London Opera Lectures with Ross Alley

Wagner’s Lohengrin

2.00pm, Thursday 24 May

Lohengrin is a character in German Arthurian literature. The son of Parzival (Percival), he is a knight of the Holy Grail sent in a boat pulled by swans to rescue a maiden who must never ask his identity. His story, which first appears in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th century narrative poem Parzival, is a version of the Knight of the Swan legend known from a variety of medieval sources. Wolfram’s story was expanded in two later romances.
In 1848, Richard Wagner adapted the tale into his popular opera Lohengrin, arguably the work through which Lohengrin’s story is best known today. While King Henry the Fowler tries to assemble forces in Brabant to combat the Hungarian invasions, Lohengrin appears on the Scheldt River to defend Princess Elsa from the false accusation of killing her younger brother Gottfried (who turns out to be alive and returns at the end of the opera). According to Wagner, the Grail imbues the Knight of the Swan with mystical powers that can only be maintained if their nature is kept secret; hence the danger of Elsa’s question. The most famous piece from Lohengrin is the “Bridal Chorus” (“Here Comes the Bride”), still played at many Western church weddings.

In composing Lohengrin,Wagner created a new form of opera, the through-composed music drama. The composition is not divided into individual numbers, but is played from act to act without any interruption. This style of composition contrasts with that of the conventional number opera, which is divided into arias, recitatives, and choral sections. Wagner made extensive use of leitmotifs in his composition (for example, the ‘Grail’ motif first revealed in the prelude, and the ‘Forbidden Question’ motif first sung by Lohengrin to Elsa). These motifs allowed Wagner to add an extra musical dimension which, at times, precisely narrates the inner thoughts of the characters on stage, even without speech.

The first production of Lohengrin was in Weimar, Germany, on 28 August 1850 at the Staatskapelle Weimar under the direction of Franz Liszt, a close friend and early supporter of Wagner. Liszt chose the date in honour of Weimar’s most famous citizen, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was born on 28 August 1749. Despite the inadequacies of the lead tenor Karl Beck, it was an immediate popular success. Wagner himself was unable to attend the first performance, having been exiled from Saxony because of his part in the 1849 May Uprising in Dresden. Although he conducted various extracts in concert in Zurich, London, Paris and Brussels, it was not until 1861 in Vienna that he was able to attend a full performance. Lohengrin proved to be the most performed of his operas during his lifetime.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria named his fairy-tale castle “Neuschwanstein” (New Swan Castle) after the mythical Swan Knight and the Singers’ Hall there is decorated with tapestries and paintings depicting the story. It was King Ludwig’s patronage that later gave Wagner the means and opportunity to compose, build a theatre for, and stage his epic cycle “The Ring of the Nibelung”.

Michael Room, St Michael & All Angels Church, Priory Avenue, Chiswick, W4 1TX

£10 (pay on the door)

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