There are at least two moments of indisputable greatness in Wagner’s Tannhauser: The act 2 intervention by Elizabeth to save Tannhauser’s life from the likes of Biterolf and his cruel and cowardly cohorts, and Tannhauser’s act 1 epiphany in the valley of the Wartburg, with the unforgettable, immortal counterpoint of the shepherd boy’s lovely melody, fresh as May: “Der Mai! Der Mai!”- (Wagner pretended that he was quoting an authentic tune but this is not so. He made his own melody. Can you even conceive of some folk ditty being anywhere near as beautiful as what Wagner could contrive?) and the dolorous, guilt-laden strains of the pilgrims.
Only Henry Tannhauser doesn’t know who he is. The pilgrims know who they are, the shepherd boy knows who he is, but Tannhauser is lost. This stunning passage is the existential heart of this profound opera (a much deeper work, by the way, than Lohengrin, which aside from its incredible prelude is merely the greatest German Romantic opera).
Wagner created some of history’s greatest music for his pilgrims. This music’s chromaticism is a perfectly calculated expedient for representing the pressures of guilt, the opening rising octave is the very epitome of yearning, and the orchestration, essentially restricted to a “walking bass” in pizzicato violas and cellos proves that less can be more. Wagner, one of the most disciplined artists in history, frequently finds simple and elegant devices like this splendid pizzicato.
I had to retrieve the score of Berlioz’s Harold en Italie to recall his pilgrim tune, for the purpose of humming it while writing this essay. I couldn’t forget Wagner’s tune if I tried. And I sure ain’t gonna try.
Some points about Berlioz’s score:
1. Rey Longyear, in his mediocre survey, “Nineteenth Century Romanticism in Music” says that Harold is neither a symphony nor a concerto, but a little bit of both. He further claims that Berlioz has only one symphony really deserving the title. He’s wrong, I think. My immediately previous entry deals, albeit superficially, with this issue. David Cairns has it right. Harold is not a concerto. No way. It’s not even close to being a concerto, especially when you consider what a concerto was in 1834 (consider works by Mendelssohn, Paganini, Liszt, and Chopin). Want a viola concerto? Hindemith wrote a great one (I mean the Schwanendreher), and Bartok and Walton wrote good ones. Berlioz composed a work that is obviously a symphony, with a viola obbligato that simply represents the voice of Byron’s Harold in propria persona.
2. Berlioz copies the scheme of recollections of previous movements coined in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But Beethoven’s finale leads to an affirmation of universal brotherhood, and Berlioz introduces a riotous orgy. Both Harold and the Fantastique end with orgies, by the way. My feeling is that if you’re gonna ironically turn Beethoven on his head, you better have better music up your sleeve than Berlioz had for his noisy finale.
3. The middle movements are salon pieces for orchestra, if there can be said to be such a thing. The pilgrim’s march and the Abbruzian serenade are every bit as relevant and necessary as the flute and harp serenade to the Christ child in L’Enfance Du Christ or the Rakoczi march in Damnation of Faust, if you take my meaning.
4. The idee fixe is a remarkable and expressive melody, the best part of this flawed score; melancholy, haunting, lyrical…but it only superficially unifies the piece, it doesn’t function in a symphonically developmental manner. In other words, Berlioz just throws it the heck in there when he wants Harold to comment on the action.
5. Just about every page of the Fantastique has some creative, surprising, or emotionally stimulating passage or at least detail; Harold frequently offers tired cliches, even in the orchestration.
I’m surprised at the critical and public sympathy for this piece. I revere the Requiem and Les Troyens and really want to like this piece as well, but perhaps just don’t get it. Oh, well, vive le differance!
Ernest Newman said that this piece is “Perhaps the best orchestral work through which to approach the study of Berlioz, for it reveals everywhere the individual nature of his musical mind…Harold himself is not a character undergoing psychological or circumstantial mutations like the Don Quixote of Strauss or the Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles of Liszt and Wagner, but simply a mood, a melancholy mood and nothing more.” Maybe so. Not every piece can be “fantastique”!