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Program Note: Wagner’s Act I Prelude from Lohengrin

(Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, strings)

Richard Wagner

(Born in Leipzig, Germany in 1813; died in Venice, Italy in 1883)

Prelude to Act I from Lohengrin

Lohengrin was Wagner’s sixth opera, premiered in 1850, and it brought him widespread recognition as the new genius in German opera.  The story is based on the German Arthurian legend of Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, both guardians of the Holy Grail – the chalice into which Christ’s blood is said to have spilled.  Wagner’s Lohengrin is set in 10th Century German Brabant (Antwerp), where the royal succession is endangered because the heir, Gottfried, has disappeared and his sister Elsa is accused of murdering him.  Lohengrin arrives by boat pulled by a magnificent swan to help Elsa and her missing brother.  As Lohengrin sets all to right, he falls in love with Elsa – he asks to marry her, however, only on the condition of maintaining his anonymity.  Eventually, this condition is broken and Lohengrin must return to the Temple of the Holy Grail.

Act I of the opera introduces Lohengrin, settles Elsa’s innocence, and ends with Lohengrin proposing to her.  The Prelude (Overture) to Act I is one of Wagner’s most sparkling, and soft-spoken, masterpieces.  It’s built solely on the musical theme for the Holy Grail – a lavish melody that depicts this holy relic as it descends to earth in the hands of angels.  This theme will eventually weave through the entire three-act opera like a recurring motive.

The Prelude’s opening moments are all golden light as the violins and woodwinds build luminous chords.  Then the Holy Grail theme is played at a whisper in the upper violins – a dignified and drifting melody in the high registers.  Most exceptional about this theme, though, is how Wagner presents it – he divides the first and second violins into many different parts (called divisi), creating the kind of brilliant light that diffracts through clusters of diamonds.  We will bask in this light throughout the Prelude as the theme intensifies incrementally with volume and additional instruments.  This build-up reaches its spine-tingling climax at around six-and-a-half minutes into the work – a moment of sheer majesty and radiance.  The Prelude then subsides back to the hushed aura of its opening moments, becoming, finally, a tender chord in the upper violins.

Program note by © Max Derrickson