HOW ELSA SHOWED WAGNER THE WAY TO SIEGFRIED by Paul Heise
ACT ONE OF "LOHENGRIN"
Dear custodians of the wagnerheim.com discussion forum:
From time to time Wagnerians have inquired into the history of my life-long study of Wagner's legacy, so I thought it might be interesting to post here in this discussion forum my first published essay on the subject, and also my first credible effort to summarize my interpretation of the "Ring" (which I will post as a separate topic in the discussion forum as soon as I've posted "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried"), entitled "The 'Ring' as a whole," which I presented as a lecture to the Wagner Society of Washington, DC, in April of 2000, and which that Wagner Society posted in the archive of their website http://www.wagner-dc.org, on 5/20/00. I am posting these essays here because they are no longer available elsewhere, WAGNER (the scholarly journal of The Wagner Society - London, UK, in which Stewart Spencer published "How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried," in the 5/95 issue) having been discontinued and never, so far as I know, archived online, and the archive of the website of the Wagner Society of Washington, DC, having been removed a few years ago and, for reasons unknown, never restored to their website.
I first wrote Stewart Spencer, Editor of WAGNER, in 1991, and forwarded to him the earliest version of my essay, to inquire whether he would publish it. Several revisions later Mr. Spencer wrote to say that he had consulted with three anonymous scholars to obtain their opinion, and they had collectively written up a list of 66 questions for me to answer. Shortly thereafter I forwarded my answers to Mr. Spencer. He wrote back to say that though my responses were cogent, the mere fact that I had to write so much in explanation of my article indicated that its scope exceeded the parameters required of an article for WAGNER, and that I could only do justice to my essay by expanding it into a book. In the meantime, a copy editor resident in Washington, DC, Chad Taylor, wrote to Mr. Spencer to confirm the importance of my paper and to offer to help me trim it to meet Mr. Spencer's requirements. Mr. Spencer agreed, and the following essay is the result. I regret that I haven't the means to reproduce the numerous illustrations of scenes from "Lohengrin" which Mr. Spencer chose to enhance the article. Readers should also take note that in a few instances I've had to correct the manuscript which Mr. Spencer published, as a few editorial changes were made even after I'd forwarded my final revisions which obscured my original meaning. I will indicate each such instance clearly, providing both the mistake and the correction.
I ask readers' forbearance, as this paper represents a much earlier stage in my development of the ideas which came to fruition in "The Wound That Will Never Heal," is much less well written than the work I've produced since that time, and I have never really been satisfied with this paper, not the least because I had to severely trim several key arguments to accommodate the space limitations of WAGNER. Several of the translations of passages from "Lohengrin" were provided by Andrew Gray, whose translation from German into English of Wagner's "Mein Leben" was published by Cambridge Univ. Press in 1983 (the bicentennial of Wagner's death). Andrew Gray also provided all the translations from Wagner's essay "A Communication to my Friends." But please note that, aside from the few corrections (corrections which restore the original form of a few sentences which I originally submitted but which were altered by the editor) which I will clearly indicate, what you will read below is reproduced verbatim from the original article. For a more current and much more elaborate version of this article go to http://www.wagnersocietyflorida.org, and click first on "Resources," then on "Texts on Wagner," to peruse this more sophisticated version of "How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried."
Before proceeding, I also wish to note that from 1981 until 2008 I have copyrighted a total of 20 original studies of Wagner's operas and music-dramas at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, the first being a 20 page letter of introduction to my original research into Richard Wagner's legacy which I hand-carried to the office of Claude Levi-Strauss at the College de France in 1981 (sad to say, he was visiting Australia during my visit), and the last being a 2008 version of "The Wound That Will Never Heal," the most recent edition of which is posted here at wagnerheim.com. Some of the essential concepts developed at length in "The Wound That Will Never Heal" were first committed to paper by me in 1971-1972 in a private notebook I entitled "Thoughts and Necessities," of which only two copies exist, one in my possession, and another given to someone who may wish to remain anonymous, if they still reside among the living. These ideas were first developed in college papers submitted to the anthropology departments at Franklin and Marshall College (Lancaster, PA), in 1974, and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, in 1976. The seminal 1974 paper was lent to an exchange student from Mexico and was never returned (stupid me!). The 1976 paper is presumably in hiding in our attic or a drawer in some piece of furniture or other in my mother's home.
"How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried" - Paul Heise's first published version of a study of the conceptual relationship between "Lohengrin" and "The Ring of the Nibelung," published by Stewart Spencer, Editor, in Volume 16, Number 7, the May 1995 issue of WAGNER, the scholarly journal of The Wagner Society (London, UK), with illustrations chosen by Stewart Spencer:
When Wagner summed up his artistic life in 1851, prior to completing the "Ring," he spoke of Siegfried in the following terms:
Elsa showed me the way to this man: to me he was the masculine embodiment of the eternally and uniquely creative instinct, the doer of real deeds,
the human being in the fullness of the highest inborn power, and worthy of the most unequivocal love ("A Communication to my Friend"; GS IV, 328; PW
What did Wagner mean? Wagner felt that with "Lohengrin" he had first glimpsed the means to accommodate words, action and music in a revolutionary way that eventually bore fruit in the "Ring." Did he mean something more? In this essay I shall examine evidence that Wagner also achieved a decisive conceptual revolution through a new understanding of Elsa's words and actions. I shall show how, beneath its ostensible meaning, this opera exhibits an implicit conceptual structure that is developed and becomes explicit in the "Ring" and later operas, by consistently interpreting "Lohengrin" according to a few assumptions drawn from Wagner's thought-world.
"Lohengrin begins with Frederick of Telramund's accusation that Elsa killed her brother Godfrey. Our discussion begins with Elsa's prayer to God to send her, in reality, the knight she has seen so far only in dreams, so that he can protect her from Frederick's accusation:
Du trugest zu ihm meine Klage,
zu mir trat er auf dein Gebot;
o Herr, nun meinem Ritter sage,
dass er mir helf' in meiner Noth!
(Act I, Scene 2; GS II, 73)
[You bore my lamentation to him, he came to me by your command; I pray, Lord, now send my knight to help me in my need (Noth).]
I wish to propose an experiment which, if carried out consistently, will display "Lohengrin" and Wagner's subsequent operas in a new light; namely, let us provisionally accept the thesis that Elsa is in fact guilty. But why would anyone suppose this, since Godfrey eventually returns safely, and Ortrud's subsequent admission that she cast a spell on Godfrey would seem to relieve Elsa of guilt and expose Ortrud as a perjurer? I suggest this because Wagner may have drawn a parallel between Elsa and the Biblical Eve, who was guilty of giving Adam (us) forbidden knowledge. The grounds for this thesis will present themselves in the course of the following discussion.
If Elsa is a metaphor for Eve, Godfrey may be modeled on Adam. God punished Adam not with immediate death but with fearful expectation of inevitable death, or foresight, and also with shame, because Eve persuaded him to eat God's forbidden fruit. Elsa's guilt could therefore be the curse that Eve brought down on humankind.
If Elsa represents Eve, and Godfrey Adam, Wagner may have conceived of Lohengrin as a kind of Christ-figure who redeems us from the fatal knowledge Eve gave Adam, restores lost innocence and gives Godfrey rebirth through his self-sacrifice. But Lohengrin marries Elsa. If the notion of Christ as Eve's lover is farfetched and if drawing an analogy between Christ/Eve and Lohengrin/Elsa seems preposterous, we might recall that in two instances subsequent to "Lohengrin" Wagner explicitly associated his hero with Christ and his heroine with Eve: Walther von Stolzing is clearly a metaphor for both Adam and Christ, while his lover Eva is compared with Eve in paradise; and in a letter to King Ludwig of 7 September 1865 Wagner makes the equation: Adam - Eve: Christ = Amfortas - Kundry: Parsifal. These examples strongly suggest that a sexual relationship between Christ and Eve is an important concept in Wagner's mature operas.
What evidence suggests that Elsa did, figuratively speaking, "kill" Godfrey by giving him knowledge? To begin, she never unambiguously denies her guilt, but merely expresses remorse over her brother when King Henry asks her to answer Frederick's charges. Maybe she is too stricken to respond, but if she is Eve she may hope that the "God-sent" Lohengrin will redeem her from her sin by taking her guilt or "Noth" on himself. If so, Lohengrin perjures himself, as he can declare her innocent only by taking on the burden of her guilt.
Lohengrin expects Elsa to make a sacrifice in return for his:
Elsa, soll ich dein Gatte Heissen,
so Land und Leut' ich schirmen dir,
soll nichts mich wieder von dir reissen,
musst Eines du geloben mir: --
nie sollst du mich befragen,
noch Wissen's Sorge tragen,
woher ich kam der Fahrt,
noch wie mein Nam' und Art!
[...] Mein Erloeser!
der fest an meine Unschuld glaubt!
Wie du mich schirmst in meiner Noth,
so halt' in Treu ich dein Gebot.
(Act I, scene 3; GS II, 75)
[Lohengrin: Elsa, if I am to be your spouse and guard your land and people, if nothing is to tear me from you, you must make me one promise: never ask me nor desire to know whence my journey brought me, nor my name and lineage! [...] Elsa: My redeemer, who believes in my innocence! [...] As you shield me in my plight (Noth), so I shall keep to your command.]
If Elsa represents Eve, her vow not to pursue knowledge of Lohengrin's identity becomes more meaningful after she equates this vow with the protection that Lohengrin grants: she implies that in return for his perjury she would sin for his sake.
Lohengrin's injunction against revealing his name and origin is odd if he comes from God, since the folk who welcome him assume that he is "God-sent" (Act I, Scene 3; GS II, 73). This taboo may be a metaphor for the fact that heaven is a spiritual realm knowable only by faith, but inaccessible to reasoning. But what if there is a prohibition because Lohengrin has something to hide, something which can be known but which should not be? In either case, Lohengrin wins an apparently preordained victory over Frederick in the fight to determine Elsa's guilt or innocence and tells Elsa: "I've gained victory through your innocence" (Act I, Scene 3; GS II, 78).
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