Monday, October 17, 2011

Just who is Tannhauser?

Tannhauser is not a name just made up for a game, it’s much older than that, and just who and what Tannhauser is, is a strange tale of myth, history, and opera.

Edify yourself after the jump…

Tannhauser was actually a real person, although very little is known about him. We know that he was a poet and minnesinger (a minstrel of sorts) in the court of Frederick II in the mid 1200s. His poetry and songs are preserved in the Codex Manesse, which was compiled in 1340 long after Tannhauser’s death (circa 1265). Other than that not much else is known.

Above, Tannhauser, as he appears in the Codex Manesse, in Teutonic habit of the Fifth Crusade, suggesting that he was a crusader.

Later Tannhauser life would become the stuff of legend, in the mid 1400s, his own poem of atonement, would be taken somewhat more literally. As the story goes: Tannhauser discovers the mythical home of the goddess Venus, beneath Venusberg (Mount Venus). There he spends a year worshiping the goddess, after which he leaves. Soon filled with remorse over his violation of the First Commandment, he travels to Rome to seek forgiveness from Pope Urban IV, but Urban tells him he can no more give him absolution, than his staff can grow flowers. Tannhauser leaves dejected. Three days later the Pope’s staff blossoms with flowers, and knights are dispatched to retrieve Tannhauser, but it is too late and he has disappeared into Venusberg, never to be seen again.

It is this legend that was spread through out Germany in ballads, that Richard Wagner would use to base his opera Tannhauser and the Singers’ Contest at Wartberg. In the opera he blends this legend and the history of the French Grand Opera, creating a story that is a myth in a real historical setting. (The plot of Wagner’s opera is quite complex, I’ve included a synopsis at the end of this post for those interested.) Perhaps it is this seamless mix of myth in a historical setting that inspired the designers of the Tannhauser Game to give it its name.

But the story of Tannhauser doesn’t end there. Aleister Crowley wrote a play about the story of Tannhauser and Venus, Neil Gaiman’s novel “Neverwhere” follows the plot of the Tannhauser myth very closely. Then there are numerous references to Tannhauser or the opera itsself in works as divers as H.G. Wells “The Sleeper Awakes” and the movie “Blade Runner”.

Here is the synopsis…

ACT I. Medieval Germany. In the Venusberg, magical mountain abode of Venus, the minstrel Tannhäuser halfheartedly praises the goddess of beauty, who for more than a year has bestowed her love upon him. Venus promises greater revels when Tannhäuser asks for his freedom, but she curses his hopes of salvation when he longs for the simple pleasures and pains of earthly life. In response he calls on the Virgin Mary, and the Venusberg vanishes.

Tannhäuser finds himself in a sunny valley near the castle of the Wartburg, where passing pilgrims inspire him to laud the wonders of God. Horns announce the Landgrave Hermann and his knights, who recognize their long-lost comrade and invite him to the castle. One of them, Wolfram von Eschenbach, reminds Tannhäuser that in the past his singing won the love of Elisabeth, the landgrave's beautiful niece. On hearing her name, Tannhäuser embraces and joins his companions.

ACT II. In the Hall of Song in the Wartburg, Elisabeth hails the place where she first heard Tannhäuser's voice. Wolfram reunites the happy pair, who sing God's praises. As guests arrive, the landgrave promises Elisabeth's hand to the winner of a contest of love songs. Wolfram delivers an idealized tribute to Elisabeth, whom he too has loved. Tannhäuser, his soul still possessed by Venus, counters with a frenzied hymn to the pleasures of worldly love. Everyone is shocked, but Elisabeth protects Tannhäuser from harm, securing her uncle's pardon for her beloved on the condition that he make a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution.

ACT III. Several months later, Wolfram discovers Elisabeth at evening prayer before a shrine in the Wartburg valley. She searches among approaching pilgrims for Tannhäuser, but in vain. Broken, she prays to the Virgin to receive her soul in heaven. Wolfram, alone, asks the evening star to guide her on her way. Tannhäuser now staggers in wearily to relate that despite his abject penitence, the Pope decreed he could as soon be forgiven as the papal staff could break into flower. The desperate man calls to Venus, but she vanishes when Tannhäuser is reminded again by Wolfram of Elisabeth, whose funeral procession now winds down the valley. Tannhäuser collapses, dying, by her bier. A chorus of pilgrims enters, recounting a miracle: the Pope's staff, which they bear forward, has blossomed.

by John W. Freeman