The main features of the legend of Tannhauser are to be found in ancient Scandinavian and Teutonic mythology and in the folklore of all the western peoples. It is the story of the soul's journey through the regions of Tamas "Ignorance" and Rajas "Action" to those of Satwa "Truth." In one of the versions the hero is a little shepherd, who is tempted by the elves to enter the summit of a mount called the Nine Hills. There he meets a little girl called Elisabeth, who tells him this is a life of illusion and by whose help they both eventually escape from the power of the elves.
This mount is of course the human body, the "nine-gate city" of our abode, the elves are the elemental forces which chain us to matter, and Elisabeth is the spiritual element within us, through union with which we gain freedom. Elisabeth in Hebrew (Eli-scheba) means "Consecrated to God." In Wagner's drama the mount is the Horsel-berg, where the goddess Venus holds her court amid wild revels. The Minnesinger, Tannhauser, has fallen under her influence and the play begins as he is just awaking from his rosy dream.
The instrumental prelude opens with the Pilgrim's Hymn, a theme said to be founded on an old Gnostic melody and certainly possessing the power and character of a mantram. Its solemn tones are suddenly interrupted by the wild, sensuous strains of the Yenusberg, and the rise of the curtain discloses the interior of the mount.
The desire for Action is stirring in Tannhauser's soul and he cries aloud to Venus:
"My longing yearns for struggle;
I seek not joy nor bliss.
O Goddess, sound my meaning,
I urge from hence to Death."
It is a flash of intuition in which the soul sees that only through the death of the personal self will freedom be gained. In vain Venus strives to detain him; putting forth a powerful aspiration towards his higher nature, he cries,
"My Peace, my Hope, rests in Maria!"
At the name of the Virgin the Venusberg disappears and he finds himself outside the mount in the smiling valley of the Wartburg. He is on earth, the field of action, where he will work out the karma of what he has done.
The third important element in the drama now appears in the person of Wolfram von Eschenbach, a great Minnesinger of the Middle Ages, who wrote much concerning the Holy Grail and its brotherhood of Knights. Here Wolfram is a noble character forming the link between Tannhauser and the saintly Elisabeth. As the latter represents the spiritual soul (Buddhi), so he may stand for the higher mind; while Tannhauser is the lower mind entangled in the meshes of material life and partaking still of the nature of Venus (Kama).
Wolfram is the first of his fellow-knights to recognize his long lost friend, but Tannhauser's guilty conscience urges him to flee from him until Wolfram utters the words,
"Stay for Elisabeth."
Tannhauser stops instantly with the exclamation,
Elisabeth: O Might of Heaven,
Dost thou recall that name to me?"
It is the soul's recollection of its divine nature, the "lost word," and Tannhauser's one cry now is
"To her! To her!"
The Hall of Song, to which the second act introduces us, forms a fitting contrast to the Venusberg. The dominating influence is that of Elisabeth and Wolfram, and it is therefore the abode of all that is pure and noble in the human heart. Here will be Tannhauser's test; for a Tournament of Song is about to be held and all the bards will have to sing of the nature of Love. Elisabeth is the first to enter and address a joyful greeting to her "beloved hall." Then Wolfram ushers in Tannhauser, himself retiring into the background, while Elisabeth asks the wanderer,
"Where tarried ye so long?"
He answers evasively:
"Far from here.
In wide and distant kingdoms.
Darkest oblivion between today
And yesterday hath fallen."
All presently assemble for the prize-singing and the lot falls to Wolfram to set the keynote. He sings of Love as a pure unselfish devotion to that which is only to be found in the inner shrine of the soul. Applause comes from all save Tannhauser, who rises as if under the influence of some strange magic and seems no longer to be aware of Elisabeth's presence, while a thrill of the Venus music is heard in the orchestra. The fierce energy of his aspiration has quickened all the forces of his being and he sings of the delights of the realm from which he has just escaped, though as yet not naming it. His words create a disturbance which subsides as Wolfram rises and again strikes the true note.
This goads Tannhauser to burst out in open praise of Venus, to the horror of all. The more impetuous of the knights rush forward to kill him, but Elisabeth places herself between him and their swords, claiming her right to intercede for him. For is not her wound the deepest of all? Anger changes to reverence, while in Tannhauser a terrible revulsion takes place and he sees for the first time the karmic result of his sin. An awful moment it is for the soul when, in a flash of introspection, it sees the crucified Christ: yet in such moments is born, as we shall see, the impulse which carries it forward to final victory. That unappeasable longing in Tannhauser, formerly identified with self, has now found its true goal — self-forgetfulness in the interests of another.
A band of pilgrims is setting out for Rome and he may join them and seek pardon from the Pope. All his energy is now put into this penance in order that he may heal the wound he has inflicted. "Thus resembles he not," writes Wagner, "the other pilgrims who for their own salvation's sake have bound upon themselves convenient penance; only to sweeten for her the tears which she sheds over the sinner, seeks he under the most terrible pains the path of his salvation, as this salvation can only consist in the knowledge that those tears of hers for him are wiped away." But the Pope, true representative of the hard spirit of the age, declares that sooner shall his barren staff put forth flower or leaf than Tannhauser be forgiven.
"As he returns from Rome," continues Wagner, "he is now himself the embodiment of abhorrence of a world which, for very reason of the sincerity of his convictions, denies to him the right of existence, and not out of joy or lust seeks he again the Venusberg; but . . . in order to bury himself from the eyes of his 'angel,' to still whose tears the whole world could not offer him the balsam."
But in this darkest hour deliverance is near; the devoted watcher, Wolfram, is awaiting his return, and to him the pilgrim relates his tale of woe. As he invokes Venus, Wolfram struggles with him, nay even breathes with him the intoxicating vapors which are now surrounding them; and then, as Tannhauser tears himself away, he once again utters the magic name, Elisabeth!
Tannhauser, with the answering cry, Elisabeth! "remains suddenly as though bound to the spot," and at the same moment the funeral hymn of Elisabeth is heard announcing the final offering of the higher self to save the lower. As the procession enters the valley the mists of the Venusberg disappear, morning dawns, and Tannhauser expires on the bier with the holy name of his higher self upon his lips, while the younger pilgrims arrive from Rome bearing the pontiff's staff covered with green leaves. The final victory is won; Spirit has conquered Matter; and as the rising sun throws a flood of light over the scene the noble theme of the pilgrim's hymn rises to the heavens in a mighty shout of joy.
How clearly the poet-musician shows us the full significance of this magnificent finale: "In the mystic knowledge of the power of her death she, dying, sets free the unhappy one. And, likewise dying, Tannhauser thanks her for the gift of this highest favor of love. . . . We hear the jubilant cry of the redeemed Venusberg itself, its song changed into adoration of God. So well and spring all the pulses of life to the Song of Redemption; and both separated elements Spirit and Sense, God and Nature, embrace in the holy uniting kiss of Love."
Of the music there is not space to speak at length. Suffice it to say that the conventional operatic forms which were used to some extent in The Flying Dutchman, are here almost entirely laid aside in favor of that complete union of words and music which we find in Wagner from Lohengrin onwards. How truly we can feel with this dauntless Artist when he said, "With this work I penned my death-warrant: before the world of Modern Art I now could hope no more for life." Such is the fate of those who serve the true interests of their fellow-men.
(To be continued)
TheosophyTHEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE