RICHARD WAGNER: Prelude to Act I from Lohengrin

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig on May 22, 1813, and died in Venice on February 13, 1883. He composed his opera Lohengrin between 1846 and 1848. Franz Liszt conducted the premier at Weimar’s Grossherzogliches Hoftheater, on August 28, 1850. The popular Prelude to Act I is scored for three flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, and strings.

Wagner spent a great deal of time in the 1840s reading medieval German legends and epics in search of material that he might turn into a work for the musical theater. One such story was that of Lohengrin, and by the summer of 1845 it had captivated him. That August he drafted a prose outline of the plot, which remained very close to the final version that we see in the opera house. It is an astonishing mixture of genre types. Wagner called it a “fairy-tale opera,” and, drawing upon one aspect of the Grail legend, one of the most significant sources of stories in the Middle Ages, Wagner added to that the legend of the Swan Knight who appears for combat on behalf of a damsel wrongfully accused of a terrible crime. The outward trappings are firmly historical, and it ends as a tragedy.

The title character comes from an ideal world, but longs for the earthly world symbolized by the woman whom he longs to marry, but he can remain only so long as she does not ask his name or origin. The prelude to the opera as a whole is filled with sustained, quiet music that Wagner said symbolized the Grail coming to earth.

Four solo violins soaring (in harmonics) high above the rest of the violin section (and the highest woodwinds only at the very first) create the shimmering opening. Eventually the lower strings join in, and gradually the remainder of the orchestra takes part as the Grail descends through several octaves. The sonority becomes richer, deeper, more varied, gradually building to a substantial fortissimo marked by a cymbal crash, whereupon the strings recede again into the upper registers and, at the end, the four solo violins can be assumed to carry the Grail back to its mystical heavenly realm. —© Steven Ledbetter