Wagner: Overture & Bacchanale (Tannhäuser)

Duration : 23 minutes

Conducted by Emmanuel krivine, the Orchestre National de France performs the "Ouverture & Bacchanale" from Richard Wagner's "Tannhäuser". Excerpt of the concert recorded live on 23 May 2019 at Radio France.

In Charles Baudelaire's Richard Wagner et Tannhäuserà Paris, written shortly after the scandalous premiere of the musical drama at the Opéra de Paris on 13 March 1861, the author wrote: "Tannhäuser represents the struggle between the two principles that have chosen the human heart for their chief battelfield; in other words, the struggle between flesh and spirit, Heaven and Hell, Satan and God. And this duality is immediately indicated by the overture with incomparable skill. What has not already been written on this composition? Yet it may presumably give rise to many another thesis and eloquent commentary; for it is the peculiar mark of really artistic works to be an inexhaustible source of ideas. The overture, I repeat, sums up the guiding idea of the drama by two thematic melodies, the religious and the sensual, which, to borrow Liszt's formula, "are established here like the terms of an equation, which are resolved in the finale". 

This conflict is expressed by Wagner in the most immediately perceptible manner in the overture of a drama depicting the "double aspiration" of the poet Heinrich Tannhäuser after divine, pure, and heavenly love, incarnated by Elisabeth, and the sensual, pagan, and earthly pleasure as depicted by Venus. The first part, Andante maestoso, contains a solemn chorus in E major, the "Pilgrim's chorus", later joined by Tannhäuser at the end of the second act to beg for a pardon from the pope. The chorus interacts with a second, chromatically tormented theme, played by the cellos, depicting the fisherman's "repentance". In the second part of the overture, Allegro, the shuddering of a sensual love, the ardour of amorous desire, the charms of Venus eventually take over, seizing Tannhäuser and dominating the entire sound space with a series of themes full of drive and a glittering orchestration. Wagner thus renews a traditional structure (an opening divided into two distinct moments) to create a musical symbol of the "human heart" torn between two equally desirable impulses. 

Composed during the winter of 1860-1861 for the Parisian premiere of Tannhäuser, the Bacchanale depicts a frenzied orgy at the breast of Venusberg, in the cave in which Tannhäuser was welcomed by the Antique goddess of love. The scene, conceived by Wagner only months after having completed Tristan und Isolde, was one of the reasons for the scandal of 1861, not so much for the representation of lascivious postures and the amorous hunting of nymphs, satyrs and fauns as for the placement of  the ballet within the overall drama. Contrary to the Parisian tradition, Wagner insisted upon placing the ballet at the beginning of the first act instead of keeping it for the second, a custom allowing the Jockey Club aristocrats to arrive late at the Opéra but still see the performance of the female dancers. This famous anecdote, however, cannot erase from history the Bacchanale, whose harmonic sensuality and rhythmic strength depict the games and war between the mythological creatures of Ancient Greece. After Tristan und Isolde, a metaphysical drama of love and death,  Wagner indulges in an outlay of colours, both literally (the text evokes shades of pink, red, green, and blue to create a strong visual contrast), and figuratively (the exacerbated chromaticism of the music symbolises the carnal and "Satanic" love, to use the expression dear to Baudelaire). As for the invisible choir of Sirens and the depictions of the myths of Europe and Leda, these foreshadow the enchantments of Klingsor and the charms of the Flower Maidens in Parsifal, plungingTannhäuser with their poisonous sweetness into the oblivion of God and into the pleasures of the flesh.

The Orchestre National de France performs Wagner with Anne Petersen
Full concert
The Orchestre National de France performs Wagner with Anne Petersen
Maison de la Radio, Paris
Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner
All artists
  • Emmanuel Krivine
    Emmanuel KrivineConductor
  • Orchestre National de FranceOrchestra