O Du, Mein Holder Abendstern

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“O du, mein holder Abendstern” (Song to the Evening Star) from Tannhäuser

Richard Wagner               
Born May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, Germany
Died February 13, 1883 in Venice, Italy

By Marianne Williams Tobias
The Marianne Williams Tobias Program Note Annotator Chair


Tannhäuser was a German minnesinger as well as a poet. It was reported also that he took part in the Crusade of 1228. In his poetry he was most famous for his BuBlied (Poem of Atonement) and it was this hymn, which made him prominent. He died in 1265, but the story and myth of his life lived on, especially vivified in the opera by Wagner titled Tannhäuser and the song Contest at the Wartburg. (Wartburg Castle). Originally he intended to call the opera Der Venusberg, but his publisher dissuaded him, citing “objectionable allusions.”  What was objectionable? The reflection on morality and sexuality in the score — a matter which Baudelaire identified as “the struggle between two principles of love: flesh and spirit.” For this, many have called the work Wagner’s most controversial opera.

Wagner’s three act, fifth opera, Tannhäuser, premiered in Dresden on October 19, 1845. Wagner claimed in A Communication to My Friends that he acted “entirely without reflection in choosing the medieval subject of Tannhäuser, selecting the topic “in a wholly arbitrary manner without critical awareness although he was well aware of Heine’s poem Tannhäuser: A Legend, which had appeared in 1837.

Wagner completed his own libretto in 1843, the score in 1844, and the orchestration by 1845. On April 4, 1859 Tannhäuser premiered at the Stadt Theater in New York, the first Wagner opera to be produced in the U.S. In 1861, the opera premiered in Paris, after 164 rehearsals.  However, Parisians were not enthused, and the composer withdrew the production after three performances. The first performance was constantly interrupted, and on the third performance, dog whistles were used in the streets to protest. Wagner left Paris immediately, and forever.  He revised with the score for many years after this experience, and only three weeks before he died he told his wife “I still owe the world Tannhäuser.”

O du, mein holder Abendstern (Song to the Evening Star) baritone aria comes from the Third Act. In this part, Wolfram (another minnesinger who had defeated Tannhäuser in a singing contest) prays for the evening star to guide his beloved (now deceased) Elisabeth to heaven. Tannhäuser, recently returned from Rome where he failed to receive forgiveness for his sins, collapses and dies by her coffin.  Both Tannhäuser and Wolfram loved Elisabeth, but Wolfram insisted throughout that his love was platonic.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015 

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