Wagner’s Lohengrin – the facts
by Peter Bassett.
Towards the end of 1848, the premiere of Lohengrin at the Royal Saxon Court Theatre was abruptly cancelled, mainly, it seems, because of hostility towards its composer, the thirty-five-year-old Richard Wagner. Dresden audiences had been exposed to some of the music of Lohengrin in a Kӧnigliche Kapelle concert in September that year, when part of the first act was included in a crowded program of works by eleven, now mostly forgotten, composers. The young Wagner had made a name for himself with Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser, but rivals at court were determined to bring him down a peg. He was not impressed, but it was the cancellation of the stage performances of Lohengrin that proved the last straw. He turned his back on the Dresden Theatre and decided to have nothing more to do with it.
“So I became, in the end, a revolutionary” he told Eduard Devrient, “if not in deed, yet in conviction, and can no longer find joy in creating. The recent catastrophe has brought me to myself to the extent that it made me fully conscious of my unhappy, frustrated condition, and already I hoped nothing, desired nothing, but to get away with my poor sorely tried wife and live my life in quiet seclusion somewhere, without action, yet also without guilt.”
In May 1849, within a year of Lohengrin’s completion, Saxon and Prussian troops brutally suppressed an uprising in Dresden. Students were shot in their rooms and men were flung out of third- and fourth-floor windows, as Clara Schumann recorded in her diary. “It is horrible to have to live through such things” she wrote. “This is the way men have to fight for their little patch of freedom. When will the time come when all men have the same rights?” The French Revolution was vividly remembered, and the European ruling classes were determined to stamp out any new signs of trouble. Nevertheless, reform seemed inevitable and young idealists like Richard Wagner were drawn to its siren song. As the Industrial Revolution began transforming societies, new revolutions broke out across continental Europe, and the writings of scientific socialists Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin took hold.
With the failure of the Dresden revolution, Wagner felt thoroughly alienated from his German homeland – “political Germany did not have the slightest attraction to offer me”. Many of his associates, including the more radical August Rӧckel, had been arrested and sentenced to death. Rӧckel’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and he was eventually released after thirteen years. Wagner’s essay Die Kunst und die Revolution (Art and Revolution), written in July 1849 after he had fled to Zürich, was more concerned with art than politics as such, and in it he declared that the art of the future “must embrace the spirit of a free mankind, delivered from every shackle of a hampering nationalism; its racial imprint must be no more than an embellishment, not a cramping limitation.”
By sheer good fortune Wagner had escaped capture, although a warrant had been issued for his arrest. He fled to Weimar where, anxious not to reveal ‘who he was or whence he came’, he called himself Professor Werder from Berlin. Later, with the help of Franz Liszt, just two years his senior, he borrowed a passport belonging to a Professor Widmann of the University of Jena and set off towards Lake Constance and the Bavarian-Swiss border. He took to the lake (by steamer), and soon landed on Swiss soil at Rorschach in the Canton of St Gallen. He then made his way by coach to Zürich.
“Nothing can be compared with that feeling of well-being which ran through me as I realized that I was free” he wrote in his 1851 essay A Communication to my Friends. “As an exile and a refugee, once I was no longer forced to live a lie, once I could turn round on this hypocritical world and shout in its face how utterly I despised it, this world without a single drop of true artistic blood in its veins, powerless to utter a breath of true culture or beauty – then, for the first time in my life, I felt fully and completely free.”
However, living in prolonged exile, cut off from German theatres, trapped in an increasingly stressful marriage and without any reliable sources of income, he came close to ending his career. In a letter of 1852 to Julie Ritter, he wrote: “Just now I am undecided whether to shoot myself or not. My wife had rather I didn’t….” If Richard Wagner had succumbed to this state of depression, we would remember him today only as the composer of three romantic operas written before the age of thirty-five, each imbued with a strong sense of tragedy – Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. For five years after Lohengrin he composed no music at all apart from a couple of trifling piano works in honour of Zürich supporters, and an arrangement of Mozart’s Don Giovanni – the work he had conducted as a twenty-one-year-old in the little town of Bad Lauchstädt where he had met his wife, Minna. Perhaps he was trying to recapture those heady, happier times. Extraordinarily though, the years of trials and disillusionment inspired a new clarity of vision, prompted some major essays and made possible seven unsurpassed masterpieces: Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the vast cycle of dramas Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Parsifal.
The years in exile gave Wagner time to reflect on his earlier works. He refashioned the ending of Der fliegende Holländer to introduce post-Tristan notions of redemption, and he made various other changes to the score. He reworked Tannhäuser for the notorious Paris performances of 1861 and he was still talking about owing the world Tannhäuser three weeks before he died in February 1883.
Lohengrin, though, drew mixed feelings from its composer. In May 1849, he had sent the score from Zürich to Liszt, describing it with pride as his “last and ripest work”. Liszt was impressed, replying: “The more I enter into its conception and masterly execution, the higher rises my enthusiasm for this extraordinary work”. When Liszt was preparing the first performance in Weimar in 1850, Wagner followed its progress as intently as he could from Switzerland, asking for, among other things, the deletion of the second verse of Lohengrin’s Act Three narration. In April 1851 though, he wrote to Liszt with lingering bitterness over the Dresden debacle: “Recently I glanced through my score of Lohengrin; it filled me absolutely with disgust, and my intermittent fits of laughter were not of a cheerful kind.” But in fact, his attachment to the score and to the drama remained firm. In 1853 he conducted excerpts in a ‘Wagner Festival’ in Zürich, along with highlights from his other works, and these all received a rapturous response. Word spread, and Lohengrin was then staged in many German cities as well as Prague and Vienna and, in 1859, Dresden.
In the work’s early days, objections were raised about the apparent heartlessness of Lohengrin’s abandonment of Elsa. The composer took these representations seriously and, for a while, he contemplated Elsa departing with Lohengrin, withdrawing from the world to do penance. However, he soon realised that only his original concept would satisfy the underlying drama, and so the ending remained unchanged. Lohengrin is Wagner’s most tragic work. The point of the ancient Greek story of Zeus and Semele, from which Wagner drew inspiration, was that although a supernatural being and an earthly one may be in contact with each other, their close association can never endure. In the classical tale, Zeus, through love for the mortal woman Semele, assumes human form, but when Semele asks the god to reveal himself in all his divine splendour, she is overwhelmed and destroyed. Wagner observed that while northern European myths and legends, such as the legend of the Swan Knight, were often expressed in terms of Christian symbolism, many had ancient Greek or other pagan origins. Such tales, he maintained, arose from the truest depths of universal human nature, and should not be interpreted merely in Christian terms.
Lohengrin was hugely popular in the nineteenth century, when the prevailing interpretation – demonstrated with singular devotion by King Ludwig II, on whom it had made an indelible impression as a boy – was deeply romantic: the knight’s silvery approach in his swan-drawn skiff; his rescue of the damsel in distress through trial-by-combat; references to the Holy Grail and so forth.
However, Wagner’s focus went much deeper than this:
“Lohengrin sought a woman who would believe in him” he wrote, “who would not ask who he was or whence he came but would love him as he was and because he was what he appeared to her to be. … For this reason, he had to conceal his higher nature, for it was precisely the non-discovery, the non-revelation of this higher nature (higher because, to speak more accurately, it has been raised up) that was his sole guarantee that he was not admired or marvelled at or humbly and uncomprehendingly adored simply because of that quality. Admiration and adoration were what he did not seek; only one thing could release him from his isolation and satisfy his yearning: love, to be loved, to be understood through love.”
In other words, Lohengrin needs to be sure that Elsa loves, not worships, him, but her doubts reveal that he has merely been ‘worshipped’, and so he ‘confesses his divine nature, whereupon he returns, annihilated, to his former lonely state’. It is this double tragedy that gives the work its poignancy, expressed exquisitely in the music. It follows that if Elsa’s fate (like Semele’s) is a tragic one, then so too is Lohengrin’s. His love is vulnerable and dependant because, notwithstanding his origins, he yearns to feel, and to be accepted, as a human being. In Wagner’s view, the events in Lohengrin constituted an allegory of the absolute artist’s hopes of finding a ‘homeland’, and the irretrievable dashing of those hopes. The Flying Dutchman is also an embodiment of the absolute artist, although he does not ‘return annihilated to his former lonely state’ but is redeemed because Senta joins him in his loneliness – in the sea into which she hurls herself in the closing moments of the work. Those who interpret Lohengrin’s actions as male chauvinism, and Elsa’s plight as feminine humiliation, misread Wagner’s intentions completely, as do others who regard Lohengrin as a personification of German national mythology.
Over the years, various German leaders have exploited Wagner’s imagery for their own purposes, beginning with Ludwig II of Bavaria who imagined himself as the Swan Knight, and staged enactments on the Schwansee. In the autumn of 1866 Ludwig became engaged to Sophie, younger sister of the Empress of Austria. In a letter to her that began: ‘My dear Elsa’ (which should have raised doubts straight away!), he explained: ‘The god of my life is, as you already know, R. Wagner.’ This was not a good start and it coincided with preparations for a ‘model’ performance of Lohengrin in Munich to which Ludwig was paying the closest attention. A year later, the engagement came to an end, and so life imitated art.
Role-playing of this kind continued with Kaiser Wilhelm II, who appeared on occasions in public as Lohengrin adorned with a silver winged helmet, and who once entered Hamburg in a boat drawn by a large simulated swan! Adolf Hitler adopted a misconceived Lohengrin persona for propaganda purposes, and King Henry the Fowler (AD 876-936) who, in history as in the opera, raised an army to fight the Magyars (Hungarians), became a revered figure in the Third Reich, with Heinrich Himmler making annual pilgrimages to his grave. Wagner’s comments to Liszt in January 1852 about the evil Ortrud, described with extraordinary prescience Hitler’s motivations in the 1930s and ‘40s. Ortrud, wrote Wagner, is a woman who does not know love. Her nature is politics, motivated by ancestral pride and by a hankering after the past and after departed generations, a force which ultimately turns into murderous fanaticism – ‘which can be satisfied only with the destruction of others, or – of herself’.
A major turning point in Wagner’s creative life came in the mid-1850s when he embraced both the philosophical writings of Arthur Schopenhauer and the religious insights of ancient India. Nine months after declaring that he had become preoccupied with Schopenhauer “who … has entered my lonely life like a gift from heaven”, he wrote to Liszt in June 1855 extravagantly praising “the oldest and most sacred religion known to man, Brahman teaching and its final transfiguration in Buddhism, where it achieved its most perfect form”.
In the years after 1854, Wagner read a wide array of Buddhist and Brahmanic material and he drew on these works in Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tristan und Isolde, an unfinished Buddhist opera Die Sieger (The Victors) and Parsifal. In time, he also came to recognise features in Lohengrin that were consistent with Eastern ideas. For example, he was impressed by the notion of transmigration of souls, telling Liszt in 1855: “The Buddha’s teaching relating to the transmigration of souls almost certainly expresses the truth”, and five years later he wrote to Mathilda Wesendonck:
“Only a profound acceptance of the doctrine of metempsychosis has been able to console me by revealing the point at which all things finally converge at the same level of redemption, after the various individual existences – which run alongside each other in time – have come together in a meaningful way outside time. According to the beautiful Buddhist doctrine, the spotless purity of Lohengrin is easily explicable in terms of his being a continuation of Parzifal – who was the first to strive towards purity. Elsa, similarly, would reach the level of Lohengrin through being reborn. Thus, my plan for The Victors struck me as being the concluding section of Lohengrin. Here Savitri (Elsa) entirely reaches the level of Ananda.”
Swans feature prominently in both Parsifal and Lohengrin and may be considered symbols of the transmigration of souls. In Parsifal the fallen swan, whose suffering awakens compassion in Parsifal (inspired by a Buddhist tale from the first century AD), is given the same distinctive musical expression as the swan in Lohengrin – the transformed Gottfried. It was a reminder of the unity of all living creatures, about which Wagner wrote so passionately.
In 1853 he wrote a program note that summed up his motivation for Lohengrin:
“It seemed as if love had disappeared from a world now filled with hate and strife. Yet amid the dreary concern for gain and possession directing all worldly traffic, the inextinguishable longing for love that resides in every human heart still yearned to be satisfied…. So it was that the mystic imagination located the source of this intangible longing for love, and likewise its final destination, outside of the empirical world, ascribing to it a marvellous form.”