Lohengrin_Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwan
The time has come to baptize this little playlist. We’ve worked around the Germanic pantheon of composers with Beethoven, Mahler, and Bruckner but it’s time to bring the lumber and add Wagner.
This scene, Lohengrin’s arrival from the opera Lohengrin, is a magnificent piece of theater. We must always keep in mind that the great opera composers were men of the theater first. Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, and Mozart understood theater.
For those who don’t know the story, Elsa has been accused of killing her brother, the prince of Brabant. The king has shown up to address the charges brought against her by Telramund and Ortrud. Telramund and Ortrud are the bad guys.
No one comes forth to represent Elsa. She says that she met a holy knight in the forest and that this man will be her champion. The herald makes a few attempts to summon him but there is no response. When Elsa despairs, Lohengrin finally arrives.
Ortrud, Telramund, and the king could be considered politicians and Elsa is the innocent and pure element being abused by political forces. Lohengrin, the pure artist, arrives to rescue her from the grip of the politicians. The conflict being played out here is that between government and the arts.
The clip begins with the music leading up to Lohengrin's arrival. The expression of this arrival music has an eye toward spectacle. Lohengrin arrives but doesn’t acknowledge the spectacle that he has created, or the accolades of the people, but instead has this intimate moment with the swan, because he’s an artist.
As discussed in the Carmina Burana review, medieval heraldry used the swan to represent art, truth, purity, and so on. That Wagner uses the swan tells us that Lohengrin is a champion of art. When this champion enters the political arena he remains true to his art first by singing a melancholic farewell to his beloved swan.
Lohengrin can be thought of as the embodiment of Wagner’s approach to art. It is an art which Wagner intended to advance humanity past politics and into the creative realm.
The crowd is astounded by the purity of this man, that is to say the purity of this new art form which Wagner is creating, and the corresponding music is possibly the most beautiful thing anyone has ever heard.
Theatrically Wagner takes the tone from exuberant to contemplative to hushed astonishment in just a few minutes. Following the adoration of Lohengrin by the crowd, he asks Elsa to be his wife.
Remember, they’ve already met. This is love at second sight. There is a condition to Lohengrin’s proposal. Elsa must not ask his name or where he is from. This is where Wagner flips the script and Elsa becomes the redeemer of Lohengrin.
Yes, this scene is full of a woman being rescued by a man but that is only on the surface. Lohengrin is asking Elsa to know him not as an artist or a holy knight of the Grail but as he is himself. He is asking her to accept his essence, and to accept it independent of his resume.
Elsa is the one who will love him and know him for himself without condition or judgement. All of Wagner’s operas continue in the tradition of Goethe in that it is the feminine that redeems and saves us most profoundly.