Showing posts with label Opera. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Opera. Show all posts

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Myth of Opera

Richard Wagner based his opera Tannhauser und der Saengerkrieg auf Wartburg on the two sagas provided below. The opera takes a romantic look at the Middle Ages and features a lively cast of troubadours, saints and even the Goddess Venus. Venus and the Venusberg are first mentioned in German mythology in the 15th century. Before this time the goddess was referred to as Frau Holla and her escort was Getreue Eckart. They both resided in the Horselberg. In the German Saga the character Tannhauser is wracked by longing for his old pagan religion and belief system, the one that was vanishing along with Frau Holla and Eckart. Christianity proved to be too rigid and harsh for Tannhauser and so, he withdrew to the Venusberg to await his Last Judgement.

His pain and longing for a world quickly disappearing is reminiscent of another famous pagan fairy tale personage, Rumpelstiltzchen. See the link Reading Rumpelstiltzchen at the upper right for more.

It is interesting to see how Wagner mixes the two sagas to produce his musical masterpiece. In Wagner's version, Tannhauser and Heinrich von Ofterdingen become one and the same character. The language in these two sagas is particularly dense and difficult to decipher. The first line of the Wartburg Singing Contest announces six virtuous and reasonable men coming together in song to compose hymns. But nothing virtuous or reasonable follows and the story is full of curious plot twists and turns. Luckily for opera-goers, when the plot sags the music usually soars.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Grimm's Saga No. 561: The Wartburg Singing War

Grimm’s Saga No. 561 The Wartburg Singing War

In the year 1206, six virtuous and reasonable men came together in song to compose hymns at Wartburg Castle near Eisenach. Years later this was often referred to as The Singing War at Wartburg Castle. The names of the troubadours were: Heinrich Schreiber, Walther von der Vogelweide, Reimar Zweter, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Biterolf and Heinrich von Ofterdingen. They sang and quarreled over who sang most like the sun and the day. Most compared Hermann, the Count of Thuringia and Hessia to the day and placed him over all other princes. Only Ofterdingen praised Leopold, Duke of Austria even more and compared him to the sun. When setting the rules of the singing contest, the troubadours determined that the loser would lose his head. Stempfel the henchman stood ready with noose in hand and would hang the loser immediately. Heinrich von Ofterdingen sang cleverly and skillfully; in the end he was superior to all the others but they were cunning and entrapped him. Because they were jealous, they wanted to remove him from the Thuringia Court. But he complained that the contest had been rigged and he had been given the wrong dice to play their game. The five others called Stempfel and ordered him to hang Heinrich from a tree. But Heinrich fled to the Landgravine Sophia and hid behind her coat. They were forced to let him go and they reached agreement that they would leave him in peace for one year. He would go to Hungary and Siebenbuergen and fetch the Meistersinger Klingsor. The troubadours would then settle the singing contest and they would abide by his decision. At the time, Meistersinger Klingsor was considered to be the most famous of all German Meistersingers. Because the Landgravine Sophia had granted Heinrich protection, the others had to follow her bidding.

Heinrich von Ofterdingen started his journey. First he visited the Duke of Austria and with his letters of recommendation continued on to Siebenbuergen to the Meistersinger. He told Meistersinger Klingsor the reason for his trip and performed his songs.

Klingsor praised his singing and promised to return with him to Thuringia and settle the dispute. But on the way, they spent their time in idle amusement and the deadline given Heinrich was fast approaching. Because Klingsor still gave no sign of starting the journey, Heinrich became fearful and said: “Meistersinger Klingsor, I fear you are abandoning me and I must sadly accept my punishment alone. I shall lose my honor and never again be able to return to Thuringia.” But Klingsor replied “Do not worry! We have strong horses and a light wagon. We shall manage the distance in a short time.”

Heinrich could not sleep because of his anxiety; in the evening Klingsor gave him a drink so that he fell into a deep sleep. Klingsor commanded his ghosts to bring Heinrich quickly to Eisenach in Thuringia and to set him down in the best inn. It happened and they brought him to Helgrevenhof before daylight. Heinrich recognized the bells ringing in his morning sleep and said “It seems as though I have heard these bells before and that I’m in Eisenach.”
“You must be dreaming,” the Meister replied. But Heinrich stood up and looked round and he noticed that he really was in Thuringia. “Thank God that we are here, this is Helgrevenhaus Inn and I can see St. George’s Gate and the people standing in front of it want to cross the field.”

Soon the arrival of the two guests was heralded at Wartburg Castle. The Count ordered that Meistersinger Klingsor be received honorably and presented him with gifts. When Ofterdingen was asked what had happened to him and how he had faired in the last year, he replied “Yesterday I went to sleep in Siebenbuergen and by early morning I was here. I myself don’t know how it happened.” Several days passed before the singers were to assemble and begin the contest that Klingsor was to judge. One Evening, he sat in the innkeeper’s garden and looked up at the stars. The gentlemen asked what he saw in heaven. Klingsor said “Do you know that tonight a daughter shall be born to the King of Hungary. She will be beautiful, chaste and holy and will be married to the Count’s son.”

When this message was taken to Count Hermann, he rejoiced and invited Klingsor to Wartburg, honored him and presented a fine dinner at the princely table. After dinner, he went out to the Knight’s Hall, where the singers sat. All wanted to be free of Heinrich von Ofterdingen. Klingsor and Wolfram sang their songs but Wolfram sang with such beauty and agility, that the Meister could not surpass him. Klingsor entreated one of his ghosts, who appeared in the form of a youth. He said “I bring you my servant; he will continue the contest with you for a while.” The ghost began to sing a song, starting with the creation of the world and continuing to the time of grace. But Wolfram’s song praised the sacred birth of the Eternal Word. When he began to sing of the transformation of bread and wine, the devil was silent and had to depart. Klingsor listened to everything and heard Wolfram sing with such noble bearing and learned words of the divine secret. He believed that Wolfram was a scholar. The two then departed. Wolfram went to his place in Titzel, Gottschalk’s House, across from the bread market in the center of town. At night when he slept Klingsor sent him another of his devils to ascertain whether he was a scholar or layman. But Wolfram was only trained in God’s word, a simple man and inexperienced in other arts. The devil sang to him of the stars in heaven and asked him questions the singer could not answer. And when he was silent, the devil laughed loudly and wrote with his finger on the stone wall, as if it were soft dough: “Wolfram, you are a layman, schnipf-schnapf!” The devil withdrew but the writing remained on the wall. Many people came to see the miracle, which annoyed the innkeeper. He broke the stones out of the wall and threw them in the Horsel River. After he had done all this, Klingsor left the Count with all his gifts and rewards and with his servant wrapped in a rug, departed in the same way that he had come.

Richard Wagner used this saga as inspiration for his opera Tannhäuser. To read a translation of Grimm's Saga Tannhäuser, please hit the link: Tannhäuser