeth, the fair chatelaine of the Wartburg, and when he sees that, although Tannhäuser trembles at the mere sound of the name of the maiden he once loved, he will nevertheless depart, he asks and obtains the Landgrave's permission to reveal a long kept secret.

Wolfram himself has long loved the fair Elizabeth, but such is his unselfish devotion that he would fain see her happy even with a rival. To win the light back to her eyes and the smile to her lips, he now tells Tannhäuser how she has drooped ever since he went away, and generously confesses that she took pleasure in his music only, and has persistently avoided the minstrel hall since his departure. His eloquent pleading touches Tannhäuser's reawakening heart, and he finally consents to accompany the Landgrave and his minstrels back to the Wartburg. Hither they now make their way on foot and on horseback, singing a triumphal chorus:—

‘He doth return, no more to wander;
Our loved and lost is ours again.
All praise and thanks to those we render
Who could persuade, and not in vain.
Now let your harps indite a measure
Of all that hero's hand may dare,
Of all that poet's heart can pleasure,
Before the fairest of the fair.’

The second act is played in the great hall of the Wartburg castle, which is festively decorated, for the minstrels are again to contend for the prize of song, a laurel wreath which will again be bestowed as of yore by the fair hands of the beloved Princess Elizabeth. As the curtain rises she is alone in the hall, no longer pale and wan, but radiant with happiness, for she knows that Tannhäuser, her lover, has returned, and she momentarily expects him to appear. While she is greeting the well known hall, the scene of her lover's former triumphs, with a rapturous little outburst of song, the door suddenly opens and Wolfram appears, leading the penitent Tannhäuser, who rushes forward and falls at Elizabeth's feet, while his friend discreetly withdraws. Elizabeth would fain raise the knight, telling him it is unbecoming for him to assume so humble an attitude beneath the roof where he has triumphed over all rivals, and she tenderly asks where he has lingered so long. Tannhäuser, ashamed of the past, and absorbed in the present, declares that he has been far away, in the land of oblivion, where he has forgotten all save her alone:—

‘Far away in strange and distant regions,
And between yesterday and to-day oblivion's veil hath fallen.
Every remembrance hath forever vanished,
Save one thing only, rising from the darkness,—
That I then dared not hope I should behold thee,
Nor ever raise mine eyes to thy perfection.’

Elizabeth is so happy to see him once more, so ready to forgive him at the very first word of repentance, that Tannhäuser cannot but see how dearly she loves him, and they soon unite in a duet of complete bliss, rejoicing openly over their reunion, and vowing to love each other forever, and never to part again.

The Landgrave appears just as their song is ended, to congratulate Elizabeth upon having at last left her seclusion and honoured the minstrels with her presence. In conclusion, he declares that, as all the contestants know she will be there to bestow the prize, the rivalry will be greater than ever. He is interrupted in this speech, however, by the entrance of knights and nobles, who file in singing a chorus in praise of the noble hall, and of Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia, the patron of song, whom they repeatedly cheer. When they have all taken their appointed places, the Landgrave, rising in his seat, addresses them, bidding them welcome, reminding them of the high aims of their art, and telling them that, while the theme he is about to propose for their lays is love, the princess herself will bestow as prize whatever the winner may ask:—

‘Therefore hear now the theme you all shall sing.
Say, what is love? by what signs shall we know it?
This be your theme. Whoso most nobly this can tell,
Him shall the princess give the prize.
He may demand the fairest guerdon:
I vouch that whatsoe'er he ask is granted.
Up, then, arouse ye! sing, O gallant minstrels!
Attune your harps to love. Great is the prize,’

At the summons of the heralds, Wolfram von Eschenbach first takes up the strain, and as for him love is an ardent desire to see the loved one happy, a longing to sacrifice himself if need be, and an attitude of worshipful devotion, he naturally sings an exalted strain. It finds favour with all his hearers,—with all except Tannhäuser, who, having tasted of the passionate joys of unholy love, cannot understand the purity of Wolfram's lay, which he stigmatises as cold and unsatisfactory.

In his turn, he now attunes his harp to love, and sings a voluptuous strain, which not only contrasts oddly with Wolfram's performance, but shows love merely as a passion, a gratification of the senses. The minstrels, jealous for their art, indignantly interrupt him, and one even challenges Tannhäuser to mortal combat:—

‘To mortal combat I defy thee!
Shameless blasphemer, draw thy sword!
As brother henceforth we deny thee:
Thy words profane too long we've heard!
If I of love divine have spoken,
Its glorious spell shall be unbroken
Strength'ning in valour, sword and heart,
Altho' from life this hour I part.
For womanhood and noble honour
Through death and danger I would go;
But for the cheap delights that won thee
I scorn them as worth not one blow!’

This minstrel's sentiments are loudly echoed by all the knights present, who, having been trained in the school of chivalry, have an exalted conception of love, hold all women in high honour, and deeply resent the attempt just made to degrade them. Tannhäuser, whose once pure and noble nature has been perverted and degraded by the year spent with Venus, cannot longer understand the exalted pleasures of true love, even though he has just won the heart of a peerless and spotless maiden, and when Wolfram, hoping to allay the strife, again resumes his former strain, he impatiently interrupts him.

Recklessly now, and entirely wrapped up in the recollection of the unholy pleasures of the past, Tannhäuser exalts the goddess of Love, with whom he has revelled in bliss, and boldly reveals the fact that he has been tarrying with her in her subterranean grove.

This confession fills the hearts of all present with nameless terror, for the priests have taught them that the heathen deities are demons disguised. The minstrels one and all fall upon Tannhäuser, who is saved from immediate death at their hands only by the prompt intervention of Elizabeth.

Broken-hearted, for now she knows the utter unworthiness of the man to whom she has given her heart, yet loving him still and hoping he may in time win forgiveness for his sin, she pleads so eloquently for him that all fall back. The Landgrave, addressing him, then solemnly bids him repent, and join the pilgrims on their way to Rome, where perchance the Pope may grant him absolution for his sin:—

‘One path alone can save thee from perdition,
From everlasting woe,—by earth abandon'd,
One way is left: that way thou now shalt know.
A band of pilgrims now assembled
From every part of my domain;
This morn the elders went before them,
The rest yet in the vale remain.
'Tis not for crimes like thine they tremble,
And leave their country, friends and home,—
Desire for heav'nly grace is o'er them:
They seek the sacred shrine at Rome.’

Urged to depart by the Landgrave, knights, nobles, and even by the pale and sorrowful Elizabeth, Tannhäuser eagerly acquiesces, for now that the sudden spell of sensuous love has departed, he ardently longs to free his soul from the burden of sin. The pilgrims' chant again falls upon his ear, and, sobered and repentant, Tannhäuser joins them to journey on foot to Rome, kneeling at every shrine by the way, and devoutly praying for the forgiveness and ultimate absolution of his sins.

When the curtain rises upon the third and last act of this opera, one whole year has slowly passed, during which no tidings of the pilgrims have been received. It is now time for their return, and they are daily expected by their friends, who have ardently been praying that they may come home, shrived and happy, to spend the remainder of their lives at home in peace. No one has prayed as fervently as the fair Elizabeth, who, forgetting her wonted splendour, has daily wended her way down the hillside, to kneel on the rude stones in front of the Virgin's wayside shrine. There she has daily prayed for Tannhäuser's happy return, and there she kneels absorbed in prayer when Wolfram comes down the path as usual. He has not forgotten his love for her, which is as deep and self-sacrificing as ever, so he too prays that her lover may soon return from Rome, entirely absolved, and wipe away her constant tears. Elizabeth is suddenly roused from her devotions by the distant chant of the returning pilgrims. They sing of sins forgiven, and of the peace won by their long, painful journey to Rome. Singing thus they slowly file past Wolfram and Elizabeth, who eagerly scan every face in search of one whom they cannot discover.

When all have passed by, Elizabeth, realising that she will see her beloved no more, sinks slowly down on her knees, and, raising her despairing eyes to the image of the Virgin. Then she solemnly dedicates the remainder of her life to her exclusive service, in the hope that Tannhäuser may yet be forgiven, and prays that death may soon come to ease her pain and bring her heart eternal peace:—

‘O blessed Virgin, hear my prayer!
Thou star of glory, look on me!
Here in the dust I bend before thee,
Now from this earth oh set me free!
Let me, a maiden, pure and white,
Enter into thy kingdom bright!
If vain desires and earthly longing
Have turn'd my heart from thee away,
The sinful hopes within me thronging
Before thy blessed feet I lay.
I'll wrestle with the love I cherish'd,
Until in death its flame hath perish'd.
If of my sin thou wilt not shrive me,
Yet in this hour, oh grant thy aid!
Till thy eternal peace thou give me,
I vow to live and die thy maid.
And on thy bounty I will call,
That heav'nly grace on him may fall.’

This prayer ended, the broken-hearted Elizabeth slowly totters away, while Wolfram von Eschenbach, who has seen by her pallid face and wasted frame that the death she prays for will not tarry long, sorrowfully realises at last that all his love can save her no pang.

When the evening shadows have fallen, and the stars illumine the sky, he is still lingering by the holy shrine where Elizabeth has breathed her last prayer. The silence of the night is suddenly broken by the sound of his harp, as he gives vent to his sorrow by an invocation to the stars, among which his lady-love is going to dwell ere-long, and as he sings the last notes a pilgrim slowly draws near. Wolfram does not at first recognise his old friend and rival Tannhäuser in this dejected, foot-sore traveller; but when he sees the worn face he anxiously inquires whether he has been absolved, and warns him against venturing within the precincts of the Wartburg unless he has received Papal pardon for his sins.

Tannhäuser, instead of answering this query, merely asks him to point out the path, which he once found so easily, the path leading to the Venus hill, and only when Wolfram renews his questions does he vouchsafe him a brief account of his journey to Rome. He tells how he trod the roughest roads barefooted, how he journeyed through heat and cold, eschewing all comforts and alleviation of his hard lot, how he knelt penitently before every shrine, and how fervently he prayed for the forgiveness of the sin which had darkened not only his life but that of his beloved. Then, in faltering tones, he relates how the Pope shrank from him upon hearing that he had sojourned for a year in the Venus hill, and how sternly he declared there could be no more hope of pardon for such a sin than to see his withered staff blossom and bear leaves:—

‘If thou hast shar'd the joys of Hell,
If thou unholy flames hast nurs'd
That in the hill of Venus dwell,
Thou art for evermore accurs'd!
And as this barren staff I hold
Ne'er will put forth a flower or leaf,
Thus shalt thou never more behold
Salvation or thy sin's relief.’

Tannhäuser now passionately describes his utter despair, after hearing this awful verdict, his weary homeward journey, and his firm determination, since he is utterly debarred from ever seeing Elizabeth again, either in this world or in the next, to hasten back to the hill of Venus, where he can at least deaden his remorse with pleasure, and steep his sinful soul in sensual love. In vain Wolfram pleads with him not to give up all hope of ultimate salvation, and still to repent of his former sin; he insists upon returning to the enchantress who warned him of the intolerance of man, and whom he now calls upon to guide his steps to the entrance of her abode.

This invocation does not remain unheard by the fair goddess of beauty. She appears in the distance with her shadowy train, singing her old alluring song, and welcoming him back to her realm. Tannhäuser is about to obey her beckoning hand, and to hasten after her in the direction of the Hörselberg, when the sound of a funeral chant falls upon his ear. A long procession is slowly winding down the hill. The mourners are carrying the body of the fair Elizabeth, who has died of grief, to its last resting place.

While Tannhäuser, forgetting all else, is gazing spellbound at the waxen features of his beloved, thus slowly borne down the hill, Wolfram tells him how the pure maiden interceded for him in her last prayer on earth, and declares that he knows her innocent soul is now pleading for his forgiveness at the foot of the heavenly throne. This hope of salvation brings such relief to Tannhäuser's tormented heart, that he turns his back upon Venus, who, realising her prey has escaped, suddenly vanishes in the Hörselberg with all her demon train.

Kneeling by Elizabeth's bier, Tannhäuser fervently prays for forgiveness, until the bystanders, touched by his remorse, assure him that he will be forgiven,—an assurance which is confirmed as he breathes his last, by the arrival of the Pope's messenger. He appears, bearing the withered staff, which has miraculously budded and has burst forth into blossoms and leaves:—

‘The Lord himself now thy bondage hath riven.
Go, enter in with the blest in His heaven.’




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