Richard Wagner is usually portrayed as strong-willed and single-minded. That picture is accurate to a large degree, yet there were times when the composer could be a little unsure of himself. One of those times occurred at the beginning of the creation of Lohengrin.
Wagner himself discusses this in his autobiography, My Life. In accordance with his usual procedure, he wrote a poem for Lohengrin to serve as his libretto. The story line was the same as that of the opera we know today: Lohengrin's bride, Elsa, asks the forbidden questions (Who are you? Where do you come from?) and Lohengrin feels compelled to answer them. But he thereby breaks a protective spell and must abandon Elsa and return to the place from whence he mysteriously appeared. As he sails away, the heartbroken Elsa falls dead.
Wagner read his poem to a close friend, Dr. Hermann Franck, who was troubled by the ending. Franck suggested that it was Lohengrin who should die because of Elsa's betrayal. Wagner rejected this, yet a seed of doubt had been planted and he began to toy with the idea of allowing Elsa to live and go away with Lohengrin, though she would have to do some kind of penance for asking the questions she had promised not to ask.
Then a third voice entered the discussion. Wagner showed the poem to an acquaintance, Mrs. August von L‹ttichau, who fully agreed with Wagner's version. The composer was delighted; he could leave the poem unaltered. However, another friend, the philologist Adolf Stahr, revived Wagner's doubts. He wrote a letter strongly backing the views of Franck and his arguments were so persuasive that the composer himself changed his mind.
At this point, Franz Liszt, Wagner's friend and future father-in-law, entered the fray. Upon hearing that the final act might change, he argued vehemently that Wagner's initial instincts had been right all along. That finally put an end to the discussion. Yet, a lingering uncertainty may have remained. Wagner says that he decided, for the first — and only — time in his life, to compose the music of the last act first. To him, this apparently represented a kind of setting it in concrete, so that he could then go back and compose the first and second acts without any lingering concerns that the last act might change.
(It is sometimes said, as a kind of joke, that Wagner composed the Ring cycle backward. But that is true only of the development of the text. Wagner started with what became G‹tterd‹mmerung, which was planned as a one-act opera. But then, as he began to feel the need to elaborate on preliminary details, he started to write, in succession, the texts of Siegfried, Die Walk‹re, and Das Rheingold. The music for each was composed in the usual order, from first to last.)
In addition to harboring an occasional doubt about his direction, Wagner could also be surprisingly naive. He originally titled the opera that preceded Lohengrin, The Mount of Venus (in German, Der Venusberg). His publisher and agent, C. F. Meser, urged him to change the title, but he obstinately refused. Finally, after Meser told him that local medical students were starting to make obscene jokes about his opera, he agreed to change the title to Tannh‹user.
Wagner's compositional career may be divided into three phases. The first encompassed the operas Die Feen ("The Fairies"), Das Liebesverbot ("The Ban on Love"), and Rienzi. The first two have not entered the repertory, though they have been performed as historical curiosities.
Rienzi is occasionally performed. But if Wagner had died just after completing this work, he would have gone into the history books as a minor composer and his operas would probably now be forgotten.
His second phase, which included Der fliegende Holl‹nder, Tannh‹user, and Lohengrin, established Wagner as a major composer and secured him an international reputation.
But it was his third phase, in which he wrote Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Parsifal, that elevated Richard Wagner to cult status, with a fanatic following and ferocious opposition and a body of work that has had a profound influence on music to this day.
So, Lohengrin came just before Wagner's leap to the pinnacle of his profession. Already, though, it includes some of the music that ranks among his best. The introductions to Acts I and III are universally admired, and the bridal anthem that the chorus sings in Act III is familiar to multitudes of people who have never set foot in an opera house. To them, it's "Here Comes the Bride."
The origins of the Lohengrin tale go back a long, long way. Wagner himself mentioned the opera's plot similarity to the story of Zeus and Semele in ancient Greece. In that myth Zeus loves and seduces Semele, a mortal. Zeus's wife, Hera, gets revenge by urging Semele to demand that Zeus prove that he is divine. When he reluctantly shows himself in his godly splendor, the sight is fatal to Semele — though Zeus saves their unborn child, Dionysus. It's easy to see the parallels between Zeus and the character of Lohengrin, between Semele and Elsa, and Hera and the villainous Ortrud.
But the more immediate sources for Lohengrin were Wolfram von Eschenbach's epic poem Parzival from the early 13th century and an anonymous Lohengrin epic from the 15th century. Wagner took both with him, for inspiration, when he went on summer vacation to Marienbad in 1845. Both tell of a knight who arrives in a boat pulled by a swan to rescue a lady in distress and who must leave when she asks the fatal questions.
Wagner set about writing Lohengrin with great enthusiasm. The libretto was finished in 1845, composition was under way the next year, and the full score was complete by the end of April 1848. Nevertheless, nonmusical circumstances delayed a premiere.
The decade of the 1840s was an extraordinarily eventful one for Wagner (and for Europe). Musically, he completed four operas — Rienzi, Der fliegende Holl‹nder, Tannh‹user, and Lohengrin — was busy as a conductor and arranger, and active as a music journalist and essayist. But the most dangerous events for him were political. Wagner was a radical left-winger with revolutionary tendencies in an era of political unrest in Europe. And he made no secret of his feelings. Admirers who met him socially for the first time were often surprised that music was generally not a topic in his conversations. Instead, he was obsessed with politics. He made at least one public political speech, and associated with a number of characters who attracted police attention. One of them was the noted Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.
When an insurrection broke out in Dresden in 1849, Wagner was involved, though the full extent of his activities remains unknown. Wagner fled the city with Bakunin and another revolutionary leader, Otto Heubner, to avoid arrest and what would obviously have been a long prison sentence. He sought refuge first in Weimar and then in Paris and Zurich. It was the beginning of what was to be a long exile for the composer.
Liszt, in Weimar, prepared and conducted the premiere of Lohengrin, which finally occurred in August 1850. Wagner had to supervise by mail and listen to secondhand reports about its reception. He did not dare appear in person and risk arrest. In fact, it wasn't until May 1861, 13 years after its completion, that Wagner was able to attend a performance of Lohengrin.
Wagner was a great one for juggling projects and thinking long-term. Evidence for this can be found in the libretto of Lohengrin. In Act III, in the aria "In fernem Land," Lohengrin tells Elsa and the assembled nobles about the castle of Montsalvat, its brotherhood of knights and its treasure, the Holy Grail. Finally, he reveals that his father is Parzival and he is the knight Lohengrin. Evidently, Wagner already had in mind his last opera, Parsifal (he changed the spelling), which is a kind of prequel to Lohengrin.
In Act II, another project is anticipated. Ortrud calls out to the pagan deities Wodan and Freia. Wodan is obviously an early spelling of Wotan. So, Der Ring des Nibelungen is also in the air. When the multitasking Wagner began sketching out his Lohengrin ideas at Marienbad in 1845, he also began work on Die Meistersinger, an opera that was not to be completed for another 22 years.
Wagner's operas sparked a curious chain of events that the composer could not have anticipated when he began work on the story of the swan knight. "Mad" King Ludwig II of Bavaria became obsessed with both the composer and his works and played a powerful role in supporting Wagner's career: he provided money and used his influence to advance important projects, including the construction of the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth.
King Ludwig was drawn particularly to Lohengrin, perhaps because a swan happened to be the family symbol, and was inspired by it to build one of the most famous castles in the world — one that, in turn, inspired Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom castle less than a century later. While planning Neuschwanstein Castle (in English, New Swan Stone), Ludwig wrote Wagner what amounted to a dedication of the castle to the composer and his operas, mentioning Lohengrin specifically. If you should ever happen to be in Bavaria, join the hordes of tourists at Neuschwanstein: you will feel the ghosts of Richard Wagner and his mysterious swan knight in virtually every room.
Olin Chism is a special contributor to the Dallas Morning News.
The Dallas Opera presents four performances of Wagner's Lohengrin from February 15 to 24. More information is available at www.dallasopera.org.