Friday, March 15, 2013

"The Bridal Chorus" (a.k.a. "Here Comes the Bride")


I’m on the road this week, going to my brother Ken’s wedding to his wonderful bride-to-be Marni. Since I am in the marriage mode, I thought I would use this opportunity to write a few random thoughts on the "Wedding March" by Wagner (a.k.a. “Here Comes the Bride”), the tune of which comes from the opera Lohengrin. As well, I will say a few words about the wisdom of the opera’s cautionary tale of love gone wrong.

I have always found it amusing that Wagner is most well-known for this tune. To me— knowing what I know now—this just abounds with irony. When I was young, I assumed that the words we associate with the piece were a literal translation of the German, i.e., “Hier kommt die Braut.” Nicht! In fact, while it is referred to as “the Bridal Chorus” in the opera world, the piece has nothing to do with an entry into a wedding ceremony, but instead it is about a different sort of entry, the kind that happens on the marriage bed specifically. A glorious chorus to sex! That’s my Wagner! It’s a subtle chorus, thoughnothing too blatant. But, still, that is the subject matter. However, the sex never happens because the poor couple never get there: mistrust ends their relationship before it ever really begins. So the song used traditionally for marriage is in fact about a broken-in-twenty-minute marriage. I love that.

So how did the Bridal Chorus become the Wedding March? It was Queen Victoria who started the craze! Queen Victoria, history’s most well-known prude, was a fan of Wagner's music, the composer of the 19th century's most erotic operas. Go figure.  Anyway, she selected it as the processional for her daughter Victoria’s wedding to German Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm in 1858 and it has been widely used as the wedding march ever since.

However, there was—and continues to be—opposition to that practice. Catholics and Lutherans both specifically counsel against it as a “pagan piece” not fit for the church. The internet is full of advice like this one not to use the music. I am sure Ken and Marni, committed Christians, would never use such a thing.  At our wedding, Leslie and I actually marched to "Imagine" by John Lennon, but if we renew the vows, it'll be to Wagner for sure!* Hopefully, with a full chorus. 

Another irony is that Wagner was actually anti-marriage. He was part of the free love movement and felt that marriage as then-constituted was wrong in that women were considered the property of men. To him, whether married or not, the crucial thing was love. He believed that any marriage without love was meaningless and the contract should be null and void; any couple that was in love should not have to marry to get societal respect. Wagner did get married, but only because it was absolutely necessary for the woman to obtain legal protection. But his anti-marriage views never changed. 

When Wagner’s music is used as the processional, it is normally matched with Mendelssohn’s tune from “The Midsummer Night’s Dream," (as Victoria chose to do at the time of her daughter’s wedding.) Thus, the pieces are bookends, “married” in their own way. But this usage began just around the time that Wagner had published Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music), originally issued in 1850 anonymously and then reissued under his name in 1869.  His essay particularly attacked Mendelssohn music as inauthentically German. So the final irony is that Wagner—nemesis of Mendelssohn's  music—became forever linked with him. 

I recently saw Lohengrin for the first time, and I do think Wagner has something valuable to say about marriage in the break-up scene. He used as his source material Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenback, which itself was a version of the "Knight of the Swan Tale" from medieval literature. The gist of the story is that the mysterious Lohengrin arrives on a boat pulled by a swan to defend the kingdom of Brabant and the Princess Elsa. They wed but with the promise that Elsa will never ask his name or where he comes from. She blows it and asks the question; he sadly leaves on the swan boat he came in on. Basically, the tale is about faith. Elsa must have faith in Lohengrin even though she can’t know very basic things about him. 

In Wagner’s version, I think he does a masterful job of showing the anatomy of a failed marriage in the scene directly following the Bridal Chorus. They start off very lovey-dovey. Here are her first words to Lohengrin alone in the bridal chamber:

How unfeeling it would be of me to say I was merely happy,
when I am filled with heavenly joy!
As I feel my heart go out to you,
I breathe delights that God alone bestows.

But Elsa’s apprehension starts to creep into their rapture, so she tries to find out his background:

Oh make me proud through your confidence,
lest I appear utterly unworthy!
Let me know your secret,
that I may clearly see who you are!

In a short time, she is riddled with angst and nearly a lunatic from her fears and doubts:

Nothing can bring me peace,
nothing can tear me from my madness,
save - even if it should cost me my life -
knowing who you are!

To me, there is tremendous wisdom in this scene. It shows how the seeds of doubt grow quickly to yield a poison that ruins their marriage. As is true here, so is true in life.

I happen to think Ken and Marni won’t have this problem. They are true and strong friends, and it is evident that both their love and their trust for each other is deep and broad. So, no worries on that score.  Have a joyous wedding day, Ken and Marni!  

But pity those who enter marriage without this solid basis. Elsa and Lohengrin's fate will be your own.

* Leslie and I got legally, federally, married after the Supreme Court ruling and we did march to the Wedding March - no chorus, as it was a small affair.  Our recessional, not traditional, was the Imperial March from Star Wars.

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