He chose the legend of Tannhauser, collecting his materials from the ancient Tannhauser-Lied, the Volksbuch, Tieck's poetical Erzahlung, Hoffmann's story of Der Sangerkrieg, and the medieval poem on Der Wartburgkrieg.
But for the present he confined himself to the subject in hand; and on the 19th of October 1845 he produced his Tannhauser, with Schroeder Devrient, Johanna Wagner,' Tichatschek and Mitterwurzer in the principal parts.
In fact, after the flight of the king and the subsequent suppression of the riots, a warrant was issued for his arrest; and he had barely time to escape to Weimar, where Liszt was at that moment engaged in preparing Tannhauser for performance, before the storm burst upon him with alarming violence.
The medieval studies which Wagner had begun for his work at the libretto of Tannhauser bore rich fruit in his next opera Lohengrin, in which he also developed his principles on a larger scale and with a riper technique than hitherto.
Meanwhile the rest of the work (except in the prettily scored " Spinning Song," and other harmless and vigorous tunes) has more affinity with Wagner's mature style than the bulk of its much more ambitious successors, Tannhauser and Lohengrin.
Moreover, the work was intended to be in one act, and is now so performed at Bayreuth; and, although it is very long for a one-act opera, this is certainly the only form which does justice to Wagner's conception.1 Spohr's appreciation of Der fliegende Hollander is a remarkable point in musical history; and his criticism that Wagner's style (in Tannhauser) " lacked rounded periods " shows the best effect of that style on a well-disposed contemporary mind.
Tannhauser is on a grander scale, but its musical execution is disappointing.
It is really very difficult to understand Schumann's impression that the musical technique of Tannhauser shows a remarkable improvement.
No contemporary, unaided by personal knowledge, could be expected to trust in Wagner's purity of ideal on the strength of Tannhauser, which actually achieved popularity by such coarse methods of climax as the revivalistic end of the overture, by such maudlin pathos as 0 du mein holder Abendstern, and by the amiably childish grand-opera skill with which half the action is achieved by processions and a considerable fraction of the music is represented by fanfares.
After even the finest things in Tannhauser, the Vorspiel to Lohengrin comes as a revelation, with its quiet solemnity and breadth of design, its ethereal purity of tone-colour, and its complete emancipation from earlier operatic forms. The suspense and climax in the first act is so intense, and the whole drama is so well designed, that we must have a very vivid idea of the later Wagner before we can see how far the quality of musical thought still falls short of his ideals.
The elaborate choral writing sometimes rises to almost Hellenic regions of dramatic art; and there is no crudeness in the passages that carry on the story quietly in reaction from the climaxes - a test far too severe for Tannhauser and rather severe for even the mature works of Gluck and Weber.
Full closes and repeated sentences no longer confuse the issue, but in their absence we begin to notice the incessant squareness of the ostensibly free rhythms. The immense amount of pageantry, though (as in Tannhauser) good in dramatic motive and executed with splendid stage-craft, goes far to stultify Wagner's already vigorous attitude of protest against grand-opera methods; by way of preparation for the ethereally poetic end he gives us a disinfected present from Meyerbeer at the beginning of the last scene, where mounted trumpeters career round the stage in full blast for three long minutes; and the prelude to the third act is an outburst of sheer gratuitous vulgarity.
The crowning complication in the effect of Der fliegende Hollander, Tannhauser and Lohengrin on the musical thought of the 10th century was that the unprecedented fusion of their musical with their dramatic contents revealed some of the meaning of serious music to ears that had been deaf to the classics.
In Tannhauser and Lohengrin Wagner's intellectual power develops far more rapidly in the drama than in the music. The Sangerkrieg, with its disastrous conflict between the sincere but unnatural asceticism of the orthodox Minnesingers and the irrepressible human passion of Tannhauser, is a conception the vitality of which would reduce Tannhauser's repentance to the level of Robert le Diable, were it not that the music of the Sangerkrieg has no structural power, and little distinction beyond a certain poetic value in the tones of violas which had long ago been fully exploited by Mozart and Mehul, while the music of Tannhauser's pilgrimage ranks with the Vorspiel to Lohengrin as a wonderful foreshadowing of Wagner's mature style.
Tannhauser and der Sangerkrieg auf Wartburg: romantische Oper; 3 acts (libretto, 1843; music, 1844-1845; new Venusberg music, 1860-1861).
Beethoven's Nine Symphonies; Berlioz's " Symphonie fantastique," " Harold en Italie "; Benediction et Serment (Benvenuto Cellini); Danse des Sylphes (Damnation de Faust); Weber's overtures, Der Freischiitz, Euryanthe, Oberon, Jubilee; Beethoven's and Hummel's Septets; Schubert's Divertissement a la Hongroise; Beethoven's Concertos in C minor, G and E flat (orchestra for a second piano); Wagner's Tannhauser overture, march, romance, chorus of pilgrims; Lohengrin, Festzug and Brautlied, Elsa's Brautgang, Elsa's Traum, Lohengrin's Verweiss an Elsa; Fliegender Hollander, Spinnlied; Rienzi, Gebet; Rheingold, Walhall; Meistersinger, " Am stillen Herd "; Tristan, Isolde's Liebestod; Chopin's six Chants Polonais; Meyerbeer's Schillermarsch; Bach's six organ Preludes and Fugues; Prelude and Fugue in G minor; Beethoven, Adelaide; 6 miscellaneous and 6 Geistliche Lieder; Liederkreis; Rossini's Les Soirees musicales; Schubert, 59 songs; Schumann, 13 songs; Mendelssohn, 8 songs; Robert Franz, 13 songs.