Work: Lohengrin: Act 1 Prelude
About This Work
In 1853, Richard Wagner wrote an "explanatory Program" for the overture to his sixth opera, Lohengrin, which he had completed in 1848. In his program, Wagner describes a vision of the Holy Grail, guided from out the heavenly mists by a host
of angels. The Grail is the symbol of the all-embracing love of the Savior, who offers those priviledged to see it eternal redemption from the evil-corrupted world.
Indeed, armed with this authorial interpretation of the overture, it is not difficult to recognize images of sanctity and eternity in Wagner's music. The orchestration of the overture's opening, featuring divisi violins, playing at ethereal heights of the register and colored by chords in the flutes and oboes, swaddles the main thematic idea in a gossamer web of shimmering sound. The theme unfolds over the course of the overture as though in a single extended breath, each potential cadence point diverted into continuation or reiteration of the theme, filling the timeless expanse of eternity. The orchestration gradually increases in weight of instrumental forces and fills out the bottom of the register leading to the overture's triumphant climax, and then gradually returns to the glistening violins to bring the overture to an end: perhaps a musical manifestation of the revelation of the grail to the earthly select and its immediate retreat to the heavenly realm.
Fulfilling the traditional function of an opera overture, the overture to Lohengrin introduces some of the opera's most important musical material, and begins the task of plotting associations between the music and the characters and ideas. More specifically, throughout the opera the overture theme is consistently associated with the opera's two most pious characters--the Grail knight Lohengrin and Elsa (in some of her moments of deepest faith)--and the redemptive power of the Grail itself. The single theme of the Lohengrin prelude is recognized in Act I scene 2 when Elsa, accused of murdering her brother in order to secure her succession to the throne of Brabant, makes her first appearance, before her judge, King Heinrich. The woodwinds quote sections of the overture's theme, and essentially speak for Elsa, accompanying her non-verbal responses to the King's questions. The theme, complete with its orchestration for high violins as at the overture's opening, returns immediately before Elsa sings of the knight who approaches to redeem her from the charge that Friedrich has brought against her. The association of this theme with the saintly Lohengrin himself is made yet more explicit when it returns later in Act II scene 2, as the music for Lohengrin's first monologue, after his arrival in a boat drawn upon the river by a swan. In the fourth scene of Act II, brief allusions are made to the overture's theme in the instrumental music that accompanies the action of the procession of ladies advancing toward the cathedral for Elsa's wedding to Lohengrin. In Act Two's final scene, a portion of the overture theme is cited as the chorus of men and noble men and women sing "Hail to thee, Elsa of Brabant!" The climactic usage of the overture theme occurs in Act III, scene 3, in which, through the so-called Grail narration, Lohengrin reveals his lineage as son of Parsifal, the priviledged one who guards the mystical Holy Grail, and as Lohengrin frees the boat-drawing swan-which transforms itself into Elsa's long-lost brother--from the fetters that bind it into servitude.
-- Jennifer Hambrick
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