A Musical Year – February – The Tannhäuser Ouverture
I really need to stop post-poning my posting of entries for the Musical/Literary Year category until the last day of the month! In all fairness the end of February does tend to creep up on one unexpectedly, since the month is a few days short of usual month-lenght.
Tannhäuser and Venus by Liezen-Mayer Sándor
I had difficulties picking out a piece for this month, because I tend to think of February as a very complex month. There is something solemnly hopeful about February, I always thought: While January tends to loom under the thick darkness of December, it’s in February that we start to really feel that the days are getting longer again, and the snow that usually covers the ground throughout much of February looks so breathtakingly beautiful under the light of the sun which is a little higher in the sky every day. However, February is also the month of Shrove-tide, and there is that great tradition for going a little crazy during that particular holiday. I believe it was originally away of celebrating one last time before the fast that would last until Easter would begin, but we’ve hanged on to it, even after we stopped fasting (By now I think Shrove-tide may have the opposite function: It probably marks the end of many a diet that was idealistically started as a New Year resolution). Shrove-tide is carnevalesque in the original sense of the word, and there’s a strong-lived tradition for wild-partying, feasting, and dressing-up around this time.
So I wanted to find a piece of music that contained these two extremities: A solemnly hopeful promise of better times, and something carnevalesque – and the Tannhäuser ouverture has both these elements! The opera revolves around maincharacter Heinrich Tannhäuser’s being torn between two women and two worlds: The enticing heathen world ruled by his mistress Venus, the goddess of love, offering never-ending pleasure and a chance to, well, go at it like rabbits 24-7, and the courtly, Christian world, in the shape of the Wartburg halls where his virtuous, Madonna-like beloved Elizabeth resides. These two extremities are both struck upon as early as in the ouverture, which consists of variations of two of the operas most important themes: The choir of the salvaged pilgrims returning from Rome from the third act, and Tannhäuser’s swelling, lascivious ode to Venus. These two themes battle against- and take turns to overpower each other throughout the ouverture, it’s a beautiful, grandious piece of music, and, one might say, it’s quite the programme piece for opera ouvertures in general, in as much as it contains a concentrate-version of the opera and sets the audience’s mood for the story they’re about to be told.
Incidentally, I first came upon this piece in February, more specifically on February 26 1995, when I was a 12-year-old ballet-dancing child and first appeared in Tannhäuser (in Francesca Zambello’s staging) along with 29 other little dancers. I played a new-born child (complete with a fleshcoloured leotard and likewise swimcap) of Venus in the first act, dancing to the orchestral version of Tannhäuser’s Venus-ode that follows directly after the ouverture, and then a young salvaged pilgrim returning with her salvaged pilgrim-parents from Rome, so one might say that I got the best of both the worlds that Tannhäuser is torn between. Maybe that’s why the event made me fall in love with opera, I don’t know, but fact remains that I did fall in love with opera on that occasion, and more than anything I remember the glorious sensation of listening to the ouverture behind the drawn house tabs, and thinking that it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. The smallest of us child-dancers were to lie Die Blechtrommel-ishly underneath the heavy, red fabric that was Venus’s enormous skirt, and then to swarm out from under the skirt as the curtain rose, as if we’d just been born (thus presenting, of course, the rabbitness of Venus and Tannhäuser’s relationship and also a preternatural and almost nauseating abundance). So there I was, during the entire ouverture, with butterflies fluttering in my stomach, surrounded by theatre-red, listening to my own agitated breathing and that of the other children underneath the fabric, and above it the sound of Catherine Keen, the American soprano who portrayed a buxom Venus in the staging, practising scales in order to warm up her voice. And then to take in the beauty of the ouverture, the solemn, pure joy of the pilgrim’s choir and the lushness of the Venus-ode, and trying to save up all of that energy to add it to my dance.
Stig Fogh Andersen as he looked in the part of Tannhäuser back in 1995 – I’m proud to say that he became my very first celebrity crush!
Solemn, pure joy and lushness – surely the ouverture is perfect for a musical February entry? I recommend the Franz Konwitschny-recording of the opera for anyone who would like to check it out for themselves.
Happy February! J