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Tannhäuser, Overture and Venusberg Music

Wagner: Tannhäuser, Overture and Venusberg Music (Bacchanale)

Tannhäuser, Wagner's fifth opera, was completed in 1845, and largely recast in 1861 for productions at the Paris Opéra. The opera was an immediate success and the original overture very quickly found its way into the concert hall, where it retains its popularity to this day. Wagner himself considered this the best environment for it and was only too pleased to be given the opportunity to be able to re-write much of the first act, using the techniques acquired in the writing of Tristan und Isolde to enhance the sensuousness of the Venusberg scene. In the Paris version, the overture is truncated by some 150 bars, and leads directly into the Venusberg music.

The overture begins with a full statement of the celebrated Pilgrims' Chorus, a simple grave melody over a throbbing triplet string accompaniment that Wagner described as the 'pulse of life', which also underpins much of the whole piece. No sooner has the pilgrims' song faded into the distrance than we are plunged into the festive gaiety of the Venusberg, several glittering strands combining to depict the happy pleasures of Venus's court, culminating in a vigourous exposition of Tannhäuser's song in praise of Venus. This is answered by the goddess's seductive blandishments and is then repeated, leading into the Bacchanale.

The bright themes of revelry now take on a different colour, more feverish and openly erotic, and two new strains are added, a tumbling, dissonant arpeggio, strongly reminiscent of Kundry's theme from Parsifal, and a brief yearning phrase whose relationship with Tristan is very obvious. The orgy is brought to a climax by a trumpet call, and from there the music subsides into a shimmering, languorous mist of sound through which the beckons enticingly. Uninhibited pleasures do not, however, have the last word, for at the very end comes the subtlest of recollections of the Pilgrims' Chorus.

© Stewart Spencer & Katie Lang

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