Kennst du den Schwan?

Fragments on Wagner’s LOHENGRIN.

Wagner’s silvery-blue “romantic opera” Lohengrin premiered at the Großherzogliches Hof-Theater in Weimar on this date in 1850.[1] Perennially popular in the succeeding century and a half, its tale of the “nameless” hero born onstage by a swan has been experienced in over two dozen productions around the world over the last two years alone. The production at the Bayreuth Festival this summer had its own knightly rescue twice-over with Yuval Sharon—the first American stage director in the festival’s history—taking over from Alvis Hermanis, and Piotr Beczała stepping in for Roberto Alagna. Lohengrin has had a generous share of rescuers throughout history, reaching back to that first performance in Weimar under Franz Liszt.


Origins of the Work

Familiar with figure of Lohengrin from at least 1841, Wagner made his first dramatic sketches for the work during a fruitful sojourn in Marienbad in 1845 for his health. (That same summer also spawned the first notions of Die Meistersinger, and Parzival was on his reading list as well.) The full score was completed on April 28, 1848, with a new transitional passage for act 3 later interpolated in 1851. The premiere was announced for 1849 in Dresden, where Wagner was then Kapellmeister of the Saxon Court. New sets were contracted, but Wagner’s participation in Dresden’s May Uprising of that year and his eventual exile in Switzerland brought those plans to naught. (Such political theatrics were apropos given that assemblies and armies are part and parcel of the dramaturgy of Lohengrin, a particular challenge for productions in the postwar era.) While the end of act 1 had been premiered in 1848 during a concert marking three hundred years of the Weimar Hofkapelle, the rest of the opera was doomed to remain unheard.


Enter Franz Liszt

Or rather enter Wagner’s entreaties to the Kapellmeister extraordinaire in Weimar. Wagner kept up an avid correspondence to convince Liszt to produce the work, a formidable challenge for such a small court theatre operation. (Weimar had, however, mounted Wagner’s Tannhäuser in May of 1849, a work of somewhat comparable spectacle.) Liszt did yeoman’s work to clear the air in the court of the whiff of Wagner’s politics, a telling effort for the work’s legacy. There were other cultural concerns to navigate. The gala performance coincided with the one hundred and first birthday of Goethe and the dedication of the Weimar memorial to Herder. The scheduling was a bold choice on Liszt’s part, but also an understandable step in his attempt to connect the “golden age” of Weimar with his own endeavors to modernize the court theatre repertory.


Some 2000 thalers and forty rehearsals later, Lohengrin bowed before its first audience, prefaced by a commemorative prologue from author-actor Franz von Dingelstedt. (It is a strange mélange of patriotism and mythology.) Wagner heard much about the performance, including the exasperating fact that it timed out at 75 minutes (!) beyond his own estimation of its length. He was particularly concerned with the declamation of the singers, especially since Lohengrin marked a considerable step forward in Wagnerian expression. The composer sent considerable notes concerning the design and staging of the work, which he later published. He himself would not see the work performed until he attended a rehearsal in Vienna in 1861.


Swan Fans

The legend of the Knight of the Swan boasts many an assiduous fan, to say the least. (Who wouldn’t want a prince coming to your rescue?) After attending a performance in 1861, the legend and the knight remained one of the stronger obsessions of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Swan imagery is abundant in his structures, Neuschwanstein perhaps eclipsing all others. It is important to note that Ludwig’s conception of “Romanticism”—if it can even be called that—was more eclectic than the trope of the Märchenkönig would imply. He had an unshakable devotion to the legacy of Louis XIV and the Rococo (as evinced in Herrenchiemsee and Linderhof), as well as fashionable attitudes towards rusticism and Orientalism common to his era. Ludwig’s aesthetics also embraced a strongly historicist attitude, something that often exacerbated Wagner where set and costume designs were concerned, particularly with his opera. Thomas Mann was also a concerted devotee, his memories of first hearing the prelude among the most lingering in his memory.


Moment of Note

Apart from testing how long it takes for one character to cross the stage, Lohengrin boasts one of the most accomplished and sublime preludes Wagner ever wrote. A masterpiece of orchestration and structure, his program note from Zurich in 1853 describes how the piece depicts the delivery of the Holy Grail to earth by the heavenly host. At its climax, “the observer’s senses diminish; he sinks down in devout annihilation.” Can’t put it better than that.


[1] Pace the abuse of the term “music drama” with Wagner’s stage works, both the placard for the premiere and the text published in Weimar give the subtitle as “Romantische Oper in drei Akten.”

Author: Ryan M. Prendergast

Ph.D. Candidate @ the University of Illinois. Theater, opera, music, media, art, history, detritus. I smile, of course, and go on drinking tea.

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