Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Der Sänger klugen Weisen

Der Tannhäuser, Codex Manesse
Univ. Heidelberg: Cod. pal. Germ. 848
October already, and the academic year is rushing me towards the central Middle Ages, and, this week, a curious confluence of my professional and opera-related passions, as I come to the study of courtly love.  Suddenly Tannhäuser and the Sängerkrieg are appearing with mention of manuscripts instead of musical motifs.  Although the Minnesänger are not a specialty of mine, I have been fond of them ever since an undergraduate course on high medieval German literature.  A digital facsimile of the gorgeous Codex Manesse, a.k.a. Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, may be found here, full of poetry and portraits, including those of several of Wagner's protagonists.

Shamefully flighty, I wandered from the paths of focused scholarship into a rereading of the Tannhäuser libretto, where I was charmed to find a connection of the narrative with nature very reminiscent of much medieval secular poetry, as well as (of course) different types of "courtly love."  (Recommendations of favorite Tannhäuser recordings are eagerly solicited, as I am acquiring an itch for deeper acquaintance with the work.)  Scholarly ink has been spilled on the relationship of Wagner's drama to the historical originals of his characters, and their music.  The historical Walther von der Vogelweide, I suspect, would hardly have been disconcerted by Tannhäuser's passionate declaration.  Here, for instance, is one of his most famous songs, praising the pleasures of a lovers' tryst under a linden tree. Wolfram von Eschenbach's lieder are charming (at least to me!), as well as somewhat more earth-bound than "O Du mein holder Abendstern."  The latter, however, is hardly less firmly associated with Wolfram for me.  I love Thomas Quasthoff's interpretation, but this version by Bryn Terfel, shared on Opera Cake, is a current favorite, a perfect antidote to stress or distress.


  1. Wow!!! You're academic year is rushing you toward the central Middle Ages!?!?! As a lowly undergraduate Early Modern Euro History minor who was forced to go Law School (it actually hasn't been that bad until the last couple of years and my Comparative Law course did offer a survey of sorts of much of European History) and has been trying to branch out (as time permits) on my own since high school I'm insanely jealous. It certainly isn't the only sort of background that meshes with opera but it does help to illuminate certain compositions quite a bit. The many and extreme historical inaccuracies in a piece like Don Carlo are somewhat troublesome but don't prevent it from being my favorite Verdi. (I love the music and have a bit of hard time determining the extent to which the historical setting influences my enthusiasm for the opera. In any case for someone with Germanic Mozart/Wagner/Strauss predilections its about as good as Verdi gets and is a top fiver - very excited about the DC at the Met this year though not sure whether the new production as the the old one is actually one of the better ones at the Met and as far as I know the Hytner ads little insight).

    On the subject of Tannhauser though, those of us with limited means time, and some measure of sanity can read a book, listen to a recording or attend a performance. Those without such constraints like Mad Kind Ludwig can build themselves a faux medieval castle and order up some private performances supervised by the composer. I'm generally less than enthusiastic about Louis' little contraption at Neuschwanstein - unlike Mozart performances I prefer my medieval castles "authentic", as it were - but the Wagner motives are pretty interesting and most importantly they have a little festival in the early fall. This year I was in Munich for work and naturally popped over to check out the proceedings. They included the last 2 Acts of Tannhauser in concert, surprisingly well played and in some respects superbly cast.

    Anyway, fascinating post.

  2. Sorry if this is too OT, but marcillac, for the most part the historical inaccuracies in DC are Schiller's, not Verdi's (librettists), and in that light it's better to look at them in terms of the history of central Europe in the late 18th cent. in general, and Schiller's own history in particular. Not to be pedantic or anything, but cf Duke Karl Eugen of Wuerttemberg (whom the English wiki article rather hilariously calls "an early patron" of Schiller) and certain themes in DC about the function and abuse of power make perfect sense, in spite of whack chronology and characters invented from whole cloth.
    Enjoy the opera. Oh, and read the play.

    Meanwhile, this Tannhaeuser post has the coolest links ever!

  3. Hi marcillac! It's always nice to see another history- and opera-lover. I'm also looking forward to the new Don Carlo, with similar misgivings (and why not the French version, as long as they're going to the trouble of doing it, and with Alagna? Oh well.)

    I confess that I have a soft spot for over-the-top nineteenth-century medievalisms, including Ludwig's Neuschwanstein, mosaics, grotto, and all. The mini-festival sounds like a fun curiosity.

    S: Fascinating background on Schiller and the play's context. I've enjoyed his Wallenstein trilogy and Wilhelm Tell, but haven't read Don Karlos yet... sounds as though I should! I'm glad you enjoyed the links.

  4. @S
    I actually did read the play, at the insistence of a friend (who went to the Schiller Gymnasium in a "suburb" of Stuttgart - if thats what you call a town which claims a history dating back to the Hohenstaufens) although I should have done so much earlier given my enthusiasm for the opera. I had always been put of by the title as Carlo seems a less important character than Philip but I could see haw Verdi could choose to give him prominence for his particular political purposes. It was interesting to learn from the preface that Schiller had initially intended to give Carlo greater importance as well but that he, too, somewhat lost interest in him and gave Philip his due. Thus, although I allude to the historical problems above its interesting - and kinda satisfying - that important aspects of the historical narrative managed to assert themselves. Again, though, its the ability of Verdi to translate the essence of the history and Schiller's drama into that incredible music that makes it special.

    You're absolutely right about the French version. There's and excellent DVD from Paris with Mattila, Alagna, Van Dam and Pappano conducting that you might want to check out.

    I actually end up in that neck of the woods pretty often (mostly for work) but had, obstreperously, refused to go to Ludwig's castles. Being their coterminously with the Festival I was tempted to finally take the plunge and in the end, although especially enjoyed the (somewhat) surprisingly excellent performance I have to admit, that, in spite of my prejudices, I loved Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau.

    Again, very interesting post (and interesting insight from S). Aprapos of history/great literature based operas with large parts for low male voices, looking forward to the Boris next week. Hope you'll be going as well.

  5. "... one of his most famous songs, praising the pleasures of a lovers' tryst under a linden tree."

    Why, under a linden tree? Oh dear, was that ever a good idea?

  6. @definitelytheopera: HA! The poor P.M.'s complaint reminds me of this: http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=160.

    The probable answer to "why under a linden tree?" is, I suspect, that the linden is often a tree associated with lovers in German folklore; whether for any more profound reason than that both its leaves and the full growth of its foliage are heart-shaped, I do not know.


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