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8.555788 - WAGNER, R.: Scenes from Lohengrin and Siegfried
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Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Scenes from Lohengrin and Siegfried


Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig in 1813, the acknowledged son of a Government official Carl Friedrich Wagner and his wife Johanna, but apparently fathered in fact by the actor Ludwig Geyer, who was to marry Johanna after Carl Friedrich’s death. Wagner’s education was an intermittent one, much of it in Dresden, where he fell under the spell of Weber and Der Freischütz, the first great German romantic opera. Returning to Leipzig he was to profit more from contact with his uncle Adolf, a widely read scholar with a knowledge of Greek tragedy, as well as of the classics of Italy, the works of Shakespeare, and of course, of the literature of his own country. In Leipzig Wagner took the opportunity of furthering his own interests in music, stimulated by the performances of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra and Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, which he heard in 1829. He borrowed books from the music lending library of Robert Schumann’s future teacher and father-in-law, Friedrich Wieck, and took private music lessons at the Thomasschule, where J.S. Bach had been employed a century earlier.


The later career of Wagner was a turbulent one. His income never matched his ambitions, and he was driven on by an aggressive and ruthless urge to create a new form of music, the music of the future, particularly in the conjunction of all arts in a series of great music dramas. He worked first as conductor at the undistinguished opera-house in Magdeburg, married a singer, Minna Planer, moved to Königsberg and later to Riga. From there, pursued by creditors, he sailed for England, and thence a week later to Paris, where success continued to elude him. Recognition was finally to come from his native Saxony, with a production for the opera Rienzi in Dresden and an official appointment to the royal court. His own tactless espousal of revolutionary notions led to his flight from Saxony in 1849, at first to Liszt in Weimar, and then to Switzerland. Further troubles were to follow as the result of the political suspicions he had aroused, the constant attention of creditors and his selfish unscrupulousness in his relations with women. The protection later afforded by King Ludwig II of Bavaria allowed some respite from difficulties, but his liaison with Liszt’s daughter Cosima, wife of the Bavarian court conductor Hans von Bülow, and his unpopularity in Munich, led to a further period of exile in Switzerland. His final relative triumph in the establishment of a Festival devoted to his work in Bayreuth was accomplished again with the encouragement of King Ludwig. The first festival took place in 1876, but did nothing to reduce his increasing personal debts.


Wagner died during the course of a visit to Venice in 1883. In his lifetime he had inspired equally fanatical devotion and hatred, both of which continued after his death. His principal achievement must be seen in the creation of massive and stupendous masterpieces for the theatre, such as his German epic cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, and his expansion of traditional harmonic and constructional devices in music.


The opera Lohengrin was first performed in Weimar in 1850 under the direction of Liszt, who had helped Wagner in his flight from Dresden. The work opens with King Henry the Fowler hearing the accusation of fratricide brought by Telramund against Elsa of Brabant, to whom he had served as guardian after the death of her father, suggesting that she had killed her brother Gottfried in order to assume control over the land with a secret lover. The King decrees mortal combat to discover her guilt or innocence, and she declares that her champion will be a knight that she has seen in a dream. As the herald summons the combatants and Elsa prays for help, a swan is seen drawing a boat, from which steps an unknown knight. Telramund is defeated but the knight spares his victim, while the heathen Ortrud, Telramund’s wife and fellow conspirator, wonders if her powers are waning. Reproached by Telramund, now condemned to banishment, she tells him that the knight’s power can only be broken if he is made to reveal his name. She arouses the pity of Elsa and at the same time casts doubt on the origin of the mysterious knight. A herald announces Telramund’s banishment and the appointment of the knight to rule Brabant, as husband to Elsa. Telramund seeks to learn the knight’s name and rank but is denied an answer by the knight, who seeks Elsa’s assurance of trust in him as they proceed to their wedding.


[1] The Prelude to the third act depicts the wedding celebration. [2] The King and his men escort Lohengrin, and the ladies of the court Elsa to the bridal chamber, before leaving them alone together. [3] They exchange avowals of love. [4] Lohengrin explains the feelings that had brought him to become her champion, but she returns to the mystery of her husband’s name. [5] He urges her to accept the mystery, like the scents wafted to them from the garden. [6] Elsa would prove her worth by risking danger for him, seeking to share knowledge of his name, that must conceal some danger.


[7] Lohengrin reminds her of her promise not to seek his name and tries to reassure her, hinting at his own noble origin. [8] Elsa is further disturbed by this confession, now imagining that he will leave her to return to the high state from which he came; she seems to see the swan that brought him, ready to take him away again. At last she asks the question, seeking openly to know his name. [9] Telramund and four companions burst in with drawn swords, but Lohengrin, with a sword that Elsa hands him, strikes Telramund dead, while the other knights yield. Lohengrin leads Elsa, fainting, to a couch, and tells the knights to take Telramund’s body to the King’s court. He calls to Elsa’s maids to take her before the King, where he will answer her question about his identity.


In the final scene Lohengrin, before the King, rejects the commission to lead the royal troops in war, and, revealing the body of Telramund, seeks and finds justification for his action. He accuses Elsa of breaking her word and explains his own origin, as a Knight of the Grail. As he takes his final leave, he tells Elsa that her brother Gottfried is alive, transformed by her magic, as Ortrud claims, into a swan. Gottfried reappears, as Lohengrin sadly sails away, his boat now drawn by a dove, and Elsa sinks lifeless into her brother’s arms.


Siegfried is the third part of the great Wagnerian tetralogy, The Ring, and was first staged at Bayreuth in 1876. As the work opens, Mime sits by the forge in his cave in the forest, hammering out a sword and complaining about his endless labour. He can make swords strong enough for giants yet Siegfried breaks them in two like children’s toys, but if he could join together the blade of the great sword Nothung, Siegfried would be able to kill the dragon giant Fafner, and then Mime could gain possession of the ring. He continues his work and his complaint. Siegfried comes cheerfully in from the forest. He is leading a bear, jokingly provoking it to attack Mime, who cowers in fear. Siegfried sets the bear free and it trots back to the wood. He had sought a friend in the forest, sounded his horn and been joined by the bear. Mime has forged a sword for Siegfried, who takes the offered weapon, looking at it critically. He strikes the anvil with it and the sword breaks in pieces. He abuses Mime for his bad craftsmanship. Mime reproaches Siegfried for his ingratitude; he has looked after him, but is only hated in return. Siegfried admits that he has learned much from Mime, but never to like him. In fact he cannot stand him, always recognising the evil in him and preferring animals to him. Mime tries to come near him, saying that in his heart he really loves him, claiming to be both mother and father to him, but Siegfried has seen his own reflection and knows he in no way resembles Mime. He asks where his true parents are. Mime declares that he is no relation to Siegfried, but found Sieglinde in the forest, about to give birth to a child, and sheltered her out of pity. She died and Mime looked after the child. In answer to Siegfried’s question, he tells him that his mother said that the child must be called Siegfried and that her name was Sieglinde. The sword was left him by his mother.


Siegfried orders Mime to repair immediately the broken sword, threatening him. With it he will go forth into the world, happy and free, and never come back. He dashes out into the forest, leaving Mime calling after him, then returning to the anvil and musing on the impossibility of mending the sword and letting Siegfried deal with Fafner.


In the following scene Wotan, in the guise of the Wanderer, comes out of the forest, carrying a spear as a staff. He seeks Mime’s hospitality, which the latter is unwilling to give. The Wanderer offers to stake his life on being able to answer Mime’s questions, if he fails; if he succeeds, he claims hospitality. Mime, anxious to defeat the unwanted guest, asks what race lives in the depths of the earth, and the Wanderer tells him the Nibelungs, who were forced by a magic ring to provide a rich treasure for Alberich, who sought to rule the world with it. To the second question as to the race living on the surface of the earth, the Wanderer answers that it is the giants; the giants Fasolt and Fafner took the Nibelungs’ treasure and Fafner then killed his brother, taking the form of a dragon and guarding the treasure. Mime asks a third question as to what race lives above. The Wanderer tells him that gods live in the cloud-covered heights and their ruler is Wotan, in Valhalla. He has a spear and on it are the decrees that make the Nibelungs and giants subject for ever to the gods. Mime’s questions were nothing, but now Mime too must wager his head against three questions from the Wanderer. He asks first the name of the family that has been the object of Wotan’s anger, although he loves them. Mime answers correctly that it is the family of the Volsungs, Siegmund and Sieglinde, and their offspring Siegfried. The Wanderer asks what sword Siegfried must use to kill Fafner, and is told that it is Nothung. Mime rashly continues with the story of Nothung, broken by the spear of Wotan, but to be mended by a clever smith and used by a childish hero for Mime’s own profit. The Wanderer’s third question as to who will join together again the broken sword Mime cannot answer; his life now must be at the mercy of the one who will forge Nothung, the one who is fearless. The Wanderer leaves, smiling, while Mime sinks down on his stool in fear.


[10] Shuddering, Mime looks towards the forest, now lit by an accursed light that seems to approach, Fafner coming for him. With a cry, he collapses behind the anvil. Siegfried comes cheerfully in, looking around for Mime, and when he sees him asks why he is hiding behind the anvil. He asks about the sword. Mime recalls that only the one who has never known fear will forge the sword and resolves to teach Siegfried this lesson, thereby saving his own life. [11] Siegfried asks what fear is. Mime tells him that his mother has said that he must learn what fear is, before going out into the world. He talks of the terrors of the darkness in the forest, strange noises and mysterious lights that make him tremble.


[12] Siegfried knows nothing of this, but Mime will take him to Fafner, who will teach him. [13] Mime admits that he cannot mend the sword and Siegfried takes the broken pieces, files them down and heats the forge until it is glowing hot. Mime now realises that it is Siegfried who will kill him, but resolves, nevertheless, to use Siegfried to kill the dragon Fafner and then to try to take the ring from him. [14] Siegfried, who now knows the name of the sword, Nothung, sings to it as he forges it anew, describing what he is doing, how he felled a tree in the forest, which now blazes in the forge. [15]-[16] Mime makes ready a drugged drink to give Siegfried after the combat with Fafner, while the hero happily continues his work. [17]-[18] Enjoying his task, Siegfried bids his hammer strike and continues his song, while Mime is busy with his own plans. He takes the sword, now made whole again, and strikes the anvil, breaking it in two, now holding Nothung on high.


In what follows, Alberich watches outside Fafner’s cave and threatens Wotan, planning to use the ring given in payment by Wotan to Fafner, to overthrow the gods. Mime and Siegfried approach. Mime stays back, while Siegfried rouses Fafner with his horn-call. They fight and Fafner is killed, but not before warning Siegfried of the danger from Mime. The giant’s blood on his hand helps him to understand the song of the bird, which tells him to seek in Fafner’s cave the Nibelung’s gold, the Tarncap, and the ring, which will give him power over the whole world. He now understands Mime’s treachery as he can read his thoughts, and kills him. From the bird he learns of Brünnhilde, whom he is to waken and rescue, on the way breaking the spear and the power of Wotan.


Keith Anderson

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